All posts in “Philip McCracken”

Object of the Week: War God

Perched in a gallery of Northwest modern art, Philip McCracken’s War God sculpture, a carved figure in cedar wood with a leather strap and saw blades as accessories, has a dark, significant presence. Here at the Seattle Art Museum, he’s surrounded by the work of Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, and Morris Graves, and it seems the perfect place for us to consider McCracken’s art.

McCracken’s work finds its form and substance in the beauty and power of nature. For many years he has chosen to live close to nature, working from a Guemes Island studio near to the animals that inspire much of his sculpture. McCracken has frequently returned to the bird, and other animal forms, as a visualization of the artist’s inner psychology. Much more than wildlife art, McCracken’s work aims to chart new emotional and spiritual depths, recording what is for the artist a process of open-ended exploration. McCracken has spoken about his work as a mode of discovery; rather than dictating what he knows, his sculptures offer reflections of his meanderings into the mysterious and the unknown.

McCracken’s primary subject—the bird—and his mystical understanding of art-making have encouraged comparisons to Morris Graves, one of a handful of figures often cited as standard-bearers for modernism here in the Pacific Northwest. How suitable is the comparison between Graves and McCracken, and how well McCracken does in contributing to the symbolism Graves established, depends on one’s perspective. Writing in 1980 and reviewing a catalogue produced in conjunction with a McCracken retrospective at the Tacoma Art Museum, longtime Seattle art critic Matthew Kangas gave us this resounding barb: “McCracken’s solidifying of Morris Graves’ wispy spirit birds into chunky, polished wood carvings goes down as one of the great jokes in American art.”1 Kangas went on to write that War God was, for him, representative of a troubling current in McCracken’s art that seemed to exalt violence rather than undermine it, and he culminated his criticism by suggesting that McCracken’s sculptures were best suited to Northwest patios—not art museums. You can’t win ‘em all, as they say.

Without a doubt, War God is a harsh piece, one that deals head-on with forces McCracken has called “anti-life.” Many have seen the redemptive value in this piece and in McCracken’s body of work.

War God notably represented the artist at the Fine Arts Exhibition of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a watershed moment for the arts in this area. In the 55 years since, McCracken has received countless shows and accolades—but I’ll share just one gem from the SAM annals. In March of 1976 McCracken served as the guest of honor at an event hosted by SAM’s Pacific Northwest Arts Council, a classy affair that paired his visual art with lyrical accompaniment by poet Eve Triem. Moon: Philip McCracken is one of the poems Triem read there:

Is a tree
budded
with many names.

My fingers trace the wood
nonlunar color
To a birdshaken twig.

Remembering the poet Li Po
who sang the sliding into cloud
and the emerging
of blossoms into light
attended by
owl          wolf        mountain             cat

and the child’s first sentence:
What do you know—the moon.

The carved verticals
quivering the circle
illuminate
the birth-death cycle
as plumage for freedom.

I don’t think McCracken’s goal has been to win critical acclaim or to inspire poetry. He seems most interested in learning by exploring with his materials, come what may. In the same year he produced War God, McCracken reminded us that “Everyone wants you to fit his conceptions. But to do so is dangerous if it comes before being true to yourself and to your personal vision.”2

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Matthew Kangas, “Birdman of Guemes Island,” ARTWEEK Nov. 15, 1980.
2 Philip McCracken, quoted in Gene Johnston, “Guemes Sculptor Phil McCracken Has One-man N.Y. Show,” Anacortes American LXX, Mar. 24, 1960.
Image: War God, 1960, Philip McCracken (American, b. 1928), cedar, leather, brass, steel, 41 ¾ x 14 5/8 x 12 ¾ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Seattle Art Museum Guild, 63.89, photo: Natali Wiseman, © Philip McCracken.
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Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Mark Howells

Everyone knows museums have security guards, but not everyone gets to know the people behind the uniform. We spend our days with the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Donald Judd, Andy Warhol, and Claude Monet, learning the nuances of each piece.

Johan Idema wonderfully describes museum guards in his book How To Visit An Art Museum as follows:

In order to put up with picture takers, soda smugglers and amateur art critics, guards require both the alertness of a police officer and the empathy of a kindergarten teacher. Consider museum guards the ground troops of the art world, who deserve your utmost respect. Some of them actually have amazing knowledge of art – former guards include painters such as Jackson Pollock and Sol LeWitt.

Many guards would speak with great passion, if only we asked them. Therein lies your opportunity. Have your questions ready and make your move when the gallery is quiet. Whatever the conversation, you will likely find that guards are able to offer what is often lacking in museums: human interaction and a proper conversation about art.

With Idema’s words in mind, we invite you to get to know us, SAM’s Visitor Services Officers (VSOs), with a monthly spotlight.

MARK HOWELLS
Raised between Portland and Bellingham, Mark Howells has been in the Puget Sound region for 30 years. He did IT Security and Audit before coming into the museum scene. In 1974, he worked his first museum job at the Oregon Historical Society as a junior summer docent. However, what lead him down the path to guest services was his experience in visitor studies during an extension course at the UW where he volunteered with the Washington State History Museum. Mark has worked at SAM since November 2015.

SAM: Graphic Masters: Dürer, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Goya, Picasso, R. Crumb comes to an end on August 28. Which artist have you enjoyed the most in this exhibit?

Howells: R. Crumb. He’s my generation. I had to hide his comix from my mom when I was a kid. Alternative comix were a fun part of my kid-hood, so I guess the nostalgia factor with Crumb was the best part.

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?
The Bierstadt (Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast). He got the gray of the Pacific Northwest skies just right. That’s hard to do. I know that the location was just from his own imagination, but I go down to that area at the mouth of the Columbia quite a bit and I always look to see if I can find “that place.”

Who is your favorite artist?
I’m a historian, not an artist. Recently, I’ve studied up on local Pacific Northwest artists, so maybe Philip McCracken right now.

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM?
Ask questions. Don’t be intimidated. It’s just art.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?
I like to hike around the Puget Sound and nerd-out on the history all around us. I’m trying to learn more about the built history in our communities. I do volunteer history work for the Camp Harmony Executive Order 9066 Committee (the Puyallup Fairgrounds was an Internment Camp in 1942) and I’m on the Archives Committee for the Queen Anne Historical Society doing glamorous digitization projects for them.

—Katherine Humphreys, SAM VSO

Mark Howells with Philip McCracken’s War God. Photo: Natali Wiseman.
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