Guy Anderson Embodied Northwest Point Of View -- Painter Who Rarely Left His Home State Dies At 91
Seattle Times Art Critic
Guy Anderson was born in Edmonds 91 years ago. He died Thursday in La Conner of pneumonia. In the years between he rarely traveled far from Western Washington, finding all the natural beauty, artistic inspiration and human companionship he needed in Seattle and the Skagit Valley.
His love of this region's rich coastal farmlands, mist-shrouded beaches, wooded mountainsides and marshy waterways was reflected in his paintings from early on. Never a landscape painter, his big, bold, self-assured canvases were nevertheless full of the spirit of the Northwest.
For the nearly seven decades of his prolific career, the colors of the Northwest landscape and its raw power were the backdrops to his explorations about life, death, regeneration and transcendence.
The titles of a few of his works hint at the universal questions he cared about: "The Birth of Prometheus," "Seed in the Stream," "Icarus," "The Exacting Moment." A figurative painter, his mature painting style was a mixture of mid-20th century modernism and a point of view influenced by Haida masks and Japanese woodblock prints.
In a typical painting, rounded, naked human figures float or fall through space. Sometimes they drift in water. The figures often are arranged around large ovoids representing seeds, an egg, a womb, the cosmos or a mandala.
Given Mr. Anderson's interest in nondenominational spirituality, it is no wonder that he often transformed symbols from many belief systems - including Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity - into elements in his paintings.
One reason his work has through the decades evoked such strong emotions in viewers is its universality. He was a multiculturalist before it was fashionable. He was painting expressions of the shared human condition even when the vogue was for self-centered, highly individualistic statements.
Mr. Anderson never went to art school. But his parents and teachers encouraged him to pursue his artistic aspirations, and he enjoyed success at an early age. At 23 he earned an art fellowship that took him to the East Coast, and soon after he returned he had his first show at a Seattle gallery. He was given solo shows at the Seattle Art Museum in 1936, 1945, 1960, 1977 and 1996. And in 1953 he was anointed one of the four painters of the so-called "Northwest School of Mysticism" in a Life magazine article that attempted to identify a regional painting style. Painted into his 80s
It was heady company to be in. The other painters that Life singled out for praise were his friends Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Mr. Anderson was close to them all. In 1934 and 1935 he and Graves tooled around Oregon and California in a pickup painting wherever they stopped. Later in life he sometimes lived with Callahan and his wife.
All the "Mystic Painters" but Graves, who lives in Northern California, are now dead.
Within a decade of that article, Graves, Tobey and Callahan left the Northwest. Yet Mr. Anderson painted steadily in his La Conner studio until well into his 80s, sometimes combining his pacifism and humanitarianism into compositions that were subtly political, including paintings that made tragic reference to the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.
And unlike some artists whose work tires in their later years, Mr. Anderson's seemed to get stronger.
"Guy actually became more bold as he aged," said Vickie Halper, a curator who organized the SAM show in 1996. "His work got even bigger, and he did these incredibly calligraphic clouds. It was not aging work at all. But it was work with a very, very strong presence."
A dapper, physically graceful charmer of a man who a longtime friend once described as a cross between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Mr. Anderson's proclivity for sticking close to his roots had nothing to do with lack of curiosity about the world or monkish asceticism. Indeed, he loved company. In the modest La Conner studio and home where he lived from 1955 until his health failed a few years ago, he hosted informal salons for the town's eccentrics and artists. Writer Tom Robbins, La Conner's other famous resident, was a friend and frequent guest. Work is in museum collections
In the Seattle area, Mr. Anderson's legacy is everywhere. His work is included in the collections of the Seattle Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum, though neither museum currently has any of his work on exhibit. His paintings are also on display on the third floor of the Seattle Opera House, Meany Hall at the University of Washington, and the third level of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.
With Mr. Anderson's death, this region loses an artist who perhaps has most consistently embodied a Northwest point of view. His art has always been contemplative and full of spiritual symbolism but also filled with a celebration of the land and respect for the rhythms of nature.
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