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Vision Quest

Cover: Parnassus by Mark Tobey

There is a show at the Seattle art museum on a group of artists coined the North West Mystics by a 1953 Life magazine article about 4 Seattle artists named Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson (who even did work in Spokane). Mark Tobey was an older artist then the rest who had already developed a reputation in New York while Morris Graves also brought fame to the group when the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition of his work and bought multiple pieces for their collection in the 1940’s. The philosophy and vision of the Northwest mystics piqued the interest of the East coast art communities with their exotic spirituality, aesthetics and far eastern influence. Their work represented an original vision among the American arts despite the diversity among the small group.

I went to see the show. I had seen few paintings by Seattle legends other than the few Graves and Tobey paintings hanging in the permanent collection. It was worth the trip.


E Plurabus Unum - Mark Tobey 1942

Mark Tobey was the most well known artist of the group. In Seattle he developed frenetic and crowded street scenes of the market and Seattle streets. Abstract and representational, he gravitated towards a purely abstract expression where even the most general forms gave way to a kind of calligraphic jist. His “White Writing” was his spiritual approach to "Pure Painting." He showed with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning but rather then take his place with the giants of abstract expressionism, abandoning reason for the action of “just paint” alone, spiritual and philosophical principals continued to be a foundation of his work. Unfortunately it did not fit the iconoclastic narrative of the Abstract Expressionist development in historians minds and thus he was pushed to the side.

The way the his White Writing sits upon dark surfaces does have an ethereal quality. His work has very little form yet it is mesmerizing to follow the laced network of lines, marks and colors. I personally prefer his more representational work though the stature of his large abstract canvases is undeniably impressive and beautiful.


"Morning" Morris Graves 1932

The artist I most wanted to see was Morris Graves. I had been doing research on him recently at the Jundt Art Library at Gonzaga and was excited to see his work outside of the black and white pages of an old book. I was most drawn to his early work. There were 2 paintings in the show, “Morning” and “Millennium Light” which appealed to me most.


"Millennium Light" Morris Graves 1933

Both paintings are characterized by rich colorization and the forms and figures exist within a somewhat rational space. I loved the way the black lines corralled the fields of colors. They were real objects, but the colored masses were mosaics with grouted lines. Like Van Gogh, the expression of color and light was confined within the framework of the object themselves. It is something I have been exploring recently in my small florals and something I hope to expand into my other subject matter. Richer color and delineated lines.

A funny story about “Millennium Light.” A Young Graves took the painting to the director of the newly minted Seattle Art Museum, Richard Fuller and offered to sell it to him. Fuller supported Graves but found the desiccated dog unappealing gave Graves $70 and allowed him to keep the painting.



As Graves matured, his work grew darker and more symbolic. After a year in military prison due to a confusion regarding his filing of contentious objector status with the army (and eventually honorably discharged as unfit for service) Graves produced a body of work from which I found my favorite. Abstract and expressive, the “Inner eye” that Graves sought is evident in his paintings and drawings. In his futures work, symbolism and mysticism became synonymous with his subject matter. The relationship to the objects in his work and physical space all but disappeared.

Finally, the last work to really catch my eye was an unusual floral set against a dark background. Twelve beautifully painted tulips reveal little of their symbolic meaning. Titled “Triumph,” the deeply personal painting was kept close and hung by his bedside as he lay dying.


"Triumph" Morris Graves 1955


Overall the show was a worthwhile show. The Callahan works were great as well though no where near as complete of a body of work as the collection of Toby and and Graves. I only found a few Anderson pieces among them but the ones hung were large and impressive. There were also various works by the second generation of Seattle Native artists that were interesting by and large.

Certainly worth a visit. The show runs through September.

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