When I think about modern art my mind instantly reaches for abstract impressionism and calls up the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. I was completely unfamiliar with the work of the Northwest School, even the “big four” – Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. Northwest Coast Native American art and Pacific Northwest landscapes influenced these artists and ultimately produced work with its own distinct Northwest flavor.
Exhibition curator Patricia Junker notes that the Seattle Art Museum’s Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical paints a different picture of the narrative of modern art in the United States. “These Northwest artists are remarkable – from the western edge of America, they totally re-envisioned what a modern American art could be,” says Junker.
Walking through the exhibition I was struck by the heavy darkness of the paintings. I’m not sure why, given our often-gray surroundings, but I was expecting much brighter, Rothko-like color palettes in the work of the Pacific Northwest Modernists. Even though the work was different than I thought it would be, I connected to some of the themes, like the one described on Mark Tobey’s “Forms Follow Man.” The description of the watercolor painting included this line. “His title makes the claim that we – as individuals, societies, and cultures – are always bound up with the things that we create and value, even as we slough them off, either at will or by some transformational or cataclysmic event.”
My interpretation of this statement is that even as we change or grow, there are parts of ourselves that still remain with us even if they don’t quite fit who we are in the present moment. The different parts of us become part of what we create.
Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical runs through September 7, 2014 at the Seattle Art Museum.