Arts Magazine: Morrison's Horizon

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Morrison's Horizon

For nearly 50 years, the critically acclaimed artist George Morrison searched for the elusive power of the horizon. This apparent junction of earth and sky first appeared in his artwork in 1945 in a surrealist still life of floating organic ocean forms. The painting foreshadowed the evolution of Morrison's unique iconography, which anchored "all-over" abstraction with the pictorial resonance of the horizon line itself.

George Morrison was born in 1919, the third of 12 children, in the village of Chippewa City on the north shore of Lake Superior. The horizon was an enduring and significant presence throughout his childhood. Its steady sweep grounded the landscape and served as a poetic counterpoint to the uncertainties of the Depression, the challenges of surviving as an Indian in the white culture, and the tuberculosis Morrison endured in his youth.

As a member of the New York cultural scene during the 1940s and 1950s, Morrison connected with some of the most notable artists of this century. Immersing himself in the philosophies and practices of Surrealism and, later, Abstract Expressionism, he worked diligently and exhibited extensively. In 1952 and 1954, he studied on scholarships in Paris and Provence, and by the late '50's had established an academic career.

In 1963, Morrison secured a fulltime teaching position at the Rhode Island School of Design (R.I.S.D.) and for seven years made his home in Providence. In Provincetown, on Cape Cod, where he spent summers, he became an avid beachcomber, collecting driftwood, shells, and other natural forms, and began constructing large wood collages. Using pieces of weather-worn wood of varying sizes, he created an edge-to-edge pattern with a horizon line cutting across the top one-quarter of the composition. He called the collages, which suggested the union of sea and sky, "paintings in wood." The horizon line that distinguished these and subsequent collages soon became his signature.

In 1970, Morrison left his tenured position at R.I.S.D. to return to Minnesota, where he assumed a dual role at the University of Minesota-teaching studio arts and lecturing got the newly formed Indian Studies Department. During the next 10 years, he was plagued by serious health problems, but his professional reputation flourished. He received numerous commissions for the wood collages and designed giant wood "murals" for the American Indian Center in Minneapolis and the Daybreak Star Arts Center in Seattle. And he continued to exhibit extensively. Through the early '70s, he produced a series of pen-and -ink drawings-pristine works depicting an all over pattern of repeated lines that created puzzle- like shapes. Again, the horizon dissected the picture plane.

In keeping with the post-Cubist tenets of Abstraction, Morrison's "all-over" speculations, whether drawn or constructed, collapsed the figure and the ground into one field of action. Yet his addition of the horizon line to these compositions confounded this obliteration (of foreground and background), allowing distinctly different spatial realities to coexist in one work of art. Because these realities evoke different aspects of time, they suggest that the nature of existence is multidimensional. And as the horizon itself is vaster that human comprehension, it exists in a realm beyond the construct of time. "From the horizon, you go beyond to the edge of the world to the sky, and beyond that, to the unknown," says Morrison.

In 1980, while recuperating from a heart attack, Morrison began making small paintings that he eventually would call the Horizon Series. He returned more and more frequently to Grand Portage, where he built Red Rock, the studio home that now serves as his primary residence. In 1990, the Minnesota Museum of Art, in St. Paul, and the Tweed Museum of Art, in Duluth organized a retrospective of his paintings, sculpture, and works on paper.

Morrison, now approaching his 80th birthday, begins each day, as he has for many years, by contemplating the lake. He continues, in his art, to employ formal elements expressively and to practice methods such as automatism (a surrealist technique for tapping into the subconscious through "automatic" drawing). His work still broadly reflects the spirituality of his Ojibway heritage and explores organic motifs intrinsic to that tradition. Morrison is widely recognized for his prolific career and is represented in museum, corporate, and private collections, regionally and nationally. He is also seen as a prominent figure of the American Indian Fine Arts Movement, a position recently honored at the White House.

In the spring of 1997, the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program's Artist Panel invited Morrison, as an artist and teacher of great influence, to have a solo show. Health problems notwithstanding, Morrison accepted the invitation.

The resulting exhibition, "Morrison's Horizon," features works of the past three years, all of which are horizon paintings. It is in the spirit of commemorating the unique and abiding vision of a modern master that The Minneapolis Institute of Arts invites all museum visitors to contemplate the elusive power of Morrison's horizon and the great unknown that exists beyond this life.

Cynde Randall is the Program Associate for the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program.

Morrison's Horizon
October 25, 1998 to December 6, 1999
Minnesota Artists Gallery

The Exhibition is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, a curatorial department of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, made possible by generous support from the Jerome Foundation.

Citation: Cynde Randall, "Morrison's Horizon," Arts 21, no. 10 (November 1998): 2-3.