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: George Morrison: An American Classic


Kate Johnson



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
George Morrison is a Minnesota artist whose work is represented in both public and private collections in every part of this country, as well as abroad. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is fortunate to have acquired three works by this gentle and introspective artist who was born near Grand Marais, on Lake Superior's majestic North Shore. A member of the Grand Portage Chippewa Band, Morrison graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) in 1949, and later received from the College an Honorary Master of Fine Arts degree. Between his graduation and his return to Minnesota in 1970, he lived, worked, and taught primarily in New York, where he was graduated from the Art Students League. Morrison was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for a year's study and travel in Europe and has held visiting professorships at the Dayton Art Institute, Cornell University, and Pennsylvania State University; from 1963 to 1970 he was an assistant professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. He is currently a member of the faculty of the Studio Arts Department at the University of Minnesota. George Morrison's life is unusually diverse and his art predictably speaks to the widest audience, in many accents of the human language.The Morrison pieces acquired by the Institute are vastly different in material and technique, but have in common the artist's lifelong involvement with the natural world and with our principal reference point to the universe, the horizon. Though his wider-than-long format often contains abstracted land forms, the horizon may more often be the endless meeting of sky and water. George Morrison's spiritual centers are Superior's north Shore and the Atlantic coast at Provincetown, Massachusetts. On these rugged shores, in rock formations, stones, driftwood, and plant life, are found the infinite shapes, colors, and patterns that Morrison builds into dazzling classical essays on the art of composition.A large oil and acrylic painting, Untitled, from 1960 (figure 1), is the earliest of the museum's three pieces. It is painted very thickly, the forms literally as well as optically modeled in the paint. Morrison has always favored a rich texture in his painting, as we can see in a work from 1949, Quarry (figure 2). This pair of works also illustrates his expressive use of deep and intense color noted by early reviewers. Long, creamy strokes of paint weave a dense fabric that extends from edge to edge, top to bottom. Untitled retains the physical energy of its making, clear evidence of Morrison's early affinity to that quintessentially American art movement, abstract expressionism.Though it is a pen and ink drawing with no tactile qualities, the Institute's second work, also Untitled, from 1973 (figure 4), has the same totally energized surface. Here the horizon asserts itself dramatically as a cluster of straight lines in a field of flamelike curves. Morrison's working methods vary with the medium, but generally the horizon line (one quarter of the way down from the top) is drawn first. On a small drawing, the artist must work from the center out to avoid smudging the ink. Morrison relates his art to musical composition. “A drawing is just a smaller work, like a sonata,” he says. This drawing is composed of little sections or movements, with transitions (“doors, passageways”) from one section to another. The optical effects were secondary results of the drawing technique.The Institute's third piece is a monumental relief painting (the artist's own term), Collage IX: Landscape, from 1974 (figure 3). Morrison contends that this art form, which he developed in the mid-sixties, is an extension of painting; that he paints with wood rather than oil or acrylic. “The little pieces I picked up on the beach were like the shapes in the paintings. The old textures were already there: the crusty old grain in the wood. It was a made surface.” It is easy to see why this form and method would suggest itself to an artist who had been deeply concerned with texture in a variety of media. Relief painting is also the logical result of Morrison's extraordinary and instinctive sense of composition. As in his drawing, the first step of the working method is the determination of the horizon line. Then, however, Morrison begins laying out pieces in the lower left-hand corner, moving toward the horizon line—the one constant, known element in an otherwise continuous process of moment-to-moment choice. The artist is very much in control. In this sense, George Morrison's relief painting departs from the twentieth-century tradition of assemblage, with its emphasis on accidental and incongruous relationships. While Nature may shape and weather his materials to some extent, Morrison feels that the artist makes the final choices from within himself.George Morrison has made numerous relief paintings from “found” pieces of wood. He has also made them from carefully cut new pieces of rare tropical woods, alike in their lavender and rust colors as well as their satin-smooth grain. His wall mural for the Minneapolis Regional Native American Center contains no found pieces and, further, neither invokes the landscape nor refers to the horizon. Instead, Morrison created an abstract design based on a Chippewa symbol representing a feather, his only abstract piece based on a theme. Recently, at Seattle's Daybreak Star American Indian Center, Morrison created a mural depicting the underwater panther, a motif from Eastern Woodland Indian cultures. These commissioned works indicate the variety of directions in which the artist has taken relief painting in its horizontal format.In the summer of 1977, George Morrison made Red Totem I (figure 5) for the Art Institute of Chicago's encyclopedic exhibition, The Native American Heritage. Red Totem I is a twelve-foot high vertical relief painting in three dimensions. Morrison says, “It's a [further] extension, even though it's more abstract and very, very formal.” It is an extension, too, of color experiments that began with pieces of found wood; staining, spraying, and wiping for new effects. Red Totem I is redwood stained “a kind of Venetian red” to intensify the form and the image. In this new vertical format, Morrison worked from the bottom to the top, continuing the reference to the force of gravity which gives to all of his work, no matter what size, a human scale. A current suite of “collage drawings” also uses a vertical format, although surfaces are divided by horizontal bands of imported Italian papers, including luxurious marbleized patterns and sensuous colors. Of these new drawings Morrison says, “The horizon line can appear at many levels. The bands of papers serve as spatial layers, a kind of illusion of the earth, water, sky . . . .” He adds that the recent emphasis on color “. . . is a balance for the other [work] . . . the gray wood.”For Morrison, art and life are identical on countless levels. Instinctively, he organizes the apparent randomness of the natural world into coherent visual systems based on our anchor in the world, the horizon. In a similar way, collections of Navaho rugs, glassware, rocks, and books are treated as compositions of pattern and texture in his home. George Morrison's art is a search for order. It celebrates the wholeness of order and chaos, instinct and intellect, and man and nature.N. B. George Morrison's life story is told in a biography for young readers, George Morrison: the Story of an American Indian, by Dragos D. Kostich (Minneapolis: Dillon Press, 1976).Kathryn C. Johnson is Supervisor of Public Programs at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts. An architectural historian, she is working on a book about a turn-of-the-century Minneapolis architect. She shares George Morrison's love for the North Shore.Referenced Works of Art
  1. George Morrison
    American, born 1919
    Untitled, 1960
    Oil and acrylic on linen, 31-1/2 x 76-1/2
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Weber, 75.75
  2. George Morrison
    Quarry, 1948
    Oil on canvas, 26 x 36
    Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Gomberg, Perugia
  3. George Morrison
    Collage IX: Landscape, 1974
    Wood, 60-1/8 x 168-1/2
    The Frances E. Andrews Fund, 75.24
  4. George Morrison
    Untitled, 1973
    Black ink on paper, 23 x 23
    The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 74.43
  5. George Morrison
    Red Totem I, 1977
    Redwood with stain, 144 x 15 x 15
    The Art Institute of Chicago
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Source: Kathryn C. Johnson, "George Morrison: An American Classic," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 63 (1976-1977): 84-89.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009