Writing Archive

Exhibition Note: On "Morris Graves: Falcon of the Inner Eye, A Centennial Celebration” at the Michael Roesenfeld Gallery, New York

The New Criterion, October 2010 (read there)

There is an irony in Morris Graves's status as a modern artist: in certain respects he was a medieval character. He worked mainly in tempera. He fled from one remote locale to another until he found himself on 195 acres in Humboldt County, California, which was finally sufficient to isolate him from the encroachments of modern life. A mystical bent prompted him to study Hinduism and embrace Zen. His efforts resulted in some of the finest religious art of the twentieth century—and not despite its syncretism and consequent lack of affiliation, but because of it.

Graves was born in 1910, and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has mounted Morris Graves: Falcon of the Inner Eye, A Centennial Celebration in his honor. Graves's work has long inspired devoted collecting, even at the outset of his career. The Seattle Art Museum gave him his first solo show when he was twenty-six. By 1942, he had been included in three important group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the director Alfred Barr had purchased eleven works. Duncan Phillips took notice of him as well, and several pieces went into the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. that same year. Over the following decades, as Graves's reputation transformed into that of a notable West Coast figure, with the marginalization that that entails, his collectors became a quiet and loyal contingent that supported him throughout a long, productive career. Falcon of the Inner Eye draws extensively from Rosenfeld's personal holdings.

It's easy to see the attraction. A good early Graves has the palette, economy, and charm of traditional Chinese painting. (This exhibition all but demands a supplemental visit to the superlative display of works in The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change running concurrently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Such handling is apparent in Scoters and Wave from 1943, an image of calm waterfowl riding wintry surf, which Graves painted in elegant white brushstrokes. Yet works from this period also evince recognizably modern existential distress. Sometimes this takes the form of Surrealism, such as Alter from 1940, in which three birds perch on a dead branch that sprouts from a form that might be a vertebra, a deer torso, or something in between. Sometimes he delivers it through color and materials, such as the haunting Journey from 1943, an imaginary mountain landscape painted with ragged white lines on a background of dark ink washes. Either way, he described a lonely realm of the soul, populated at the very most with birds that look out through all-black eyes with expressions of surprise, disdain, or preoccupation. Common wisdom concerning Graves regards the birds as allegorical self-portraits.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he ramped up the intensity of his colors to no good effect and began to explore sculpture. Graves was no sculptor, and, at the time, he wasn't much of a colorist either. Despite his aversion to the machine age—in the mid-1950s, construction of an airfield forced him to abandon a nearby house he had built for himself on Puget Sound—he became interested in a fusion of technological and spiritual tools. One example in the exhibition, Instrument for a New Navigation #1 from 1962, is a brass stand for a little candle and a lens set into a granite disk. Whatever its poetic aspirations, as sculpture it's ill-conceived and impersonal.

In the 1980s and 1990s, and until his death in 2001, Graves painted still lifes. He abandoned the stark imagery and palette of his earlier years in favor of vases of flowers and luminous colors. Certain Graves aficionados are apologetic about his late work, but I find them appealing, no less spiritually resonant, and demonstrative of eventual victory in a twenty-year battle with hues outside of classical Chinese models. They recall the pastels of Odilon Redon, whom Kenneth Rexroth once cited as a predecessor of Graves as a visionary artist. Falcon of the Inner Eye has only one of them, Red Powder of Puja II from 1980. Puja is a ritual Hindu offering. The picture shows an altar of flowers and a sea shell, set in front of a blazing vermilion wall onto which an archway has been drawn. Contemplation at last yielded joy, and a lifetime of infusing art with esoteric energies rendered the artist capable of emanating them.

Word count: 713

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