I visited the Seattle Art Museum last week. I go there often, usually supervising a college field trip. Naturally, I gave my students an assignment, which meant that I had work to do at the museum, but I also took some time to do a bit of looking for my own enjoyment. I found myself in a section of the museum that I tend to think of as a back alley. Alleys are all about function, you know, things enter and leave…it’s the business behind the business. In this case, it’s a hallway near a bank of elevators. These elevators are for staff and freight. Suits and guards come and go down this hallway. Yet, it is also exhibition space. Farther down the hall is a selection of Australian Aboriginal art, and the gallery next to this hallway is for the collection of Native American art. Sure, it’s a bit awkward, but dang it all, there’s a long flat wall space and it’s a museum, so there better be stuff hanging on that wall!
Well, I spent a good half hour loitering there near the elevators. The four paintings were actually worth looking at for that long, and the wall text that accompanied the works was worth reading, too. If you still want to go look at the paintings after you read this, you can refer to the diagram at the end of this entry. You will probably need the map to find these particular works.
These four paintings are early works by George Morrison, a Chippewa artist, who was born in 1919 and passed away in 2000. To my recollection, this is the firt time I’ve seen his work in person, rather than in a book. The title for this small exhibition is “George Morrison, Native Modernist.” All of the works are fairly small, nothing larger than two feet by three feet. Morrison was already part of the New York art scene when he made Painting #10, Abstract. He was hanging out with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning, as the wall text informs us. His work was exhibited alongside works by Josef Albers and Louise Bourgeois in a Federation of Modern Painter’s exhibition that year, too. This is an artist in the thick of things, who had gone to Paris on a Fulbright in 1952. He studied art at home in Minnesota, at what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and then received scholarships to continue his work in New York and in Paris. He returned to Grand Portage, Minnesota in the 1970s and lived and worked there until his death in 2000. He is perhaps best known for his collaged wood sculptures, but he primarily considered himself a painter. If you look at enough of his work in wood and his work in paint, you can see that his sense of space and composition is consistent whether he is working in two-dimensions or three.
Morrison generally does not employ a conventional figure-ground relationship. His abstract work seldom gives the sense of an object surrounded by empty space. Morrison’s space always has weight to it, so much so that all parts of the composition function as the figure. This is a fairly widespread aesthetic in Native art – a habit of thinking of the importance of all parts of an animal, or a made-object, where no aspect of a physical object is truly empty of meaning. A portion of a surface that is left undecorated is done so deliberately, because the natural surface holds a symbolic and practical function. There is no such thing as “empty” space. This kind of dense handling of space is what made Morrison’s abstract work in the 1950s stand out and stand on its own. Many of his works are abstract landscapes, but the density of form and the absence of the usual signifiers of landscape (empty air, a horizon line) disturb our expectation that a picture functions as a window upon the world.
Figure-ground relationships aside, Morrison’s work shows an uncanny ability to create visual balances the feel right, even though the usual compositional aesthetics that we teach in art classes say that his composition should NOT work. In Painting #10, Abstract, for example, Morrison used an intensely red area for a large area of the canvas, taking up more half of the right side. The rest of the canvas is dark browns and muddy greens. This kind of composition is supposed to produce something off-balance and dis-harmonious. And yet it doesn’t. Why is that? Morrison varied the intensity of the red, with a vaguely squarish section made from a tint of red (adding white to a color produces a tint of that color). Another section to the left of the most intense red is made from a shade of the same red (adding black to a color produces a shade of that color). The painting’s composition is unbalanced, but it feels right because of the subtle angles created by the forms and because of the equally subtle variations in the intensity of the red color and the adjustment of relative warmth of the darker colors. He used a warmer brown tone on the right lower section and greener forms against the darkest area of the canvas. The value contrast and the use of complementary colors (green and red) make the composition work overall. The wide dark frame also helps balance the composition – restraining the red sections within a comfortingly regular geometric form.
I’ll be posting another blog entry later this week on the next work worth hunting for. I am holding off on posting the rest until I get good images of the works from the Seattle Art Museum. The Minnesota Museum of Modern Art has a large collection of works by Morrison and is organizing a travelling exhibition. For more information, see the comments sections.