Morris Graves

Whitney Museum of American Art, Willard Gallery

Morris Graves is one of those artists who thinks he’s a seer, a visionary. He doesn’t just perceive, he has profound insight. This contention of eternal purpose is one of the more traditional justifications of art; the question is, what are the means used to convince us that the art does indeed offer what it claims to?

Graves’ means are quasi-oriental, although not unheard of in the West: the use of a symbolic flower or animal (generally a bird) as subject matter, and its sensitive rendering on a fragile medium (most often paper). Above all, the effect of intimacy is crucial, leading to the sense of the picture as a passageway into a half-comprehensible, half-enigmatic world. Graves achieves this by the smallness of his pieces, which forces us to concentrate on them with extra care, drawing us in, and by his tendency to leave the edge open so that the picture seems to float on the paper,

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