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What a treasure trove!

The Seattle Art Museum’s big summer show, “Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical,” gives a grand overview of artwork created in our region from the 1930s forward.

The show is drawn almost entirely from holdings in SAM’s permanent collection (greatly expanded since the recent donation of the Marshall and Helen Hatch Collection to SAM), and it shines an especially detailed light on the work of Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Morris Graves (1910-2001) and Leo Kenney (1925-2001), all of whom are prominently featured in the exhibit.

There’s plenty of fodder here for debates about how Tobey’s calligraphically flavored “white writing” experiments of the 1930s and ’40s influenced New York’s Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and ’50s (Jackson Pollock, especially). The Asian and Native American art influence on these artists is also stressed.

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Most important is the chance to savor the range and richness of Tobey, Graves and Kenney. Curator Patricia Junker cannily emphasizes the differences between them, with Tobey emerging as urban, even urbane, in flavor, while Graves and Kenney are more introspective. She also helpfully sabotages the received wisdom that Tobey is important only for his push toward abstraction, by including some figurative works by him that hold up as strongly as his vibrant abstract masterpieces.

“Seattle Street Car” (1948), for instance, plays with distortions of scale and perspective to make a cramped, crowded streetcar ride feel vividly claustrophobic. Even works that appear from a distance to be abstract — “Western Splendor,” “Electric Night” — are chock-full of tiny intersecting details (cathedral architecture and statuary in “Splendor,” packed city streets in “Night”) that swarm with a buzzing energy.

Graves’ earliest oil paintings, rich in color and outline, call to mind the work of Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler. The dozens of works on paper that follow his late 1930s encounter with Tobey borrow the latter’s white-writing technique, but put it to uses distinctly his own.

For one thing, Graves never forsook the figure. Birds, serpents, flowers and whimsical “hedgerow animals” populate almost all his work. But he engulfs them in shadow or illuminations that take them to the brink of abstraction.

The darkest work corresponds with Graves’ worst war years when, as a pacifist, he was jailed for refusing to serve in the military. But even his radiance can be a little spooky, as in “Lotus” (1945), where the bright center of the flower is decidedly akin to the blinding flash of an atomic bomb.

Kenney may be the biggest revelation of the show. His glowing, mandala-like abstractions from the 1960s onward will be familiar to some viewers. But Junker’s tracing of his evolution from figurative to abstract painter makes clear each phase of his development has an allure of its own. The odd anguish-serenity of “The Crying Man” (1947), the biblical flavor of “Departure” (1949-50) and the eerie underwater glow of “Night Swimmer II” (1954) all feel like major accomplishments.

Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan, two other figures identified as linchpins of the Northwest scene, are less well represented, while works by six other artists — Paul Horiuchi, Philip McCracken, James Washington Jr., Tony Angell and George Tsutakawa — are mere footnotes to the show.

It’s Tobey, Graves and Kenney who make the deepest impression.

Note: Kenney’s and Graves’ work is richly textured in ways that don’t come across in reproductions nearly as well as Tobey’s work does. They have to be seen in the flesh.

Also note: While almost all these works are from SAM’s permanent collection, that doesn’t mean they’ll be on permanent display at the museum. Many are delicate works on paper that can’t tolerate long light exposure. See them while you can.

Michael Upchurch:

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