George Morrison (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, 1919–2000) is perhaps best known for his brilliantly colored paintings of the late 1950s and 1960s, and his wood collages begun in the mid-1960s. The National Gallery of Art has acquired Morrison’s Untitled (1961), expanding its significant collection of abstract expressionist works by adding this key voice, and the first work by a Native American, to its New York School holdings.
Morrison made this painting at a time when he was in and out of New York City, between teaching positions at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and a residency at the Dayton Art Institute. He had arrived in New York in 1943 to study at the Art Students League, working and exhibiting alongside fellow abstract expressionist painters including Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Adolph Gottlieb, and Willem de Kooning. Morrison showed with de Kooning in 1948 at Grand Central Moderns, going on to have 15 solo and group exhibitions at galleries and museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The topographic effect in Untitled was created by squeezing oil paint directly onto the canvas from the tube. The painting characterizes Morrison’s mature abstractions from the early 1960s, works that are highly prized for their ability to straddle the concerns of the New York School while also presenting a Native worldview. Featuring saturated colors in variations of red, green, ocher, and blue, Untitled is organized in three sections that evoke the Anishinaabe cosmos of sky, land, and water. Echoes of the top register reappear in the bottom, as a glowing sunset would reflect on Lake Superior, near where the artist grew up and to which he returned at the end of his life. The mosaic of colored forms in Morrison’s abstract paintings from the 1960s and their structural reference to a horizon line would come to define his contribution to abstract expressionism.
Morrison was born in 1919 in Chippewa City, Minnesota, near Grand Marais on the North Shore of Lake Superior. He spoke his Native language until age nine, when he attended the Hayward Indian School, a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Wisconsin. After working for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration in high school, Morrison attended the Minneapolis School of Art (now Minneapolis College of Art and Design). He was then awarded a Van Derlip Traveling Scholarship in 1943, which enabled him to move to New York City. As a Fulbright scholar from 1952 to 1953, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Université d’Aix-Marseilles in Aix-en-Provence, producing abstract art that combined expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. Beginning in the late 1950s, Morrison taught painting at several American universities, including Cornell University, Penn State, and RISD. He returned to Minnesota in 1970 and taught studio art and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota until his retirement from teaching in 1983. Morrison continued to work for 17 years from his home and studio, which he called Red Rock, at Grand Portage on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation, until his death in 2000. Morrison has been the subject of many group exhibitions as well as a recent monographic traveling exhibition organized by the Minnesota Museum of American Art, in cooperation with the Plains Art Museum.