Review: George Morrison Retrospective at the Minnesota History Center

<i>Cumulated Landscape</i>, 1976

Cumulated Landscape, 1976

After a tour across the country, "Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison" has finally hit the Twin Cities for a run at the Minnesota History Center. The retrospective, organized by the Minnesota Museum of American Art with the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota, offers a sweeping look at one of Minnesota's greatest artists. 

With paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, and collage work, the show follows Morrison's career, starting as an art student from the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. From there, it explores his time in Greenwich Village, where he ran with the likes of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. There are works from his years spent in France, his return to Minnesota to teach at the University, and his retirement to Grand Portage where he continued to be prolific. 
The exhibition explores the many influences that inspired Morrison, such as Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, and the surrealists. You can see how he was inspired by indigenous cultures from around the world (he himself was a member of the Grand Portage Chippewa Band) as well from the land where he grew up and returned to later in life. 

It's interesting to see all the directions that Morrison explored over the course of his career, trying his hand at different techniques and forms he learned from his contemporaries while searching for his own voice. There's no doubt, however, that his wood collages are his greatest masterpieces. These works are made of differently shaped wooden blocks of varying hues that are carefully arranged into a frame. They're majestic pieces that have a reverberating presence. 

The exhibit also includes Morrison's explorations of totems, including a gigantic sculpture that, like his wood collages, is made of wood blocks of different sizes brought together. At once symmetrical and extemporaneous, it's a feat of precision and improvisation.  

Besides the wood collages themselves, of which there are quite a few, the exhibition also includes prints he made from them. Since the collages took so long to make, the prints were a way to expand and further explore what he had created. In addition, there are some fascinating line drawings that, like the wood collages, show Morrison's dizzying attention to texture, with complex amalgamations of shapes that are at once meticulous and moving. 

Toward the end of the exhibit, there are numerous pieces that Morrison made while living in Grand Portage along Lake Superior. These gorgeous landscapes draw from Morrison's earlier abstract expressionist experiments while becoming something uniquely separate from that earlier work. His rich use of colors and loose hand are still apparent, but Morrison also finds a warm familiarity with his subject of Lake Superior and Spirit Little Cedar Tree, a special white cedar that he painted often. Connected so strongly to a sense of place, these gentle works bring the natural landscape so alive you can almost hear the lake in the distance. 


"Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison"

Through April 26

The Minnesota History Center

Curated by W. Jackson Rushing III from the University of Oklahoma