Friday, August 24, 2007

Minor Artists Living Major Lives

Morris Graves gained a minor notoriety for outrageous pranks such as one in which he filled a baby carriage with rocks, made a trailer for it of toothbrushes, and pushed it into the dining room of the Olympic Hotel, the forerunner of the Four Seasons Olympic. He placed a rock on each of several chairs around a table, and sat down with them to order dinner.

In 1953, he staged the first Northwest art "Happening," although that word still lay several decades in the future. Museum officials, collectors, and art world notables all had expressed a desire to see a house he was building of cinderblock in a wooded area north of Seattle. He and several artist friends sent invitations to everyone on the Seattle Art Museum mailing list (a list surreptitiously obtained) saying, "You or your friends are not invited to the exhibition of Bouquet and Marsh paintings by the 8 best painters in the Northwest to be held on the afternoon and evening of the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, June 21, at Morris Graves' palace in exclusive Woodway Park."

Recipients chose to believe that the invitations meant they were invited. They arrived by droves, some formally dressed, to find the gateway to his house blocked with a table that held the moldy remains of a banquet 10 days old, complete with tipped cups and wine-stains, soaked with the drizzle from an overhead sprinkler. A recording of "dinner music" was interspersed with a recorded pig fight. Graves stayed out of sight, laughing nonstop as he observed the outraged guests through a chink in the cinderblock wall which abutted his gatehouse. - DELORIS TARZAN AMENT (author of Iridescent Light: the Emergence of Northwest Art, University of Washington Press, 2002).

Graves never took society or the formalized business-aspect of the art world too seriously. Though few outside the art world or the Pacific Northwest may recognize his name, Graves’ works are housed in the permanent collections of many of our country’s major museums. There is often a fine line between conceptual art and prank and although I assume that Graves never considered himself a conceptual artist, it’s fairly obvious that his dedication as a “process-oriented” artist overlapped into his daily life. The life of a seemingly “minor” artist is often no less fraught with adventure and dedication than that of any of the critically proclaimed masters. – DN

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