Seattle Museum celebration; the need to approach art on its own terms

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The Seattle Art Museum's yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary ends this June on a note of pride and optimism. Not only has the museum carved a special niche for itself among American art institutions, it also is about to realize its plans for a new and considerably larger building in Seattle's downtown area.

The actual site has not been chosen, and other details cannot yet be revealed , but everyone at the museum insists it's only a matter of time. One official, in fact, believes the move to new quarters will be made within three years at most.

The celebration itself has focused on several outstanding exhibitions whose character and emphasis underscore the museum's special interests and strengths. Chief among them have been ''The Box of Daylight: Northwest Coast Indian Art''; ''Praise Poems: The Katherine White Collection,'' a truly superb exhibition of African art; and ''50 Years: A Legacy of Asian Art.''

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The last-named was designed as a tribute to Dr. Richard E. Fuller, the museum's founder, first president, and principal benefactor, who provided it with leadership and direction from its opening in 1933 until his retirement in 1973. His interest in Asian art led to the establishment of the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, which now serves as the core of the museum's world-famous collection of Asian art.

Its fame is well justified, judging from what the museum staff chose to include in this show. Every piece is first-rate, and a few are among the finest of their kind. I was especially taken by the sculpture, and by a group of Japanese paintings including ''Black Bull,'' a mid-13th-century section of a handscroll.

Another 50th anniversary show, ''Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner Eye,'' is one I discussed when it originally opened at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., last year. (See Monitor review of April 26, 1983). Since Graves is one of the Pacific Northwest's two most famous artist-sons (Mark Tobey being the other), it is appropriate that an exhibition honoring his achievement be mounted here. This is the third installation of the Graves show I've seen, and I found it particularly effective. Anyone paying close attention must realize how cleareyed an observer of bird and animal behavior Graves is, and how brilliantly his images embody and evoke personal as well as Eastern spiritual ideas.

I was particularly pleased about this, for I feel very strongly that something must be done to correct the distorted reputation Graves has recently acquired in certain quarters as a painter of fuzzy-minded mystical works that depend more on Eastern ideas than on art for their effectiveness. So much emphasis has been placed on his otherworldliness, his involvement with Oriental philosophy, symbols, images, and art, that we have overlooked how superb an artist he is. Among other qualities, he has a remarkable grasp of line and form, and the kind of perception that sees precisely how things work. No one knows better than he how a bird cocks its head, grasps a branch, or prepares itself for flight. And no one can render small animals, plants, flowers, gnarled old trees, or fish (among many other things) more clearly or sensitively than he.

Most important, he limits himself to the essentials and leaves the rest to our imagination and sensibilities. His best works, as a result, exist both as poetic ideas and as physical objects, and they can be remembered with clarity and in detail - in the manner of a beautiful line of poetry - for years, if not for the rest of our lives.

I bring this up because I sense an inability or an unwillingness on the part of several younger critics around the country to approach certain older-generation artists such as Graves on their own terms. If their work is reviewed at all, it often is with the attitude that it must conform to current attitudes or it won't be taken seriously as art.

I find this very sad, as much for those critics who thus cut themselves off from the appreciation of some excellent art, as for the older artists who are unceremoniously assigned to art world oblivion.

Now, it is axiomatic that a critic must perceive the nature of an artist's work before he or she can properly evaluate it. That is only common sense. And yet I have read reviews of both older and very new works of art that made as little sense as would a critique of this column that states it consists of nothing but row upon row of little black specks. It is that, of course, but it is also much more.

In the same fashion, a critic must see more in a work of art than its surface qualities, its style, subject matter, or technique. He or she must never assume that a painting is well on its way to being good or bad merely because it precisely resembles a person or a place, or because it consists of ''fly specks, '' splashes of paint, or clusters of tin cans.

A critic must always look beyond appearance, be it startlingly ''real,'' profoundly symbolic, abstract, or apparently formless. All art is a language, a code, and it is the critic's responsibility to learn whatever language or code an artist deems essential to his art. Not only does this mean keeping up with new formal ideas, styles, and attitudes toward subject matter, it also means trying to understand the spiritual or philosophical ideas that lie at the heart of a painter's most important work.

The latter is particularly important when attempting to evaluate the art of Morris Graves, not because it will excuse any of its flaws or inconsistencies, but because it will give point and meaning to certain aspects of his work that otherwise might appear dead and static. With such insight, subsequent criticism will make much more sense, no matter if it is favorable or not. What matters is not so much the critic's judgment as its relevance to the art under discussion.

One last word. When critics write about artists of an older generation, let it be with the same concern, unprejudiced attitude, and inquisitiveness that is expected of critics writing about the very latest work on view. Nothing less is fair - and nothing less is professional.

Two of the exhibitions mentioned above are still on view. ''Praise Poems: The Katherine White Collection'' runs through May 27, and ''Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner Eye'' can be seen through July 8.

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