Morris Graves was 'an original genius'

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To get some idea of the electrifying effect Morris Graves' work had, imagine this scenario:

In 1942, curator Dorothy Miller, selecting for a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, traveled to Seattle to meet with a new painter she'd heard about, the reclusive and eccentric Graves.

Only with much coaxing from Richard Fuller, then director of the Seattle Art Museum, would the recalcitrant young artist agree to talk with her. He pulled up at SAM in a battered pickup loaded with his latest paintings - from the "Inner Eye" and "Bird in the Moonlight" series.

Miller wanted to take the work back to New York, but Graves said no. But after the concerted effort of his friends and the repeated urging of Miller, he finally shipped off 80 paintings.

The museum bought 10 on the spot for its permanent collection, and the staff and trustees jumped in and bought up the rest at $100 each.

Graves, awestruck, sent a note to museum director Alfred Barr, saying, "Many a small grocer on the shores of Puget Sound will be heartened by payment in full. ... "

When Morris Graves died Saturday at 90, he was the last of a great generation of Northwest painters. But his impact, along with that of his associate Mark Tobey, will continue to be profoundly felt throughout the world.

An exhibit of works by Graves, Tobey and the artist/composer John Cage will be opening soon in Bremen, Germany.

Graves built his reputation on images of flux and longing, expressing spiritual blossoming and transformation in rushes of light. From the beginning, his paintings sent shock waves through his audiences and stimulated the imagination of other artists and writers.

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his seminal 1958 book, "A Coney Island of the Mind," wrote of Graves:

"The wounded wilderness of Morris Graves
is not the same wild west
the white man found
It is a land that Buddha came upon
from a different direction
It is a wild white nest
in the true mad north
of introspection... "

The response to Graves' work always has been immediate and profound. Duncan Phillips, founder and director of The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., said, "When we discovered Morris Graves at the Museum of Modern Art, and he became a national celebrity, it was the immediate impact of an original genius."

Graves' imagery appeals to our need for spiritual wholeness while reflecting the ongoing conflict in human nature. Borrowing the energy of Tobey's calligraphic "white writing," Graves encased his symbolic bird and vessel forms in a dazzle of light. They appear bewildered, enraptured, momentarily fulfilled, as they seek a kind of transcendence. It is that essential conflict between the opposing forces of fleshly need and spiritual yearning that so captivates us in Graves' early work.

During the 1940s, with the world engulfed in war and the daily news full of atrocities, Graves' paintings struck a chord. Works such as the 1944 "Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery in the Air" (now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) encapsulates the fear and hysteria of that time.

Graves continued his powerful "Machine Age Noise" paintings through the 1950s, while he lived in Ireland, and those paintings reflect a violence and frustration nowhere else apparent in his work.

During the 1960s, the Space Age, Graves turned to sculpture and made a series called "Instruments for a New Navigation" that used formal elements from his paintings in a rigorous new context.

The works, displayed last year at the Tacoma Art Museum, meld formal grace with some of Graves' old visionary fervor.

But that fervor subsided in the 1970s, when Graves moved to his final home, "The Lake," a 250- acre property near the redwood forests in Northern California. Tending his gardens and creating an ideal haven for his final years, Graves shifted the tenor of his work one last time.

To the dismay of many art aficionados - who were caught up in the excitement of abstract expressionism, minimalism, Pop, conceptualism, the array of new art movements - Graves settled on a single, static, and some believed trite, image. He began painting still-life compositions of flowers. For the past two decades, he showed almost nothing else.

To honor Graves in his 85th year, curator Vickie Halper organized a show of those paintings at SAM. It brought together a fascinating progression of the artist's imagery.

The newest paintings in the exhibit, dated 1995, proved Graves was more masterfully in control of his medium than ever, and once again in transition: this time looking toward the adventure of death.

"Autumn Bouquet of Calendula and a Glance of Nothing," shows the sharp line of a table edge veering into a vapor of light. Here was the summation of a lifetime of images, and proof that Graves, after painting it for so many decades, was ready to make that ultimate transformation himself.

On Saturday, he did.

Sheila Farr can be reached at