Progression of Art
Speaking of Graves's work, curator Nancy Wilson Ross suggested that "religiously motivated painting depends for its communicability on its use of symbols [and in] order to be generally intelligible it must submit to the demands of a prescribed iconography, a language of symbolic representation in which observer shares with artist the ideas impelling its creation". At the same time, the symbol of the bird has spoken throughout history of the artists' own state of mind. As the art critic Gerald Heard added, "in all significant painting from Catal Hüyük to Hieronymus Bosch the Bird has stood for that drive or force which bears the migrant soul of man into another state".
With its sinuous neck and arched back rendered in Chinese-style brushwork, Graves's lone Moor Swan is almost camouflaged by the earthy colours of its desolate surroundings. In nature, the moor swan is isolated from its white counterparts, its colour associating it with darkness and death. Yet the black swan also carries connotations of a most divine creature, even though it does not conform to the expectations of nature. Read this way, one can perhaps see why Graves chose it as his subject: a creature, like him - a deific outcast. Indeed, Graves alluded this assessment when he stated that "Seeing divine creations [...] seem sufficient reasons to use painting as my voice". Interpreting Moor Swan as a symbolic self-portrait, the Seattle art critic Deloris Tarzan Ament added that "One glance and you know that the swan feels misunderstood; that he holds secrets".
Moor Swan brought Graves's his first taste of recognition. Having submitted the painting to the 1933 annual exhibition of Northwest artists held at the Seattle Art Museum, it won him the $100 first prize.
Oil on canvas - Seattle Art Museum
Church at Index
In Graves's bold graphic painting, we see the artist's appreciation of the work of Cezanne, Van Gogh and Japanese prints in the strong outlines and fragmentation of form. There is also a resemblance here to Mondrian's early deconstruction of churches and trees. One of Graves's early supporters, Elizabeth Bayley Willis, stated that "Graves had developed his style from the minute examination of moss, and the study of scaly surfaces of old barns, and used loose painting with a palette knife on coarse absorbent canvas hoping to attain the quality of antiquity of old frescos". It is, however, the transparent dusky light of the Northwest that is the recurring feature in Graves's early paintings. Ament cited Malcolm Roberts, a Surrealist painter of the period, who referred to "this daily magical interval [as] the 'Hour of Pearl'", or what painters on the French Riviera knew as the "'l'heure bleue'".
Ament described the effect thus: "This long leave-taking of light is a time of transformation. Such light is visible in Graves's early paintings, which seem to be set neither at night nor in daylight, but in some charged intermediate illumination. They carry a sense of consciousness transforming and refining itself to more idealized levels. Faint perfect forms echo crisp imperfect ones; gray shapes spill into color. They are permeated with longing".
Oil on canvas - Seattle Art Museum
Dove of the Inner Eye
At the top center of this painting, a dove - the enduring emblem of peace - is drawn to a ray of light despite being tightly ensconced in a rocky crevice making it an object of prey for an approaching snake. Webs of angular white lines, clearly influenced by the calligraphic style of Mark Tobey, shimmer above the color field, trapping the bird much like a fly in a spider's web. Graves's move in the 1930s from oil to watercolour, tempera and ink allowed him to display his intricate draftsmanship and offered a range of media for greater refinement and delicacy. Given the time it was produced, the image would seem to reflect the artist's heightened anxiety about being drafted into the military (during the Second World War). Yet the painting also carries a timeless mythic and allegorical resonance.
At his Fidalgo Island residence (which he called "The Rock") Graves lived alone with his beloved Swiss dachshund, Edith (named in honor of the poet Edith Sitwell). There he meditated, painted, and listened intensely to night sounds, drawing the wildlife that made those sounds from his imagination. He also tried to paint sound under the Vedic religious concept that sound and form merge into one and the same thing. When the weather conditions allowed, Graves walked out under darkness before returning to The Rock where he painted until sunrise. It was under these conditions that he produced his famous Inner Eye series which symbolised Graves's own spiritual quest for self-realization. "The birds became characters in a hallucinatory drama created by the body language of their eyes, feathers, posture, and the white light that falls on them and gathers around their feet," wrote Kay Larson, art critic for New York magazine.
Opaque watercolor on oiled paper - Seattle Art Museum
Graves's Hibernation series signify something of crossover point in his career. Having left America for Ireland, the series saw him distil all traces of his personal anxieties (about industrialization and war); focusing solely on a deep and pure meditative quality that tapped into the artist's lifelong preoccupation with nature and Eastern philosophy. The painting itself depicts a mink, curled in a foetal position, hibernating peacefully in the core of the earth. The animal appears to be encased in a luminous egg from which emanates a cosmic pulse that is rendered by Graves in pink, and warm, earthy tones. Graves's "floating" creatures confirm the artist's fascination with the transcendental aspect to be found in natural phenomenon. Indeed, according to the art critic Gino Pennacchietti, "Graves sought to paint with such timelessness and worldlessness [as] to escape the affairs of man, the distortions of the natural world, and seclude himself into the frightening, yet humbling and sublime world of the earth".
Pennacchietti discussed the Hibernation series as offering a "fundamental break with artistic modernism" which did not meet with the approval of the "number one modernist taste-maker", Clement Greenberg. The famous critic spoke of Graves's "irreverent subject matter" which was so "narrow and [...] far removed from the mainstream" it was left with "nowhere to go". Greenberg wrote, "Graves is subtle [and] had to be within the narrow limits set for himself". He added that "Something very spontaneous, very valid, moves at the bottom of his art, but for the present it does not materialize as anything much more than an impulse, an initial impulse". It was not lost on Pennacchietti, however, that by the 1950s Graves and the other Northwest school artists would "influence a whole generation of Abstract Expressionist painters, including some of Greenberg's choice favourites like Pollock".
Watercolour on paper - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Instruments for a New Navigation
Circles of glass or pale stone are balanced on slender rods above solid stone pedestals. Many of them are perforated with a central lens, suggesting an instrument to be looked through. They are totem-like, ritualistic and ceremonial. In a significant shift in scale and departure from his paintings, Graves developed this series of sculptures during his stay in Ireland. In the era of space travel and space exploration, it offered his personal meditation inspired by his observations of the night sky and the burgeoning American/Russian space race. The pieces were, he said, "designed to feel their way into a new aspect of the three-dimensional phenomenal universe [...] in search of the human spirit as it implores itself to gain insight into the mystery of consciousness".
In 1964, the works came to the attention of NASA scientists and engineers, who invited him to include his art on the early lunar exploratory missions. Graves came up with a 12-inch gold rod tipped with an amethyst to be installed on the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, but the project was dropped when it was feared that the amethyst would disintegrate and pose a threat to the Observatory. A disillusioned Graves dismantled the works and did not display them until the final year of his life.
Cast bronze, glass, and stone
Summer Flowers for Denise
Late in life, the near-reclusive Graves turned his attention to wildflower painting. In this example, a spray of purple flowers are arranged at a respectful distance from a burst of white flowers in a rack of glass bottles, reminiscent of the paintings of Giorgio Morandi. The background is geometric, formal and mysterious, the whole composition Japanese in design. Against chalky, fading surfaces, reminiscent of aged fresco, Graves would set small, intimate objects: a bottle or two of wildflowers and perhaps a bowl of plums, so placed as to suggest that each is an individual treasure. As still lifes, they were "profoundly still". The subjects seem to be in fact not flowers (or fruit) so much as light. They are painted with such delicacy that the pigment seems almost breathed into place. Graves projected intensity into them by rendering the images veiled and shimmering, suggesting not only the fleeting life of blossoms, but the evanescence of life itself.
Oriental in their sensibility, Graves's flower paintings are reminiscent of, and significantly distinct from, his early symbolic and metaphoric works. What unites them is the artist's lifelong quest to transform the spiritual into the pictorial. "We must so live," Graves wrote, "that we can sensitively search the phenomena of nature from the lichen to the day-moon, from the mist to the mountain, even from molecule to the cosmos - and we must dream deeply down into the kelp beds and not let one fleck of the significance of beauty pass unapprised and unquestioned and unanswered". The best of Graves's late flower paintings, wrote Ray Kass, "possess a delicacy of light and proportion that commands the attention of their audience and inspires a meditative calm".
Tempera on paper - Seattle Art Museum