The Visionary Painting of Morris Graves

It is not well known around the world that there existed in the nineteenth-century United States a very considerable visionary art. William Blake and his disciples, Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert, Francis Danby and John Martin, the later Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, the Nabis, were popular in America and had considerable influence. Most of the painters of this tendency are now forgotten, but one, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), has survived in popular esteem as one of America’s greatest artists. In our own time visionary painting has been at a discount all over the world, in spite of some interest stirred up a generation ago by the Surrealists, but it is quite possible that the reevaluation which has brought back Palmer, Calvert, and Redon, may in time to come restore many more forgotten reputations, even Moreau, who, say what you will, is the master of Rouault at least.

It is to this tendency of American painting that Morris Graves belongs. However, he is beyond question a richer and more skillful artist than any of his predecessors, and, to put it simply, a better, “greater” painter than any of them, except possibly Ryder. In recent years a whole new school of American painting, abstract-expressionism, has come to maturity and begun to influence painting around the world. Painters such as Rothko, Still, Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, and Ferren now seem to be the forerunners of what may be the international style of the coming decade. Morris Graves, however, stands apart from the expressionist group, as, at the other extreme of contemporary style, does a figure of comparable stature, Ben Shahn.

Morris Graves is less provincial, far more a “citizen of the world” than any of his predecessors of the visionary school. It is curious to reflect on this fact, a symptom of the terrific acceleration of the civilizing process of this continent, for Graves was born, raised, and came to maturity as an artist in the Pacific Northwest, a region that was a wilderness until the last years of the nineteenth century. Greatly as I admire Graves’s work, it must be admitted that certain of its characteristics are those found, not at the beginning, but at the end of a cultural process — hypersensitivity, specialization of subject, extreme refinement of technique. Nothing could show better the essentially world-wide, homogeneous nature of modern culture than that this successor to the great Sung painters sprang up in a region that was created out of a jungle-like rain forest by the backwash of the Alaska gold rush.

People in the rest of the United States and in Europe have difficulty in adjusting to the fact that the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically. There is nothing cultish about this, as there might be elsewhere. The residents of California, Oregon, and Washington are as likely to travel across the Pacific as across the continent and the Atlantic. Knowledge of the Oriental languages is fairly widespread. The museums of the region all have extensive collections of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian art. Vedantist and Buddhist temples are to be seen in the coast cities. And of course there are large Chinese and Japanese colonies in every city, and proportionately even more Orientals in the countryside. It is interesting to note that besides the direct influence of the Orient on them, the Seattle painters, Graves, Tobey, and Callahan, the Portland painter, Price, the San Francisco abstract-expressionists, have all avoided the architectural limited-space painting characteristic of Western Europe from the Renaissance to Cubism, and show more affinity to the space concepts of the Venetians. Venice, of course, was for centuries Europe’s chief window on the East, an enclave of Byzantine civilization, and the first contact with China. There are drawings by Tintoretto that might have been done in his contemporary China. I do not believe that this has been a conscious influence in most cases, but rather an example of what anthropologists call convergence.

Graves was born in 1910 in the Fox Valley of Oregon and has lived in the state of Washington, in or near Seattle, all his life, except for short visits to Japan in 1930, to the Virgin Islands in 1939, to Honolulu in 1947, and a year in Europe in 1948, after his personal style was fully developed and “set.” He studied at the Seattle Museum, with the old master of Northwest painting, Mark Tobey, and had his first one-man show there in 1936. His first New York shows were in 1942 at the Willard Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art. His paintings are now to be found in the permanent collections of most of the major American museums, including the Metropolitan in New York.

Except for the emphasis on deep complex space and calligraphic skill which he learned from Tobey, but which he could just as well have learned from the Far Eastern paintings in the Seattle Museum, Graves’s style, or styles, his special mode of seeing reality and his techniques of handling it, have come, like the spider’s web, out of himself, or, at the most, out of the general cultural ambience of a world civilization, syncretic of all time and space. Therefore, influences and resemblances which seem certain to a historian of art may never in actual fact have existed. Since today Graves’s painting is an extremely specialized view of reality and his concept of space differs from that usually thought of as the contribution of modern painting, it is fruitful to compare him in his development with other painters of other times around the world, always realizing that, with the exception of Chinese, specifically Sung, and Japanese, specifically Ashikaga, and particularly the painter Sesshu, Graves himself may never have known of any resemblance let alone influence.

The first of Graves’s paintings after his apprentice days are in a rather thick medium, often laid in like cloisonné between broad, abrupt, dark, single brush strokes. The colors are all “local.” There is no attempt to achieve deep space or movement in space by juxtaposition of color. In fact the color is limited to a small gamut of earths, dull reds, browns, and yellows, with occasionally a slate blue. The line, however, has a great deal of snap, while the movement is very shallow, almost Egyptian. If there are receding planes in these pictures, they are kept to a minimum and the lines stick to the silhouette, never crossing from plane to plane to fill the space. The thing that identifies these paintings immediately is a peculiar, individual sense of silhouette, a silhouette defined by an eccentric calligraphic stroke.

As is well known, a highly personal line of this type comes late, if at all, to most artists. Yet it seems to have been the first thing Graves developed. I can think of nothing quite like it. The brush drawings of the early Jean de Bosschère — not the commercial book illustrations but rather those for his own Portes Fermées — have somewhat the same feeling. I rather doubt that Graves has ever seen these.

This is also somewhat the style of the earliest Klees. It is generally identified with the magazine Simplicissimus, a German satirical publication of the years before the First War. Graves, very likely, has never heard of it.

Already in this period, which incidentally was roughly that of the WPA Art Project (1935-42), Graves was beginning to concentrate on birds and sometimes small animals as masks of man and as symbols of the personae, the forces, operating in man — a kind of transcendental Aesop.

Certainly the best picture of this period is a large Game Cock (1933), many times life size, caught in a thick perimeter that whips across the picture plane like jagged lightning. There is no sign of the easy line so attractive to young artists who are beginning to pay attention to their drawing — the decorative sweeps of Beardsley, Botticelli, or the Book of Kells, those perennial favorites of the innocent. Neither is there any of the impressionist line of the Rodin water colors, the other and great influence on the young — and on Matisse and his descendants. This line is tooled to the last millimeter and, with the exception of the Bosschères I spoke of, there is nothing like it except certain painted ceramics, Greek and Oriental, some Romanesque illumination, and the akimbo linearity of the Moissac Portal. It is simply not a line usually found in painting. Later this cock was to be repainted, smaller, more compact and secretive, in the two Game Cocks of 1939.

In his early twenties Graves had begun to concentrate on calligraphy, under the influence of Mark Tobey’s “white writing,” which Tobey himself was just then beginning. Graves shared practically on equal terms with the older man in its development.

At this time too Graves took a short trip to Japan and later traveled in the eastern United States and the Caribbean. The paintings of this period parallel — they cannot really be said to be influenced by — the major paintings of Tintoretto in the treatment of the picture space as a saturated manifold quivering with three-dimensional lines, really tracks of force. The best analogy is to the whorls of iron filings in a magnetic field. But in this case the field is both three dimensional and possessed of more than two poles, and all of varying intensity. This space concept reaches its highest development only in the Venetian baroque in the West, but of course it is basic in the greatest periods of Sung and Ashikaga ink painting.

In writing of Sesshu, I have said, “The brush, which never departs from the calligraphy of the square Chinese characters, is as quick, precise, powerful, and yet effortless as Japanese sword play. ‘The sword,’ say the Zen fencing masters, ‘finds channels opened for it in space, and follows them without exertion to the wound.’ This is the central plastic conception of Sesshu. The picture space is thought of as a field of tangled forces, a complex dynamic web. The brush strokes flow naturally in this medium, defining it by their own tensions, like fish in a whirlpool of perfectly clear water.”

Both Tobey and Graves can be considered as direct descendants of Sesshu. In Graves there is an additional factor, a deliberate formal mysteriousness, a conscious seeking for uncanny form, analogous to that found in primitive cult objects — sacred stones and similar things. There are several series of studies of just such objects — stones and driftwood — notably the nine water colors of 1937 called Purification.

From 1939 to 1942 were the years of the Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye, Bird in Moonlight, and Blind Bird, now in the New York Museum of Modern Art collection, paintings which achieved an instantaneous fame when they were first exhibited. Every critic seems to have been aware that here was a really different yet thoroughly competent artist.

Incidentally, the haunted, uncanny character of these pictures, which reaches its height, representationally at least, in Young Rabbit and Foxfire and Bird with Possessions of 1942, owes little or nothing to Surrealism. There is much more conscious knowledge of mystery, and much less unconscious Freudian or Jungian symbolism.

On into the war years the mastery of calligraphy developed, until finally the line, sometimes “white writing,” sometimes black, reaches a climax in the Joyous Young Pine series of 1944, Black Waves (1944), In the Air (1943), and the two great ideographs called Waning Moon (1943), in the Seattle Art Museum. These paintings are fully the equal of anything, East or West, of the kind. Waning Moon passes out of the realm of ordinary painting altogether and can be compared only with the ominous, cryptic characters which Shingon monks write on six-foot sheets of paper while in trance.

To 1945 belongs the series called Consciousness Assuming the Form of a Crane. I own what I consider the best of these, and for nine years I have found its ephemeral simplicity inexhaustible. In these paintings the old dynamic hyperactive space of Sesshu has been surpassed. The background is a vague cloudy diagonal drift of red and green, overcast with a frost of white. From this, in a few faint strokes of white with touches of somber red, emerges a slowly pacing, more than life-size crane-being rising from flux into consciousness, but still withdrawn, irresponsible, and stately. There is nothing exactly like this in the world’s art, for it is not simply a literary or a mystical notion but a plastic one as well. Form, an ominous, indifferent form, emerges from formlessness, literally seems to bleed quietly into being.

The great dragon painters of the Orient whose dragons are confused with and only half emerge from vortexes of clouds and rain were seeking the same kind of effect, but of course their paintings are far more active. Graves’s Cranes are not active at all. They are as quiet as some half-caught telepathic message.

In 1948, Graves traveled in Europe. Much of this time was spent at Chartres. Just before leaving America he had done a series of what can only be described as intensely personal portraits of Chinese Shang and Chou bronzes. Objects of great mystery in their own right, in Graves’s paintings they become visions, supernatural judgments of the natural world. Individual State of the World, with its use of Graves’s recurrent minnow, symbol of the spark of spiritual illumination, is representative of this series. Contemporary with these bronzes is a series of vajras (Buddhist ritual bronze thunderbolts), lotuses, and diamonds of light which can be considered as illustrations for that great refusal to affirm either being or non-being, the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

No one has seen what Graves did at Chartres. In conversation he has told me how he spent the better part of a cold foggy winter there, painting every day, details of the cathedral, fragments of statues, bits of lichened masonry, and several pictures of the interior of the cathedral in early morning — the great vault, half filled with thick fog, dawn beginning to sparkle in the windows. When he came back to America and reviewed the year’s work he destroyed it all. I have a feeling that the painting in the Fredericks collection, Ever Cycling, may have survived from this time.

Shortly after this, Graves abandoned ink, gouache, and water color on paper, and returned to oil. From 1950 to the present [1955], most of the paintings are in the vein of Guardian — or the Spirit Bird Transporting Minnow from Stream to Stream of the Metropolitan collection — geese, hawks, and eagles, most of them over life size, many with mystifying accessories such as black suns or golden antlers. It would seem, looking at a sizable collection of these recent paintings, that Graves has, at least temporarily, abandoned the surcharged, dynamic, baroque space of the calligraphic paintings and returned to the intact object. Again, there is considerable resemblance to the bird painters of the Far East — the famous pair of ducks of the Sung Dynasty in the British Museum, or the early falcon painters of the Kano school. These new paintings share with them a concentration on maximum surface tension, a sense of absolutely full occupation of their separate volume, like formed globules of quicksilver, or drops of viscid oil. This particular formal quality does have a parallel in contemporary art, notably in Brancusi’s sculpture of a Fish and those dreaming ovoids he calls Birth, and more especially in the most successful of Hans Arp’s swollen, amoeboid figures. Piero della Francesca, of course, is the outstanding example of what might be called overloaded volume in the Renaissance. This, by the way, is a quality that must be distinguished from Picasso’s excessive specific gravity — in his case a directly representational device masquerading as “significant form.” Picasso and most of his disciples simply paint things to look many times as heavy as they actually are. In Graves’s recent work there is always a sense of ominous, impending meaning, as if these human-eyed birds were judging the spectator, rather than he them, and in terms of a set of values incomprehensible to our sensual world.

It is none too easy to sum up such an accomplishment as that of Graves. Certainly he is one of the greatest calligraphers of all time — not just a “master of line” but a creator of significant ideographs and, beyond that, a creator of a new and strange significance of the ideograph as well. Graves has also been one of the many around the world who in this generation have freed painting from the exhausted plasticism, the concentration on architecture alone, which formed the residue of subsiding Cubism. This he has accomplished not merely, or even primarily, by illustrative, but by plastic means, by discovering a new world of form antipodal to the Poussin rigor of Cubism. Graves has opened the plastic arts to a whole range of experience hardly found in the external world at all, let alone in art. He has created a series of objects, masks, personae, which act both as objects of contemplation, and, in contemplation, as sources of values which judge the world the spectator brings to them. On the whole this judgment has little room or time for those values known to the popular mind as “American,” but which are really those of our acquisitive mass Western civilization.

Jacques Maritain asks somewhere, “What kept Europe alive for so long after it had obviously been stricken with a fatal disease?” and answers his question, “The prayers of the contemplatives in the monasteries.” I am not prepared to enter into a metaphysical defense of petitionary prayer, or a sociological one of monasticism, but the empirical evidence for the social, perhaps even biological necessity for contemplation, is, in these apocalyptic hours, all too obvious. Civilizations endure as long as, somewhere, they can hold life in total vision. The function of the contemplative is contemplation. The function of the artist is the revelation of reality in process, permanence in change, the place of value in a world of facts. His duty is to keep open the channels of contemplation and to discover new ones. His role is purely revelatory. He can bring men to the springs of the good, the true, and the beautiful, but he cannot make them drink. The activities of men endure and have meaning as long as they emanate from a core of transcendental calm. The contemplative, the mystic, assuming moral responsibility for the distracted, tries to keep his gaze fixed on that core. The artist uses the materials of the world to direct men’s attention back to it. When it is lost sight of, society perishes.

Although the mystique behind such evaluation is overtly Oriental, even Buddhist or Vedantist, and hence anti-humanistic, I do not feel that this type of explication is really relevant. The perfected mystic, of course, would not seek to express himself at all. In the last analysis it is the artist, the contemplator and fabricator, who speaks and judges through these embodied visions. And the united act of contemplation and shaping of reality is in its essence the truest and fullest human deed. Morris Graves has said of his own work: “If the paintings are confounding to anyone — then I feel that words (my words, almost anyone’s words) would add confusion. For the one to whom the message is clear or even partially clear or challengingly obscure — then, for them, words are obviously excessive. To the one whose searching is not similar to ours — or those who do not feel the awful frustrations of being caught in our individual and collective projection of our civilization’s extremity — to those who believe that our extroverted civilization is constructively progressing — those who seeing and tasting the fruits and new buds of self-destructive progress are still calling it good, to them the ideas in the paintings are still preposterous, hence not worth consideration.”



This essay originally appeared in Perspectives USA #10 (Winter 1955). It was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959) and World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1987). Copyright 1987. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Other Rexroth Essays