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Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space

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Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space

Artist: Morris Graves (American, 1910 - 2001)

Date: 1943
Medium: Transparent and opaque watercolor on thin light brown paper
Overall: 23 3/8 x 29 1/2in. (59.4 x 74.9cm)
Signed: Signed and dated lower right (graphite): M. Graves '43
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.157.a
Text Entries

Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space is a relatively austere and abstracted work. Its delineation appears brittle, crystalline, and transparent. Color is restricted to the interaction of delicate white lines with the crackled brown paper. The painting is one of a small group of important Morris Graves’s works referring to sea and surf, from 1943-44. Others include Sea, Fish, and Constellation (Seattle Art Museum), Sea and the Morning Redness (Art Institute of Chicago), and Black Waves (Albright-Knox Art Gallery). Each combines a pervasive rhythmic energy with the cosmic suggestiveness of water imagery. They differ from Graves’s more numerous Works in which animals, birds, or objects are a focus of being and consciousness. An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942 made Graves popular with a wide audience as the painter of Bird in the Moonlight (Nancy Wilson Ross, Old Westbury, New York), Blind Bird and Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye (both Museum of Modern Art). In a brief statement then, Graves mentioned “our mysterious capacities which direct us toward ultimate reality.” His creatures seemed the vicarious embodiments of those capacities. But he also wrote that he painted “to rest from the phenomena of the external world—to pronounce it—and to make notations of its essences.”(1) The water images seem directed at that.

Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space relates to Graves’s reading of Jacob Bohme and Meister Eckhart, and to works of his close friends in Seattle including Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, and Mark Tobey, Who were seeking visual metaphors for universal immaterial energies. Tobey, like Graves, often worked on paper with water-base media; and both used pale linear configurations on a darker ground (often called “white writing”) to suggest a dematerialized transparency. For example, in White Night of 1942 (Seattle Art Museum), Tobey almost filled the surface with networks of brittle angular lines. Similar to Graves, Tobey wrote in 1946: “The multiple space bounded by involved white lines symbolizes higher states of consciousness.”(2) Later Graves noted that his own Beach Under Gloom of 1943 (Fort Wayne Museum of Art) was probably a response to “the way the Japanese formalized sea water” and to Tobey’s Modal Tide of 1940 (Seattle Art Museum), “the way the waves are delineated. . . . He had so quieted the forms and yet so emphasized the energy and vitality.”(3) The broad patterns of Modal Tide are even closer to the sober brown coloration and all-over structure of Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space.

Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space followed two extraordinary crises in Graves’s life. The first was the great ambivalence he experienced after his unprecedented success through the Museum of Modern Art exhibition. Following immediately, he had serious difficulties over his registration as a conscientious objector, and he was incarcerated by the army through much of 1942. This conjunction of opportunity and confinement lay behind his succeeding paintings in which wounded birds alternated with ocean surfaces. Graves wrote in a letter: “Perhaps I could decode the sea and heavens as a communication with you—but not for exhibition.“(4) Expansion, release, and a joining to the cosmic emerge through Surf Reflected Upon Higher Space.


1. Dorothy C. Miller, ed., Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States, exhibition catalog (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1942), p. 51.

2. Mark Tobey, “Mark Tobey Writes of his Painting on the Cover,” ARTnews, vol. 44 (January 1-14, 1946), p. 22.

3. Eda E. Rubin, ed., The Drawings of Morris Graves (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1974), p.  54.

4. Morris Graves in a letter to Marian Willard, October 22, 1942, in Ray Kass, Morris Graves, Vision of the Inner Eye (New York: George Braziller and the Phillips Collection, 1983), p. 37.


© Morris Graves Foundation.