Morris Graves, half man half myth

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Filed under: Art Pranks, Pranksters

In 1953, he staged the first Northwest art “Happening,” although that word still lay several decades in the future…

graves4.jpgMorris Graves:
The Bad-Boy Recluse of Northwest Art

by Deloris Tarzan Ament
ArtGuide Northwest

Morris Graves always seemed half man, half myth. The best-loved of Northwest painters, he was a bad-boy recluse whose images of symbolic birds and glowing flowers are permeated with a sense of consciousness in transformation.

His early paintings, in the 1930s and 1940s, focused on birds touched with strangeness — blind, wounded, or immobilized in webs of light. A “Guardian” bird wore antlers. His “Bird Singing in the Moonlight” had two heads. Conceived in solitude at a hermitage called “The Rock” which Graves built on an isolated promontory, the paintings soared to fame when they were first exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1942. MoMA bought an astonishing 11 of his paintings for their permanent collection, an unprecedented splurge for the work of an unknown artist. East Coast collectors snapped up 34 more of his paintings.

It was a stunning debut, considering that Graves, then 31, was a self-taught artist who had had to be persuaded to allow his work to be shown. Although he lived in seclusion, he had seen more of the world than most men his age. He had dropped out of high school to sail as a cadet on American Mail Line ships across the Pacific Ocean. It was love at first sight when he landed in Japan. “There, I at once had the feeling that this was the right way to do everything,” he said. “It was the acceptance of nature not the resistance to it. I had no sense that I was to be a painter, but I breathed a different air.” His time in Japan was brief, but for the rest of his life, his art reflected a spare Japanese aesthetic.

Graves was a phenomenon; a lanky six-foot six-inch country boy who seems to have been born with perfect pitch for color and line. He understood from childhood, when he began creating floral arrangements, how flowers and animals can strike a emotional chord that resounds in the psyche like a great gong. When Graves painted a single poppy in a bud vase, the blooms glowing intensity made it a symbol of life itself, brief and encased in a fragile vessel. And when he painted a wild-eyed “Bird Maddened by Machine Age Noise,” anyone whose teeth were ever set on edge by the shriek of a nearby saw knew it wasn’t just a bird he had in mind. He even painted the jagged red sound of a chainsaw, with a thick sawtooth line moving like a relentless presence overhead.

No one can predict with certainty whose art will survive the test of time to be called great by future generations. But it is unlikely that any artist will ever again capture the popular imagination and the public heart of Northwesterners in quite the same way Graves did. Living at The Rock with only his dachshund Edith for company, he meditated and listened to night sounds, trying to imagine and to draw the creatures that made them. He tried to translate birdsong and the sound of surf into paintings.

When he came down from The Rock to spend time in Seattle, he gained a minor notoriety for outrageous pranks such as one in which he filled a baby carriage with rocks, made a trailer for it of toothbrushes, and pushed it into the dining room of the Olympic Hotel, the forerunner of the Four Seasons Olympic. He placed a rock on each of several chairs around a table, and sat down with them to order dinner.

In 1953, he staged the first Northwest art “Happening,” although that word still lay several decades in the future. Museum officials, collectors, and art world notables all had expressed a desire to see a house he was building of cinderblock in a wooded area north of Seattle. He and several artist friends sent invitations to everyone on the Seattle Art Museum mailing list (a list surreptitiously obtained) saying, “You or your friends are not invited to the exhibition of Bouquet and Marsh paintings by the 8 best painters in the Northwest to be held on the afternoon and evening of the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, June 21, at Morris Graves’ palace in exclusive Woodway Park.”

Recipients chose to believe that the invitations meant they were invited. They arrived by droves, some formally dressed, to find the gateway to his house blocked with a table that held the moldy remains of a banquet 10 days old, complete with tipped cups and wine-stains, soaked with the drizzle from an overhead sprinkler. A recording of “dinner music” was interspersed with a recorded pig fight. Graves stayed out of sight, laughing nonstop as he observed the outraged guests through a chink in the cinderblock wall which abutted his gatehouse.

That September, Life magazine carried an article on “The Mystic Painters of the Northwest,” featuring Graves as their leading light. Ironically, that year he left the Northwest to move to Ireland. There, he spent hours looking through a telescope at the night sky. He developed a body of sculpture exhibited as “Instruments for a New Navigation.” Totemic discs of perforated glass or pale stone were balanced on slender rods, as lenses to be sighted through.

Graves returned to the U.S. a decade later, this time to live in northern California’s Humboldt County, on a small lake surrounded by virgin redwood trees. His paintings, formerly muted and gray, began to glow with incandescent color. Against chalky, fading surfaces reminiscent of aged fresco, he set a bottle or two of wildflowers and perhaps a bowl of plums, placed to suggest each as an individual treasure. A line of single blossoms radiated a sense of profound “beingness.” He painted them so delicately that the pigment seemed breathed into place. The shimmering images suggested not only the fleeting existence of blossoms, but of all life.

Graves died peacefully May 5, 2001, in the small hours of the morning, after suffering a stroke. It was said that at the moment of his death, a heron cried out from the lake outside his window. Graves couldn’t have orchestrated it better if he’d planned it. The Humboldt Arts Council rededicated Eureka’s old Carnegie Library as the Morris Graves Museum of Art — fitting tribute to an outstanding artist.

Deloris Tarzan Ament is the author of Iridescent Light: the Emergence of Northwest Art, University of Washington Press, 2002.

Art Guide Northwest! ©2007

See more images by Morris Graves here

Thanks Daniel North