George Morrison Retrospective "Modern Spirit" Takes the Long View at Phoenix's Heard Museum

The Heard Museum long has been a staple for entertaining swarms of holiday visitors intrigued by katsina dolls and turquoise jewelry. But that's a cop-out. There's far more to the landscape of American Indian artwork, as evidenced by the Heard's newest exhibition, "Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison." The exhibition, which helps to dispel stereotypes about Native art, highlights 80 works by Minnesota-born Morrison, a 20th-century painter and sculptor affiliated with the abstract expressionism movement.

When the National Museum of the American Indian opened a decade ago in Washington, D.C., its inaugural exhibition was "Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser." It's evidence of Morrison's significance in the pantheon of American Indian artists and a reminder that Native art extends beyond pottery and baskets. Still, many who readily recognize works by Houser, including his Earth Song sculpture at the Heard's entrance, don't know a Morrison piece when they see one.

See also: Randy Slack Returns to His Artistic Roots with Retrospective Exhibition at Luhrs City Center in Downtown Phoenix

Perhaps it reflects the prevalence of prolific artists during this period, and our tendency to elevate some to superstar status while neglecting the significance of others. Think Salvador Dalí, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, and Ansel Adams. Or maybe it's a measure of Morrison's versatility as an artist. His works span a broad range of subject matter and medium, which is refreshing in an age flooded by one-note creative types who rarely deviate from their artistic mean.

"Modern Spirit" holds important lessons for those Arizona artists who too readily constrict their creative choices. Artworks shouldn't feel like logos defining a monolithic brand. It may seem counterintuitive to a generation schooled in using consistency to forge mental connections. But Morrison's work reminds us that creativity depends on divergent thinking, risk-taking, and change.

"Modern Spirit" occupies a two-story exhibit space with wood walls, panels, and beams that echo the artist's passion for nature. Living lakeside in a small village, nature was Morrison's constant companion as a child. Rocks. Trees. Clouds. Hillsides. All have textures that imbue his oeuvre, including paintings that reveal the artist's preference for thick, textural application. Two large-scale paintings, and the intricately carved 12-foot-tall stained cedar Red Totem that's part of the Heard Museum's collection, bridge the first and second floors.

The exhibition includes oil and acrylic paintings done on canvas, board, and paper -- plus works in crayon, gouache, watercolor, and pastel. There are linocut and paper collage works, as well as drawings done with pen, pencil, marker, colored pencil, ink, and graphite. Mixing media was a staple of Morrison's work. Featured sculptures are crafted of marble or wood. There's never the sense that the artist has a greater ability or affinity for one or the other. Instead, you intuit a playful progression fueled by his own curiosity and interplay with various people and places.

"Modern Spirit" highlights include small works of sculpture reflecting Morrison's interest in world cultures and spirituality. One references Australia's Aborigine culture; another references the Hindu belief in the generative power of male genitals. Morrison's Black and White Patterned Forms, a 1952 ink on paper work, resembles Henri Matisse cut-outs currently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. His Whalebone, a 1948 oil on canvas work, pops atypical subject matter into the popular still-life genre.

Exhibition designers provide historical and contemporary context for Morrison's work. Effective signage guides visitors through various stages of Morrison's career, and video footage elucidates the intersection of art and biography. Ample seating allows visitors to pause over favorite pieces, and an upstairs computer station connects visitors to reflections by the artist and details about selected works. The image of a gnarled cedar "Witch Tree" growing from rocks on Lake Superior's shore, which appears in several Morrison works, is incorporated into the exhibition's design.

Morrison studied art in Minneapolis, France, and New York, where his friends included fellow artists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. For 17 years, he spent summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where artists Mark Rothko and Frank Motherwell also had homes and Hans Hofmann ran an influential art school. Often Morrison used wood found along the Atlantic seashore to create intricate pieces he dubbed "wood paintings." When working with wood gathered in Minnesota, Morrison conjured the weathering effect of saltwater and sunlight using paint and a hand drill. His 48-inch-by-120-inch wood collage, titled Cumulated Landscape, is stunning.

Those who like J. Rulon Richard's inlaid wood Arizona state flag, which sits on an empty corner lot along Roosevelt Row, will enjoy seeing the way Morrison transforms scraps of wood into works of art. Folks familiar with Arizona painter and sculptor Ed Mell will appreciate the contrasts between landscapes created by Morrison and Mell.

Even those who consider landscapes the art equivalent of a lullaby will be intrigued by the way Morrison's landscapes reflect the evolution of his style beyond realism toward surrealism and abstract expressionism. It's the sort of evolution I'd like to see more of in Arizona, where too many artists crank out works with little variation of subject, medium, or style. Seeing works by a versatile artist spanning nearly five decades is a needed reality check for a metropolis too feverishly consumed by the art-making of the now to take the long view.

"Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison" was organized by the Minnesota Museum of American Art and Arts Midwest, with the Plains Art Museum. It continues through January 11 at the Heard Museum, 2301 North Central Avenue. For more information, call 602-252-8840 or visit www.heard.org.

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