How Indigenous Artist George Morrison Resists Ecological and Cultural Extraction

A painting made up with a collage of wooden pieces

In 1965, George Morrison started making landscapes out of driftwood. He gathered wood from Atlantic beaches near Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he rented a studio on breaks from teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. He looked for scraps of wood grayed and weathered by the sea to the brink of abstraction, but that also bore some trace of human use or attachment. Morrison began each landscape, which he also called “wood collages” and “paintings in wood,” by fitting together a few pieces in the bottom left corner of the frame that, along the broken lines of driftwood edges, gathered out into massive sweeps and rivulets of fragments to fill frames up to fourteen feet wide and five feet tall. Setting off the top quadrant of each collage, a single, twisted but unbroken line—a horizon line—is the only gesture spared from the turbulence of fracture and motion that characterizes the landscapes. 

An abstract painting by artist George Morrison, with red orange background and line tracing in the foreground.
George Morrison’s Red Cube, 1983. Image courtesy of MIA.

Morrison was born in 1919, in a house near the shore of Lake Superior, a member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He was sent to a boarding school in Wisconsin, attended and graduated from the Minneapolis School of Art, and in 1944 moved to New York, where he made and showed work alongside modernist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. During the years he lived on the East Coast, Morrison was excluded from exhibitions of “Indian art” that were coming into fashion in the US art market. In 1948, the Philbrook Art Center in Tulsa rejected his work, noting that it “was not painted in the traditional manner of your forefathers.” And even when the Philbrook eventually did accept Morrison’s work in 1964, the curator wrote to Morrison that she “was aware that [Morrison was] . . . not an artist in the ‘Indian style.’” 

Although this question of whether his work belonged in the category “Indian art” did not preoccupy Morrison, it is one that continues to dominate criticism of his work. One reason, perhaps, is that Morrison began making driftwood landscapes just as he decided to move back to Minnesota in 1970 to join the faculty of the country’s first American Indian studies program at the University of Minnesota, a move, he wrote, that was inspired by an “Indian connection . . . [and] the need to put certain Indian values into my work.” His move to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), for which the driftwood landscapes became an avatar, is often interpreted as a pivot from an abstract period to a politically and ideologically situated one. 

Questions about the Indigenousness of art often displace questions about the Indigenousness of the places where that art is made and shown. It is a critical habit that has unfortunately structured much of the history of the interpretation of Morrison’s work. How can we read art and place together under conditions of ongoing colonialism? Can practices of cultural interpretation denaturalize the coloniality of place and at the same time show how Indigenous art-­making is always also Indigenous place-­making? 

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The Twin Cities’ transformation is a familiar story of “urban crisis” in the United States, but one that hinged in more immediately identifiable ways than it did in other US cities on the unresolved contradiction of the social and jurisdictional form of the city that depends on the recurrent displacement and absorption of Indigenous people and land relations. In the 1960s and 1970s, the contradictions of Indigenous displacement and absorption was most famously manifest in the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Like other urban anti-­racist and decolonization movements, AIM demanded equal access to employment, health care, safety, and education. What distinguished AIM’s insurgency, from Alcatraz Island to the National Mall in Washington, DC, was the way it used occupation as a style of protest in order to denaturalize the settler city as a primary or coherent social and jurisdictional form. In one sense, the history of that denaturalization begins in the Twin Cities, where AIM started as a cop watch system, a street patrol, two Indigenous schools, and a local health care and legal support system before it became a national organization. 

A history of AIM, as told by Ojibwe activist Clyde Bellecourt. Produced by Minnesota Historical Society, 2020.

As soon as Morrison arrived in the Twin Cities, he became an active member of AIM. At the same time, his driftwood landscapes were embraced by the cities’ most powerful settler corporations and cultural institutions. He sold driftwood collages to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), General Mills, Honeywell, and Prudential—all organizations whose wealth depended on the seizure and extraction of Indigenous life and land. He had a solo show at the Walker Art Center, a gallery named and funded by lumber baron T. H. Walker, and received public art commissions for a wood statue exhibited in a skyscraper named for the French explorer René-­Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and a granite collage built into a pedestrian mall named for Jean Nicolet, the French explorer sometimes credited with “discovering” the Great Lakes. 

How these corporations and institutions misread Morrison’s work, and why they were interested in using that work to attach themselves to a narrative of the frontier past and neoliberal future of US colonialism, gets to questions about how colonialism attempts and fails to control the meaning of art, about how colonial political and aesthetic forms are produced by the management of belonging, and about how we can clarify the always-material, always-­ecological stakes of strug­gles around aesthetics and power, colonialism and decolonization. 

Extraction is a cultural and an ecological concept.

At a moment characterized both by insurgent assertions of urban Indigenous space and by systematic disinvestment from the cities’ central Black and Indigenous neighborhoods, settler corporations and institutions leveraged a particular and violently constrained idea of the “Nativeness” of Morrison’s art to facilitate a transformation of the spatial and economic order of the city. Here, Nativeness was not understood as a radical counterclaim to the operation of US colonialism but rather as a minority cultural aspect of it. I argue that, as such, colonial institutions misinterpreted Morrison’s work and its relation to modern Indigeneity by obscuring the aesthetic and political invention to which that work was actively committed. 

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The first landscape Morrison sold after moving back to Minnesota is titled Collage IX: Landscape. The piece is made of driftwood that he brought from the Atlantic coast, and that he collected from the “alleys and backyards” of his neighborhood in St. Paul. Like all of his collages, it is a study of material in social and historical relation. Morrison immersed himself in the process of “taking driftwood or discarded wood and playing one piece against the other.” The patterns of “color, shape, and texture” that emerge are functions of Morrison’s own manipulation and of the possibilities or limits of attachment manifest in each piece. Those patterns are ornate, massive, and mutating, and they express within the piece’s huge frame a multidimensionality of motion beyond the vertical and horizontal, a coruscation of density, gesture, and reference.

The complexity of this effect is intentional and has to do with how the wood pieces-­in-­pattern express a present of exposition and, like a shoreline, gather the residue of moving histories of growth, harvest, commodification, shipment, use, and disposal that mingle below and beyond that present. For Morrison, those histories were insistently environmental and social, and they generate an animating tension that never resolves into familiar postures of presence or absence, location or loss. 

A collage made up with wooden pieces done by artist George Morrison.
George Morrison’s Collage IX: Landscape, 1974. Image courtesy of MIA.

Collage, for Morrison, is both a response to the formal operation of colonial extraction and a practice of ecological invention. The pieces of driftwood he used are not joined to represent or restore what of them was lost to extraction, and in this sense collage does not refer to a total effect of fragments rearranged into pattern. In Morrison’s work, collage is better understood as attention to the formal and affective generativity of wood worn—in odd angles and unnatural lightness, and in subtly incurvate or arching sanded surfaces—to extractive remains. It is a practice that collects both wood arrayed in a fluid pattern and the interstitial spaces between each piece, and thereby creates a formal tension between what, of each piece of driftwood, it is and is not possible to connect. Morrison remembered the history that preceded the wood’s inclusion in the collage and its eventual decay. Thus we can read the gaps between driftwood pieces as a space not of loss but of organic exchange— where, within the collage, the pieces literally gather and decay together. 

If, for Morrison, collage is a way of gathering with and among the absent, the other primary formal framework of the piece—landscape—is a way to rethink how setting is social. In a colonial context, as W. J. T. Mitchell notes, landscape is “a medium” and a making, an enclosure fantasy. Landscape is the imagination of space primally unclaimed but through whose mixing of proximity and spaciousness property is remade as an effect of seeing, “‘the dreamwork’ of imperialism.” In Morrison’s collage, these dynamics are referenced and actively thwarted. For Morrison, landscape is also a medium and is concerned with how art participates in the politics of space. But whereas imperial landscape asserts control by abstracting land Morrison’s landscape problematizes interpretive control by revealing the generative indistinction between space and land. 

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The MIA purchased Collage IX: Landscape in 1975, the year after it completed a massive, $30 million expansion to its main building. Designed by the renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, the addition was intended to modernize and expand the museum’s founding democratic concept: a public exhibition space joined to an art school and a theater. As a part of that expansion, the museum updated its curatorial scheme, adding the department first called Primitive Art before it was renamed Art of Africa and the Americas, in which Collage IX: Landscape would be exhibited. 

The MIA is situated in a neighborhood that became the vibrant center of Indigenous life and organizing in Minneapolis in the aftermath of postwar white disinvestment. Originally, it was land seized from Dakota people in the mid-­nineteenth century by settler John T. Blaisdell. Blaisdell sold the lumber and eventually some of the land itself to Dorilus Morrison, a man who started the city’s first industrial sawmill and eventually became Minneapolis’s first mayor. Dorilus Morrison made a fortune milling lumber harvested from all over the state, including from thousands of acres of pine forest he bought himself—land that had been acquired through a treaty with Ojibwe leaders in 1837 whose terms were never upheld by the US. In 1911, Dorilus Morrison’s son, Clinton, donated the land the family bought from Blaisdell to Minneapolis for the construction of a museum whose founding principle, characteristic of early twentieth-century progressivism, was (in the words of its first director, Joseph Breck) to liberate the museum from the model of “‘the storehouse’ [or] . . . ‘prison of arts’” and to “extend no less cordial a welcome to the humbler amateurs than . . . to ‘carriage folk.’”

For Morrison, landscape is also a medium and is concerned with how art participates in the politics of space.

Like the other corporations and institutions that acquired George Morrison’s collage landscapes in the early 1970s, the MIA is an effect and a technology of extraction. Here, extraction is a cultural and an ecological concept; it signals both how forms of colonial belonging proliferate around Indigenous land dispossession and how those forms remake themselves through the management of ecological meaning.

Thinking about the MIA through the lens of extraction is less about singling out that institution—or even the institutional form of the museum—than it is about showing how colonial cultural forms that organize the politics of belonging function as thresholds of the constant transformations of land, capital, and power on which the broader operation of US colonialism depends. For instance, the museum’s self-­concept as a public institution is only possible through a recurrence of Indigenous alienation: of the land under the museum, of the trees and water through which Dorilus Morrison made a fortune, of the civic investment that city officials directed to a colonial museum in an Indigenous neighborhood instead of the Indigenous school that aim asked to be installed on the abandoned naval air station.  

The MIA’s acquisition of Collage IX: Landscape helped define Morrison as an Indigenous modernist for the art world and for the Twin Cities in part by exhibiting the piece in the Primitive Art and then Art of Africa and the Americas department. By curating the work in this way, the MIA used Morrison to institutionalize a relationship between modernity and Indigeneity that erases the specificity of Indigenous claims to land. In the shift from Primitive Art to Art of Africa and the Americas, the MIA replaced a violent temporal (anachronizing) universalization of Indigeneity with a spatial (globalizing) one—a tactic Joanne Barker terms the “racialization of the Indian,” in which in which Indigeneity stripped of its sovereign claim to land seems to make it comparable to positions of political minority already naturalized within US racial capitalism as landless and nonsovereign. However, the way colonial institutions used Morrison’s collages at this moment of urban transformation invites an elaboration of this theory of racialization to understand how the colonial construction of modern Indigeneity as landless also served the intrinsically anti-­Black discourse of civic revitalization.

A pedestrian mall with brick buildings on both sides against a grey sky.
Nicollet Mall, a downtown pedestrian mall in Minneapolis that attracted investment for urban renewal. Image by Sharon Mollerus, 2023.

In the aftermath of suburbanization, civic and business leaders invested in sites like the MIA and Nicollet Mall as spaces to return public interest to the downtown. In such spaces, Morrison’s collage landscapes—works whose aesthetic interest in fragment and pattern were misconstrued as thematizing political unity from individual difference—were exhibited as avatars of a new urban, multicultural public life.

As in other cities, the rhetoric around public “life” was deployed on behalf of a revitalization that produced new forms and distributions of environmental violence outside of revalued urban spaces. Because expressed interest in renewed urban spaces was economic, revitalization in the Twin Cities depended on a classic neoliberal model of financing and governance. Remaking retail and cultural spaces “to bring life back to the street” depended on tax incentives and regulatory easements that concentrated profit around a few corporations and redistributed environmental vulnerability to poor and rural communities around the state and city. 

My writing is an attempt to think about a work of art and a city together, to track the ways they are connected by genealogies of life and space in motion. At the same time, it is an effort to avoid repeating the reduction of both art and the city to and by colonial practices of interpretation, valuation, and recovery—the way the meaning of Morrison’s life, his work, and Indigenous people in Minnesota, for instance, have been managed through the cultural economies of extraction that I have outlined.

Featured image: George Morrison’s Collage IX: Landscape, 1974. Image courtesy of MIA.

This essay on Indigenous modernist George Morrison is an edited version of the prologue from Matt Hooley’s book Against Extraction: Indigenous Modernism in the Twin Cities (Copyright Duke University Press, 2024).

Matt Hooley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Dartmouth College, where he teaches and writes about cultures of colonialism and anti-colonialism, Indigenous modernisms, and the environmental humanities.  His book Against Extraction: Indigenous Modernism in the Twin Cities was published by Duke University Press, and he’s currently working on a book on the colonial histories of drought in Turtle Island and in Palestine. Contact.