BWW Reviews: MODERNISM IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST Offers a New Angle on 20th Century Art
With Modernism in the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Art Museum delves into an art historical moment that--as even the exhibition's organizers are forced to admit--is either overlooked or underplayed in most histories of modernism. The 1940s and 1950s are remembered as the last days of Surrealism, the glory days of Abstract Expressionism, and the earliest days of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and other, younger artists who would both honor and subvert all those -isms. Less remembered is a Seattle-based cadre of artists that Life Magazine dubbed the "Mystic Painters of the Northwest" in a 1953 feature story. Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson were the leaders of this set of spiritualists. For years these names have been somewhere in the back of my mind; by the time I left the most recent offering from the Seattle Museum, it had become clear why these men-whose works I had only seen in passing before-had stayed in my thoughts.
For her show, curator Patricia Junker has brought together paintings, ink drawings, woodworking, and metalworking, all set out in an installation that is simultaneously austere and surprising. The darkened matte walls and keyed-down lighting create an experience that is almost devotional, and the artist-by-artist clusters of work invite you to contemplation. At its best, Pacific Modernism--which abjured abstraction but reveled in an international worldview--plays out like a latter-day version of French Symbolism, complete with the earlier movement's darkness and euphoria and oddly irresistible pretensions. Though this doesn't mean that all the works on display are revelatory or even original, this does help to explain why Tobey's energetic lines, Graves's haunting dogs and birds and mountains, and Callahan's craggy panoramas were so seductive--and, in many cases, still are.
It turns out that Mark Tobey and his otherworldly "white writing" technique won over Jackson Pollock; it also turns out that Graves enjoyed a defining 1942 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art just as Abstract Expressionism was coming into its own. There is an air of urgency in all this art, East and West Coast--not surprising, since both the Seattle modernists and their sometime rivals, sometime admirers in New York were first distressed, then galvanized by the crises of World War II. And the subtitle for Modernism in the Pacific Northwest--The Mythic and the Mystical--could apply equally well to an exhibition of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Adolph Gottlieb, or any number of their disciples.
Despite these soaring concerns and momentous points of contact, there are some rather mundane and harmless entries in Junker's offering. A few of Tobey's canvases would make great decorations for the lobby of a corporate law firm, and a few of Graves's and Callahan's images would make great tattoos. But for every entry that is dated or disappointing, there are two or three of that aptly combine form, emotion, and suggestion. Graves, who was a bicoastal sensation by the time he reached his late thirties, worked in a few distinct styles: first clayey single-figure compositions with hints of Gauguin, then simple bird and animal shapes lost in lines of force and energy--a style that seems harder to pull off, but seems more uniquely Graves's. The debt here may be to the considerably older Tobey, who took Graves under his wing only to later accuse the young mystic of "stealing my stuff." Or not quite: while the decorative lines in Graves's Dove of the Inner Eye and Eagle of the Inner Eye look like luxuriously colored glass stretched to the breaking point, the lines and lineaments that make up Tobey's Moving Moments, Agate World, and especially White Night veer endlessly in, through, and back, implying scenes and figures--then canceling them out--in the same few strokes.
Though these two were the central and most influential artists, other members of the Northwest group delivered potent paintings-occasionally by trending much closer to abstraction than Tobey or Graves normally would. Among the most portentous and affecting works on display is Anderson's Language Wheel, which gathers totem pole iconography (Is that a fish? A crow? A man asleep?) into a vortex of iridescent white. Like Tobey's show-stopping Form Follows Man, it's a dramatic and perhaps overdone painting, but also one that inspires awe, that is at once lonely and alive. It's a less obvious piece of mysticism than the icons and mandalas that Graves painted in the 1950s, and certainly than the Technicolor dream shapes of Leo Kenney, but it is a better approximation of the spiritual sublimity that artists--both East and West Coast--cultivated at midcentury.
I know that the Northwest School is starting to look like yet another clique of Affluent White Male Artists, although in truth it wasn't. As explained in the catalog essay "And Women Made Them Famous", the careers of Tobey, Graves, and Callahan owe enormous debts to female journalists, gallery owners, and arts impresarios, including Callahan's own wife. And while the entire movement's focus on the cultures of the Pacific Rim is no surprise, its embrace of Asian American artists to some extent is. (Diversity, for most other American modernists, meant high-profile European immigrants and maybe a woman or two.) Paul Horiuchi and George Tsutakawa are the two central figures here; both created works that enter into meaningful dialogue with Tobey's economical, Asian-inspired ink images from the 1960s.
That's it for the exhibit, or just about. Once you are done with Modernism and the Pacific Northwest, you will have to descend back through the lower-down Seattle Museum displays, which include everything from Northwest Native American prints and carvings--some from centuries past, some from the decade just past--to exemplary canvases by Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. Linger over these, and compare them to what you have just seen. Now, it will be bracingly clear that the Northwest School was not a derivative movement, that you can't get Graves and Tobey simply by mixing Pollock or Stella with a few totem motifs and a lot of rain. There is a different aura to the Northwest School artists, something indebted to the landscape of the Northwest but not fully bound by it. Look, for instance, at Tobey's unabashedly Northwestern Esquimaux Idiom: the woodworking-like forms in this painting are unmistakably local, yet the forms are pushed together and thrust forward in a way that creates a substantial, medium-conscious painting--its clay-colored hands and fins and homunculi seem forcibly pressed into the surface of the canvas. Call this mysticism, call this modernism, call it what you will-it was uniquely the Northwest School's.