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John Lamb, Published July 21 2013

The late artist George Morrison kept his childhood homeland in his art

Fargo - For a time, George Morrison left his home on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. He went to New York, then on to study in Europe, but he always kept northern Minnesota with him.

A touring show spanning the late artist’s works opened recently at the Plains Art Museum and remains on display through Sept. 1.

The major retrospective is a collaboration between the Plains, the Minnesota Museum of American Art and Arts Midwest. The exhibit moves to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York in October and aims to give the Ojibwa artist the recognition that eluded him before his death in 2000.

Colleen Sheehy, director and CEO of the Plains, calls the show, “the fullest collection of George Morrison’s work.”

The display features nearly 80 pieces, spanning from a 1940 painted portrait to 1995 abstract images and works in between that detail the arc of his creative journey.

“What he ends up creating is this synthesis of Ojibwa sensibilities and Western aesthetics,” Sheehy says. “His art is imbued with native sensibilities, but at the same time, he doesn’t make typical Native American art.”

The color and shape

Morrison was born in 1919 near Chippewa City on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. For the first six years of his life he spoke only Ojibwa, until he started going to school.

After graduating high school, Morrison attended what is now the Minnesota College of Art and Design. His education there continued even off the campus.

“He saw a Picasso show in 1941 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that had a big impact on him,” Sheehy says.

The show is arranged mostly chronologically, and within a few steps of the entrance you can see how Picasso and other modern artists influenced Morrison’s developing style. His work becomes less directly representative and more abstract.

“He plunges into a more intuitive way of work,” Sheehy explains, pointing out the “subconscious, biomorphic shapes” he used in the later 1940s.

Morrison would go on to art school in New York and befriended abstract expressionist painters Franz Kline and Willem DeKooning.

Later he would make friends with the North Dakota-born painter James Rosenquist.

This wasn’t his only connection back to the Midwest. Morrison enjoyed spending time in Provincetown, Mass., because it reminded him of Minnesota’s North Shore.

His roots come through in strong horizon lines seen in many of his drawings, paintings and even sculptures of the time.

“He keeps retreating to the landscape. His signature element ends up being the horizon line, but it’s just a concept, there is no line out there. It’s something we make up,” Sheehy says. “Is it the future? A spirit world? A mystery? George evokes a lot of that.”

Along with Morrison’s developing style came his mastery of color. On the south wall of the second floor gallery are three big paintings from the early 1960s. A vibrant red is a common element in each.

“He really was a colorist, someone interested in the emotional and psychological and formal qualities of color,” explains guest curator, W. Jackson Rushing III, professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma.

“He talked later in his career about red being an Indian color, red suggesting Indian potency to it,” Rushing says. “Red is functioning as a sign of passion and vitality. Those are paintings about being alive and expressing a certain intensity about being alive.”

Influential lines

Sheehy points to some of Morrison’s line drawings in the show and says Minneapolis artist Frank Big Bear was inspired by him.

“George has been such an important figure for young Native American artists from our region,” Sheehy says.

The proof is two floors below in the main floor gallery, where Big Bear’s detailed drawings, as well as those of his son, Star Wallowing Bull, are part of a permanent collection exhibit.

“George helped a lot of Native American artists in the country develop their own voices and break out of constraints of what native art was supposed to look like.”

Wallowing Bull, now living in Moorhead, recalls meeting Morrison in his father’s Minneapolis studio and the elder artist telling the 10-year-old drawing Transformers, “You’re going to be a great artist like your father.”

“George was an influence through the years for those line drawings. He still inspires me,” Wallowing Bull says.

He says after the June opening of the Morrison retrospective, he went back home and created one of his own line drawings.

At home in his art

The show continues with the second half of Morrison’s career in the third floor gallery and opens with another view of Lake Superior.

In 1965, Morrison started collecting bits of wood that washed up along the shores around Provincetown. He’d piece the scraps together in elaborate geometrical patterns he called “paintings in wood.” With little bits mixed in, but often below longer horizontal lines, the assemblages appear as sculptural lakescapes with the smaller pieces reminiscent of rocks on the shore. An example of one of those pieces, “Cumulated Landscape,” hangs on the west wall.

The dominant piece in the third floor gallery is another wood structure, with more uniform pieces of wood assembled as a four-sided column.

Though it lacks any imagery, the piece is reminiscent of a totem pole, emphasized by the artist dying each of the blocks an earthy red.

The other focal points in the gallery are a group of 1990 paintings subtitled “Red Rock Variation: Lake Superior Landscape.” Each looks out at the Great Lake from his home studio, Red Rock.

“To me it looks like Cezanne,” Sheehy says.

The studies also call to mind Claude Monet’s study of haystacks in different seasons from 100 years earlier.

“He drew so much from that setting where he grew up that it keeps showing up,” Sheehy says. “He keeps returning to and bringing back elements from earlier in his career.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533