From Social Realism to the Music of Abstraction
by Ginevra Ralph
Director, OFAM's Music Throu' the Eye Program
This article excerpts heavily (with permission) from Barry Johnson's excellent catalog essay written for the Portland Art Museum's 1993 retrospective Carl Morris Paintings 1939-1992. Johnson was the guest co-curator of the exhibition along with PAM's John Weber, now of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The catalog, containing 48 color reproductions, is available through OFAM, and provides a particularly insightful understanding of this important artist of the Northwest.
Morris' work is represented in prestigious museums and collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Public collections in Oregon include the Portland Art Museum, Reed College, OHSU, and the University of Oregon. In January 2000, the Laura Russo Gallery in Portland mounted a show of Morris paintings, many from the artist's estate that have not yet been publicly seen.
The featured artwork for this year's Oregon Festival of American Music American Concert Series are the two murals Agriculture and Lumbering. These murals grace the end-walls of the Eugene Main Post Office. They were painted by the Portland artist Carl Morris (1911-93), who executed them under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project (1935-43), which was established under FDR's New Deal. This article outlines the WPA Federal Arts Project as well as a brief history of Morris, hailed as "Oregon's most important painter."
A principle that we follow in selecting artwork to feature with each Music Throu' the Eye program is that the piece reflect in some fashion the theme of the OFAM music series in question. Carl Morris' murals Agriculture and Lumbering are particularly appropriate for this year's American Composers Series "On the Shoulders of Giants." They well reflect the theme of "the common people" as great, and they represent the spirit of artistic accessibility.
These, of course, are key characteristics of the Depression Era project that commissioned the works. And they are reflective of the spirit of the times: painting, photography, literature, music -- all aspects of cultural life in America seemed to emphasize our common heritage and place value in everyday life.
The murals had never been professionally photographed until Eugene's new Postmaster, Ralph Peterson, endorsed OFAM's project. Peterson personally assisted photographer Kent Peterson (no relation) with the documentation task, and subsequently hosted Lane Arts Council's First Friday Artwalk in December 1999.
OFAM thanks Postmaster Peterson and his staff for the opportunity to bring renewed attention to the murals. In tribute to Carl Morris, OFAM believes that Oregon still enjoys these works, now after 57 years, and that we will continue to enjoy them long into the new century. OFAM hopes that next time you need a stamp, you can take a moment to examine firsthand this special part of our community's history and public art.
The post office at 5th and Willamette was built in 1938 as part of the Public Works Administration Public Building program to support local economies and workers during the Depression. Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who served as the federal consulting architect on the project, paid special attention to details, such as the matched marble wainscoting in the lobby and the art deco motifs carried through from the facade. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Carl Morris won the US Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture competition to complete a set of murals for the building. The Section competition required that the art works represent local industry and agriculture, and while not the most representative of Morris' subsequent style, the murals are wonderful examples of the Social Realism depicted across the country through this selection process. In this instance Morris' special sense of color and design distinguish the Eugene murals.
The two 6' x 15' murals cover the upper walls of the north and south ends of the Post Office Lobby. The original cost of the project was $2,350. The funding came from approximately 1% of the building costs allocated for artwork. For the 1986 Historical Landmark dedication, Morris recounted his installation of the murals, which had been completed in 1942. Because the country was at war, however, he had been unable to get a leave of absence to install the murals.
Finally, "one Sunday [in 1943] a crew of friends and I installed the murals. It may have been a surprise to post office customers to find the murals on the walls Monday morning where none had existed the previous Friday..."
He continued: "It is particularly gratifying to me after 44 years to know that the people of Eugene are still enjoying those paintings...."
The Federal Arts Project was a fascinating, influential, and often controversial part of the tumultuous '30s. Envisioned and led by men such as George Biddle, Edward Bruce and Holger Cahill, the Federal Arts Project (and the related U.S. Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture) were created with a two-pronged purpose:
Following the theory that the commissioned art must be accessible to and understood by the communities who received it, the Section proceeded with two strategies. First, a panel of national judges awarded commissions through an anonymous competition. Once an artist had been selected for a particular commission, he or she was required to become familiar with the community -- its cultural, agricultural and industrial life. The artist often moved to the area, where all stages of the work were reviewed and approved by a local panel.
This multilayered, democratic selection process lead to the Social Realism of the era; and incidentally is why the art in public buildings across the country has similar characteristics. In one region, the subjects may be cotton picking and plowing with mule teams, and in others wheat, corn and potato harvests, paddle boats, butter churning, or mining scenes. In Eugene, of course, it was agriculture and timber.
In the relatively short 8 years of its existence, the fine arts effort of the Federal Arts Project was responsible for about 5,000 artists producing more than 23,000 watercolors and drawings, 18,000 pieces of sculpture, over 100,000 paintings, and more than 2,500 murals around the country.
Born in Yorba Linda, California, Carl Morris studied at the Chicago Art Institute and in Paris and Vienna. Under the aegis of the WPA Federal Arts Project, Morris established a new Spokane Art Center in 1938. This was designed, he wrote:
"...to make the citizens conscious not only of their own resources as individuals, but also of the artist resources and possibilities of the community."
One of his first recruits to teach at the new center was sculptress Hilda Grossman. They married in 1940, and together became dynamic and colorful leaders in the Oregon arts scene until her death in 1991 and his in 1993. The couple moved to Portland when Carl won the Eugene Post Office mural competition in 1941.
"Morris' own art at this time was heavily influenced by the Social Realism characteristic of WPA projects -- figurative, socially responsible, well crafted. He was clearly an excellent draftsman, comfortable with the human form, and there were signs that he would become a proficient colorist too, despite the predominant earth tones. The mural project is the best example of Morris' style in the late 1930s -- though by 1941 his painting had already begun to change considerably. The muscular wood cutters and farmers at work...are convincing and splendidly drawn, but...they seem remote from the artist's subsequent concerns and expression.
"Morris' shift from overtly literal subjects is evident in the mid-40s, with gritty, melancholy, post-war figurative works. Morris takes the personality out of the figures, frames them abstractly, and creates another world for them that still, somehow, speaks directly to our own...
"The soon-to-be-characteristic Morris light shines through some of the flat planes. Morris had reached a point of mastery of the key ingredients of abstract painting -- color, composition, dynamic tension. He was still working in small formats, and his palette was often confined to those earth tones that pervade much of the work made in Oregon during the time -- by C. S. Price, Charles Heaney, and Arthur and A. C. Runquist, for example. In short, the liberation of complete abstraction hadn't yet occurred but...it was hiding behind the metaphysical, figurative dances on the canvas."
Throughout the years, Morris often referred to music when he discussed his own work, trying to describe in words what he was striving for on canvas:
"There was a point in my work in the 1940s when I was painting figures and human beings. l found that I was thinking abstractly when I was working with them. I suddenly felt that whatever attention they were getting was for their literal content. I wanted to make a statement without a prop or a handle. People are going to find their own image, their own interpretation. That doesn't bother me. I try to paint the chord that inspired me. Then we are all hearing the same music, but from individual points of view. Still, we are all listening to the same chord."
The center of the American art world in the 1950s, many believed, was in New York. Hilda and Carl frequently visited friends and colleagues in New York, such as Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Joseph Campbell and Lionel Trilling. Nevertheless they resisted their friends' urgings to relocate back East to what Carl, at least, considered to be a climate of commercialism and artistic distraction.
They brought together an intellectual and productive circle of Northwest friends, including poet Theodore Roethke, and painters Richard Diebenkorn, William Ivey, and Mark Tobey for get-togethers at their home. Morris is clear about the reason:
'We wanted to make our lives rich enough to be worth living."
During the summer of 1957, Morris taught for three weeks at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The dramatic change in scenery and sparkling dry air might, not surprisingly, have had some influence on how he saw things.
"At about the same time his work changed. The overall tones lightened, the colors became brighter, spaces opened up. The paintings are more complex; the emotional chords they strike are various, even within a single painting. They move the eye in a stately procession around the canvas, from detailed forms across expanses of color (themselves complicated by subtle tonal shifts) back to detailed forms..."
A more overt spiritual connection arises from the luminosity of Morris' painting. Light animates the still canvas. Sometimes it's a mist that settles in. More frequently, it's a shining within, the incredible translucence of an opal, the shock of a flake of gold in a pan of gravel. The sparkle and glow warm the paintings, elevate them and the claims they make. There's nothing giddy or ecstatic about it. In fact, the light appears to best effect in some of Morris' sterner, more remote work, where there is no single touchstone -- neither a craggy rock form nor a jutting cliff face -- to provide an easy lighter interpretation for us. And so we are left with form color, texture -- in short, with an existence on canvas that begins to make aesthetic, emotional, and psychological claims as we encounter it.
During this period Morris was given 6 weeks to complete a nine-canvas set of murals for the 1959 Oregon Centennial Exposition Hall of the History of Religions. Morris' challenge was to depict all of the different religions brought to the state by the incoming pioneers. While "representational elements appear in some of the panels, for the most part they are a testament to the power of abstract painting." -- and to Morris' spirituality in his work. Two of the nine murals currently hang in Room 198 at the University of Oregon School of Music, on loan from the UO Museum of Art.
Morris began to incorporate a long term interest in calligraphic expression into his paintings beginning in the late 1950s. Calligraphy added a pulsating rhythm, an outlet for line, and a swing to his work. With calligraphy in place as another tool to use in his paintings, Morris had gathered most of the resources he would use over the next three decades and a working method that fit him. He employed these elements -- color fields, organic shapes, calligraphy, surface manipulations -- in a cyclical way.
Returning to musical metaphors, Morris wrote about his cyclical tendency within his abstraction:
"If you have a symphony orchestra of eighty-five instruments you don't have a piccolo play one note and then walk off the stage. It has to come back on. A color has to echo. Like nature, it doesn't throw single seed. There is life and death and return in a canvas."
In the 1980s Morris' sense of luminosity and color continued to evolve as he explored his interest in rock formations and nature. Glowing shapes took over his next important series, called Intersecting Light. These paintings are among the clearest expressions of Morris' geological interests, and a most compelling suite of them is installed in the lobby of the Vollum Institute of Advanced Biological Research at the Oregon Health Sciences University.
"Morris liked to compare abstract art to music, and this series is symphonic. Shapes and colors echo with each painting and from canvas to canvas. The blues and yellows are rich and magnificent, and they settle against each other along fissures and in front of deep space. The structures again could be almost anything. In this building we imagine them under a microscope, but their resemblance to geological strata, chunks of rock, or cross-sections of translucent agate is also uncanny...
"A September fishing trip to Idaho with Bill Ivey provided the impetus for a late 1980s series of paintings, among Morris' most powerful. Caught in a hailstorm and driving snow the clouds seems just as solid as the hilly ground. Driving along a ridge Morris and Ivey couldn't tell whether they looking up or down on the snowy ground. The resulting Silver Creek series is disorienting. Even though the space seems topographical, the viewer struggles for balance before it. The intersecting lines have a staccato rhythm and give the paintings a freshness and an immediacy unprecedented in Morris' work."
Many of these later works were still held in the artist's collection at the time of the 1993 Morris retrospective and are included in the catalog.
Like so much of Morris' abstract work, the late paintings are difficult to discuss. That is why so many critics have found them selves groping for metaphors, poetic or banal, when they attempt to write about Morris' art. His painting comes from a tradition in which the discussion of the work isn't as important as the experience of it: the art occupies a place where language cannot go directly. Morris' paintings can change the viewer's emotional weather.
Just days before he died, Morris was working with Johnson to complete the catalog, and he summed up his career of abstraction with a final, powerful comparison to music that should resonate with us as concert audience members this week:
"Music is the most abstract of all the arts. It is the envy of all the other forms. One listens to music and accepts the response. There is not the question: What does it mean? Yet the meaning is in the listening. Painting should be viewed with the same openness of mind and heart. Just experience the work, don't try to explain it. To explain is to remove the mystery. To remove the mystery is to remove the content."
Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. Edited by Francis V. O'Connor.
Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973.
Carl Morris, Paintings 1939-1992. Exhibition catalog. Essay by Barry Johnson.
Portland: Portland Art Museum, 1993.
McKinzie, Richard. The New Deal for Artists.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
Melosh, Barbara. Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater.
Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Park, Marlene and Gerald Markowitz. Democratic Vistas, Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.
The Public as Patron: A History of the Treasury Department Mural Program.
Mecklenburg, VA: U of Maryland, 1979.
>>Return to Lane's home page >> Return to top of page