Should you go to Seattle Art Museum's big Northwest modernism show? Yes. Any rooms, anywhere, containing 44 paintings by Morris Graves and 29 by Mark Tobey should not be lonely, and there are rarities here you won't see again for a while. But wow, this exhibition—called a "landmark project" by SAM, and the first time these moderns are headlining the museum where several of them got their start—should be better. It's nowhere near comprehensive. It's not even well-rounded.
The truth of Modernism in the Pacific Northwest is that it has vast gaps and tumorous excesses. More than half the Northwest modern works are by Graves and Tobey: 73 of 114 pieces total. Graves and Tobey were the most famous of the "Northwest Mystics," as Life magazine dubbed them in 1953. But the Life story was a combination tourism pitch and promotional brochure for four individuals; it was not a real look at the breadth of modern art being made in Seattle and across the Northwest. Local historians and curators have been trying to tell that fuller, more accurate story ever since. SAM does not make that attempt here. SAM shamelessly reiterates the famous two as the big two, almost the only two.
The four artists named by Life were Kenneth Callahan, Guy Anderson, and Graves and Tobey. The latter pair were already known in New York. (Tobey's claim to fame, for some, is that his 1944 show of "white writing" abstractions influenced Jackson Pollock.) At SAM, Callahan is represented with a mere six paintings. Anderson? Five.
Worse, if Life and SAM are to be believed, no women or Asian American artists were part of the scene. Is SAM not the museum that in 2013—one year ago—hosted the major all-women exhibition Elles, trumpeting the awareness that women are badly underrepresented in museums? Where are Margaret Tomkins, Yvonne Twining Humber, Virginia Banks, Z. Vanessa Helder, Helmi Juvonen, and Hilda Morris in SAM's 2014 portrait of Modernism in the Pacific Northwest? In the catalog, there's a depressing essay about the women "behind" the big four. It reads as if it were written in 1953. What were the women who run SAM thinking?
Meanwhile, the major Asian American artists Paul Horiuchi and George Tsutakawa are represented by a stunningly woeful three pieces each. And when you see these works, you'll be even more baffled. Horiuchi's 1959 painting on paper Trail in the Snow is an absolute revelation. Is there a trail or isn't there? You will have the existentially familiar feeling of just not being sure, but needing to travel along anyway. Meanwhile, SAM displays Asian antiquities from its collection that the artists may have seen and been influenced by, and makes hay out of the Asian influence on the white painters—while severely underrepresenting the actual work of Northwest Asian artists.
The Life of 1953 didn't imagine the idea of a queer aesthetic—three of its four star painters were gay (Tobey, Graves, and Anderson)—but Life in 1953 is not SAM in 2014. Yet there's still no mention of the way their works play with sexual politics and aesthetics. An early Graves portrait of a semi-nude man lying on a bed, called Morning, is explained as a self-portrait, ignoring a theory put forth in a silence-breaking 1986 essay in Art Criticism by the critic Matthew Kangas. Using Graves's own testimony about that time—"I threw in my lot with the painter Guy Anderson and we improvised on life," Graves told an interviewer—Kangas identified the man in the painting as not Graves, but Anderson. In that period, the two traveled up and down the West Coast together for six months at a stretch.
Sculptors Philip McCracken, Tony Angell, and James Washington Jr., make only token appearances at SAM with a single stranded sculpture or two. Meanwhile, the Dali-inflected surrealist visions of Leo Kenney, a second-generation Northwest Schooler whose works date into the 1970s, gets an entire exhibition-within-an-exhibition of 20 paintings. SAM director Kimerly Rorschach and Modernism curator Patti Junker (who's head of American art—the head of modern and contemporary art would've created another show entirely) are partial to Kenney's work, says veteran Northwest School dealer John Braseth, and apparently want to build a case for Kenney's centrality to Northwest modernism. I'm not buying it.
Despite SAM's sweeping claims, Modernism is really a machine with three parts: One is the 59 Northwest modern works SAM already owned, the second is a star private collection donated to the museum in 2008, of which 46 pieces are making their collective SAM debut, and the third is 10 private loans from various owners, including a few marvelous Pike Place crowd portraits by Tobey.
The star collectors are Helen and Marshall Hatch. Helen, who died in 1996, was a childhood friend of Graves, and Marshall was a true patron all his life, supporting artists with "loans" he knew they could never repay, Braseth says. The couple met at Garfield High School; he later ran a marine and railroad supply business in Ballard. They loved Graves and Tobey. (To see Callahan and Anderson this summer, you're better off going to Woodside/Braseth Gallery.) SAM almost didn't get the Hatch collection. Understandably, Marshall didn't believe SAM cared enough to deserve his treasures, until Junker and SAM's longtime curator Chiyo Ishikawa persuaded him before his death in 2008, Braseth said.
The Graves paintings alone—a basically awesome slew spanning the 1930s through the '50s—are the mother lode. An early painting of a red-eyed mad dog was fueled by his anger about the ascension of Hitler and the fight between China and his beloved Japan. Also from the Hatches are his diaphanous little mandalas, lotuses, and chakras, and an unusual pink portrait of a Catholic cardinal. Graves's later, despairing paintings are here, too, the products of, among other forces, his extended imprisonment for refusing to join the military. Graves's art is from and to the heart, as cheesy as it sounds. He painted what's possibly the only portrait in existence of a cute, fluffy, yet dignified hedgerow creature. You will love it in spite of yourself. Another stab: a 1955 oil painting, a standout for its size and heavy paint, of white tulips glowing on a void-black background, said to be the painting Graves had at his bedside when he was dying. (It's owned by Jim and Gaye Pigott.)
What new news of Tobey here? None, just a solid review. Junker emphasizes the influence of his Baha'i faith, believing in unity across peoples, as the glue in dense early crowd scenes of Pike Place Market, as thick as James Ensor mobs. They are inordinately fun to look at, like Indian miniatures. On the other end of the spectrum, a painting of stark slashes, previously owned by SAM but rarely shown, is said to be a symbol of the barbed wire of Holocaust camps. One more not-to-be-missed Tobey: Western Splendor, hovering between crawling sacred architecture and white webbed abstraction.
Fifteen years ago, art historian Martha Kingsbury wrote an essay about the Northwest moderns that remains the freshest overview, posing unanswerable questions about the artists' place between the individualistic, rebellious, "old romantic modernism," and the socially responsible, collaborative, and public spirit that grew out of it. Junker concludes the Northwest modernists "had political, aesthetic, and moral [values]... at their very core," even while the New Yorkers broke away into pure painting, but it's not actually a closed question. I'd love to see a show about that. I count at least four significant Northwest modern exhibitions at local museums in the last 20 years—none comprehensive, but all tight, transparent, and illuminating. SAM is still earning the faith of the late Marshall Hatch.