Northwest Legends 

BAM's new, improved collection

click to enlarge Carl Morris, Untitled Abstract, 62-1/2" x 88-1/2", undated, acrylic on canvas
  • Carl Morris, Untitled Abstract, 62-1/2" x 88-1/2", undated, acrylic on canvas

The Boise Art Museum already had a number of Northwest artists in its permanent collection when, in February 2004, it got an unexpected boost. Wells Fargo, which has a respected corporate trove of art, donated 20 works of predominantly Northwest art to the museum including significant works by many of the region's most renowned figures, most of them born in the early 20th century. The gift comprised of paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints from as early as 1943, representing a particularly fertile period of innovative, creative activity for Washington and Oregon which began in the 1940s. Sprinkled with other holdings from BAM's collection, the result is an intelligently presented survey entitled Artists of the Northwest offering a rare opportunity to experience legendary art at its best.

This handsome exhibit demonstrates two things about post-war Pacific Northwest art. First, that it was a school of art in its own right, with its leading and secondary figures, and an aesthetic that was uniquely multi-cultural for its time. It is practically a cliché that the Northwest School was influenced by the art history and philosophies of Asia, a fact reflected in the materials and mediums its participants used, the techniques they adopted, and the pervasive transcendental spiritualism the work embodied. (A famous 1953 spread in Life magazine on Pacific Northwest art dubbed Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Guy Anderson the "mystic painters," and the label stuck for good.) The art was further informed by coastal Native American motifs and folk art. But modernist European influences were also prominent, most notably Symbolism, Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, as well as New York's Abstract Expressionism. It has been called a hybrid style, which indeed it was, but all these elements combined in a way that was expressive of a distinct sensibility and vision.

The second realization to be gained here (and this reinforces the first) is how much these artists inspired and borrowed from each other in terms of technique, formal considerations and palette, in addition to mining similar sources. The placement of specific works in this exhibit serves to underscore this fact, and we get a real sense of an aesthetic camaraderie at play here, a mutual admiration society as it were.

Upon entering the first gallery we are immediately and dramatically struck by the attributes that unify these artists--the prevalence of earth tones and neutral colors, an abstraction based on the natural environment of the region, a quality of light and verdancy that is characteristically Northwest--but also by the differences. Four monumental canvases by Carl Morris, Margaret Tomkins and Guy Anderson dominate the space. Morris (a personal favorite) was probably the best abstract painter to come out of Oregon. His undated Untitled Abstract, imposing at 5 feet by 7 feet, is constructed of bold, earthy forms in browns, gold, midnight blue, black and white. What light there is seems to emanate from the white, soft-edge form near its center, casting shadows and bathing the work's rough, textured surfaces. Even more vibrant is his Untitled S 73 II which, despite the large area of diaphanous white, is a very red painting. Here, and in Silver Creek in the next room, we see what a master colorist Morris was, his canvases seeming to glow from within.

Tomkins, like Morris, was influenced by the gestural abstraction of the Ab Ex movement, with Tomkins closely identifying herself with the New York School. Her mammoth Untitled Abstract (1962) has the look of a quarry wall, its faceted, angular forms--rendered in a mosaic of grays, tans and whites--cleaved like chunks of carved rock. She's clearly cut from Northwest cloth despite her New York leanings. Anderson, in contrast, was closely allied with the Zen-like Graves and Tobey in his "mystic" orientation and spiritual sensibility. In Blue Figure Over the Sea and Flying Figures the debt Anderson's man-in-nature art owes to Symbolism is obvious, as is the influence of Graves. And Graves' temperament is best captured by the ethereal Vessel Seeking to Achieve Its Ideal Form, a sensitive watercolor and tempura on paper whose calligraphic style and incomplete forms create a visual haiku.

In the second gallery the ambience is very Asian. Throughout are works on rice and mulberry paper, paintings in sumi ink and tempura, sculptures in dark wood, metal and stone, with Paul Horiuchi's large collage of torn Japanese paper on a screen-style support lording over it all. But there is a whiff of the New York School here too. Callahan's Multitudes on the Mountain (1968) is an epic work in tempura and oil, a swirling gestural landscape with apocalyptic religious overtones and a charging horse shape embedded in the bottom half of the piece. Kathleen Gemberling Adkison's bright drip and splatter painting entitled Winter Spector has the hallmarks of Jackson Pollock's influence while exploring the energy and mystery of nature. Unexpectedly, two sculptures by Idahoan George Roberts fit right in including one that echoes the horse image in the Callahan painting. I highly recommend taking in this rewarding show.

Lois Allen, author of two books on contemporary Northwest art, discusses Artists of the Northwest on Thursday, Feb. 3, 5:30 p.m. at Boise Art Museum. Free admission.

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