Morris Graves

Kevin Killian

I was invited by the artist and curator Jarrett Earnest to present a program of poems about Morris Graves for an event at the Meridian Gallery, to mark the big retrospective, The Visionary Art of Morris Graves, that they were holding there. (It ran through May 15) My qualifications were slim, but I do know a lot about the poet Jack Spicer, who wrote a lovely poem in the mid 1950s, fresh from a Manhattan Graves exhibition.

Hibernation—After Morris Graves

Deeper than sleep, but in a room as narrow
The mind turns off its longings one by one,
Lets beautiful black fingers snap the last one,
Remove the self and lie its body down.
The Future chills the sky above the chamber.
The Past gnaws through the earth below the bed.
But here the naked Present lies as warmly
As if it rested in the lap of God.

I had never been to the Meridian Gallery before, though I had heard many tales of his general grandness and charm. It looks like an old fashioned San Francisco brownstone of another era—pre-earthquake? On a recent visit I heard the tale that it was the property of a notorious madam of the Barbary Coast time who shot her husband and won acquittal—or maybe I have it backwards. In any case it is a space around which any number of legends might accrue. I tried taking photos of it to show you its oddity, but because it is really very much like a private home, no one picture can capture its unique flavor, and OK, having the entire house stocked with Morris Graves’ paintings on the walls only made my head swim faster. It is an exhibition which, even if you don’t know or care about Graves’ work, you don’t want to miss, and it was organized by curator emeritus Peter Selz, the founding director of BAM/PFA (then known as the University Art Museum).

I wondered if BAM/PFA had any Graves pictures to lend. Apparently not, isn’t that odd? Whereas SFMOMA has a great one without any exhibition history at all, it has never been shown, not even in Vincent Fecteau’s “Not New Work” show last autumn, which plundered the fabled cellars and storerooms of SFMOMA for neglected masterworks and the quirky and cool. “Did you ask SFMOMA to borrow it?” “Yes, but they were too busy with their 75th anniversary exhibitions to get to our request.”

In any case there are more than enough Graveses up and many will be new to you.—it is the largest such show since Graves’ death, at age 90, in 2001. I read a clutch of poems from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, by a variety of international poets, all of them dedicated to Morris G., who must have been quite a character. “Has any other painter had so many poems dedicated to him?” Peter Selz asked me, after the reading, and I couldn’t think of one. Graves, as any brief account of him can tell you, was an extraordinarily social and gay man, though wrapped in a certain secrecy due to the repressive anti-homosexual sentiment of his time and place (the Pacific Northwest). He loved to buy and redecorate homes (almost what in today’s parlance people call a “flipper.” And he was something of a nomad, with the consequence that his work may be broken down into periods, the “Irish years,” the “Humboldt period,” and so on. His last home, an estate in a remote area of Northern California, is now the home of the Morris Graves Foundation and an artists’ retreat to boot.

Life Magazine made him famous back in the early 50s by a big story lauding him (and Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson) as “Mystic Painters of the Northwest.” Poet Kenneth Rexroth followed up with a laudatory essay. I read “Thou Shall Not Kill,” by Rexroth, once a great setpiece for its author, as “Howl” was for Ginsberg, but a poem which has somehow sort of slid off the poetic map. I read poems by Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo, Sam Hamill, Theodore Roethke, and other poets of Seattle, as well as poets more far-flung: Marsden Hartley, Eve Triem, John Logan, John Montague, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Cage wrote a huge serial piece called Series re Morris Graves which was one of the highlights of his poetic production of the 1970s. I couldn’t do it justice, but happily the Meridian Gallery devoted a whole evening to Cage’s work later in April. I just kept reading and reading these poems to my audience, enough to fill a whole evening. Why, I even read a portion of Vincent Price’s memoirs, in which he (an avid art collector as well as a horror icon) claims to have put Morris Graves on the map. What can I say? It was a thriller!