Northwest Art Yesterday and Today 

BAM exhibit revisits regional art history

The Boise Art Museum's current exhibition entitled Artists of the Northwest (which runs to May 15), featuring selections from a recent gift from Wells Fargo Corporation and BAM's permanent collection, is a good introduction to that oft-mentioned yet ill-defined phenomenon called the "Pacific Northwest School" of art. This gift enhances the museum's existing collection of Northwest paintings, sculpture, prints, photography and drawings with key works by its major early figures, some of whom were not represented in the collection until now, from a period that was particularly rich in seminal works by these artists. The significance of this event as explained by BAM's Curator of Art, Sandy Harthorn, is that "in one substantial gift, we have magnified the impact of the collection and secured important works from the 1960s and 70s," providing a needed expansion in mid-20th century art. With works by Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Carl Morris, Hilda Morris, Doris Chase, George Tsutakawa, Paul Horiuchi and Margaret Tomkins added to its permanent collection, Harthorn points out that BAM now has the resources to "better tell the story of the development of contemporary Northwest art."

It is a story worth considering. One needs to remember that the full-blown art scene in Seattle and Portland does not go back very far. The Seattle Art Museum was founded in 1933, the Portland Art Museum in 1931. Mark Tobey arrived in Seattle in 1923 but the work that built his reputation nationally did not come until after his trip to China in 1934. Graves did not start showing outside the Northwest until the early 1940s. So the "Northwest tradition" that has been invoked many times does not have a long history, and it has been widely argued by scholars and critics that the visual arts in Seattle and the region did not really get rolling until the early 1960s. Therefore, many of the works acquired by BAM from Wells Fargo are from the first true heyday of Northwest painting and sculpture.

For many people, the concept of a Northwest School of art is rather nebulous. Those critics, curators and art historians who are native to the region seem to have real qualms about subscribing to the notion and can be downright touchy about the subject. They tend to see it as idea imposed on the art by outsiders, an "early sound bite," one calls it, used by the media to conveniently pigeonhole a diverse body of work. The first use of the term "Northwest School" was in an ArtNews article in 1943. Ten years later, an anonymous yet famous 1953 article in Life magazine entitled "Mystic Painters of the Northwest" which grouped together Tobey, Callahan, Graves and Anderson, secured the legend of the "Big Four," portrayed as Zen-like figures communing with nature and bringing an Eastern-inspired transcendental spiritualism to American painting. The label stuck and has been a subject of debate ever since.

To those of us who were new to the region and discovering these artists for the first time, this group of painters had all the markings of a school of art in its own right. There were its leading figures, which in addition to the "Big Four" included Leo Kenney, Paul Horiuchi, Richard Gilkey, William Ivey, William Cumming and Johsel Namkung, plus a host of secondary figures, as any "movement" does. Some were drawn more to Eastern sources of inspiration (which was pervasive in Pacific Rim ports like Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C.) while others were less influenced (though not untouched) by Asian beliefs and techniques, and more by Western trends. For the most part, they were all of the same generation, born in the first quarter of the 20th century, adopting older colleagues like Tobey and Ambrose Patterson as mentors and influencing each other in ways that are quite evident in the show currently at BAM. In addition, these artists embraced a multicultural aesthetic that was unusual for American painting of the time, borrowing as they did not only from imagery and techniques of the Far East, but from Native American and folk art traditions at home. This may in part explain the impact that Symbolism, Surrealism, Cubism and Expressionism had on their work, since the European modernists were often inspired by non-Western and alternative cultures.

Perhaps more than anything else that unites these artists is the role that the natural environment of the region plays in their work. Portland painter Louis Bunce once said of the Pacific Northwest that "nature flows up the streets," and it is true that the lush verdancy of the coastal areas and mountains seems to permeate everything, including the art. The prevalence of earth tones and neutral colors, the quality of light and moist atmospheres one finds in Northwest art, both then and now, is characteristic and expressive of a distinct sensibility. It is for all these reasons that French art critics proclaimed these artists an "Ecole du Pacifique."

Talking with curators and critics knowledgeable about Northwest art today, and reading the writings of a number of them on the subject, one finds that differences of opinion and interpretation remain whether these artists constitute a school of art or not, but a consensus does exist on the character of the work that was and is being made in the region. In the past thirty years in exhibitions and publications these individuals have explored and debated the various facets of the subject, and in the process have broadened the definition of Northwest art. In her 1978 catalog essay for the Seattle Art Museum's "Northwest Traditions" show which featured work from 1927 to 1970, University of Washington art historian Martha Kingsbury wrote that while the styles of these artists may have varied, what they shared was "a humanist impulse" that they identified in both Eastern and Western sources. In an earlier essay from 1973, Kingsbury suggested that artists like Callahan, Tobey, Graves and Anderson evolved out of a romantic tradition that drew inspiration from Eastern cultures rather than the West's Greco-Roman heritage.

In 1999, Sheryl Conkelton, while senior curator at the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery put together an exhibition entitled "What It Meant to be Modern: Seattle Art at Mid-Century" in which she drew attention to artists associated with the university and those on the margins of the art scene of the time, while stressing the impact of European avant-garde movements. Conkelton sees modern art in the Northwest as a "hybrid" aesthetic, and stated, "the whole of what happened here involves the very important role of ideas from Europe. Most of what you hear is about Asian-influenced artists, but there was much more going on."

Lois Allan, a critic and curator based in Portland who has written two books on contemporary Northwest art came to Boise on February 3 to give a gallery talk at the BAM exhibit. Allan was good at putting the individual works and artists on view into historical perspective and in imparting a sense of a vital art scene springing out of what before World War II was a cultural outpost. But she was rather dismissive of the idea that there ever existed a Northwest School, saying that the scene was not cohesive enough and was "too spread out" to qualify as such.

One of the best shows on this subject in Idaho in recent years was the Sun Valley Center for the Arts exhibit Northwest Masters: Paintings from the Cairncross Collection in 2000. Curator Kristen Poole's essay accompanying this selection of important works by Callahan, Anderson and others did a good job of identifying those shared elements that made the idea of a Northwest school a viable one, especially in the 1940s and 50s. Poole, too, sees the work of these artists as evolving out of a convergence between Eastern philosophies and European modernism made possible by both Seattle's access to the East and the University of Washington Art Department. Yet the Western influences were always tempered by Tobey's and Callahan's striving to convey the universal through their art and Anderson's and Graves' interest in the transcendental. Poole points out that despite the impact of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which seemed to herald a "more universal language for painting," these central figures would remain "linked to some element of realism and deeply connected to the natural world," something that would hold true for subsequent generations of Northwest artists.

Writing on the state of Northwest art in the early 1980s, Bruce Guenther (now director of the Portland Art Museum) took this notion of a deep connection with the natural environment a step further in comments that hold particularly true for contemporary Northwest art from the 1960s to the present. He stated that "the response to nature has not been concerned with explicit phenomena but, rather, with atmosphere, that intangible quality of light and color that infuses an artwork with a special sense of place." It is a sensibility that will inform the most abstract, seemingly New York School derived paintings, such as those of William Ivey. Spend some time with Carl Morris' abstract canvas "Silver Creek" (painted in Idaho) currently in the BAM show, or Margaret Tomkin's work, and you will get an idea of what Guenther was talking about.

Beth Sellars is a longtime student and enthusiast of Northwest art, having curated for a number of regional art institutions since 1975. Since 1998 she has organized exhibitions at the Suyama Space in Seattle, recognized as one of the leading venues of installation art on the West Coast, and until recently managed the City of Seattle's Art Collection. Sellars confirms that the mood, impressions and atmospherics that Guenther spoke of has continued to characterize Northwest art in more recent years.

"There is a Northwest sensibility that subtly underlies much of what was and is done here-it can't help it because the environment is so dominant," Sellars said of Seattle artists working today like Gayle Bard and Jennifer Beedon Snow whose work investigates the quality of light on the north Pacific coast. Then there are those artists she is particularly keen on who focus on indigenous materials and earth tones in their work, such as Jaq Chartier, Gail Grinnell and Peter Millet. Sellars contends these qualities that are so tied to the surrounding environment are once again prominent in Pacific Northwest art. Reviewing her comments, my mind goes back to the first gallery in BAM's Artists of the Northwest show with its evocations of humus, loam and lichen. It's no wonder that the rest of America views Seattle and Portland as the (in Sellar's words) "dark, mysterious corner" of the country that both the arts and mainstream media in sunnier climes seem hesitant to penetrate.

Here in Boise we have had a couple of opportunities lately to see for ourselves that this "Northwest sensibility" continues to manifest itself in the art of the new century. BAM's impressive exhibit last year of Seattle artist John Grade's work demonstrated how many of the region's natural attributes continue to inspire and inform the art being made there. His sculpture, though abstract, is very organic and preoccupied with the processes of death, decay and regeneration. Many of his pieces evoke the rain forest environment of the Olympic Peninsula and the marine life in coastal tidal pools. The cultural mix of the Northwest is another influence on this artist whose forms derive from his experiences in much older societies around the world. The affinity Grade's work has to the art of Far Eastern cultures makes the artist seem right at home in Washington State. And BAM's current show of Seattle artist Katy Stone's installation art features another artist who works with the local light and eastern influences. Stone's paintings on clear Mylar incorporate the light of the region in her art which is also inspired by the aesthetics of Japanese wood block prints. Sandy Harthorn points out that Stone's imagery is "based in notions of Asian pictorial traditions, [i.e.] poetic undertones and evocation of images based in natural forms." These artists and others represent a Northwest tradition that is ongoing.

In February 1978, I spent a weekend with Kenneth Callahan and his wife Beth, along with Callahan's dealer Don Foster, at their coastal retreat outside Long Beach, Washington, surrounded by marshland and trees. Given the time of year and location it was pretty dark and damp throughout our stay, with the environment and weather having such a dramatic presence it almost seemed to close in on us. It was exhilarating in a strange way. One afternoon when the fog had cleared and the sky was only partly cloudy, we took a walk in the woods where Callahan showed me something he had created at a favorite spot. With long lengths of twine he had made a three-dimensional, abstract "drawing," running the twine from tree to bush to tree and back again, incorporating branches, underbrush and leaves "in situ," so that in its various shades of brown mixed with shifting patterns of sunlight it resembled his large abstract paintings, one of those epic, gestural landscapes of his like "Multitudes on the Mountain" (1968) in the BAM show. The image and feel brought home to me as never before how entwined his art, and that of others of his generation, was with the natural surroundings and the very air they breathed. This memory underscores Callahan's later statement to Bruce Guenther that his paintings represent his "continuing search for basic earth movements-rhythms experienced by the outer eye through the inner eye." It sums up what art in the Pacific Northwest has been about all along.

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