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Guideposts in the pursuit of meaning: works of Morris Graves

Art can challenge or sustain us, move us to action or to noble thoughts. It can charm, provoke, entertain, enlighten - even inspire us. But most important, it can serve as a touchstone of truth and quality, as a reminder that beauty is not only real but attainable - and that excellence can be achieved if we truly put our minds to it.

For some, it might take the form of a poem or piece of music, a few lines of Shakespeare, or a cherished memory of a great dancer's performance. But whatever it is, it reflects something precious and profoundly important to us that can always be called upon when the world seems bleak or gray.

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For me it's Michelangelo's figure of ''Jeremiah'' from the Sistine ceiling; the fourth state of Rembrandt's etching ''The Three Crosses''; Goya's etching ''Strange Folly''; Rousseau's ''Sleeping Gypsy''; Kollwitz's ''The Call of Death''; and Morris Graves's ''Bird Singing in the Moonlight.'' All are so deeply and thoroughly a part of me by now that I suspect I'd be a different person today had I never seen them.

It's understandable, then, that I was delighted to accept the invitation to write an introductory essay for a book on Morris Graves to serve as the catalog for his retrospective at the Phillips Collection here and to attend the reception celebrating the opening of that exhibition a few days ago.

It was a pleasant occasion marred only by the absence of Graves himself. I'm sorry he wasn't able to make it, for he'd have been delighted at the way his work was hung and by the response it received.

It's a large, beautiful, and comprehensive show, thanks largely to Ray Kass, who curated it, and to the staff of the Phillips Collection who helped assemble it. The exhibition took four years and considerable detective work to organize. The 140 works included span the artist's career from 1933 to 1982, and hardly anything of quality or importance has been left out.

I felt thoroughly at home walking around Graves's paintings and drawings. After all, some were ''old friends'' that had entered my consciousness almost 40 years ago, and a special few had touched me as deeply as any work of this century.

It's difficult to explain why certain works of art touch one so deeply, and others, just as good or great, do not. I know Raphael was a very great artist, for instance, and yet I'd trade everything of his for one of Michelangelo's figure studies, or one of Rembrandt's sketches from life.

My own deep attachment to certain of Graves's images has little to do with his talents and skills (although they are considerable) and almost everything to do with his creative vision. When I first came upon his paintings in my late teens, they seemed to come as much from within me as from him. Through them I recognized a kindred, although somewhat older spirit, one who spoke for me and gave substance, direction, and credibility to feelings and impulses that had previously been vague and undirected. In the process, his images became so totally intertwined with my own deepest intuitions that they gradually became, in a very real sense, my own. As a result, I can no more detach myself from them than I can rid my consciousness of the other touchstones of my being.

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Forme, the paintings of Morris Graves represent the furthest point man has so far reached in his attempt pictorially to encapsulate a certain kind of philosophical truth. In them, he's touched and given form to flashes of intuition illuminating man's inner strivings to attain fulfillment. His paintings, as a result, are not so much icons of perfections or depictions of handsome things, as guideposts shaped and left behind by Graves during his pursuit of meaning.Now this, of course, is not the way we care to view art these days.

And yet it's the only way to approach Graves's art if we want to get beyond its surface charm and to get a glimpse of what he was trying to say.

In the simplest and truest sense, Graves is a religious artist. He seeks and depicts evidence of the divine - no matter how subtle or fugitive it may appear to human sensibilities. But he does so largely through implications, by oblique references to truths that appear and disappear as quickly as fireflies on a pitch-black night.

In his spiritual-creative journey, Graves has worked more easily with Eastern than Western ideas and imagery. Even his painting technique - mostly calligraphic lines with color washes on paper - reflects Japanese influences rather than European ones. And this Eastern influence is even more pronounced when we enter the realm of sensibility and vision.

This is particularly evident when we consider the aura of watchful waiting that permeates so much of his art and its dependence upon suggestion rather than definition. In this he's quite unique in American art, where power and force so often dominate. Graves, instead, positions himself at the extreme outer edge of the rational and secular, and ''fishes'' patiently for what lies ''beyond.'' Since this, in a metaphysical sense, also means ''within,'' he has utilized the concept of the ''inner eye'' to direct our attention to the substance, not the appearance, of his art.

This becomes obvious if we examine some of his titles: ''Shore Birds Submerged in Moonlight''; ''Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye''; ''Fish Reflected upon Outer and Mental Space''; ''Ceremonial Bronze Taking the Form of a Bird''; ''Surf Reflected upon Higher Space''; ''Masked Bird Fishing in the Golden Stream''; ''Consciousness Achieving the Form of a Crane''; and ''Haunted Bouquets.''

But nothing is more typically Graves than his ''Vessel Seeking to Achieve Its Ideal Image Form.'' It depicts a dark, rather shapeless vase barely managing to remain upright. Occupying the same space, however, is the barest indication of a ''perfect'' white vase beginning to take shape. It's a stunning image that makes its point by a perfect fusion of drawing, color, handling of space, and idea.

There's much more to say about Graves's art, but I think it best at this point to suggest a visit to the exhibition. It will run through May 29 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW in Washington - and will then travel to the following museums:

Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, S.C. (July 1-Aug. 28); Whitney Museum in New York (Sept. 16-Nov. 27); Oakland Museum, Oakland, Calif. (Jan. 18 -March 25, 1984); Seattle Art Museum (April 19-July 8, 1984); San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, (July 24-Sept. 4, 1984).

I also recommend the exhibition catalog (and I feel free to do so, since I received a flat fee and stand to make no further financial gain). Called ''Morris Graves: Vision of the Inner Eye,'' published by George Braziller Inc. in New York, it sells for $35 (cloth) and $20 (paperback) and has 170 illustrations - 40 of them in color. The text by Ray Kass is the best and clearest accounting of Graves's life and art to date.

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