When "Mystic" Became Modern:
By Matthew Kangas
With the twentieth century at an end, it is possible to get a perspective on the not-so-long history of Pacific Northwest Art. The most pressing question that arises in any such examination of our region's art must now be, "Was the Northwest School really a school or part of the broader modern art movement?"
As Sheryl Conkelton, senior curator at the Henry Art Gallery, has discovered in her new exhibition, "What It Meant to be Modern: Seattle Art at Mid-Century," (until January 23) the Northwest School should now be seen in the context of all the art that was made in Seattle, not just that of its leaders Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Irving Anderson.
Long before the cultural breakthroughs of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, influences from all over the world buffeted art in this city. European avant-garde styles such as Cubism, Surrealism, and Expressionism influenced the Big Four as much as, if not more than, Asian art. By drawing upon major local institutional collections like the Tacoma and Seattle Art Museums, along with private collections and the Henry's own holdings, Conkelton assembles numerous examples to bolster her claims that "the whole of what happened here involves the very important role of ideas from Europe. Most of what you hear is about Asian-influenced artists, but there was much more going on."
The Henry Gallery show offers viewers the chance to see many masterpieces that have been hidden from view in public and private collections for over 50 years, in some cases. Seen afresh, newly cleaned and restored, many of the paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures demonstrate how tuned in to modern art Seattle artists were — from the beginning. The true meaning of regionalism in the Northwest now implies an openness, rather than romantic isolation, on the part of the area's top artists.
What it Meant to be Modern:
Indeed, the first modern artist to arrive in Seattle was not Mark Tobey, who came in 1923, but Ambrose Patterson, who arrived by boat in 1919 from San Francisco via his native Australia, and Paris, where he exhibited with Monet.
From his post at the University of Washington School of Art, Patterson set in motion not only a teaching system that flourishes today, but he continued to produce oils of incomparable light and color until his death in Laurelhurst at age 89 in 1966. Tobey became part of the Patterson circle, years before his younger acolytes Graves, Callahan and Anderson anointed him their guru. With his own sophisticated grasp of Cubism and, later, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, Tobey did not turn to Asian influences until his trip to China in 1934.
Although there have been several serious museum attempts over the past two decades at surveying Northwest art history in the 20th century, most were either unfocused or too biased toward one view, what UW art historian Martha Kingsbury called "Northwest Traditions" in 1978, the dominance of Asian influences on artists like the Big Four, Richard Gilkey, Leo Kenney, and Virginia Banks. That view now has been supplanted 21 years later with Conkelton's more inclusive view that sets the university moderns (Glen Alps, Frederick Anderson, Wendell Brazeau, Boyer Gonzales, Raymond Hill, Walter F. Isaacs, Alden Mason, Spencer Moseley, Ambrose and Viola Patterson) in a more flattering light. Their stars are rising as the new century dawns. These intelligent, talented teachers and practicing artists are finally beginning to get their due.
Not content with a picture of just "town and gown," Conkelton is also highlighting marginal figures who now seem worth a long look — and upward reassessment. She makes us ask new questions like "Why was Helmi Juvonen silenced and committed to an insane asylum?" or "Could it be that Japanese-American artists like Kenjiro Nomura and George Tsutakawa were better at ‘white writing' than Tobey?" or even "Why did so many educated artists reject Northwest ‘mystic' art in favor of expressionistic or geometric abstraction?"
Looking at the sparkling examples of sun-filled garden scenes by the Pattersons, or brilliantly colored abstract canvases by Brazeau and Moseley, it is important to remember that these were men and women trained in Paris, who saw birth and triumph of modern art first-hand, and brought that gospel back to their students in Seattle.
Symbolism was not confined to Callahan's nude preachers on horseback or Graves's solemn geese. Leo Kenney, now 74, may have painted with Tobey's gloomy tempera palette and whitened figures, but he entered a spooky world of Surrealism where nighttime is a Freudian dream state, not a journey to Kyoto or Shanghai. Isaacs, who was dean for 33 years, broke through to his own symbolic figure groups once he retired at age 70 in 1956. His greatest works, including Untitled (c.1957), were his last ones, tiny animated still lifes which seem as fresh and unfinished-looking as the day he dashed them off — 60 years after he exhibited with Picasso in Paris. His is an art that repays scrutiny with pleasure and joy.
"Hybridity" is a word Conkelton uses that perfectly expresses how modern art developed in the Northwest, especially in Seattle. Not just East meeting West, but Native American influences (Helmi), Scandinavian folk art (Pehr), and New Yorker cartoons (Wesley Wehr) touched artists deeply, along with Russian icons (Jacob Elshin), comic books (Anderson, Mason), and Depression-era make-work jobs like the Federal Art Project, all added to the mix in a way that reflects a multi-cultural rather than mono-cultural state of affairs.
This story is far from over, and it is likely that the pendulum may swing again in the coming century as we take stock of the artistic achievements that have occurred in our region. With our own world grown smaller, it makes sense that we see the art of our recent past as much as much more connected to global developments rather than cut off in aggressively isolated beach cabins. Modern art meant "mystic" art too. It provided a matrix that encompassed spiritual issues along with gestural abstraction, figurative symbolism, and landscape. All this brought Northwest art into the mainstream of the century's most celebrated cultural achievements.
MATTHEW KANGAS, Seattle art critic and curator, writes for the Seattle Times, Art in America, Sculpture and many other publications.
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