In most accounts of modern American art history, the received wisdom is that Abstract Expressionism, the cutting-edge movement of the 1950s, emerged entirely from New York and that all other U.S. arts activity was peripheral to or trailing the breakthroughs that Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko made in that decade.
It’s a little startling, then, to read a 1958 article in Arts magazine that confidently proclaims Mark Tobey to have been the pioneer whose ventures into abstract realms, originating in Seattle, subsequently spread to New York and then the whole world.
The article explicitly declares Tobey to be “the forerunner of Pollock.”
Did the Seattle-based Tobey trigger the great shift that led to New York supplanting Paris as the epicenter of arts experimentation after the Second World War?
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Visitors to Seattle Art Museum will have a chance to evaluate this through-the-looking-glass perspective on American art history for themselves when “Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical”opens on Thursday (June 19).
Curated by Patricia Junker, the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at SAM, the show breaks new ground in a couple different ways.
It marks the first time since SAM’s 1978 show “Northwest Traditions” that the museum is revisiting the story behind this circle of Seattle-connected artists. The new show is drawn almost entirely from SAM’s permanent collection and offers a bigger overview of these artists’ collective efforts than SAM has been able to stage before, thanks to a huge bequest — almost half the show — recently left to SAM by Seattle arts patrons Marshall and Helen Hatch.
The other “first” at play here is a shift in perspective. Traditionally, the reputations of Tobey, Graves and company — which hit their peaks in the 1940s and 1950s — were assumed to have been eclipsed by the giants of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
Lately, however, in the postmodernist era, all bets seem to be off.
“We’re such a huge country,” Junker says, “that the idea that there’s one story about American art — it just makes my head almost explode that people think that way!”
Junker, as you might guess, is ardent and eloquent in her views. She’s also resolute in trying to see these artworks purely and simply, without forcing them into some preconceived context.
One such context, created by a famous 1953 Life magazine article, “Mystic Painters of the Northwest,” is that Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson (the subjects of the article) were a tight little rarefied circle, fusing Asian and Northwest Coast Art influences with a luminous sensitivity to the scenic grandeur of our region.
The irony: By the time the article came out they were almost estranged from one another. Tobey — who spent long intervals overseas and lived his final 16 years in Switzerland — rejected the whole notion of being included in a Northwest School. “I’m no more a Northwest painter,” he protested, “than a cat.” (That choice quote comes from the catalog for a show about the quartet, “Northwest Mythologies,” that Tacoma Art Museum mounted in 2003.)
Junker has her own issues with Tobey and Graves being pigeonholed as regional artists.
“To me they have never been just the local boys,” she says. She knew about Tobey and Graves long before she moved to Seattle 10 years ago to take the job at SAM.
“I didn’t think about where they were from,” she explains. “I thought about when they painted.”
By giving them their due, she feels, “Modernism in the Pacific Northwest” is expanding the whole narrative of 20th-century art history: “I don’t see it as a sidebar to the story of American art. I see it as another really interesting chapter.”
Six additional artists, all influenced by the big Life magazine foursome, also figure in the show, with Leo Kenney — another Hatch collection favorite — having an especially strong presence.
The paintings range from the 1930s to the 1970s, with most of them created in the early 1940s. They highlight Tobey’s famous “white writing” technique, inspired in part by his encounters with Asian art and calligraphy. Tobey deployed this “writing” in tangled, vibrant, mostly abstract reveries that, unlike the works of his fellow “mystics,” sometimes have a frenetic urban buzz to them.
Graves, Callahan and Anderson stuck more closely to the figure, even when their figures were almost overwhelmed by abstract turbulences or serenities going on in the paint.
Veteran gallerist John Braseth, of Woodside-Braseth Gallery, sees it as significant that SAM is giving this show a summer slot, at the height of tourist season. It’s been a long time since SAM focused on the art of this region in any major way — a fact that Braseth attributes to rapid turnover in directors and curators, some of them with no local connection. The mounting of this show, he thinks, marks a welcome change of attitude. Woodside-Braseth will be hosting a fine, insightful companion show featuring the same painters.
Some cynics may suppose SAM is saving money with a show drawn almost exclusively from its own collection. But “Modernism in the Pacific Northwest,” Junker says, is not a low-budget affair.
“It’s apples and oranges,” she explains. “Anytime you don’t have to crate, ship, and insure a show, you’ve saved a lot of money. … But it’s more than just hanging things in storage, too.”
Paintings have been photographed, and many reframed. Some conservation treatment has been necessary. It’s all part of a major commitment SAM is making to this part of this permanent collection, which includes more than 200 works by Tobey and 130 by Graves (about 120 works will be on display in the exhibit).
Junker recently returned from Europe, where she was surprised by colleagues’ excitement about the show. One even told her that Tobey, thanks to his long residence in Switzerland, is regarded as “one of the great modern European painters.”
That makes sense to her. These painters — especially Tobey, who had one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Louvre and won first prize at the 1958 Venice Biennale — are ripe for rediscovery. And with the gift of the Hatch collection, SAM now has the greatest holdings of work by Tobey, Graves and company, Junker says, that anyone could have.
“I love the fact that you can go to the Museum of Modern Art,” she says, “and see great Morris Graves. I like the idea that you can come here and see even greater ones.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org