New York

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, making it elusive and phantomlike. This and a tendency to transparency, which reaches a kind of climax in Bird Experiencing Light, 1969, generate a spiritual effect. The depicted “reality” loses its substance, becomes almost a whimsical flourish of touch. The creature remains clearly intact in outline, however, and particularly in the head, the seat of consciousness, which shows in the always alert, dense eyes. Graves shows the creaturely become symbolic because it harbors awareness of what we humans are hardly aware of: the cosmic insubstantiality yet energy of it all. Herbert Read wrote of Paul Klee’s intimacy with the invisible energy of matter; the same can be said of Graves, who also has Klee’s sense of the elegance of the energy, and of the picture as revealing the microcosmic character of the ordinarily experienced world.

Graves, then, is a nature-mystic, and the forms of his art, from touch to image, are direct emanations of his sense of nature as the basis of all being. The Mark Tobey-esque “white writing” in his famous “Bird in Moonlight” images of the late ’30s and early ’40s seems simultaneously descriptive of light, and spiritual froth from its ferment. The fact of light’s fluidity and its spiritual effect are inseparable for Graves. His congested gesture, extraordinarily agitated yet rhythmic and so apparently controlled (and thereby doubly intoxicating), is extraordinarily innovative in American painting of the period; Jackson Pollock’s work of the time looks stupidly random, and Willem de Kooning’s Depression portraits archly art-historical, in comparison. But Graves, it seems to me, stopped right there, as though he had realized himself without sufficient struggle. The light in the “Bouquet” paintings of the ’70s, or in the “Spirit Bird” works of the ’50s, has lost its fluidity, has become too matter-of-factly indwelling. Above all, it has lost the ambiguity which made it at once a fact of powerful exterior energy and a sign of inner spirit—a dynamic fact which seemed to spontaneously invent its own symbolic reference.

I see Graves as tragically unrealized, just because of the hermetic sufficiency of his images. The isolated bird or flower is a self-surrogate, and the self has rested too content before the symbol that not only narcissistically gives it back to itself, but gives it back as a higher being. The more recent mandala images confirm this spiritual narcissism, and in fact diminish what was originally realized, for Graves’ use of pure abstract shape destroys the marvelous union in his work between rendering of nature and symbolic import. Nature dismissed, there is nothing left but an unconvincing shadow of spirit. Graves knew himself too early, and finding himself complete, could not so much develop as repeat himself, trying to recover the original high of spiritualized perception. He became an incurable addict of his own innocence.

The catalogue, by Ray Kass, also the exhibition’s organizer, is a first-class informational account of Graves’ art and personal history, which is very complex psychologically. Just as in a famous series of works from the ’50s, “Machine Age Noise,” he achieved importance by being unable to reconcile nature and the modern world, so his life is important for its alienation from society. Thus the important failure of the sculpture series “Instruments for a New Navigation,” 1961–62, which do not so much help us navigate in far space as deepen the hold of Graves’ narcissism by transforming it into religious idolatry. Those sculptures are the final abstract form Graves gave to his unchanging cosmic self.

Donald Kuspit