Looking back over a decade or so, the shows tend to blur together in the mind. There are those—the painters—who say it gets worse every year. But from a slightly more objective viewpoint, it would seem more like a series of variations on a mediocre theme. There was the year when everybody painted like everybody else. There was the year when everybody painted like somebody else, and you couldn’t tell the painters without a program. And there was the year when the jury turned down one of the first of Tobey’s great sumi ink paintings (the usual case of unfamiliarity breeding contempt); but everything came up sumi in years after, once the mob caught on. When Paul Horiuchi turned to very chic, elegant tissue paper collages, pretty soon all the good ladies, who in a saner time painted flowers on china teacups, were busily collaging their way through work. Collage is still very big; now it’s tin foil, burlap, a torn photograph here and the odd bit of plywood there, and the surfaces are generally pretty nasty.

The chief memory of recent years is of mammoth noisy ugliness, the dregs of Abstract Expressionism after it had waded up the Northwest Coast. It must have been out of breath when it got here, because it didn’t have much to say. This year, with one big exception and a handful of modest ones, the Northwest Annual is a large heaping-up of—nothing. (“What becomes of those who are not artists? Nothing, nothing, nothing at all. . .” Rolfe Humphries.) Guy Anderson is the dramatic exception, the big canvas, the marvelous sure technique, the bold stroking of paint, the mind of the artist stretching itself beyond the boundaries of the known, the already accomplished. “Dream of the Language Wheel” is probably a flawed success or a magnificent failure. Gradually one sees past the technique to the content: The great white wheel is a kind of rack, in the upper part of the canvas the form of a man is bent backwards over it—like a man (artist) chained to a roulette wheel, chained to the machine; a man with his spine flipped like a fish, like the moment in electroshock when the electrodes are applied to the temples. But one wants to turn the canvas on its side; that great wheel is so white! All the heaviness is in a thin strip, at the top. But, as you stare at it, the white starts breaking up. . . . Maybe he’s right. At any rate, something profound is happening here, in the mind of a brave and gifted man.

Modest and good: William Cumming, a tempera called “The Kill,” beautifully composed: he has a classic tempera technique, thinly and carefully applied. Two prize fighters (I’d guess circa 1910), one taupe, one brown, tilted like a pair of Pisas; in the right foreground a straight, stumpy man in a hat and a salmon-colored shirt. Altogether, a little marvel. A collage called “Swamp” by Paul Horiuchi, who has been doing elegant and popular work for a number of years. And because he is an honest man and a craftsman, he has doggedly continued, in the face of overwhelming success, to deepen and intensify the work. (That sometimes terrifying facility of the Oriental, or Orient-dominated, artist, which can turn out beauty-by-the-yard, so charming, so polished, so cleverly organized, so empty!) But Horiuchi is transcending his past and his public. Ambrose Patterson has taught in the art department of the University of Washington during most of the 20th century so far, and he is over 85. His “Market Place,” a thoughtful and lovely piece, shows a continuing advance in his work: a drift of figures, barrows, awnings, lights, chiefly in pinks, violets and yellows, rising like smoke through an ice-blue, sketchy cityscape. Faintly like Ensor, permeated with lyric joy. It’s a pity that, among the numerous purchase prizes and recommendations for purchase of largely worthless work, no one tried to find $350 to buy the Patterson for the Museum.

Barbara James has painted in acrylic tempera, a large pale figure of a man in a blue and green meadow, haunting, evocative. One thinks of the last lines of Stanley Kunitz’s poem about a son’s search for his father: “Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me/The white, ignorant hollow of his face.” Mrs. James, once distressingly in thrall to Morris Graves, is coming into her own. There is a wonderful, tiny “Nordic Scene” by Pehr, the artist discovered by Mark Tobey, who began painting when he was well into middle life; and a tempera similar in its “natural” (as opposed to the misused “primitive”) feeling, by James Martin of Edmonds, Washington, with the quality of a Persian miniature. There is a poetically-colored, well managed composition of horsemen, in mixed media, by someone named C. Lesch, from Tacoma, to which I would award my personal purchase prize if I had $200 handy. There is a Kenneth Callahan which is—a Kenneth Callahan. The Tobey is a dense, allover pattern, chiefly in black, called “Night Space” (tempera), probably selected by his dealer.

Jack Shadbolt’s entry looks like disaster. It also looks like undigested De Kooning and is similar in effect to the work of Jack McLarty, an equally respected painter from Portland whose painting—and this one is no exception—tends to upset one. (This looks like a compote-full of eyeballs over which someone is being sick.) The one abstract painting in the show worth looking at is Louis Bunce’s “Stillscape” (mistitled in the catalog), and a portion of that is pretty cluttered and confused. Of all the paintings discussed, only the Bunce and the Callahan were recommended for purchase (and purchased). None of the other prize-winning paintings are worth even a cursory mention.

The jury, a curious choice, consisted of Sam Black, who teaches at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver; Ray Jensen, a local sculptor whose own work is perilously smooth and commercial; Wirth McCoy, an uninteresting painter who teaches at Washington State University; Gordon Woodside, director of the Woodside Gallery in Seattle (and perhaps not a suitable choice for a juror for that reason); and, of course, Richard E. Fuller (“ex-officio”), director of the Seattle Art Museum.

As to sculpture, Lee Kelly of Portland won the Norman Davis Purchase Award for work by a sculptor under forty. He is obviously a rising young sculptor, although this statement is not based upon the work under discussion, which looks clumsy and truncated, disturbingly balanced on a too-slight base. His long-stemmed, luminous sculptures exfoliating metal petals in the sky are better. Painted sculpture is still tricky business, and the viscous white paint which covers “Laurajon” (steel) is not reassuring. The rest of the sculpture can be dismissed pretty quickly: “Blue Bather” by Thomas Anderson (polychrome wood) looks like a potty middle aged lady from a Tobey market painting, and is nice for this reason. Jack C. Fletcher’s small cast bronze “Family Tree” is pleasantly reminiscent (if such a thing can be pleasant) of Tchelitchew’s famous foetus tree at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Philip McCracken’s “Bird on the Highway,” meant to be a crushed bird on a section of road, yellow line and all, is like Morris Graves’ attempts to paint the noises of the jets and bulldozers which finally drove him from the Pacific Northwest: An attempt—doomed by its nature to failure—to make a pretty statement about ugliness. George Tsutakawa has a typically handsome bronze sculpture called “Genesis.” The title, one fears, is a piece of wishful thinking on his part.

The reason this show is a bore is that, with the exceptions noted, almost every painter in the Northwest worth his salt either does not choose to exhibit in the Annual or was rejected by this jury. Of the former group, the most noted examples are the splendid Carl and Hilda Morris of Portland, now the leading Artists in Residence in the Northwest, and the two finest Abstract Expressionist painters in Washington, William Ivey of Seattle and Berkley Chappell of Tacoma. The list of rejects is incredible: Richard Gilkey of Seattle, who has had two shows at this very museum, two one-man shows at Gumps, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and numerous other honors; and two Portland painters, Duane Zaloudek (abstract) and Robert Colescott (concrete). Zaloudek has been included in every major show up and down the coast and was the only painter in the Northwest both praised and purchased by Francois Mathey, the curator of the Musee d’Art Decoratif of the Louvre, who came to the Northwest to arrange the Tobey retrospective at the Louvre last year. Colescott, a painter at least the equal of Diebenkorn and Oliveira, has exhibited in New York and Paris and has had one-man shows at Reed College in Portland and at the Museum there.

Other Portland rejects include Sally Haley, the accomplished magic realist, who has exhibited in Denver, San Francisco and Portland, and George Johanson, who has had one-man shows in New York, Seattle and Portland, and paints, chiefly, abstractions based on figures. He is an artist who has often been indifferent in the past, but the particular canvas which was turned down by the Annual jury is, like Gilkey’s, the finest work he has ever done—a major painting. A large canvas by Gordon Backstrand, a Portland painter new to me, is an impressive work, in blacks, whites and greys divided in squares like a Sunday comic section in the manner of the young Italian, Achille Perilli, though not at all similar in color or effect. It would seem that, in the midst of the disorder and middle aged sorrow surrounding them, a normal jury would have jumped at this one.

Four-fifths of the paintings in this large exhibition (212 entries) should have been rejected. Probably the bravest and most valuable thing the Seattle Art Museum could do would be to have an Annual consisting of one room full of paintings, leaving the rest of the main galleries vacant, with a chaste announcement to the effect that they were only taking good paintings this year, by way of making a clean sweep. Of course this would mean that the paintings selected would have to be good, and that the artists now boycotting the Annual would have to be coaxed to return. The striking thing about the deliberate omissions in this year’s show is the impressive impartiality with which the best of the various schools was struck down. What leaned against the basement walls and lay dying in its halls was imagination, courage, and originality. What got hung will, in due course, hang itself.

But what of the Museum, its stacks cluttered, year after year, with the paintings bad-to-mediocre, to which, for the most part, purchase prizes have been given? For its own preservation, it should find a better system of regional acquisitions. Which means, among other things, better juries. And if the Museum, like this one, contemplates embarking upon an expansion program, surely the interested citizen is entitled to ask, “Do you need to expand when so much of what you have isn’t worth keeping?” Consider the number of people in this area, many of them of modest means, who have better collections of the work of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, or Carl Morris (to name only three) than the Museum does! Not so long ago, a couple of hundred dollars would purchase major works by these men. What was the Museum buying?

Suffice it to say that, for its own sake, the Museum should not be let off lightly. We live in a time when individuals are savagely criticized or vilified, while institutions go relatively unscathed. Man—poor, vulnerable, skin covered thing—can be murdered by criticism. But without it, institutions turn to dust.

Carolyn Bullitt