PRINT May 1963

Morris Graves

THERE IS SOMETHING ANNOYING and even frightening about an organized group in the Laguna Balboa Newport area calling itself “The Fine Arts Patrons.” Instinctively one feels that such a group is not to be trusted. But the glib, sophistic image which the very sound of it somehow calls to mind was shaken last month and demolished this week. Coming directly on the heels of their first show—a unique, knowledgeable and important survey of recent Los Angeles figurative painting—the Morris Graves retrospective has rocked the entire southern California area.

The Fine Arts Patrons, in cooperation with the Newport Harbor Service League, have achieved what no museum or professional gallery between Los Angeles and La Jolla has been able or willing to attempt. The current exhibition is an almost unbelievable accomplishment, with quality and scope comparable to the efforts of trained professionals. Exhibit chairmen Dorothe Curtis and Eleanor Green began work in September, 1962. In six months the project had grown to its present gigantic proportions—with the help of Frederick Wight of UCLA, Richard Fuller of the Seattle Museum, Marian Willard Johnson of the Willard Gallery, the personal efforts of Morris Graves, and generous collectors and museums everywhere. A snowballing enthusiasm and sense of purpose in which “not a single source refused to lend” resulted in bringing fifty-four representative oils, temperas, watercolors and drawings—and at one point Morris Graves, on his way from Dublin to India—to the Balboa Peninsula.

In the excellent catalog to the exhibition, Frederick Wight describes the art by describing the artist:

“. . . He is shy and self-aware to a degree, aloof yet (you suspect) ruthless in his self-determination. He seems devoid of the secret embarrassment of being born an artist, and has no desire whatever to be like anyone else. ‘Making your own life’ is a recurrent phrase. His privacy is defended by many hurdles and warnings. Purposeful ruts are left deep in the road by which you approach his house, and signs say no trespassing, no peddlers, no unauthorized persons, in short: NO. The final hurdle is Graves’ ritualistic politeness, a self-restraint which is limited by his sense of farce. In short he is very birdlike: receding, private, mobile, and migratory. He is birdlike with his different, yet natural, control over the space we share; but mostly, on reflection, he has the willful steely quality of a bird—its fierce capacity to survive.”

Certain birds are said to drop dead at the slightest disturbance. A sharp sound, a short confinement, a sudden change in temperature, the sight of man, can kill them. Frustration, unfamiliarity, loss of privacy, interruptions, are deadly. Survival is precarious and survival quotient can only be measured in terms of relative degrees of isolation and aloneness. In a desperate, blundering, panic-wracked age of “togetherness” it is a miracle that such a bird can survive at all.

Witness these painful transmigrations of the Spirit Bird and the Bird of the Inner Eye, however literary the titles: Bird Singing in the Moonlight, Double-Headed Snake and Terrified Bird in the Moonlight, Bird Maddened by the Sound of Machinery in the Air, Bird Depressed by the Length of the Winter of 1944, Bird Sensing the Essential Insanities, Seeking to Nest, Bird Masking. Add here the blind birds, the wounded birds, and the heart-wringing Oh Lonely.—Nature-philosophy in a technological, scientific age!

Covering the years 1933 to 1959, the Graves retrospective constitutes a seismographic record of one bird’s struggle to stay esthetically and spiritually intact. Animal symbology (the tenor and precision of which stem from Ananda Coomaraswamy) and a calligraphic tracery (the technique of which stems from Ch’an and Zen attitudes and the “white writing” of Mark Tobey) reveal a tenuous being caught in anguished, perpetual conflict between materiality and immateriality, form and void, samsara and nirvana—or, if you wish, being and becoming. Unlike Zen, Graves appears sharply Western in his concern with contradiction and worldly distinctions. Living between the alternatives of advancing and retreating action, he does both, each separately. His reptilian, evolutionary bird-incarnation snuggles in the dark wet earth or floats in the infinite, eternal sky; the closed egg-womb remains differentiated from the open, endless void.

Morris Graves’ primary act of survival was the early rejection of his own facility and easy success. Since then he has consistently refused to compete and has repressed any urge to “make it” in a worldly way. Unusually thin-skinned, he chooses to remain agile rather than attempt the development of a thick callous which might grow rigid and seal away the seed within, entombing forever the “minnow-like” core of the inner self. “He cannot be tramped after by a biographer,” says Wight, “or he will not be there.” When asked about his work since 1959, Graves replied to Dorothe Curtis, “Tell them the artist died” (although he has since been very much involved in sculptural constructions and iconographic oils). “Where can I go where the climate will be the same and no one will know me?” Graves asked Wight in 1956 at his Edmonds, Washington home. “Go to Ireland,” replied Wight, and Graves has lived in Ireland ever since.

The visual biography chronologically arranged along the walls of the Balboa Pavilion Gallery provokes a concert of meaning and sensation which overshadows separate elements. The whole says more than the parts, indicating the calibre of the show. 1933 to 1936 were years in which Graves pursued a form of social comment replete with methods derived from Surrealism and Cubism and not unlike the standard WPA styles of the thirties. Exceptions are Hen, Moor Swan, and Bird of the Inner Eye, all of 1933, which must be noted as containing qualities revived and exploited some five or six years later. On sized but unprimed canvas, these three oils record a touch-and-go calligraphy, a tonal emphasis, and a symbolism from which the characteristic Graves style eventually emerged. Works from 1938 to 1940 (In the Moonlight, Bird Singing in the Moonlight, and Snake and the Moon) all reveal a frank, thorough going adaptation and assimilation of Tobey’s “white writing.” Tobey originated this organic, continuous all-over use of light line against dark ground in 1935 after his studies with the calligrapher-painter Teng Kwei. Graves (with three trips to the Orient before he was twenty-one) had met Tobey shortly after the latter returned to Seattle in 1934 from several months with Teng’s family in China and a stay at a Zen monastery in Japan. However Graves’ most prolific and realized period may well be the years 1943 to 1945, during which he lived and worked in solitude at The Rock, his island nest-home in Puget Sound. Such examples as Chalice, Bird Depressed by the Length of the Winter of 1944, Young Rabbit and Foxfire, Sea, Fish, and Constellation, Joyous Young Pine, and Concentrated Pine Top are among the most hauntingly sensitive, self-directed and fulfilled work in this exhibition.

The early fifties, at which time he was building his elegant new retreat at Edmonds, continue with somewhat less success the themes and approaches of the forties. A certain cool dispassion becomes increasingly evident in line and wash (Loon Calling on an Autumn Lake of 1952), and the recurrent monist symbol—the circle-sphere of Brahmanic “advaita” or Taoist “hsuan”: One-Truth or Single-Source—adds a note of detached contemplation (Mid-Century Hibernation and two other Hibernation pieces of 1954.)

But it is the work of the late fifties that strike a new key, and it is to these that the attention must be particularly drawn. By 1955, Graves is in conscious and direct opposition to his own nostalgic and sometimes sentimental romanticism. Young Ram Tethered of 1955, Spring With Machine Age Noises, Owl of 1957, and Insects of 1958 exemplify a trend which perhaps leads toward his current efforts in construction and iconography. Yet many of these later works remain unrealized. In his attempt to move from “phenomenal space” through “mental space” into full and undifferentiated space-consciousness, Graves has lost traction somewhere along the path. “The way” has become too conscious and seems blocked by an essentially literary grasp of the goal. Only rarely (in Fish and Waterplant of 1959, the latest work in the show) does he drop his crutch and walk alone. The problem may well be that Graves is trying to “grasp his mind with his mind” as Zen puts it, like trying to “see his own eyes” or “taste his own tongue,” dividing the self against itself. A typically Western sense of duality in general, and Graves’ personal alternatives in particular, create the impasse. (Although one can create an impasse by trying too hard to avoid an impasse—the psychological “double-bind.”) Moreover, the “marvelous void” of pure and total consciousness can, if strained, dissipate a sense of the imperative, disembodying the art of the artist and leaving only a pale reflection of his experience. What remains is merely a copy, something secondhand, even if it is a copy out of his own mind. As one Sutra reads in part, “If anyone regards bodhi (awakening, enlightenment) as something to be attained, to be cultivated by discipline, he is guilty of pride of self.”

If Graves is moving from a “Southern Sung” individuality and spontaneity back toward a “Northern Sung” purity and clarity, then he deserves credit for his taste. But if he is actively revolting against himself instead of simply renouncing that self, he deserves the frustrations he will continue to encounter. Advantage is on the side of the artist, since Graves’ whole life and work is a study in survival. His refusal to be victimized by a cannibalistic art world contrasts sharply with the tragic loss of creative integrity and vitality into which so many artists have fallen. Graves has already survived at least one meteoric flight through the economic and social stratosphere, and if he survives his current flight from himself, he will continue to endure. Graves is still a young bird, and he is still very much alive.

Vic Smith