George Morrison, "Untitled" (1961) (courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington)

The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, has acquired “Untitled” (1961) by Minnesotan Ojibwe artist George Morrison, making him the first Native American artist to be added to the NGA’s New York School collection.

Morrison achieved the terrain-like surface of Untitled by squeezing thick oil paint directly onto the canvas. Swaths of red, green, and blue reappear, creating ripples across the painting and evoking the image of a sunset reflecting across a body of water. To create the vivid landscape, Morrison tapped into Indigenous land-based forms of knowledge, like the Anishinaabe concept of the cosmos that encompasses Earth’s natural elements such as land, water, and sky.

“George Morrison’s painting brings a critical addition to our New York School holdings, offering a key Native American perspective by a remarkable artist,” Molly Donovan, a curator of contemporary art at NGA, told Hyperallergic.

In March 2022, the United States Postal Service highlighted Morrison’s foundational contributions to “Native American modernism” by releasing a collection of stamps, which likely renewed interest in the artist’s legacy.

Morrison was born in 1919 in Chippewa City, Minnesota, near Lake Superior. He attended Hayward Indian School, a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Wisconsin, for two years but finished his primary education in Minnesota. Morrison completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Minnesota School of Art (now Minneapolis College of Art and Design) and was awarded the Van Derlip Traveling Scholarship, which allowed him to study at the Art Students League of New York City from 1943 through 1946.

From the 1940s through the ’60s, Morrison became enmeshed in New York City’s Abstract Expressionist community, working and exhibiting alongside Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. Morrison’s first solo exhibition opened at the Grand Central Moderns Gallery in New York in 1948 to great acclaim, and in subsequent years, his works were included in various exhibitions curated by the Whitney Museum of American Art. (“The Antagonist” (1956) is currently on view as part of the Whitney’s permanent collection.)

Morrison moved back to Minnesota in 1970 and taught Native American studies and studio art at the University of Minnesota until he retired in 1983. Until his death in 2000, he lived and worked out of his “Red Rock” studio near Lake Superior. 

NGA announced the acquisition of Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s “I See Red: Target” (1992) in June 2020. The painting by the abstract artist and political activist was the first by a Native American person to be acquired by the institution. 

Taylor Michael is a former Hyperallergic staff reporter. Previously, she worked as a public programs coordinator at the National Book Foundation. She received an MFA from Columbia University School of...