Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on April 24, 2009 with permission of the author and the Hunter Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Hunter Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


George L. K. Morris: Arizona Alter

by Ellen Simak


George L. K. Morris was a leading artist and advocate of abstract art in America during the 1930s and 40s. Through his cubist-inspired paintings and his writings for influential art journals, he became a major figure in the abstract art movement during that period. In Arizona Altar (cover illustration) the artist renders an American theme in European cubist terms.

Morris recalled in his journals that:

The basis for Arizona Altar was the interior of a Spanish mission [San Xavier del Bac)...near Tucson. Upon entering the church the sudden transition from sharp sunlight outside results in an astonishing moment of disarray. For this initial glance the eye is capable of coordinating the countless fragments of curtains, candle, cherub, bastard baroque and Indian textures which surround the puppet figure of the Saint. The mind would seem to put up a design of its own, as though in defense, at once more broken and more unified than actuality.[1]

By comparing the painting with a photograph of the church's interior, one gains insight into an artists transformation of an actual event into a work of art.

Arizona Altar employs cubist methods by breaking the scene into disparate elements and then rearranging them on the canvas: a bit of altar rail here, a tilted candle or flying cherub there. The central figure of the saint is akin to a puzzle in which the pieces have been shifted and do not precisely align.

Beyond the obvious fact that Arizona Altar depicts a Southwestern church, the painting is distinctly American in that it refers to the Native American culture. The figure of the saint is probably based on a Kachina doll[2] of which a squared head, small round eyes, and slash-like mouth are all typical. In the Hopi culture a Kachina doll is not a plaything as the name suggests; rather these carved figures represent spirits which embody elemental forces in the visible world such as the sun, plants, and even concepts such as death.

Morris probably came in contact with Kachina dolls as a result of his travels in the Southwest. He noted that "I spent some time in Santa Fe in the thirties, and explored the Indian pueblos between San Ildefonso and Acoma, all the while filling notebooks with sketches of design fragments that interested me."[3] This Kachina doll figure appears in other works by Morris on Indian themes such as Indians Hunting (1935, University of New Mexico Art Museum).

Morris also may have viewed Native American art as a non-European or "primitive" style which could offer him an important source of inspiration. Many early abstract artists were influenced by African or other so-called primitive art because it lacked the contrivance of traditional European style. Further, Morris felt that "If an authentic American culture is to arise, we must go back to the beginning."[4]

Creating an American abstract art movement was of central importance to the artist. Morris decided to become a painter soon after graduating from Yale. He spent two summers studying with Fernand Leger, to whom some of his early work owes a great debt. However, Morris' real dedication to abstraction developed as a result of having met A. E. Gallatin in 1927. Gallatin was an artist and collector who introduced Morris to a number of European artists and acquainted him with modern European abstract art. In 1936 he helped organize the American Abstract Artists group and wrote extensively for the periodicals Partisan Review and Plastique. His path as an advocate for abstract art was frequently difficult. In the 1930s Morris was attacked by critics who supported realistic art based on American themes. In the later 1940s he was castigated by spokesmen for Abstract Expressionist artists who saw Morris and the cubist art he espoused as derivative and old-fashioned.

Throughout his career as a critic, Morris continued to create. By the mid-1930s his painting was firmly grounded in a geometric abstract style. His style would change several times over his career, but it was always distinguished by a clear order and strong geometry.

Arizona Altar is actually one of Morris' more realistic works considering that the objects in it can be recognized amidst the abstract web of elements. In Arizona Altar, Morris fuses cubist form and American content to create an intriguing work in his oeuvre.


1 Morris Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Roll D337, frames 559 - 60; quoted in Debra Bricker Balken and Deborah Menaker Rothschild, Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L.K. Morris, American Abstract Artists: Aspects of their Work and Collection (Williamstown, MA: Williams College Museum of Art, June 6 - October 25, 1992), p. 43.

2 William J. Henning, Jr., A Catalogue of the American Collection, Hunter Museum of Art (Chattanooga, TN: Hunter Museum of Art, 1985), p. 186.

3 Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., "Notes and Footnotes on a Painting by George L.K. Morris," The Bulletin of the University of New Mexico Art Museum, no. 10 (1976 - 77), 3; quoted in Balken and Rothschild, p. 42.

4 Cikovsky, p. 4; quoted in Melinda A. Lorenz, George L.K. Morris: Artist and Critic (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1982), p. 11.



About the author

Ellen Simak is Chief Curator at the Hunter Museum of American Art.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on April 24, 2009, with permission of the author and the Hunter Museum of American Art, which was granted to TFAO on April 8, 2009.

This article appeared in the February - March 1994 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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and images of the historic Southern Arizona mission referenced in this text.

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