The United States Postal Service (USPS) is unveiling a new collection of stamps honoring distinguished Ojibwe artist George Morrison, whose abstract expressionist works defied the largely exoticist expectations for Native American art and cracked open its formalist possibilities. Five reproductions of Morrison’s landscape paintings will be featured in the spring 2022 Forever Stamp release.
In the announcement made on the first day of National Native American Heritage Month, USPS named Morrison as one of the “greatest modernist artists and a founding figure of Native American modernism,” who “challenged prevailing ideas of what Native American art should be, arguing that an artist’s identity can exist independently from the nature of the art he creates.”
Born Wah Wah Teh Go Nay Ga Bo (Standing in the Northern Lights) in Minnesota’s Grand Portage Reservation on the shores of Lake Superior, an era when Native Americans were barred from both voting and citizenship, Morrison attended the Hayward Indian School in Wisconsin, before returning to Minnesota due to poor health. In 1943, he graduated from the Minnesota School of Art and received the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Traveling Scholarship to study at New York’s Art Students League. After receiving a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris and Cote d’Azur in 1952, Morrison flitted between professorships across the country, before finally returning to Minnesota until his death in 2000.
Morrison’s career was marked by his formal experimentation with painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking. Exhibiting with New York School painters Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, Morrison imbued his avant-garde works with the spirit of the landscape. Rejecting pictorial realism in favor of a formalism rooted in cubism and surrealism, Morrison’s colorful expressionist works and found wood collages sought to represent both organic figures and the persistence of both personal and cultural memory through abstract forms.
“I believe in going back to the magic of the earth and the lake, the sky and the universe,” he declared in his memoir Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art. “That kind of magic, that kind of religion…A religion of the rocks, the lake, the water, the sky. Yes, that’s what I believe in.”
Although he described his intangible works as images with “no evidence of sentiment,” his horizon paintings — saturated with bright colors and sinuous lines — contain a radical sentimentality. To notice the changes in the sky and the earth and then regurgitate them back on the canvas to depict the natural world as a shimmering barrage of color is no small thing. “I can see the lake change by the hour, from blue to yellow to rose,” Morrison said of the lake outside of his studio along Lake Superior. “The basic thing in all paintings is the horizon line which identifies each little work as a broad expanse of a segment of the earth.”
The stamps feature miniature reproductions that will be unveiled by USPS at a ceremony slated for early 2022. “As always, the program offers a variety of subjects celebrating American culture and history. The vivid colors and unique designs of this year’s selections will add a special touch of beauty on your envelopes,” USPS Stamp Services Director William Gicker said in the press release.