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Morris Graves

 (1910 - 2001)
Morris Cole Graves was active/lived in Washington, California, Oregon / Ireland.  Morris Graves is known for abstract, symbolic painting-birds, still life, insects and animals.

Morris Graves

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Morris Graves
The following obituary is from The New York Times, by Holland Cotter:

Morris Graves, an artist whose paintings of wounded birds and supernaturally radiant flowers combined the spirit of American Transcendentalism with Asian philosophy, and whose reclusive efforts to avoid what he called "the machine- age noise of America" were the stuff of legend, died on Saturday at his home in Loleta, Calif. He was 90.

Often associated with a group of painters from the Pacific Northwest, among them Mark Tobey, Mr. Graves became an overnight sensation in 1942 when his work appeared in a show of new American talent at the Museum of Modern Art.  At the time, he was living on an island in Puget Sound in a barely accessible clifftop house once described as a cross between a fisherman's shack and a Japanese tea house.  He had built it himself.  It had no electricity; the only available water was rainwater, and Mr. Graves's only companion was a small dog named Edith.

He painted certain images repeatedly.  They included woodland animals and insects whose expressive forms in abstract settings often projected intense emotions.  After the 1960's, when his views of the world had mellowed, he produced still lifes of flowers, vegetables, and Chinese ritual bronzes bathed in soft light.

Although his work was influenced by Asian spiritual traditions, among them tantric Hinduism, Daoism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, its eclectic stylistic sources were primarily Western.  They included Surrealism, Art Nouveau, and Tobey's abstract "white writing," script-like lines of white paint.  Whatever the mix, the results lay well outside the Modernist mainstream.

Mr. Graves was born on August 28, 1910, in Fox Valley, Ore., and grew up in the Puget Sound region.  He remembered his father, a homesteader, as a Whitmanesque figure, though he himself was a sickly child who spent much of his time fantasizing garden designs.  He dropped out of high school after two years to work as a seaman, a job that took him to Japan and China three times between 1929 and 1931. Thereafter he was a world traveler.

In his early 20's he resumed high school while living with an aunt in Beaumont, Texas, where he took one of the few painting courses in a largely self-taught career. He came to school barefoot, and was described in his class yearbook as "a vagabond artist with a commanding mien rushing here or there with flowers or canvas in hand."  After working on the Federal Arts Project, he went to New York in 1937, hoping to find a patron.

Having no success, he returned to Seattle, where he met the composer John Cage, who was working as a piano accompanist for dance students at the Cornish School. He and Cage, who shared an interest in Zen Buddhism, became close friends.

At his island home, The Rock, he painted the emblematic images of birds known as the "Inner Eye" series, among his best-known works.  They were seen in Seattle by a visiting New York art dealer, Marian Willard Johnson, and by Dorothy C. Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.  In 1942, Ms. Johnson gave him his first one-man East Coast show at her gallery, the Willard Gallery, and Ms. Miller included him in "Americans 1942: 18 artists from 9 States," a show at the Modern that established his career.

Later that year he was drafted, and after declaring himself a pacifist, was confined to a guardhouse for 11 months.  In 1947, he left the Rock when a naval base was built nearby; its flights passed directly over his house.  He moved closer to Seattle, but the noisy construction of postwar housing developments drove him away.

He settled outside Dublin, but left there as well.

In 1964 he moved to Loleta, in Northern California, where he bought 25 acres of virgin redwood forest, created a lake, erected Japanese-style buildings, and planted the gardens that were one of his obsessions.

By this time, both Mr. Graves and his art had changed.  He had always been what one friend described as a "sociable recluse," with many friends, long-distance and otherwise.  With age he became more resigned to the insistent presence of technology: "You simply can't keep the world out any longer," he told the writer Katherine Kuh.

He moved away from anguished and ecstatic images of animals and turned to spare, richly colored floral paintings, of which he said, "there is no statement or message other than the presence of flowers and light."

His reputation, which faded dramatically after the 1950's, still made some mark internationally.  He visited Indira Gandhi and her father, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in New Delhi.  The Duke and Duchess of Windsor made him the first American recipient of the Windsor Award for artists, and he spent a Thanksgiving with them at their house near Paris.  Their mutual passion for horticulture gave them much to talk about, he said.

Mr. Graves had dozens of solo museum shows, including retrospectives at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1948, the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1956 and the Phillips Collection in Washington in 1984. He was represented by the Willard Gallery from 1942 until it closed in 1988, and then by the Schmidt-Bingham Gallery, also in Manhattan.

He created the Morris Graves Foundation, which will turn his idyllic home, the Lake, into an artists' retreat. Its director, Robert Yarber, who was Mr. Graves's friend and assistant for nearly 30 years, describes it as a place for "rest, inspiration, work and contemplation."

He is survived by a sister, Celia Leary of LaSelva, Calif., and a brother, Russell Oscar Graves of Oakland, Calif.

As for his own work, Mr. Graves once told Mr. Yarber that of the large number of paintings he had produced in a prolific career, maybe five or six were good. "And they painted themselves," he said. "All the rest were by Morris Graves."

Weeks after the death of artist Morris Graves - the last of the so-called
"Northwest Mystics" who came to prominence in the 1950s - his Skagit County, Washington studio-retreat burned to the ground.  Property caretaker Terry Smith died in May 24's fire, Chief Mike Noyes of Skagit County Fire District 11 told the Associated Press.

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Morris Graves
Born in Fox Valley, Oregon in 1910, Morris Graves was a leading proponent of the Northwest School, which he helped to establish.  He was the last survivor of a group of four artists described as "Mystic Painters of the Northwest" in an article in a 1953 issue of Life magazine.  The other three artists were Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan.  They were known for a philosophy that combined Eastern religious beliefs and an appreciation for the natural world.  He was featured at an exhibit titled "Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1942 with 30 of his works.

His painting, much influenced by Oriental art, has much symbolism* and elements of surrealism*.  Most often he used birds, animals and trees as his theme, and his colors are muted and somber.

Graves was influenced by the "white writing" of Mark Tobey.  His work also exhibits his interest in Zen Buddhism and other eastern philosophies.  His paintings frequently seem very old; as one observer put it, "some have the look almost of fossil rubbings."

Graves began as an oil painter; his paint was heavily handed and thickly applied. Later, however, he gravitated to tempera*, gouache*, watercolor*, ink and wax on thin paper in a technique akin to Oriental scroll painting.

In 1933, he won his first prize in the Northwest Annual Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum.  Three years later he had his first one-man show there. After a stint working in the WPA Federal Art Project*, he joined the museum staff, thus getting a chance to study its magnificent collection of oriental art.

In 1946, Graves was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship* for his study in Japan but, with that country still occupied, military authorities would not allow his visit.

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Spanierman Gallery
Along with Northwest Coast artists such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves helped establish a place for visionary painting in the annals of twentieth-century American art.  Primarily a self-taught artist, Graves rejected the bravura aesthetic of the Abstract Expressionists and the realist concerns of the Regionalists in favor of a mystical art in which he sought to convey the inner soul of his subject.   Executed in a semi-abstract style that evoked the subtleties of traditional Chinese painting, Graves's work reflects his own transcendental inclinations coupled with the impact of East Asian philosophies.  As Graves himself put it:

"I paint to evolve a changing language of symbols, a language with which to remark upon the qualities of our mysterious capacities which direct us toward ultimate reality. I paint to rest from the phenomena of the external world--to pronounce it--and to make notations of its essences with which to verify the inner eye."

Born in Fox Valley, Oregon, on August 28th 1910, Graves spent part of his boyhood near Seattle, where, surrounded by water, birds and animals, he developed a spiritual affinity for his environment that would later permeate his art.  In 1928, he got a job as a merchant seaman, going on to make three trips to the Orient between 1928 and 1930.  On his travels, he acquainted himself with Zen Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern religions.  Graves then completed high school in Beaumont, Texas, after which he returned to Seattle to pursue his interest in art.  

During the 1930s he painted for the government's Federal Art Project, sold antiques, worked for a local florist and participated in exhibitions of Northwest artists at the Seattle Art Museum.   In the ensuing years, he created lyrical and mysterious paintings in which he sought to evoke the hidden essence of his subject by means of a personal brand of Expressionism that included the use of subdued colors.   It was around this time that he became friendly with Tobey and with the avant-garde composer John Cage, both of whom shared his artistic and theoretical concerns.  About this time, Graves began painting less frequently in oil, favoring media such as watercolor, pastel, gouache and tempera instead; as a result, his work took on a greater degree of refinement, with light, calligraphic touches replacing the thick, impastoed surfaces of his oils. 

After serving with the U.S. Army in 1942, Graves returned to Puget Sound, remaining there until 1946, when he received a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to visit Hawaii.  Following this, he was based in Seattle but made trips to Europe, Japan and Mexico.   In 1954, he moved to Ireland, where he lived intermittently for the next eight years.  During the early 1960s, he visited New Zealand, Australia, India, Israel and Greece.  Upon returning to America in 1964, Graves settled near Loleta, on the northern California coast.

Graves first made a name for himself in national art circles in 1942, when his work appeared in the exhibition "Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States", held at the Museum of Modern Art, and ten of his paintings were acquired for that institution's collection.  A few years later, a British writer called him "the American Paul Klee," while back home, the collector and critic Duncan Phillips, who was drawn to the metaphysical and contemplative aspects of Graves's work, as well as its link to the Far East, deemed him "our American mystic."  Indeed, Graves was a master at evoking the hidden reality of subjects such as birds, snakes, fish, pine trees, flowers and similar elements of the woods and sea--themes that reflected his deep love of nature.

Despite his quiet and reclusive personality, Graves maintained friendships with a number of well-known figures, including Nehru and his daughter, Indira Ghandi, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who awarded him the Windsor Award for artists, making him the first American to receive this honor.   He enjoyed many one-man shows throughout his career, including exhibitions at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (1948) and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (1984).

Graves died on May 5th 2001 at his home in Loleta, which, under the auspices of the Morris Graves Foundation, has become a retreat for artists and art scholars.  The Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, California, also bears his name.

Examples of Graves's work can be found in many publication collections including the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Seattle Art Museum; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

© The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC, nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

Quoted in Duncan Phillips, "Morris Graves," Magazine of Art 40 (December 1947): 307. 
Phillips, "Morris Graves," 308.

Biography from Art of the Northwest
A surrealist and mystic by nature, Morris Graves is perhaps the most enigmatic of the Northwest School's "big four." Graves is known for his incorporation of Eastern spirituality and symbolism into his artwork, often using the images of the bird or "inner eye" to communicate his own form of transcendental philosophy. Though he exhibited widely during his time, the artist was somewhat of a recluse, preferring the solitude of his island home (which he nicknamed, "the Rock") to the hustle and bustle of urban Seattle.

Graves rose to prominence in 1942, when Dorothy C. Miller, curator for New York's MoCA, included the artist in a show at the museum, entitled "Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States." Over the ensuing years of his career, Graves exhibited at prestigious museums throughout the United States, including the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Phillips Collection in Washington. Prior to his death, the artist created the Morris Graves Foundation, which turned his idyllic home into an artist's retreat. The Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, California bears his name, and holds his work in its permanent collection.

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About  Morris Graves

Born:  1910 - Fox Valley, Oregon
Died:   2001 - Loleta, California
Known for:  abstract, symbolic painting-birds, still life, insects and animals