The Mystic Artists on Exhibit in Seattle



The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) introduces Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mystic and the Mystical from June 19 through September 7, 2014 in the Simonyi Special Exhibition Galleries. Drawing from SAM’s permanent collection, the exhibition is the first comprehensive overview of a distinctive assembly of artists who had a specific interpretation on the Modern World in the 1930s and 1940s.

The founding artists or “The Big Four” – Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Guy Anderson – became known as the Seattle-based group, Northwest School of Modern Art. The members strove to create art that intentionally reacted to the experiences around them. They united natural elements of the Pacific Northwest, specifically Puget Sound, with long-established Asian artistry.

The artists saw art as a process of their spiritual journey and were impelled by the region’s fusion of Asian and Native American traditions. Collectively, they were “highly acclaimed, closely connected, but still little understood.” The group benefited from their unique geographical location, considered a “modern art outpost,” and worked uninhibited by the formidable influence of New York, London and the rest of Europe. At the “portal to the Far East,”  the artists focused on the global political, economic and social struggles of their time.

They soon garnered attention in New York, across the country, and for a time, universally for their expressive technique and unusual imagery that drew on spiritual teachings, ranging from Zen Buddhism to the Persian Baha’i faith and their mastery of Asian calligraphy.

Their artistic style extended from “realistic to nonobjective,” but their work had one shared denominator: it expressed a mystical impression towards life and the universe. This mystical approach originated in part from the artist’s consciousness of the overwhelming forces of nature that surrounded them, and partly from the Asian influence, whose culture was widespread along the Pacific coast. The artists merged their influences, to create art that was not limited to being thought of as “regional art” but with characteristics of the Northwest.

Mark Tobey was considered the “father figure” of the movement. In 1918, he adapted the Baha’i faith, whose adherents believe in the unity of all religions and all beings. The philosophies became significant to his artistic exploration of non-Western cultures and the dynamism of the natural world. After a personal quest around the globe, Tobey established what would become his signature calligraphic “white-line writing;” soft scrawls that primed his canvases with energetic movement, as seen in his Electric Light, Forms Follow Man (1941-1943) and Edge of August (1953) paintings. Tobey’s capacity to distinguish “moments of enlightenment” allowed him to envisage “beyond the frame” of traditional art to the artistic and spiritual possibilities of daily life. He told Life magazine in 1953, “When I looked at a tree, it became a flame of rhythmic lines bursting out of the ground.”

Kenneth Callahan, also lived near Seattle, within view of the Cascade Mountains, whose rugged contours and somber appearance dominated his work. Callahan’s paintings were richly detailed and demonstrated his knowledge of sacred texts. Unlike the other members, Callahan sensed the allegorical aspects of the natural forces after becoming a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains. He sought to understand “means to amplify the lessons of history and Scripture.” For him, the turbulent clouds implied the perpetual struggle of humanity, while the rocky sections below represented the social bonds and conventions imprisoning men. The artist roamed the mountains to render the jagged profiles that became prevalent in his work as seen in Riders on the Mountain (1956).seattle

The reclusive painter, Morris Graves, was also transfixed by configurations in nature. After traveling the world and China, he studied Asian art and its preoccupation with the inner, mystical meaning of the world, and developed a life-long interest in Eastern philosophy and art. Graves concentrated his interpretations of nature, delicate still lifes and depictions of fish, snakes and birds that encircled his home in the Northwest woods. He cast his subjects in luminous lines and colors of Asian art to suggest the “shimmering mystery of their spiritual life” such as Dove of the Inner Eye (1941) and Inner Eye Eagle with Chalice (1941).

Guy Anderson was influenced by the Asian art that he was presented as a young student in Seattle. In the 1930s, he found a new element of inspiration in driftwood that he discovered strewn along the Washington beaches. His paintings featured the gray, weathered tones and the smooth, contorted lines of the driftwood as imagery in his work as seen in The Disposition of the Miner and Deception Pass through Indian Country (1959).

“The Big Four” considered Seattle and Skagit County as their world – to them, it was dim, tempestuous, destroyed by depression and war – but they also experienced a mystical connection to the Northwest’s native cultures. Their color palette consisted of subdued, grayish earth tones and slate blues with the irregular illumination of saturated color. Whether they used Chinese brushwork, oils, tempera or watercolor, the Northwest Modern School of Art members adapted the visual expressions of the Northwest Coast people as an effective codex of images for communicating a shared spirituality, and conviction in the importance of the principles of nature and modern art.

By Dawn Levesque

Seattle Art Museum
The Museum of Modern Art

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