New York — Even if he had never done anything else, we would still always be indebted to Morris Graves for having thought of transcribing the song of a tiny bird singing joyously away in the moonlight into a jumble of crisp white lines.
Or for having given pictorial form to the "Owl of the Inner Eye," the "Procession of Sounds in the Night," and "Spring With Machine-Age Noises."
Or for having given ecstatic voice to the "Joyous Young Pine."
As it is, however, he has given us a great deal more than that over the past 40 years in the form of drawings, watercolors, temperas, and a few oils that appear to be about birds, animals, fish, trees, flowers, Oriental bronzes, etc., but are really about the inner whisperings and rustlings of life, and about life's mysterious transformations.
Detached from the contemporary art scene, and totally committed to his extremely private vision, Graves has exhibited infrequently over the past decade or two. And when he has, his gentle, lyrical paintings have had a hard time being heard over the shoutings and the pyrotechnics of the contemporary gallery world.
But we have been given another chance to view and to appreciate his art in an exhibition of recent works at the Willard Gallery here. Consisting entirely of tempera paintings on paper, this exhibition of mysterious birds, exquisite floral still lifes, and a few mandalas is as lovely a show as can be found anywhere at this moment.
It's also modest, for Grave's intentions are to intrigue and evoke, not to impress or overwhelm. And most certainly not to involve us in complex or esoteric aesthetic theories. Unlike so much other recent art whose very existence is predicated upon its dialectical role with the dynamics of modernism , and which, therefore, ends up being largely art about art, the paintings of morris Graves reflect an attitude totally unconcerned about what others do. Graves is devoted instead to the evocation of subtle interior moods, otherworldly musings and intimations, and the pure pleasure of color, line, and texture.
Graves will seem irrevelant to those who demand that every artist participate in the ongoing dialogue between individual creative drive and one or another modernist premise. And i mean those individuals who walk into a gallery, take one quick look around, and accept or reject the work, not on its individual merit, but on the degree to which it addresses itself to what is generally considered to be that art-historical moment's most basic or crucial issue or idea.
Graves, as I have said, couldn't care less about what weighty formal issues are being debated in this month's (or this year's or decade's) most prestigious art journals. His relevancy has nothing to do with being part of a contemporary attitude or theory, in "belonging," but has everything to do with the seeking out, the shaping and the sharing of hints and clues to the things we all feel most deeply about: life, living, death, beauty, and, most particularly, the unknown.
He has always been closer to Eastern than to European or American art. His brushwork and manipulation of pictorial space are more Oriental than Occidental -- as is his perception of art as implication and suggestion rather than flat-out statement. Grave's birds and trees aren't quite of this world. They exist on its fringes for the express purpose of transmitting Grave's (and our) vague and fugitive yearnings and desires outward into space toward some all-encompassing, infinite dimension of meaning and form.
The true subject of Grave's art is the immensity of what lies beyond and within us. The creatures in his paintings are in direct communion with life's deeper rhythms and forces, and we, by responding to these birds, animals, trees, etc., also then find ourselves in communion with these same forces. Graves is not so much a maker and shaper of things as he is a guide to dimensions of being , feeling, and existence that normally remain invisible and mute.
Because he deals so exclusively with the ineffable, Graves misses almost as much as he succeeds, and then produces images that are more ritual than inspiration or art. But no matter. He has produced a body of work which will enchant future generations long after most of what is with us now will be forgotten. In the overall scheme of things Graves will most probably be counted among the minor masters of the 20th century, along with Tobey, Marin, Dove, Burchfield, etc. At least it appears that way in this age of Picasso, Mondrian, and Pollock. But what if the future doesn't agree with our assessment of ourselves, and decides that our finest moments were actually those which were our quietest and most intimate? And gives this century's pride of place to Paul Klee rather than to Picasso? It could well happen, and if it does, Graves's star may well rise much higher than we can now anticipate.
For those familiar with his work, this show will reinforce their opinion of him, but will offer no real surprises. The florals are exquisite, as always, and the birds are as mysterious and beautifully drawn as ever. Only the mandalas seem a bit different, until we recall Graves's earlier preoccupations with circles and squares -- and their mystical implications.
This small but excellent exhbition of some of the recent paintings of Morris Graves will remain on view at the Willard Gallery through March 4.