FARGO, N.D. – Looking at one of George Morrison’s horizon paintings is to inhale the mystery and expanse of Lake Superior, a landscape where he spent the first and final years of his life. Abstract, with rich tactile surfaces painted in jewel-tone hues, these works reflect his powerful view of the lake and its horizon line from the windows of his home, Red Rock, on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation.
One of Minnesota’s most significant artists, Morrison, who died in 2000 at age 80, is being celebrated with an overdue retrospective, “Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison.” Now showing at Fargo’s Plains Art Museum, it will travel to New York City, Indianapolis and Phoenix before ending at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul in the spring of 2015.
A visual feast rooted in scholarly research, “Modern Spirit” illuminates Morrison’s impassioned relationship with art and the natural world, and his place as an American Indian artist working in a world of European-based art. Through more than 80 paintings, prints, drawings, collages and sculpture on loan from public and private collections, the show — organized by Arts Midwest and the Minnesota Museum of American Art along with the Plains — chronicles Morrison’s 60-year aesthetic trajectory with clarity and intelligence.
Expanding his horizon
A member of the Grand Portage Chippewa Band, Morrison showed considerable artistic talent as a youth. After high school in Grand Marais he landed at what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and graduated in 1943 with a scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York City.
In New York, Morrison embraced a Modernist style that revealed the influences of Cubist, Surrealist and Expressionist artists such as Joan Miró, Arshile Gorky and Adolph Gottlieb, whose work triggered the nascent Abstract Expressionism movement. He also became aware of how African and American Indian art influenced early Modernists such as Picasso.
“Modern Spirit” begins with a provocative selection of Morrison’s abstract paintings and drawings from the 1940s and early 1950s. Seductive and complex, they demonstrate his sophisticated eye and keen understanding of 20th-century art. In “Abstraction Composition,” biomorphic forms in yellow, white, violet and maroon, constrained by dark outlines, are stacked and layered, creating a shallow but dynamic space. More figurative is “Geometric Vertical Forms,” where three anthropomorphic shapes suggest costumed actors in a Surrealist play. Several works even depict a horizon line, including the vividly hued “Sun and River.”
In 1952-53, a Fulbright scholarship took Morrison to France, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Université de Aix-Marseilles. By then, his Modernist vision is manifest in such sophisticated compositions as “Painting #12, Pacific,” with its striations (horizon lines?) of muted off-key color and floating orbs. In “Untitled (Cap d’Antibes),” ochre and orange wedges, spikes and half-circles are suspended in a depthless, painterly surface plane of white.
After renewing his ties to Lake Superior during a brief sojourn in Duluth, Morrison moved to New York City, where he fell in with such giants as Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, joining them at the legendary Cedar Bar. By the late 1950s, he had established his Abstract Expressionist style, a path he continued throughout his career. Of note is the large 1960 “Red Painting (Franz Kline Painting),” a searing vermilion canvas disrupted by narrow passages of black and yellow.
Driftwood and Red Rock
In the 1960s, while teaching at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, Morrison and his artist-wife, Hazel Belvo, discovered the Cape Cod community of Provincetown, where Morrison was confronted again with the horizon line. On its sandy beaches he began to collect driftwood, a material that became the touchstone of his late 1960s and 1970s work.
In 1967’s “Art as Illusion,” an implied horizon line demarcates a small rectangle of wood. Such simple works evolved into his monumental, compositionally complex wood collages such as “New England Landscape II,” which, along with his soaring square wood totems, such as “Red Totem I” (1977), lend visual weight to the exhibition.
Morrison returned to Minnesota in 1970 to teach art and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. “I think one of the main reasons I returned here … was to gain a fuller sense of my identity,” he told the Star Tribune in 1976. “It was important to make that move, even late, and perhaps that move has to do with a certain strength in my work now.”
He and Belvo acquired land on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, where they built Red Rock — named for the jasper that lines the bluffs — only 30 feet from Lake Superior. After his retirement in 1983, he spent much of his time living and working there.
While he became active in the Indian community in his later years, he resisted the label “Indian artist,” often saying that “I think of myself as an artist who happens to be Indian.” As Kay Walking Stick writes in the exhibit’s handsome and scholarly catalog, Morrison did not play the “Indian card” and did not paint about “identity politics. George was an Abstract Expressionist.”
Quiet and thoughtful, he increasingly infused his work with a sense of place that he transmuted into a mystical, even spiritual quality. He had become a superb colorist, as seen in “Quiet Light Towards Evening, Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape,” where all form has dissolved into a lilac impressionist light. Even diminutively scaled pieces such as “Autumn Dusk” are informed with the same luminosity and gravitas as his larger horizon works.
Throughout an artistic practice that led him from the North Shore to the center of the art world and back again, Morrison explored the symbiotic relationship between the natural world and the process of making art, between being a contemporary artist and being a Chippewa.
Viewing six decades of his work in “Modern Spirit,” one intuitively gains a sense of being on the threshold of seeing differently, of finally understanding how the vision and the hand are seamlessly, even magically matched.
Mason Riddle is an art and architecture critic who knew Morrison for the last two decades of his life.