The Emergence of
Northwest Art

Delores Tarzan Ament,
Mary Randlett

(University of Washington/MONA)
We have twenty or so Northwest artists represented here, of which almost half are now deceased. The Big Four get ample space: Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson.

Their earliest brush with fame came in a 1953 Life Magazine article which was entitled "Mystic Painters of the Pacific Northwest." Like Jackson Pollock --- also known as Jack the Dripper --- The Four were using another reality behind the reality of the reality in their paintings. For real. They were fascinated by light; one artist termed their works "A Calligraphy of Light."

Morris Graves was a Zen Buddhist, a Vedantist, and a follower of Father Divine. He also raised dogs, cats, and crows, all them named "Edith" after Edith Sitwell.

Mark Tobey's calligraphic painting --- his gestural marks --- were called "white writing." He was a follower of Baha Ullah --- a Baha'i --- and set out to find the primordial consciousness out of which phenomena erupt, whatever that means. His non-referential markings on canvas were the first of these "white writings."

Tobey was a stodgemeister: a faux Englishman from Wisconsin. He was a revolutionary --- an inventor of a new way of seeing the world, and art --- using abstract, non-referential markings that resembled Oriental calligraphy. He filled entire canvases with these marks. That's why they called him "Mark" Tobey.

Graves took this "white writing" and turned it into moonlight, creating anthropomorphic birds which were symbols for the ecstatic and the melancholy in nature, also called the duality --- The Big Deuce.

The two of them were striving to paint consciousness while things are still in the state of becoming: the nascent, the luminous. Graves achieved this by surrounding the picture with light, surrounded the subjects with halos --- for instance, the black orb behind a crane's head --- which was his attempt to show the source, the origin, the void, the consciousness. He was in tune with what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy.

He was also a thief, because he stole the "white writing" concept from Tobey --- used it to embellish his pictures of woe-begone wounded birds surrounded by moonlight. By 1942, he was a sensation, one of eighteen Americans from nine states appearing at the Willard Gallery and the show at the MOMA in 1942 --- where he sold eighteen of his paintings, making him a celebrity. By stealing Tobey's technique, Graves became a national sensation, leaving his master behind. Tobey didn't speak to him for twelve years after the Grand Theft.

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It's been written that Jackson Pollock went to all of Mark Tobey's Willard Gallery shows in New York. Tobey presented small to medium sized canvases, say 33 by 45 inches --- Jackson Pollock would see them and go home and blow them up to twelve by nine feet, pouring paint onto the canvas instead of brushing it on. He made some wonderful paintings before he started to be such a drip.

Pollock was never really concerned with diffused light. But he was very interested in Tobey's idea of covering the entire canvas with marks up to and including its edges. This had never been done before in American art. Thus Tobey is truly the unsung progenitor of Abstract Expressionism.

For "the Big Four" art was a token of their intellectual journeys --- a visual dialogue based on their understanding of the self and its relation to the cosmos. Eastern concepts of consciousness and creation intrigued them (they were all smitten with Zen, Hinduism, or even Baha'i).

As mid 20th century American mystics, the senior members of The Northwest School can be considered a visual arm of the Beat Generation: the Beats introduced Eastern disciplines and sacred texts to American literature, the Northwest artists invented a visual vocabulary to accompany this collective search for meaning in our society. They helped initiate a new and healthier understanding of nature. Morris Graves was as important in introducing the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta to America as Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood.

Ultimately, Tobey and Graves became mannerists, employees of their old ideas. Only Guy Anderson in his later years showed any vitality. He continued to develop his forceful, gestural paintings --- big circles and undulating bands of scaled-up brush strokes. Compared to the size of Tobey's small paintings. Anderson's oeuvre is Leviathan.

Finally, there's Ken Callahan. His paintings were Christian Apocalyptic revelations. One will find armies of humans and animals crowded into the tempera. Callahan used a kind of figurative "white writing," too It's like a bottle of White-Out, filled with Existential yearnings.

The key to this technique, one they all shared, involved a dusky background --- the grays and browns and greens of the Pacific Northwest. The flora and fauna appear in white atop the darker colors. This iridescence is the exact opposite of Seurat: everything starts with the dark and goes to the light. Also, everything was painted with an economy of means, a technique borrowed from the famous Chinese and Japanese scroll paintings found at the Seattle Art Museum.

If Tobey, Graves Callahan and Anderson are the designated mystics of the group, Leo Kenney is their psychedelic stepson. He brought mescaline into this mix, using his experiences on this drug to construct the series of luminous mandalas that followed his early fascination with Surrealism. His "Night Blooming Chalice" hints at a magical reality lurking behind the evocative imagery. It is, perhaps, The Numinous Mystery.

Or better --- it's a matter of big gonads filled will millions of wriggling spermatozoa. Thus, the "white writing" could be little tadpoles under a microscope --- full of potential, glittering mysterious beasties brimming chock-a-block full of future babies who grow up to be dominated and diapered adult babies handcuffed to many radiators.

A good example is Tobey's western town (on page eighteen of the present volume). There in the "white writing," so suggestive of the hive-like activity of people in buildings, one can imagine the radiators and big babies. In this, as in many of his paintings, he went all the way to the edge of the canvas (unheard of before his time).

Helmi Juvonen, also featured here [See Fig. 2 above] was obsessed with Mark Tobey. She was diagnosed as a manic depressive, although as they point out in Iridescent Light, she was hardly depressed. She was sent to the funny farm at Sedro Wolley, possibly for stalking Tobey.

She painted portraits of Tobey and North Coast Indian imagery and raggedy dolls which she sold on a clothes line on the street, sort of a bag lady with a brush. Then there's Helmi's Christmas tree (on page fifty-four) which features Tobey holding two big babies that she believed the two of them, one day, would have together.

Some of Helmi is quite accomplished, others have a manic charm. She was the mad chronicler of the tiny northwest scene of autodidacts. Helmi would hallucinate in her padded cell --- saying, for example, that "Whispering Wes" Wehr [See Figs. 1 and 3] went to Ivar's Acres of Clams Restaurant to drink the clam nectar because Ivar claimed that anyone who drank it would have a guaranteed boner. Thus for these artists, clam nectar put the proverbial lead in their drawing pencils.

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When we look through this book, we can only be nostalgic for a disappearing era --- an era in the northwest where everyone knew everyone else. It was small, and provincial, and fun.

But Iridescent Light misses some important artists, like Charles Stokes. He was the one who added a third dimension to "white writing" by dropping a shadow behind the brush strokes: he created an illusory space between the background and the foreground. Mark does a mark on the canvas and Stokes puts a shadow behind the mark so it floats right off the picture plane. Stokes' addition to the cannon was essentially an old sign painting technique.

Jay Steensma, who did a punk version of the Northwest style, does not appear here. He took the birds and the circles and the chalices, the snakes and the moonlight...and he painted them on Safeway bags --- sloppily. He satirized the NW school --- but it was a satire that has its own charm, a hastily-tossed-off version from the "Little Tramp of the Northwest School."

Then there's Joseph Goldberg with his encaustic painting --- paintings in beeswax. He lathers wax onto canvas, then blowtorches and buffs it. Although minimal, they have a certain luminous elegance --- which means they fall into the NW preoccupation with light. The shiny surface finish, with pigments suspended in wax, reeks of the sort of mind-numbing good taste that goes well with Dale Chihuly's giant art glass candy dishes.

Albert Fisher, John Schaefer and Ed Nordin --- completely ignored here --- are disciples of Leo Kenney and John James Audubon. All three often use water-based media on paper. Fisher is one of the Northwest's most prolific, yet least seen painters. He's interested in mandalic patterns and points of light reflected off water. Shaefer paints elegant grids in subdued colors reminiscent of esoteric diagrams. Nordin paints marshy landscapes and sculpts highly stylized birds in bronze.

Also left out in the cold is Susan Skilling who has been influenced by Graves, Goldberg and Eastern symbolism. Although from a succeeding generation, she should certainly be included in the tradition, if not the school itself. Her "Flower Pillars" are iridescent and tantric, but nothing compared to the allure of her blushing knees. All the people in this book are on the school bus.

Obviously, the grossest omission is that mischievous parvenu Charles Krafft, the bald, bullet-headed "Beast 666" of the NW tradition. He lived the lifestyle, danced the dance, walked the walk, immersed himself in the philosophies, and got absolutely nowhere. Then, out of terminal despair, he turned to ceramics.

"The unique ideas and energies of the beloved Northwest School painters," he recently said, "no longer give God head. It's going nowhere --- it's become interior decoration, a dead horse mounted by a dead rider in a taupe room in Deadsville."

Krafft's most recent forays are in Disasterware, blue and white delft AK-47s, hand grenades and Martha Stewart skateboards made entirely out of porcelain --- all daintily and delicately designed.

Krafft says that traditional Northwest Art has lowered itself to a myriad of lesser influences, has been superseded by the American Art Glass Renaissance launched from "The Pilchuck School." He says, "No one thinks of the aesthetics of painting anymore ---only glass blowing. It's been dumbed down by the success of popular painters like Bill Cumming, Paul Havas, Joe Goldberg, and Alden Mason etc."

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Our main complaint about Iridescent Light is that the actual works of art that were selected to be reproduced are not the best representative works of the artists. For instance, Gilkey's "Tibetan Journey" on page seven is mediocre. One of his landscapes or a still life should have been reproduced. --- We would like to see more art and fewer photos of artists.

There's a definite cutting of corners on color reproduction. Graves' "Waking and Singing" frontispiece doesn't have the force of his 1940s "Blind Bird Singing in the Moonlight." or other signature pieces. Leo Kenny's picture on page seventeen is fine, but one of the mescaline mandalas or his seminal "The Inception of Magic," from the Seattle Art Museum should have been included.

This is a mediocre selection trying to save money on color reproductions. But the real tragedy is that this is the first monograph dedicated to Pacific Northwest artists --- so now the facts are set, mistakenly, in stone.

--- Wendy Pickles

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