May 19, 2013


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Lot 370: Morris Graves

Lot 370: Morris Graves

Glass with Flower

Tempera on paper
Signed and dated "Graves 61" lower right; retains Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery label verso
Image (vis.): 24.25" x 18"; Frame: 36" x 29.75"
Provenance: Private Collection, Eureka, California (acquired directly from the artist);
Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery, Seattle;
Private Collection, Seattle, Washington
Estimate: $15,000 - $20,000
Price Realized: $23,750
Inventory Id: 5805

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A member of the Northwest School that included the painters Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, and Mark Tobey, Morris Graves (1910-2001) was an eccentric painter who channeled the lingering, dusky light of the Pacific Northwest. In his teenage years, Graves found a job on an American Mail Line ship headed to Asia, which included stops in China, Manila, and Japan. This marked the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the religion, aesthetics, and even art-making materials from the East. Upon his return, he began his painting career and quickly achieved success by winning the Seattle Museum of Art’s Northwest Annual Exhibition in 1933. The winning painting, Moor Swan, “a symbolic self-portrait, depicting the regal, aloof black swan smoldering in a dusky field,” was purchased for the museum’s permanent collection. Throughout his career, the subject matter of his immediate surroundings – the Northwest landscape, Pacific Ocean, and animals, particularly birds – remained as constant as his life of solitude.

In Seattle in 1940, Graves met architect and furniture designer George Nakashima. They spoke of their shared belief that “form should grow from the natural properties of materials.” This friendship likely inspired Graves to build a house on twenty acres of land he bought for $40 on Fidalgo Island just north of Seattle. Secluded and submissive to the Northwest climate, Graves took midnight strolls around the island and painted until sunrise. Oriental Vessel with Candle (c. 1940) portrays this solitude with a single glowing candle amongst greens and blues steeped in warmth, representative of Graves’ lifelong adherence to self-determination. In 1942, Graves was included in the exhibition “18 Americans from 9 States” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where all 19 of his paintings sold, two of which remain in the permanent collection. The success of the MoMA show encouraged Graves to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he received in 1946. With the original intention to study in Japan, he ended up in Hawaii, inspired by the Oriental objects he found at the Honolulu Academy of Art to create the Chinese Ritual Bronze paintings. In Conflict Battling Crane Heads with Chinese Ceremonial Bronze (1947), Graves depicts birds at each other’s necks imagined as a ceremonial vessel, representative of the artist’s inner conflict and inability to finish his voyage to Japan.

After many fruitful years of painting, with highlights including the Life magazine article “Mystic Painters of the Northwest” that celebrated Graves as the most important painter of the bunch, as well as a long-awaited return to Japan, Graves moved to the Dublin countryside in 1958. He dedicated his time to restoring his Irish manor and painting, yet he destroyed much of his work from this period when he left in 1964. In Glass with Flower from 1961, a solitary flower sitting in a chalice bathes in the same intermediate light reminiscent of the Washington sunset. Through all of his work, Graves is both inextricably connected with his surroundings and deeply concerned with the nature of human and spiritual consciousness. In this way, according to Los Angeles painter and writer Frederick S. Wight, “He speaks to the imagination. He is needed to connect two worlds, that of his painting and that of the daily existence to which his painting relates.”

Wight, Frederick S. “Morris Graves.” Morris Graves: Retrospective. Fine Arts Patrons of Newport Harbor. Balboa: University of California Press, 1963. Print.
Ament, Deloris Tarzan. “Graves, Morris (1910-2001).” HistoryLink. The State of Washington, n.d. Web. 29 Mar 2013.