Thursday, September 25, 2014

George Morrison's Horizons

Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1990, acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 1/8 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Museum Purchase. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

In late August I was lucky to see a show at Indianapolis's Eiteljorg Museum of Indians and Western Art. Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison is now in transit to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where it opens on October 25. I had not before known of George Morrison and could only marvel how this could be. His work—painting, drawing, wood collage, wood sculpture, lithography—responds across a sixty-year career to the art movements of his time: regionalism, surrealism, cubism, and abstract expressionism. 

Morrison moved in the 40's from Minnesota, where he grew up and studied at the Minnesota School of Art, to New York City, where he attended the Art Students League. He was close with Franz Kline, and he moved in the circle of Kline, de Kooning, Motherwell, Joan Mitchell—the New York School. He was one of them and he showed with them. He had his first solo show in 1948. 

By 1970, when Morrison returned to his home state and a faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota, he had achieved considerable recognition in the forms of purchase prizes and awards. At the University, he was appointed to two faculties: studio art and American Indian studies. 

Morrison was a Chippewa from the Grand Portage Reservation, a fact that had had little presence in either the content, materials, or techniques of his work. In New York, his colleagues had been unaware of his ethnic background, which had not been a preoccupation for him. His interests and goals were the same as the other artists around him. He was not identified as an "Indian" artist until his return to Minnesota, where knowledge of his Chippewa identity created controversies about "who he was" as an artist. Despite his excellence and eminence as a modern artist, there were curators who declined to show him with other Native artists because his art didn't look like Indian art. Morrison was comfortable with his heritage; he was comfortable too with his cosmopolitan point of view.

As he aged, Morrison's Chippewa heritage took a more prominent place in his work. This resulted not from social pressure but from the natural process of his life journey and growing understanding of his own story. In the catalogue that shares the show's name, Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison by W. Jackson Rushing III and Kristin Makholm (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), plates show many works that arise from or include this impulse. They are consonant, though, with his work as cubist, abstract expressionist, and master of materials in traditions that relate him to Picasso more than to traditional Navajo art. Indeed, he faced the prejudice that "Indian" art was usually expected to include the iconography of the southwest tribes. Morrison's work lacked suns. What kind of Indian art was that?

Untitled (Quarry Face), 1949, pencil, pastel, and ink on paper, 18 x 24 in. Minnesota Museum of American Art. Acquisition Fund Purchase. 94.01.11. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Modern Spirit is alive with beautiful and sophisticated work, much from the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. It's a great pity that Morrison seems, though, to be cramped into the position of regional and Native American artist. He is clearly of the world-class stature he enjoyed when he worked in New York. It's disconcerting to see that when he returned to teach and continue his distinguished work in Minnesota, he was cast as a regional and ethnic artist. The current show toured to New York in 2013, exhibited at the National Museum of the American Indian. Its other stops are (or have been) Fargo, Indianapolis (Museum of Indians and Western Art), Phoenix, and St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center. What about the Whitney? The Smithsonian? The Hunter Museum in Chattanooga? An American art museum? A modern art museum? Evidently the dilemma of identity-based interpretation remains unresolved. He is a major Native American artist and took pride in that. To the extent that ethnic identity ghettoizes his work, it's a loss for many who would appreciate Morrison in all his breadth and would appreciate equally the inclusion of Native American artists as "normal."

 A variety of themes and visual motifs run throughout Morrison's work, from earliest to late. I was particularly attracted to his use of the long landscape with implicit or explicit horizon line. This orientation fascinates me for all the things it can signify and can invoke in feeling. His spider-covered 1949 drawing, Quarry Face, above, is both landscape (distant) and suggests by its title a surface close enough to touch; the "spiders" reinforce this latter idea. 

The boxes created by horizontal and vertical lines, which might create the lapidary effect of a rock wall, seems to intensify the flow of the lines from left to right, where colors change at the borders. Each "box" both contains a truncated landscape view (defined by color) and extends it by line to connect with its neighbor. The several white circles with differently defined edges read like moons over different prospects. They further complicate not the landscape, but the multiplicity of stratified landscapes layered across the drawing. 

Is it landscape? It's length compared to height makes it technically so. It's an abstract drawing. Is it more? The connected sinuous line that directs itself upward from left to right in the top quadrant forms a horizon, cutting across the entire plane.

Untitled, 1978, lithograph, 30 x 44 1/2 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Gift of Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis. 79.42.14. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Morrison's 1978 monochromatic lithograph shows some of the same features of the1949 color drawing. One of Morrison's techniques was to make large, long collages of wood. This is a print pulled from such a collage. Like the earlier drawing, there is the tension between close and far away: We might place our hands directly on this surface; perhaps it's a wall that blocks our movement. Or we might be observing an abstract, two-dimensional representation of a faraway space. Again, three-quarters of the way up, Morrison has placed a line that divides the image horizontally. It sits like a high horizon line, suggesting that we consider Above and Below as spaces with different significances.

Morning Storm, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1986, acrylic on canvas board, 6 x 11 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Acquisition Fund Purchase.  87.17.2. Courtesy, Minnesota Museum of American Art.

Morrison's connection to the landscape of his childhood on the Lake Superior shoreline becomes literal in the horizontal paintings and pastels of his artistically fertile 70s. While the horizon where water and land, or water and sky meet are a constant subject, the energetic and fully engaged explorations of color, materials, and form are of no less interest than the spiritual content. In Morning Storm, Red Rock Variation, above, again he makes us debate about the represented space, giving this miniature, high-surfaced painting the feel of a colossal work. The blocks of color in the bottom section could, as in the others we've seen, be stones in a wall—tactile, immediate, and topped by an edge, until the merging ideas of edge and horizon soften into ambiguity.
Awakening, Time Edge Rising, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape, 1990, acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 3/8 x 30 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Museum Purchase. Courtesy of Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Both Awakening, above, and Spirit Path, New Day, which opens this article, were accomplished when Morrison was 71, with another ten years ahead of him. These acrylic and pastel paintings are more impressionistic now than expressionistic. His distribution of color in patches seems to describe the experience of something real, something with stunning sensory impact. These colors are reminiscent of Monet, so there's that art historical connection.

Monet was an explorer of natural light: he did not invent colors, but worked to record what he saw. Using a similar palette, did Morrison do the same? Did he record what he saw at dawn on Lake Superior in different atmospheric conditions? I tend to doubt that that was all there was to it, for what it seems that Morrison recorded throughout his career-long, multi-media work in landscape form was always abstract. He seems not to have been interested in pictorial landscape. Rather, he appears to have been concerned with artistic form and with what one associates with it or embeds in the form. His later landscapes—the ones that are acknowledged as such—are visions really of water and sky, but of water that generates fire, of flaming spirit that unifies heaven and earth. The work is intensely visionary, and those visions may have their roots in the painter's ties to the earth of a Chippewa reservation on Lake Superior and to traditional cultural ideas of the ascendent soul and its powers.

It could be. Perhaps not. Morrison was a Native American and a phenomenal artist. These landscapes seem to be directly linked to places and inspiration from his Native heritage. Morrison was also an American artist of the New York School. His work is linked to significant strands of modern, Western art. In Modern Spirit we see the work of an artist who negotiated the scene—simultaneously present and far away—through his own integrative cultural experience: only his own.


  1. I want to know if he ever carved traditional works. I have a carving,from the 60's Hawk, signed G Morrison.

  2. The catalogue for this show, "Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison" shows a few examples of his sculpture in wood and bronze. You may wish to contact the Minnesota Museum of American Art to learn more.