This spring, the US Postal Service will begin circulating five new stamps featuring the landscape paintings of George Morrison — a 20th-century Minnesotan Ojibwe artist whose work has been associated with Abstract Expressionism, Regionalism, and Surrealism, but whose oeuvre cannot be neatly summed up by any one of those categories. His work features heavily in Twin Cities museums, but those in the New York area may be pleased to know his 1956 painting “The Antagonist” current hangs in the permanent collection exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art; still, his name has remained less prevalent outside Minnesota. Despite this, Morrison was by no means an artist circumscribed by where he was from or the identity others expected him to perform, and his recognition by the USPS might begin to broaden his legacy.
Born in 1919 in Chippewa City on Minnesota’s North Shore as the third of 12 children, Morrison was confident in his aspirations to be an artist from a young age, drawing and imitating illustrations he found in books in addition to helping his father with berry-picking and cutting and transporting wood. These activities would no doubt later contribute to his craftsmanship and proficiency across a variety of mediums. In high school, Morrison was mentored by several of his teachers who recognized his creative vision and urged him to attend art classes and art school upon graduation.
After becoming the first in his family to graduate, Morrison attended the Minneapolis School of Art (MSA), where he was influenced by the expressive freedom embodied by artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Upon finishing his studies at the MSA, he moved to New York City in the early 1940s and enrolled at the Arts Student League at a time when the New York School — a loosely defined group of artists, musicians, and poets including John Ashbery, Philip Guston, Joan Mitchell, Frank O’Hara — was just beginning to take shape. By the end of the decade, he was regularly exhibiting works at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual Exhibition.
“Whalebone” (1948) is representative of the distinctive artistic signature Morrison brought to an Abstract Expressionist’s take on a still life: In portraying found objects he likely collected on a beach — a favored activity of his when he was in search of creative inspiration — Morrison transforms organic substance into sculptural design. Arranged next to a wine bottle and perhaps a piece of wood, the composition unexpectedly challenges proportions.
After completing a yearlong Fulbright fellowship in Paris and spending time in Greenwich Village with artists like Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Louise Nevelson, and Herman Cherry, Morrison moved between the Midwest, New York, and Providence, splitting time based on his various teaching commitments and exhibitions. Beginning in the late 1960s, the horizon line became a hallmark of Morrison’s work, which by his own profession, he utilized “almost obsessively.”
In the late 1970s, Morrison embarked on creating a series of large vertical sculptures he called “totems,” which were an evolved form of his two-dimensional wood collages. According to Evan Maurer, a curator who commissioned Morrison’s totems for a major survey exhibition of Native American art at the Art Institute of Chicago, wood was central to Morrison’s practice because of its associations to Ojibwe culture.
Morrison’s totem poles quote those of the Northwest Coast, and several of them are red, which Maurer interpreted as “an allusion to the sacred earth paint and a sign of consecration emphasizing the traditional strengths of his ancestral heritage.” “Red Totem I” (1977) is a prime example, its cubic and rectangular patterns on each vertical face echoing Mondrian’s geometric layouts while retaining a tactility unique to Morrison.
Morrison’s relationship with his own Indigenous identity as an artist shifted over the course of his lifetime. Born at a time when Native Americans had not been granted full voting or citizenship rights, Morrison is often remembered as someone who shied away from explicitly invoking “Indianness” in his art, according to a catalogue essay for the touring exhibition Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.
“I never played the role of being an Indian artist,” Morrison said. “I always just stated the fact that I was a painter, and I happened to be Indian.”
Yet as art historian W. Jackson Rushing has argued, during Morrison’s lifetime, the meaning of Indigenous identity underwent a political sea change, and his own self-identification therefore subtly changed accordingly. Morrison eventually returned to his home state to teach American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, and joined the American Indian Movement with his wife.
Morrison kept painting landscapes for the rest of his life, many of which were based on scenes of Lake Superior and Red Rock, his home and studio on Grand Portage Indian Reservation. Some are soft renderings of serene rippling waves at dusk; others have thickly impastoed surfaces with paint applied generously yet precisely; still others divide the body of water with sharp lines and edges, otherwise unrecognizable as representations of lakes if not for Morrison’s distinctive horizon line.