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Last week to see Modernism in the Pacific Northwest at SAM

Modernism in the Pacific Northwest at the Seattle Art Museum


Scheduled to close after September 7 at the Seattle Art Museum, Modernism in the Pacific Northwest showcases the work of four artists who were known as the Northwest school of modern art: Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. All four viewed art as a spiritual quest and made connections between their own spiritual journeys and those of ancient and modern traditions in Japan, China, and Northwest Native Americans.

Parts of the current exhibition directly highlight those connections. For example, there is a painting (done with finger and fingernail as brush) by Teng Baiye who taught Tobey calligraphy. Tobey turned that into his hallmark style of "white writing"--obsessive abstract calligraphic lines of white on a black background. In the 1950s, under the influence of Zen and sumi painting, the abstractions flip-flopped into dynamic black ink abstracts against a white background.

A Morris Graves' luminous painting, Sheng Ku Libation Cup, hangs near an actual bronze Chinese libation cup from the 12th century BC. In Guy Anderson's Language Wheel, early Christian and Northwest Native American symbols turn within the white segments of his painted wheel.

The show is aptly subtitled The Mythic and the Mystical. Probably it is Morris Graves' work which most fully embodies this: paintings that glow with their own surreal light, mysterious birds whose eyes follow you, other-worldly creatures he saw as symbolizing the spirit of night in the hedgerows around his house.

Besides the four artists who became emblematic of Northwest modern, SAM's exhibit includes others in the Pacific Northwest whose work features some of the same themes and influences: Paul Horiuchi, Leo Kenney, Philip McCracken, James W. Washington, Jr., George Tsutakawa, and Tony Angell. It's a big show in more ways than one.

The Seattle Art Museum will be open on Labor Day. For hours and directions, see