By Ray Kass, edited by Wulf Herzogenrath and Andreas Kreul


Morris Graves,  "Bird in the Spirit", 1943

Morris Graves’ paintings are not paintings. They are invitations. They are invitations Home, that Home which is never left but ordinarily ignored. Ordinary living conspires to keep the earth busily separate from heaven, but now and then experience transcends business, revealing in clock-time the timeless time.

Such transcendent experience is continually and everywhere offered, but it is most easily noticed where man has done least, as in unfrequented parts of nature, and when, as on a vacation from his purposes and thoughts, he is empty enough to contain it.

Graves does more than hint at “that untroubled solemn stillness”. He flavors it with three of the emotions traditionally known in India as permanent: the erotic, the wondrous, and fear. With him the erotic is in its highest aspect of devotion. He so gives himself to his subject that, as he draws, the bird or the animal appears, and he, Graves, disappears to reappear in it.

Geometry in some of Graves’ work exists as an obscuring web or eccentric distraction from the centered image. The meaning is that man, the measurer, must go through and beyond himself to experience reality, else he will remain separate from his true nature.

Northwest Indians, his neighbors, have long known what Graves knows: The transcendent experience that is given to him who identifies himself with the “outside,” dissolving the ego in the equation, among others, bird-man.

For such a person, this world itself is the goal, this moment eternal.
---John Cage

Morris Graves wrote that his painting ‘Bird in the Spirit’ was “one of the few paintings that gave me a real feeling of levitation when it was being painted and when it was finished. I haven’t seen it for a long time, but my feeling is delight that the hand was moved so well. It doesn’t hesitate. There is a presence of light that is sudden and vivid, like a comet in the night sky. You pay attention to it and then it’s gone. The substance flows out from that point of light. That’s the focus of the bird’s ecstatic meditation, which envelops its whole form.”
---Morris Graves

“My first interest is in Being--- along the way I am a Painter. As a painter, I am aware of the ‘Sky of the Mind’… I refer to it again now because… I have read Einstein’s last equation based on his study of the musical interval from which he concluded that space and love are the same thing. I, in my non-intellectual way, have determined that beauty is all pervading and has no opposite.”
---Morris Graves, 1987

Meditation and its purpose occupy an important place in Grave’s paintings. In a letter of 1950 Graves described a hierarchy of spatial and spiritual awareness that expressed his artistic goals: “The observer must be mindful of the simple fact that there are three ‘spaces’: phenomenal space (the world of nature, of phenomena), the space in which dreams occur, and the images of the imagination take shape; the space of consciousness… [within in which the origins, operations and experiences of consciousness are revealed]. From this space of consciousness come the universally significant images and symbols of the greatest religious works of art. The observer can readily see from which ‘space’ an artist has taken his ideas and forms.”

In 1947, Graves selected a statement by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy for the preface to a catalogue accompanying an exhibition of his new paintings. Coomaraswamy had faith that art could be a catalyst for mind-expansion:
…[Art] is intended to convey an intelligible meaning, and beyond that to point the way to the realization in consciousness of a condition of being transcending even the images of thought, and only self-identification with the contact of the work, achieved by the spectator’s own effort, can be regarded as perfect experience without distinction of “religious” and “aesthetic,” logic and feeling.

In the early 1950s Graves achieved his most refined drawing, found in ritual-like images that are psychologically charged with quiet self-reflective “narrative”. The ‘Spirit Bird’ series epitomize Graves’ understanding of the act of painting as a yogic meditation. The concept of “movement through change,” the hallmark of his mature style.

Morris Graves, "Instrument for a New Navigation" 1962-1999By 1959 Graves began his only sculptural series, the ‘Instruments for a New Navigation’, as his personal exploration of the unimaginable void of outer space. By 1964 his work had come to the attention of scientists and engineers at the National Space Administration’s Goddard Space Center, who invited him to participate in an ambitious project to include art works on the early lunar exploratory missions.

Graves once described these sculptures as “based on the essential beauty in space research…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.” For Graves, apparently, the cosmological void was similar to the void of outer space, both in its aspect of beauty and in its manifestation of the sublime. The beauty he finds in the void seems to lead his work toward resolution with the world.


[Morris Graves (August 28, 1910, Oregon, USA-May 5, 2001, California, USA)] was a painter known for introspective works that presented a mystical view of nature. His style was greatly influenced by the three trips he made to East Asia between 1928 and 1930. Graves had a deep interest in Asian art, religion, Hinduism and Zen. In addition to many museum exhibitions, NASA’s Goddard Space Center invited Graves to participate in an art project in conjunction with space flight.]

[John Cage (September 5, 1912, California, USA-August 12, 1992, New York, USA ) was an avant-garde composer and writer whose father was an inventor. Cage studied music with Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell. From the early 1940s he was closely associated with the choreographer Merce Cunningham. His sonic experiments marked him as notably original. He turned to Zen Buddhism, concluding that all sounds are potentially musical. From then on he employed randomness in his works. His international influence was greater than any previous American composer.]

[Mark Tobey (December 11, 1890, Wisconsin, USA-April 24, 1976, Basel,) In 1918 Tobey converted to the Baha’i World Faith which led to his exploration of the spiritual in art. He also explored Chinese calligraphy, Persian and Arabic script, and traveled world wide. He co-founded the Free and Creative Art School in 1928. Following a month at a Zen monastery near Kyoto, he began his ‘white paintings’. In addition to numerous awards and shows, a major retrospective of his paintings took place at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. in 1974.]