Painter Morris Graves is a special pet of Manhattan's artiest art lovers, but he is careful to keep 3,000 miles between himself and their cocktail parties. His strange paintings, completely uninfluenced by the fads of 57th Street, look as if they might have been done by a lama in the peaks of Tibet. Graves has done little to dispel that illusion. When his temperas were first shown and acclaimed at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art (TIME, Feb. 2, 1942), critics and writers excitedly wired Seattle for information about him. The tall, cadaverous recluse sent them a characteristic aphorism instead. "Vision," he wired back, "grows in the meadows of obscurity."
The meadows of Graves's obscurity are hedged round with a thorny but exhibitionist defense. He masks his face with bangs and a beard, and wears expensive grey flannel suits under an overcoat shabby enough for the radiator of a farmer's jalopy. To celebrate Christmas, Graves once gilded his beard and eyebrows, and he has been known to leave his shoes on the escalator of a Seattle department store while he himself took the elevator. He likes to talk a mystic mumbo-jumbo that leaves his admirers in open-mouthed confusion.
Such shenanigans dramatize Graves's disgust with civilization as he finds ' it. That disgust kept him in high school until he was 21 because "except for drawing, the subjects were a nuisance," and since then he has almost always managed to avoid steady work. His new temperas, on show in a Manhattan gallery last week, featured birdlike forms haloed with skeins of light, and minnows flashing in dark swirls of color. A devotee of oriental philosophy, Graves has recently begun mingling his subjective symbols with decayed-looking versions of the ancient Chinese bronze ritual vessels in the Seattle Art Museum (see cut).
To escape civilization, 37-year-old Graves spends most of his time in the woods or on the cliffs of Washington's Puget Sound. Lately he and a young Nisei friend named Yonemitsu Arashiro have been living in a forest lean-to and doing what they call "rock painting," which is not painting at all. Graves and Yonemitsu load heavy rocks on their truck, haul them to their backyard, then spend days wrestling the huge boulders into arrangements that please them.