Mystic Morris Graves: His Birds, Flowers Have Painterly Weight

Back in the 1950′s, when the Paris art world was rudely awakened to the existence of the Abstract Expressionist painters in New York, some French art critics claimed to have discovered a group of expatriate American painters in Europe whom they promptly dubbed the Ecole du Pacifique -presumably to distinguish them from the ascendant New York School. Whether such an école ever existed is doubtful, for only three artists are cited as belonging to it: Sam Francis (1923-1994), who hailed from San Francisco, together with Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and Morris Graves (1910-2001), both of whom had connections with Seattle. (Occasionally, you might find Jackson Pollock’s name added to the list-he spent some time in Los Angeles as a teenager before coming to New York to study with Thomas Hart Benton). But it never really mattered whether an Ecole du Pacifique existed. The name itself was sufficient for French critics desperate to find something both American and abstract happening on their side of the Atlantic-something to play off against the looming threat of New York School abstraction.

At the time, Sam Francis was better known in Paris, where he was living, than in New York; and Mark Tobey, who eventually settled in Basel, Switzerland, became something of a cult figure in Europe. But Morris Graves? Although influenced in certain of his works by Tobey’s “white writing” abstractions, Graves was not himself an abstract painter, and his representational paintings and drawings are so emphatically personal in spirit and style that the very idea of enlisting him in someone else’s “school” or movement makes no sense whatsoever. I hasten to add, however, that this hasn’t prevented writers in some currently available art-reference books from continuing to include Graves in this mythical Pacific school. He wasn’t even an expatriate, though he was an energetic traveler, especially to the Far East, where he encountered mystical religious traditions and aesthetic conventions he adopted as his own.

Morris Graves: Symbols and Reality , an exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, is the first we’ve seen since the artist’s death two and a half years ago. Though it isn’t the museum retrospective that’s overdue for a painter of Graves’ distinction, this show does give us a more vivid account of the range of his work than any we have seen in some time. The expected images of birds and flowers are amply represented, and so are the delicate washes of color on Chinese and other beautifully made paper grounds that we commonly associate with Graves’ art.

What comes as a surprise-for this viewer, anyway-is the sheer boldness and painterly weight of certain pictures. Expressionist facture is about the last thing we think to look for in Graves’ paintings, yet in an early picture like Sunflower (1935), we’re given a darker, more autumnal version of van Gogh’s most famous subject, and there’s a similar venture into macabre Expressionism in a canvas called Sidewalk Drinking Fountain (1934-35). In a later picture, too- Winter Still Life #3 (Hellebore) (1983)-the dramatic contrast between the darkened background and the brilliant light of the poisonous hellebore blossoms is positively eerie. Even more unsettling are the monumental tulips against a stark black background in the painting called Triumph (1955). Fairly eerie, too, is the early Snake and Moon (1938), one of the earliest of Graves’ black paintings-which are among his best.

These black paintings clearly had a special, perhaps mystical meaning for the artist, as we are reminded in Peter Selz’s very moving memoir in the exhibition’s catalog. In a passage devoted to Graves’ still-life pictures, Mr. Selz singles out Triumph for the place it occupied in Graves’ life-and death, too: “Against a black background the flowers, in various stages of unfolding, are stretching toward the light. He named this painting Triumph and always kept it close to himself; he had it brought into his bedroom as he was reaching the end of his life.”

Compared to the unexpected audacities of the black paintings, some of Graves’ bird pictures are fairly low-key. The only one that is as weighty in expression as the black paintings is Gander Ready for Flight (1952), in which the outsize image of the bird seems ready to fly out of the canvas.

Elsewhere in his images of birds, Graves slipped into sentimentality. But it may be that I lack the requisite taste for mystical experience that Graves brought to his depiction of birds-fond as I am of these beautiful creatures, to me they signify nothing in the way of metaphysical illumination. Graves’ botanical subjects, especially the flowers, invariably strike a far deeper note of pictorial expression.

It is to be hoped that some time before 2010-the centenary of Graves’ birth-we shall see a major retrospective of his oeuvre . Meanwhile, Morris Graves: Symbols and Reality remains on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through Jan. 3, 2004.