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Between two worlds: Revisiting the life and work of Minnesota master George Morrison

George Morrison was born in 1919 in the now-vanished town of Chippewa City near the Grand Portage Reservation, along Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. He was Ojibwe in an era before Native Americans could vote or were even granted citizenship in the United States, one of 12 children in an impoverished family. He was isolated from almost everything but his own community, and when he was sent to boarding school in Wisconsin at age 9 he was cut off even from them.

"Mount Maude" was the first painting by Morrison acquired by a museum—Mia, in 1942—and is now on view in gallery G303.

“Mount Maude” was the first painting by Morrison acquired by a museum—Mia, in 1942—and is now on view in gallery G303.

Yet by the early 1940s, Morrison was in art school in Minneapolis, at what would become MCAD, and in 1943 he would leave for New York. He had a full scholarship to study there with the famously innovative Art Students League, and he would work and exhibit with Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and other well-known avant-garde artists of the time. His abstract artworks were shown and collected by museums around the country, and then, by the late 1960s, largely forgotten.

This fall, Mia re-examines Morrison’s life and legacy with new installations of his work outside the Native American galleries where it has typically been shown. “George Morrison: Drawings and Small Paintings,” in gallery G353, shows 23 of his works from Mia’s collection, including 10 recent gifts. “George Morrison in Focus,” in gallery G375, places a newly conserved Morrison painting from 1960 alongside the work of artists he knew and exhibited with in the 1950s and ’60s, reconnecting him to the scene he both embraced and eschewed. Morrison’s Collage IX: Landscape, a driftwood abstraction of Lake Superior that has long been a visitor favorite, will also move there from the Native American galleries.

Bob Cozzolino, Mia’s Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings, had never heard of Morrison before coming to Minnesota to interview for his job two years ago. “It was the day before my interview, and I went up the front stairs on 24th Street and right into the Native American galleries,” he recalls. “I saw the Morrison collage and was stopped right in my tracks. It felt like the bottom fell out, in a good way. And I thought, Why don’t I know this guy?”

Morrison's untitled painting from 1960, long in storage, now restored and on view in gallery G375.

Morrison’s untitled painting from 1960, long in storage, now restored and on view in gallery G375.

When he later discovered Morrison’s untitled 1960 painting in Mia’s storage, where it had sat for decades, he knew what he wanted to do. “By reinserting Morrison’s work in the context in which he was making it, you can see how he fits among the artists whose work he would have seen and reacted to—and vice versa,” Cozzolino says. “You can see how the work looks from today’s vantage point. Is there something particular about the way Morrison makes abstraction that helps us identify his contribution to the movement? Just by placing an artwork in a new context visually, the viewer will pull new things out of it.”

Caught Between Cultures

Morrison was 24 when he left Minnesota for the bohemian life in Greenwich Village and joined the cutting-edge coterie of Abstract Expressionists who were reinventing art after World War II. Jill Ahlberg-Yohe, Mia’s Assistant Curator of Native American Art, says he was simply doing what any promising young artist—seeking freedom and the zeitgeist—would have done at the time. “He knew where to go to find his community, to explore more deeply the things he cared about,” she says.

But it wasn’t so simple for Morrison. The art movement he identified with was led by a small and insular circle of artists—women and people of color were generally excluded, with few exceptions. Morrison was also at odds with the expectations of Native American art at the time, which demanded more stereotypically “Indian” motifs. He was rejected from a show of Native art in 1947 for not appearing to represent his culture.

Cozzolino sees a parallel with Norman Lewis, a mid-century Abstract Expressionist painter who as an African American engendered criticism in his own community for breaking with the expectation at the time that black artists should overtly depict political and social themes. Lewis argued for artistic independence and the fact that abstraction wasn’t mutually exclusive of political content, but the tension made him—like Morrison—an outlier. “They had to balance these essential parts of their identity, unique to their art, with the need to work comfortably,” Cozzolino says, “this concern that if I play it up too much that’s going to be the one-liner about my work.”

Morrison's 1994 drawing "Untitled (Surrealist Landscape)," now on view in gallery G353.

Morrison’s 1994 drawing “Untitled (Surrealist Landscape),” now on view in gallery G353.

In Mia’s show of Morrison’s drawings and small paintings, Dennis Jon, Senior Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings, emphasizes the interplay of indigenous and avant-garde aesthetics. Natural and spiritual themes emerge through strikingly modern abstraction. “As a Native American artist wanting to be a post-war avant-garde painter, he’s really of two worlds,” Jon says. “At times he would say, I need to put more Indian in my art, other times he would try to exclude that.”

For all these pitfalls, Morrison seems to have navigated the avant-garde art world fairly well, at least at first. He had 10 solo shows in New York. And in the era of large group shows at museums, featuring dozens of artists, his contributions were often singled out by critics for their unique if sometimes misinterpreted vision.

But by the late 1960s the art world had changed. Taste-making had shifted from museums to galleries and the charismatic dealers who ran them, to art magazines and the critics who wrote for them. For the handful of artists who found favor in these idiosyncratic circles, centered in New York, their futures were at least temporarily assured; for everyone else, what meritocracy had once existed crumbled. Morrison, who frequently left the city to study and teach, found himself yet again on the outside.

Coming Home

Morrison moved to St. Paul in 1970. He had often returned to Minnesota, if mostly in his work, where rocks, water, and horizon lines reminiscent of Lake Superior consistently manifested in abstracted form. He had even lived for a time in Duluth, in 1953, before returning to New York the following year. But this time he’d come for good, teaching art and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, and living with his wife and son in a renovated church.

When he’d left for New York, in the 1940s, he was certain the move was necessary to make the kind of challenging, abstract art he envisioned. And in fact when he sent work back to Minnesota during those decades away, it was often more conservative than his other pieces, apparently calculated to appeal to more provincial tastes.

"Collage IX: Landscape," from 1974, has been moved to the postwar gallery G375.

“Collage IX: Landscape,” from 1974, has been moved to the postwar gallery G375.

By the time he returned, however, his work was changing. The long internal struggle was resolving itself in favor of his instincts, as though he were indeed coming home. He took an Indian name—”Turning the Feather Around,” given to him during a healing ceremony. And he allowed his work, for the first time, to be featured as distinctly “Indian.” As Morrison put it, in 1991, “I became more conscious of who I was, and what I was wanting to do … I became more conscious of Indian art and being interested in it and being part of it. And so I got into Indian art, so to speak, in that way, in maybe developing my own sense, that idea, of Indianness in the art.”

“I think his heritage and his culture—his birthright in a way—caught up with him,” Jon says, “and he became much more comfortable with it as he got older.”

Morrison eventually bought land near his birthplace, building a home and studio by Lake Superior. He spent most of his time there after his retirement in 1983, prolifically assembling totemic sculptures and making horizon-line paintings and collages. And once back in Minnesota, ironically, he was rediscovered by the art world he’d left behind.

"Red Totem I" was the first in a series of tall sculptures that Morrison began making in 1977.

“Red Totem I,” on view in gallery G261, was the first in a series of tall sculptures that Morrison began making in 1977.

Evan Maurer, who became the director of Mia in 1988, was curating at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1970s and became a leading advocate of Morrison’s work and vision, commissioning one of his totemic sculptures as the centerpiece for a 1977 survey of Native American art. It was the first time, Morrison acknowledged, that he felt at ease in this context. There are now more works by him in Mia’s Native American galleries than by any other artist, even after the current rearranging.

“He provides such rich material to draw upon and complicate the assumptions of what Native art is,” Ahlberg-Yohe says. “The very idea of art is usually incommensurable with how Native people think of things like aesthetics. And I think this is what Morrison was getting at—he recognized that ‘art’ in Anishinaabe life doesn’t hold up well.” Indeed, the ambiguity that Morrison was thought to have about his heritage informing his work can be seen as exactly the point he hoped to make.

“I have never tried to prove that I was an Indian through my art,” Morrison wrote. “Yet, there may remain deeply hidden some remote suggestion of the rock whence I was hewn, the preoccupation of the textural surface, the mystery of the structural and organic element, the enigma of the horizon, or the color of the wind.”

“This seems to me,” Ahlberg-Yohe says, “precisely the way many Native Americans think about art.”

Top image: (left) George Morrison’s Collage IX: Landscape from 1974, and Morrison himself in 1990.

“George Morrison in Focus” Video

Mia has created the following video exploring the “George Morrison in Focus” exhibition, including a new piece by contemporary artist Andrea Carlson and the conservation of Morrison’s 1960 painting, now displayed alongside the work of his peers.