Modern art wasn’t born only in Paris or New York City. It has roots in the Northwest.
Seattle Art Museum’s big summer show draws from its own history and primarily from its own stunning collection of works by Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey.
“Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical” is exhibited Wednesdays through Sundays until Sept. 7.
Curator Patricia Junker’s thesis is that modern abstract expressionism in America wasn’t confined to the likes of Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning and their mid-century artwork. In fact, evidence suggests that New York School artists, including Jackson Pollock, studied the paintings of Tobey and Graves, who both had solo shows in New York.
These Seattleites were prophets of their time, Junker said.
For those in Western Washington who have long appreciated local 20th century art the exhibit proves what they have held dear for decades: That the so-called “Northwest School” — inspired by landscapes, Asian culture and Coast Salish themes — is an important chapter in American art history.
The Seattle Art Museum opened 81 years ago this week in the city’s Volunteer Park in a new art deco-style building that today houses the museum’s Asian art collection.
The museum’s first and longest-tenured director was Richard Fuller, who was friends with a group of Seattle artists: Anderson, Callahan, Graves and Tobey. Fuller gave these men jobs during the Great Depression and promoted their unconventional but eloquent paintings.
And for a relatively brief period the artists were a tight-knit group. They fed off each other and were closely aligned in the focus that art should have moral meaning.
During the World War II years, the men, all pacifists, produced some of their best paintings and began to garner attention on the national art scene. This culminated in Life magazine’s 1953 feature story “Mystic Painters of the Northwest.”
The article and its photographs popularized the notion that the paintings of Tobey, Graves, Callahan and Anderson were a regional anomaly, as if the fog and rain could inspire a particular type of art.
The artists and the scholars who studied their work disagreed.
Instead, they said, the art flowed from the time period: the struggles of working people during terrible economic times, greed, aggression and war. The art came from a place inside, from spiritual endeavors and the Eastern philosophies that sustained them through fear.
And while the fame of the New Yorkers eventually eclipsed that of the Pacific Northwest artists, Tobey, Graves, Anderson and Callahan had a great influence on the regional artists who followed them.
An entire room of the show is given over to paintings by the late Leo Kenny, who under the influence of Graves and mescaline created radiating circles — mandalas — representations of nature that he called “living geometry.”
Paintings by Paul Horiuchi and sculpture by George Tsutakawa and James W. Washington Jr., all who credited Tobey with encouraging them, play a nice role in the exhibit.
It also includes sculpture by Tony Angell and Philip McCracken, both still working in the region and still influenced by Graves.
Snohomish and Skagit counties have a place in this story, too.
Anderson grew up in Edmonds and lived most of his adult life in La Conner. Graves, born in Oregon, lived for a time in Woodway and on Lake Campbell near Anacortes. Callahan, who was born in Spokane, spent two summers working a fire lookout in the Cascades.
Of the four, Tobey lived the least amount of time in Washington, dying in Switzerland in 1976. Callahan died in 1986 in Seattle and Anderson in 1998 in Skagit County. Graves was still painting when he passed away in 2001 at his farm in Loleta, California.
Junker, who curated the SAM show, admits the exhibit focuses on Tobey and Graves, and that it is particularly lacking work by Anderson from the 1940s.
“I knew of the work of Graves and Tobey before I moved to Seattle,” Junker said. “It’s been exciting to learn more about the others.”
The focus is on Graves and Tobey is warranted, however, especially considering the chance to see the Marshall and Helen Hatch collection of Northwest modern art. With their bequest to the museum, the Hatches made an already strong SAM collection much richer and historically significant, said museum director Kimerly Rorschach.
The show offers glimpses into the figurative work of Tobey at Pike Place Market in the 1930s and Graves in nearby wetlands watching birds. It moves into the war years, with Tobey developing his calligraphic “white writing” and Graves becoming more abstract as he looked inward in despair over the state of the world.
Post-war paintings by the two reveal Tobey delving more into Zen-inspired brush painting and Graves continuing to make statements about war machine noise, but then returning to more figurative work. In his later years, Graves enjoyed painting flowers.
The museum catalog that accompanies the show, published by the museum and the University of Washington Press, is worth the $35 purchase price.
Included in this beautiful paperback book by Junker are profiles of the artists, reproductions of the art in the exhibit and a delightful section on the women who worked to help make these men famous.
Interestingly, it was a New Yorker, Dorothy Miller, curator of paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s, who recalled in 1981 that,
“To me, perhaps the most striking regional trend (in modern art), one of the most successful and most different from any other, was in Seattle. … Seattle had a flavor all its own.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Modernism in the Pacific Northwest,” through Sept. 7, Seattle Art Museum, First and Union streets, Seattle; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Admission to the exhibit includes the entire museum. Tickets are $19.50. Children are free. Teens and college students with ID are $12.50, those age 62 and older are $12.50. Military personnel admitted free until Labor Day. Prices are reduced on July 3, Aug. 7 and Sept. 4. More information is at www.seattleartmuseum.org or call 206-654-3210.