Art

A Native American Painter’s Modernist Exploits, Recognized at Last

Sun and River (1949), watercolor and crayon on paper, 15 3/4 x 21 in, Collection Plains Art Museum
George Morrison, “Sun and River” (1949), watercolor and crayon on paper, 15 3/4 x 21 in, collection Plains Art Museum (all images courtesy Minnesota History Center unless otherwise noted)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison, now on view at the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a disarmingly beautiful exhibition. Morrison (1919–2000) is one of Minnesota’s most significant artists, although his aesthetic reach extended far beyond the northland. Scholarly yet accessible, Modern Spirit was organized by the Minnesota Museum of American Art in Saint Paul and the nonprofit organization Arts Midwest. The show, now on its final stop in a two-year tour, features some 80 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture, of which more than half are in the museum’s collection. If Morrison is an underrecognized Modernist, Modern Spirit, curated by W. Jackson Rushing III, the Eugene B. Adkins Presidential Professor of Art History, and Mary Lou Milner Carver, Chair in Native American Art at the University of Oklahoma, goes the distance to enlighten the unaware.

An Ojibwe, Morrison was born one of 12 children in Chippewa City, a village that no longer exists on Lake Superior’s North Shore, and was a member of the Grand Portage Chippewa Band. Modern Spirit carefully chronicles Morrison’s 60-year aesthetic journey from the North Shore to the Minneapolis School of Art, now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he graduated in 1943 with a scholarship to study at the Arts Student League in New York City. A rigorous thinker and tireless practitioner, he explored Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, creating sophisticated works that revealed the influences of Joan Miró, Arshile Gorky, and Adolph Gottlieb.

Cumulated Landscape, 1976, wood, 48x120x3 in. Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art. Gift of Honeywell, Inc.
George Morrison, “Cumulated Landscape” (1976), wood, 48 x 120 x 3 in, collection Minnesota Museum of American Art, gift of Honeywell, Inc.

Morrison did not think of himself as an Indian artist. He would say, “I am an artist who happens to be Indian.” As Kay Walking Stick writes in the exhibit’s catalogue, Morrison did not play the “Indian card” and did not paint about “identity politics”: “George was an Abstract Expressionist.” In fact, his practice nearly always acknowledged European and American 20th-century art movements as direct inspiration. Even titles bore this out, such as his “Automatic Drawing” (1981) or “Current Light Towards Evening, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape” (1991). However, Modern Spirit does shed light on the unique path of a Native American artist working diligently and achieving recognition in the very white male environment of 1950s New York.

Dirt Track Specialist  (1940), oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in Collection Minnesota Historical Society (click to enlarge)
George Morrison, “Dirt Track Specialist” (1940), oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in, collection Minnesota Historical Society (click to enlarge)

Modern Spirit opens with a few of Morrison’s early representational works, like the oil on canvas portrait “Dirt Track Specialist” (1940), and the landscape “Mt. Maude” from 1942. However, the viewer is quickly plunged into the artist’s deep well of abstract paintings and drawings from the 1940s and early 1950s that bring into sharp focus Morrison’s instinctive sense of abstract form and the ways color can tame a composition or take it to a feverish pitch. Some of his paintings are tactile with lush layers of paint while others are defined by an almost delicate surface. His “Red Painting (Franz Kline Painting)” is a luminous stretch of red oil paint interrupted by undercurrents of black and yellow. Part of a trade between Morrison and Kline, the painting hung in Kline’s studio and Provincetown home.

Morrison’s first solo exhibit was in 1948 at New York’s Grand Central Gallery. After winning a Fulbright scholarship in 1952, he traveled to Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts for three months and then at the Université de Provence Aix-Marseilles in Antibes. While in France, he clearly honed his modernist chops to a provocative point as demonstrated in the 1952 ink and watercolor drawing “Paris,” and the 1955 oil on paper “Untitled (Cap d’Antibes).”

Abstract Composition, 1950, watercolor, 11 ¾ x 9 in. Collection Minnesota Historical Society (click to enlarge)
George Morrison, “Abstract Composition” (1950), watercolor, 11 3/4  x 9 in (click to enlarge)

After a brief stay in Duluth where he reconnected with the expansive Lake Superior horizon line, Morrison settled in New York in 1954, where he lived in Greenwich Village and fell in with such Abstract Expressionist luminaries as Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. He ate and drank with them at the legendary Cedar Bar and he exhibited with Ad Reinhardt, Joan Mitchell, and Robert Rauschenberg at the Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street.

In the 1960s, Morrison was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he and his artist-wife, Hazel Belvo, began to summer at Provincetown, Cape Cod where he reconnected with the power of the horizon line. On its sandy beaches he collected driftwood, a material that became integral to his late 1960s and 1970s work. Inexplicably powerful in their simplicity are two, small rectangles of scavenged wood, “Art As Illusion” (1967), and “Provincetown Sky-Seascape” (1970). An implied horizon line demarcates each. Such modest works are precursors to his monumental and compositionally complex wood collages such as the 1976 “Cumulated Landscape.”

Installation view
Installation view of ‘Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison’ (photo taken by the author for Hyperallergic)

Morrison returned to Minneapolis in 1970 to teach art and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. Here he began to quietly claim his Indian identity, which shaped his later work more in spirit than in specific imagery. Increasingly the horizon line became integral to his vision. He and Belvo acquired land on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, a place they named Red Rock (for the jasper that lines the bluffs), where they built their home and studios 30 feet from Lake Superior. Retiring in 1983, Morrison spent much of his time living and working at Red Rock.

Untitled 1995, colored pencil on paper, 17 x 15 in Collection Hazel Belvo
George Morrison, “Untitled” (1995), colored pencil on paper, 17 x 15 in, collection Hazel Belvo (click to enlarge)

In the final two decades of his life, Morrison increasingly infused his work with a tangible sense of place that he transmuted into a mystical, even spiritual quality. His paintings evoked various styles from Surrealism to Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism, yet they were united into a single vision by the horizon line and luminous mesmerizing color as in “Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape,” 1990.

Indeed, Modern Spirit reveals 20th century art-making at its best, largely because Morrison explored the symbiotic relationship between the natural world and the intuitive process of making art, between being a contemporary artist and being Ojibwe. New York merged with Paris, which merged with Red Rock.

Tellingly, Morrison’s work is never derivative of his more recognized colleagues. If anything, his expansive oeuvre illuminates our received knowledge of these other artists. Morrison’s work never is over-wrought or clenched from trying too hard, but rather is fluid, even at its most vigorous. His expressive palette never clamors for attention and instead allows the work to wash over one like a welcoming wave of sleep.

Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape 1990, acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 1/2x 30 1/8 in.  Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art
George Morrison, “Spirit Path, New Day, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape” (1990), acrylic and pastel on paper, 22 1/2x 30 1/8 in, collection Minnesota Museum of American Art

Some 15 years after his death, the show raises important questions of racial and artistic identity — how a Native American artist gained visibility in an artworld dominated by whites in the mid-20th century. Would Morrison have received more acclaim (he obviously received a notable amount in New York, Minnesota, and elsewhere) if he had been a white male artist in New York in the 1950s? If he had, would Morrison have stayed in New York City? Obviously, answers are impossible to determine. However, with its wealth of work, Modern Spirit makes clear that Morrison was under-recognized during his lifetime — certainly not a unique position among artists.

The show also highlights, with a painful thunderclap of realization, the tragedy that Morrison did not receive a retrospective of this kind in his final years, through which he could have seen the fruits of his 60-year aesthetic practice and gauged his own place within the Modernist tradition. Modern Spirit, in its visual richness, presents a resonating, inspired body of work, a gesamtkunstwerk, that is clearly a deep and complex reservoir of ideas, spirit, and beauty.

Untitled (Lake Superior Landscape) 1986, acrylic on canvas, 47 3/4 x 47 7/8 in Collection Minnesota Museum of American Art
George Morrison, “Untitled (Lake Superior Landscape)” (1986), acrylic on canvas, 47 3/4 x 47 7/8 in, collection Minnesota Museum of American Art

Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison continues at the Minnesota History Center (345 W. Kellogg Boulevard, St. Paul, Minnesota) through April 26. 

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