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Although he is Minnesota's best known and most successful American Indian artist, George Morrison never flaunted his status.

"I never played the role of being an Indian artist," he once said. "I always just stated the fact that I was a painter, and I happened to be Indian."

From the start of his long career, Morrison (1919-2000) was true to his talent, his training and his time. At core he was a maker of abstractions with a keen eye for design and a deep love of luscious, expressive color. He was a cosmopolitan talent at home on the streets and in the art studios of New York and Provincetown, Mass., where he lived for two decades starting in the 1940s, and Paris and Cap d'Antibes, France, to which a Fulbright Fellowship took him in 1952-53.

Born in the now-vanished village of Chippewa City, Minn., near the Grand Portage Reservation, he later adopted that signature Indian motif, the totem pole, which he reinterpreted in modernist sculptures. And always he was a deep-dyed Minnesotan, one whose late-life vistas of Lake Superior's sunrises and sunsets are so lyrical they catch the soul's breath.

His accomplishments are eloquently reprised in "Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison," on view through April 26 at the Minnesota History Center overlooking downtown St. Paul. With more than 80 paintings, drawings and sculpture spanning his 60-year career, the show is a well-deserved tribute to Morrison's complexity, steady vision, integrity and character.

Though initiated by the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMAA) in St. Paul, and drawn primarily from the MMAA collection, the show is too big to fit into that museum's small exhibition galleries. Its History Center presentation is the conclusion of a two-year tour to museums in Fargo, New York, Indianapolis and Phoenix.

Becoming Indian

Removed from his family at age 9 and sent to a Wisconsin boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Morrison was largely ignorant of Chippewa culture and beliefs when he graduated from what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1943. During his New York decades he hung out and exhibited regularly with Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline and other famous abstractionists of the time.

After teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and other colleges, he took a post teaching art and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota (1970-1983). It was then that he began to fully explore his heritage because, as he said, "I felt the need to put certain Indian values into my work."

Even so, he always avoided the obvious.

"George never made art with feathers and beads: he did not paint ponies and war bonnets; he did not paint about 'identity politics.' George was an abstract expressionist," as his friend and fellow artist Kay WalkingStick wrote in the introduction to the show's excellent catalog (University of Oklahoma Press; $40 cloth, $30 paper).

Recurring motifs

What's most striking about his work is the recurrence, over many decades, of basic motifs (horizon lines, land- and waterscapes) and compositions assembled out of patches of color or irregular geometric shapes. As early as 1945 he drew "Three Figures," whose expressive bodies were divided into puzzle-like parts boldly outlined in black. Within a few years he was applying the same technique to abstractions, landscapes and still lives. Some are done with sketchy ink lines and delicate watercolor, others with rich oil pigments, crayon or even woodcut.

Wildly different in mood and psychological effect, they range from the fiery Van Gogh-esque skies swirling over quilted hills in the 1948 oil "Dawn and Sea" to the stained-glass luminosity of the 1950 watercolor "Abstract Composition." In the 1960s, the compositions became looser and less referential, the brush strokes more dynamic and the surfaces sometimes tamped down with white as in the 1964 acrylic "Group," which may even suggest an abstracted crowd of bundled people huddled on a street corner. Still later, in the 1980s, surrealistic puzzle pieces float against horizon lines or drift like wisps of fog above the water in his stylized vistas of Lake Superior.

Even the North Shore's famous "witch tree," a gnarled 300-year-old spruce held sacred by Indians and others, seems to dissolve into the lilac atmosphere of his 1981 "Witch Tree" painting.

He assembled wood mosaics and totemic sculptures in much the same way, piecing together bits of worn driftwood and industrial scrap that he cut, sanded and arranged in complex wall designs, often with strong horizontal seams that can be read as horizon lines, aerial maps, geological strata or simply meditations on the vicissitudes of time. For the handsome totems and sculptures of the 1980s he assembled irregular pieces of colorful wood (walnut, purple heart, padauk) into poetic Rubik's cube sculptures whose polished surfaces beg to be caressed.

During his final decades, Morrison meditated on and recorded the fickle beauty and contradictory moods of Lake Superior as he observed it from his home and studio overlooking the water at Red Rock. None is more ethereal than the four 1990 tone poems he called "Red Rock Variations." Depicting nothing more than a distant horizon line dividing sky from water, they limn the lake's aqueous light at dawn, at evening, in a dappled moment he calls "Spirit Path" and in a "Lavender Wind."

In the end Morrison's work transcends his biography and stands as a hymn to the world he observed and the spirit it evoked. Or, as he put it, "I always see the horizon as the edge of the world. And then you go beyond that. … "

mary.abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431