George Morrison is well-known for his driftwood landscapes. There's a big one hanging at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I've walked by it a thousand times, to the point where it strikes me as, well, a little dull.
But there's nothing dull about the retrospective of Morrison's work at the Minnesota History Center. The exhibit takes us from his decision as a student to switch from commercial art to fine art, drawn to the romance of being a serious artist, through years of abstract expressionism in New York and France, then back to Minnesota to teach at a time when Native American Studies was in its infancy as an academic field.
Work from each period draws our attention. An early landscape, realistic in the way that Marsden Hartley's paintings are realistic, gives us an animated impression of hills and fields in the vicinity of Grand Portage, where Morrison grew up.
Paintings and drawings from the time Morrison spent out East betray the influence of Kline and deKooning, though it strikes me that Morrison's abstracted forms from that period also bear a certain likeness to the stolid still-lifes of Giorgio Morandi.
Some of them also harbor elements of 50s kitsch, meaning, I guess, that the forms are pleasantly abstracted, rather than angrily torn or ultra-coolly lifted from life. I kept thinking, "That looks like the cover of an Ornette Coleman album I used to have."
In the course of the 50s and early 1960s Morrison became fond of intense magentas and thick impasto, though one of my favorites from the period is a delightful mess of yellow and blue smears with a few black highlights. It might have been at this time that he began to make collages out of driftwood gathered on Atlantic beaches.
Though these wood collages have become Morrison's hallmark, I find them a little too smooth, cool, and calculated. The wood isn't really driftwood, so much as it's discarded lumber. Morrison has fitted pieces together ingeniously to establish knots of activity held in place by vertical and (more often) horizontal lines of weathered lumber. Alas, the overall effect is more calculated than natural. I get the impression machines were involved.
Even less interesting, to my eye, are the intricately patterned totems he built out of blocks of wood. The wood itself is polished, the patterns are graph-like, and they remind me more of corporate clientele than of natural spirit.
Late in life Morrison brought various elements from other phases in his career together in some of his best paintings—seascapes in glaring magentas and blues of the sort that haunt Monet's predawn paintings of Rouen Cathedral. But here it's just the horizon and clouds of color interpenetrating, breathing together. Like nature, yes, but the intensity comes from within.
The romance of the serious, genuine artist, seeing what's there and also what isn't there—seeing where things overlap and refuse to fit. Summoning a place, and an atmosphere. Wow.