"MORRIS GRAVES: Vision of the Inner Eye," now at the Phillips Collection, is an exhibition squeezed between two truths.
All painting is a form of prayer, an act of incantation. Yet no art is truly sacred because, as Jews and Moslems know, the painter who creates a world diminishes the holy and thus competes with God.
Somewhere in between these truths--pecked at by one, then nibbled by the other--is the secular-yet-sacred, half-Western and half-Eastern art of Morris Graves.
Graves is a strange bird. Though he has not shunned the jet set--the duke and duchess of Windsor, Charles Laughton and Indira Gandhi have been among his friends--Graves is often viewed as a sort of holy man, a kind of guru-hermit of the Pacific Northwest who lives in misty solitude among his man-made ponds, in sight of the cold sea.
Though Life magazine helped bring him fame, Graves abhors publicity. He wrote in 1943 that "Interest in the personality of the artist in any field distracts from the truth--for he should be but the humble--obscure--unpublicized receptacle through which the refreshment and stimulus of re-arranged form--and re-lighted ideas . . . can be called to man's attention." And though he is great looking, Graves dislikes being photographed. He has said so time and time again. The catalogue accompanying "Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner Eye," his retrospective show that opened yesterday, includes two portrait photographs of the humble artist, both of which are telling, and both of which are tiny.
One, by Imogen Cunningham, shot in 1973, shows Graves in his monkly robes, standing in his garden, pondering his leeks. That photo is worth studying. The delicate and spiritual man that it portrays--a bird-lover, a moon-watcher, a mystic--is just the sort of creature one knows must be responsible for his delicate and spiritual, moon- and bird-filled art.
When, in 1946, he visited New York, he noticed that the art fans there "acted as if they were meeting a combination of swami, fortune teller and mind reader." It is not hard to see why.
For more than half a century, Graves has made his pictures in a mood of meditation. He meditates on birds, he meditates on flowers, he meditates on lessons he has learned from the Orient, and on the quiet forest sounds that he hears in the night. Once, in waking vision, he even glimpsed the Buddha. "You see," the Buddha told him, "the eternal laws are working." Such things are at all times the subjects of his art.
There are 140 works in the Phillips retrospective, perhaps a few too many. Graves' often lovely exhibition, even when it shows us storms at sea, or rocks, avoids the robust. He likes to keep his pictures small. They never shout, they whisper. Lots of them are done on precious, crinkled sheets of oriental paper, for Graves writes he has "found a delight in the fragility, the transiency of the material. If you see morning grass with a fabric of cobwebs holding dew, part of the delight is because it's fleeting."
One can tell from his titles--"Star of the Mandala," "Bird Experiencing Light," "Consciousness Achieving the Form of a Crane," "Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space," "Burial of the New Law" or "Hold Fast to What You Have Already and I Will Give You the Morning Star"--that capturing the fleeting, the partly understood, the mysterious, the ineffable, is the purpose of his art.
"I paint," he has explained, "to rest from the phenomena of the external world--to pronounce it--and to make notations of its essences with which to verify the inner eye."
Graves' sincerity is not in doubt--he paints his mandalas as a true believer. Nor is the grace and skill with which he wields his brush. The masterful white strokes of his "Sea, Fish and Constellation" reverberate with what Yeats called "the hollows of the sea." His "Minnow" (1956) glows with wondrous light. The brushstrokes of his "Wounded Gull" perfectly suggest the ruffled down, the hollow bones and the sea-diluted blood of that suffering bird.
Graves' art is often beautiful. And yet--although the fault may be that of the crass viewer--his show, despite its virtues, does not always exalt. It seems, at times, too precious, too elfin or too fey, too holier-than-thou.
Graves first achieved fame when 30 of his pictures were featured in "Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States," a now-famous exhibition that Dorothy Miller organized for the Museum of Modern Art.
"Sensation of the show, destined perhaps to become a leader of a new cult, is Morris Graves of Seattle," wrote the critic for Art News. "His haunting pictures of birds bathed in a sort of ectoplasmic moonlight are something entirely new." But today, perhaps to cruder eyes, they do not seem so fresh. At times they seem to be little more than blendings of two themes made familiar by other artists' art.
One theme is the Orient. The other is the bird.
Something of Japan--that nation's old delight in asymmetry and Zen, and in sudden, perfect brush strokes guided by the spiritual--may have been absorbed by Graves, and also by Mark Tobey, his Seattle friend and colleague, with the Pacific mists. But many other seers had already sensed the special, subtle beauties of Oriental art. One thinks of Whistler, for instance, and of Lafcadio Hearn, the writer, of Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), the influential scholar whose Japanese collection went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1886, of all those genteel Eastern painters who, in the 1890s, painted women in kimonos, and also of Charles Lang Freer, whose Washington museum of Oriental Art opened to the public in 1923. Countless students nowadays immerse themselves devotedly in the I Ching or Kung Fu. Graves was only 17 when, in 1928, he first visited Japan as a merchant seaman and fell in love with what he found there. But he was not the first, and he was not the last.
Nor is he the only artist of the West to give himself obsessively, wholeheartedly, to birds. God's descending dove and His winged angels and the freedom sensed in flight have captured the attentions of artists as diverse as Braque and Leonardo, Audubon and Boehm. It is said that wizards early on are granted their familiars, not all of whom are cats. Morris Graves belongs to that large company of artists enthralled beyond the telling by the sight of birds.
"His head was truly in the clouds," wrote one observant writer for Graves' high school paper. "His heart was singing almost as loud as a Russ Columbo phonograph record. His eyes, too, were gleaming fiercely . . . And while he was walking a meager path, he heard a bird. A Bird! That was it! Birds, large birds, small birds, birds with necks that bent, birds with necks that were twisted into fantastic shapes, red birds, yellow birds, blue birds, black birds, orange birds, purple birds . . . That was it!"
At least 140 birds, birds of all descriptions--spirit birds and antlered birds, birds maddened by machine sounds, birds "fishing in the golden stream," dark birds, light birds, blind birds, "The Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye," and species more ordinary such as plover, pigeons, crows, eagles, gulls and geese--appear in this show. Even dying urban pigeons, those foul rats-with-wings, seized the painter's sympathies. Some artists seem to see the All in the human face. Graves sees as much in birds.
When he does not show us birds, he shows us friends of birds--insects, say, or flowers. His birds are truly magical. They are, one may believe, manifestations of his spirit. More than his mandalas, or his slightly clunky sculptures, they are the glories of his show.
Graves' first full-fledged retrospective since 1956, it looks grand at the Phillips. It was organized with obvious devotion by Ray Kass, a scholar-painter from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The SCM Corp., which lately has done so much for Washington art exhibits, helped to pay the bills. A smaller Graves exhibit is also on display now at the Osuna Gallery, 406 7thSt. NW. The Graves retrospective will close, as will the Phillips for major renovations, May 29. The show at Osuna closes on May 12.
The late Duncan Phillips, founder of the gallery and one of Graves' first champions, wrote in 1947 that "better than any other American he could reveal to the Far East that we of the Western world also have our mystics who feel, in contemplation of nature, the relation of man's life to the poetry and meaning of all life . . ."
But in many ways this show seems just a bit too much, too mystical, too delicate, perhaps too repetitious. Frequently it soars, but in between its soarings it makes the viewer think, not only of the inner eye, but of subsisting on green tea.