he group of Seattle painters known as the “Northwest mystics” briefly received national attention in the 1940s and early 1950s, just before New York’s Abstract Expressionists were anointed modernism’s cutting edge. This exhibition revives a long debate: how to evaluate the Northwest School’s regional version of modern art.
The first comprehensive overview of the Seattle Art Museum’s Northwest School collection, the show concentrates on the movement’s principals: Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Guy Anderson, and Leo Kenney. United by an interest in universalist philosophies, Asian artifacts and religions, and Native American cultures, these painters favored organic forms, a subdued palette and modestly scaled compositions.
The artists came together after Tobey returned to Seattle from England in 1939, and their interactions were most intense during and just after World War II. The show underlines the context of war as key to the iconography and visual metaphors employed by the group, all of whom were pacifists. Graves, for example, wrote that he wanted to send his rendering of windswept debris in Winter’s Leaves of the Winter of 1944 (1944) “as a message to Winston Churchill.” Tobey, for his part, envisioned his calligraphic abstraction Bars and Flails (Rails), 1944, as a commentary on the inhumanity of Nazi death camps.
The exhibition reminds us that in the early and mid-1940s, many of these painters shared models of figural communication that also attracted Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, although the resonance of the School’s quasi-academic symbolism clearly faded after the war. Only Tobey’s allover “white-writing” abstractions, which he began to develop as early as the mid-1930s, rode the same wave that lifted the work of painters such as Barnett Newman in the 1950s. Tobey’s paintings seem to have transcended the 1940s through a highly selective hole in historical time, an opening that filtered out not only his Seattle colleagues, but many other modernists as well.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 104.