‘The Visionary Art of Morris Graves (1910–2001)’ was a substantial exhibition of 45 works marking the centenary of Graves’ birth and celebrating his loyal following in his native Pacific Northwest. The reclusive artist from rural Oregon had two major exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art (in 1956 and 1983), counted John Cage and Merce Cunningham as close friends (both wrote poetry about him), and sat heavy-lidded for portraits by Imogen Cunningham and Brassaï. Yet his Eastern-inspired symbolist art had become less visible by the 1990s, perhaps due to the ascendance of Postmodernism and his work’s stagnation in conventional tabletop still-life.
Guest curator Peter Selz, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, presented the best of Graves by focusing on drawings from the late 1930s through the ’50s – the artist’s most inventive period. Graves is perhaps the first major modern artist to make his mark with drawing as his primary medium. He used gouache, tempera and watercolour, sometimes in combination and often together with ink, charcoal or both on thin Chinese or Japanese paper. Spaciously installed throughout the rooms of this historic townhouse, the show covered all of the essentials: the subjects Graves coveted (birds, chalices, flowers, the moon); how he started out shadowing Surrealism (as in the exquisite gouaches of the ‘Purification Series’ of the late ’30s), and then presaged all-over abstraction; and, with the inclusion of several early, heavy-handed oil paintings, why he switched to drawing and his ingenuity therein. Moonlit subjects in particular demonstrate his unique approach. In Fig in Red Moonlight (c.1940) and Bird in Moonlight (1939) the eponymous subjects are embedded in layers of textural mediums, the last being a white web of geometric doodles or, as in the former, more primal scratch marks referred to as ‘white writing’, a form of calligraphy Graves learned from his friend Mark Tobey, another self-taught Northwesterner.
At their simplest, as in Indian Bird (1950) and Owl (1957), the drawings resemble charming, highly skilled Chinese calligraphic drawings and nothing more. The work ignites when familiar pictorial motifs submit to the artist’s symbolist and sensual re-envisioning via his use of materials. A good example is Untitled (Fire) (c.1947), in which orange-yellow flames erupt from the left side of a peat-brown field of wide striated brushstrokes. The flames are stylized in the decorative manner of Indian miniatures, and because of their supple rendering – they look more like pastel than gouache – seem to burst out of the picture plane. Bird of the Spirit (1943) assumes an aerial perspective on a chubby, white-speckled bird looking up at you with large, googly eyes. Swirling gouache underneath becomes its soot-coloured nest – an island in the centre of a gold-red field whose wrinkly surface is the result of having applied the gouache on crumpled wax paper. Likewise the black nest appears lacy due to this ‘resist’ technique. The fullness of the bird’s body and its sharp schematic beak and eyes create a paradox that seems to manifest Graves’ ‘great refusal to affirm either being or non-being, the Prajnaparamita Sutra’, as the poet Kenneth Rexroth observed in a 1955 essay reprinted in the exhibition catalogue.
Graves was not an artist driven by the search for artistic innovation – though the purple Pop-minimalist cosmogram Purple Sun Emerging (1966) shows how such trends wound up seeping into the work – but by his profound feelings about nature, gained from his experience living alone in a succession of dwellings he hand-built in acres of wilderness near where he grew up. As Cunningham mused: ‘Graves was like a live totem one came across in the Northwestern woods […] followed by birds seen with him and by him only.’ An undated drawing of a minnow shows its slight white outline in its own little cloud of turbulence about to exit from the left side of a rippled, broad-brushed ground of black sumi ink. The frayed brushstrokes coming just shy of the edge of the white paper contradict the dark depth, so that the fish seems still as a fossil one moment and quick as silver the next.
Everything about ‘The Visionary Art of Morris Graves’ was delightfully idiosyncratic and local – from its organizer, Meridian Gallery, an off-the-grid non-profit with a fireplace in the main gallery, which is dedicated to student education and interdisciplinary activities, to the reliance on regional lenders such as the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and the Hearst Art Gallery at St. Mary’s College of California, Moraga. In studied contrast to cosmopolitan Los Angeles, the northern California art scene is famously personal, independent-minded and, less appealingly, insular. In helping Graves to resurface, the catalogue would have benefited from a little more new thinking to balance out the reminiscences.