Morris Graves

Foster / White Gallery

Morris Graves’ exhibition consisted of a selection of paintings done between 1944 and 1982 and large still lifes completed in 1986. All of the latter were done in tempera on paper. In contrast to the earlier works’ modulated color, and their calligraphic stylizations inspired by Asian art, the recent still lifes are imaginative compositions in which bright bursts of color are deployed against a delicate ground or backdrop. Whereas the selection of earlier work offered few surprises, the recent work clearly represents an important departure. For the first time in his career, Graves no longer seems to be a student of Asian art and philosophy. If anything, he has absorbed this tradition—along with others, such as the still lifes of Zurbarán, other Spanish artists, and various Northern European masters—into a visionary approach that is unexpected and unlike anyone else’s.

Graves’ meditative still lifes evoke the fragility of flowers, their brief duration as concentrated presences of color. Offset by the austere light-filled tonal ground, the cold violets and pinks, chilly blues and whites, and warm reds and yellows are brought to an intense fullness within the restricted areolas of the tiny blossoms. One senses that if the color got any richer, it would burst and scatter, or begin to fade into the already faded, hushed ground. Graves’ command of color and composition allows him to register nuances of atmosphere and solidity, transparency and opaqueness. These delicate scenes possess an impact that is activated by Graves’ lyrical expressivity and subtle symbolism.

Many writers have marginalized Graves’ accomplishment. His use of tempera and his preference for working on paper are seen as signs of his minor status and ambition. However, the manner of defining an artist as major or minor according to his materials and scale should be seen as an indication of the bias of much criticism. Graves was born in Fox Valley, Oregon, in 1910, six years after Willem de Kooning was born in Rotterdam, Holland. Graves is a major artist, the most important to emerge out of the Northwest visionaries, much the same way de Kooning must now be seen as the only Abstract Expressionist to have evolved far beyond the historically defined breakthroughs of that movement. Because they refused to jettison figuration, each of them was overshadowed by another artist in his group. Their recent work, however, makes all our earlier evaluations, definitions, and labels obsolete, for these two artists continue to explore new territory.

John Yau