PRINT October 1971

Quality in Louis

DESPITE THE GROWING ACKNOWLEDGMENT of Morris Louis as one of America’s greatest painters, certain questions regarding his work have not been widely discussed. Among these are exact reasons for the superiority of Louis’ paintings, the oddness that the oeuvre, although relatively large, was produced during a period of four or five years, the criteria for distinguishing relative quality in Louis’ work, and why his work appears to belong, not with the stain painting of the ‘60s to which it is technically related, but with the work of the first generation of the New York School.

The more I think of it, the more clearly Louis appears to me as Pollock’s successor. Not that Louis inherited Pollock’s style, but that Louis appears now the only painter who created a synthesis as complete and complex as Pollock’s drip paintings. That he did so by resolving the questions Pollock had posed for himself in attempting to formulate an alternative to the drip paintings is especially relevant. This goal, which Pollock died without achieving, Louis accomplished with the aid of the drip paintings as precedent. Inspired by Frankenthaler’s stain technique, Louis painted his first series of “veils.” These visionary works come closer to Pollock’s drip paintings than any other works made since (with the possible exception of Louis’ second series of veils) because, by spilling and pouring, Louis was able to create an image as “automatic” in execution and, at the same time, as texturally uniform as Pollock’s all over meshes of dripped painting. An automatic technique allowed Louis to efface manual gesture which detracted from immediacy. More importantly, an automatic technique freed Louis from the linear quality of drawing, without requiring him to sacrifice the detail provided by drawing. We shall say more of these matters later.

Pollock and Frankenthaler drew in paint. In his veils, Louis was able to synthesize more thoroughly even than they, the previously antithetical elements of painting, desegno and colore. In the drip paintings, Pollock had already eliminated the shape-defining function of contour with his swelling and meandering gestural and painterly line. The compression of painting and drawing into a single gesture was a fundamental step toward the creation of a post-Cubist abstraction. The next step involved the merger of figure with ground, within a pictorial structure independent not only of Cubist shapes, but also of the background-foreground discontinuities they created—discontinuities that continued to tie Cubism to the illusion of receding planes of old master painting. This problem was also investigated by Pollock. The drip paintings resolve this issue because Pollock never closed his painterly line to silhouette a readable shape against the ground. When Pollock tried to find a means other than dripping to achieve this end, he was forced back into late Impressionism. His late paintings like Scent reveal him still struggling with the ghost of Monet. Earlier Pollock experimented with several solutions to the problem of integrating shape and field on a continuous surface. In 1949 he removed sections of the canvas from Out of the Web. Later he painted on glass, as if to suspend the image in space. These paintings give one the sense that ideally Pollock would have liked to render the canvas itself transparent so that space would not be defined either as the shallow relief space of Cubism or as the closed, finite space of Mondrian’s geometric paintings. In his 1951 Duco paintings on raw canvas, Pollock came close to achieving such a new concept of space. But these works were in black and white, so they appeared related to enlarged brush drawings, remaining for this reason relatively flat when visualized in pictorial terms. Moreover, enamel did not sink into the canvas, but rested visibly on its surface, somewhat separating the image from its ground.

Ironically the illusion of a limitless free space, a canvas ground that functioned, not as delimiting scenic backdrop closed to vision, but as neutral field, was made possible by the stain color paintings inspired by Pollock’s initial experiments with painting directly on raw canvas. But Pollock in the meantime had returned to a more conventional technique. Apparently he could not see the implication of the Duco paintings in terms of the resolution of his own dilemma. Rather, it was left to Louis to resolve the problems posed by a controversial late painting by Pollock like Blue Poles regarding the reconciliation of the continuing duality between structure and image. The synthesis of an allover design incorporating Mondrian’s demand that the internal image be explicitly related to its frame was particularly difficult to achieve within the context of an automatic technique.

Pollock’s intentions in abandoning the drip technique are rarely if ever commented upon. Obviously one can only surmise his state of mind. It is possible he understood that, after a certain point, the image could no longer be perceived independently of its frame, if the aim were the synthesis of the traditional polarities of painting—painting and drawing, process and composition—in terms of a gestalt experience. More than any other previous painter, Newman had attacked the problem of binding the image to the frame; and structural resemblances between Blue Poles and Newman’s banded fields may not be coincidental. Indeed there is an apocryphal story, difficult to verify or disprove, that Newman worked on Blue Poles during a period of close friendship with Pollock.

Both Newman and Pollock were looking at Monet. But in terms of the future development of painting, Pollock was looking at the wrong pictures—the Nymphaeas just installed in the Museum of Modern Art—whereas Newman appears to have been studying the Poplars, which are a direct historical precedent for the symbiotic image frame relationships he finally arrived at, in which banded image is directly related to framing edge by mirroring its verticality. Obviously, many other factors influenced Newman as well, including Cubism and Mondrian, but none so vitally as Monet.

Blue Poles presented the same problem as Pollock’s paintings on masonite with the cutout areas: the poles did not merge visually with the texture of either the dripped areas or with that of the canvas itself. In fact, Pollock was never able to create a structure that tied image to frame in a convincing manner, nor did he try again after Blue Poles. Neither could he unite design with the process which created that design after the drip paintings. Learning from Pollock the importance of identifying design with process, Louis was able to accomplish such a marriage in a different manner. Moreover, he was able to create works even more fully synthesized than the drip paintings, by finding a way to unite design with process within the context of a pictorial structure that simultaneously bound the image to its frame.

By folding raw canvas vertically, apparently draping it like cloth over a trough and spilling diluted pigment into the folded channels, Louis coalesced the process of creating an image with its resultant structure, which was equally an outcome of the manner in which the painting was created. Not all of the 1954 veils, of course, related image to frame so explicitly. Apparently only some were made by pleating; others seem to have been worked more freely. We understand the importance of the structural element in the early veils when we examine Louis’ second series of veils begun in 1957. Indeed these paintings appear in many respects as critical revisions of the earlier series. In them, the flow of paint in striated patterns, emphatically parallel with the sides of the frame, is consistently emphasized. The best of the 1954 veils such as Salient, Intrigue, and Iris are precisely those that stress image-frame relationships in the vertical flow of paint. By contrast, the series of paintings related to the veils known as “florals” done in 1959–60—as a kind of coda to the second series of veils—allow color to spread laterally and more randomly. Lacking the explicit relationship of image to frame, they are consequently weaker works.

Frankenthaler was, according to Louis, “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” For his part, Louis arrived at what one must term a new definition of painting, so complete was his revision of Cubist canons. This revision was undeniably initiated by Pollock and Frankenthaler. But Louis took their concept a step farther by revising the role they assigned drawing as the record of active physical gesture. (It is worth noting that Frankenthaler’s latest paintings involve an entirely different conception of drawing with important implications for a renewal of interest in the graphic.) In pouring and spilling, Louis removed not only the hand but even the arm and body of the artist entirely, thereby gaining greater abstractness through greater detachment. In addition, Louis’ technique permitted him—mainly because of the way paint poured into paint dried—to retain the detail-creating function of drawing without actually making any manual gestures.

The presence of detail, in the form of the internal inflections within the veils and the colored areas, exposing the layers of color soaked into color which seep around the tops and sides, is crucial to the quality and complexity of these works. Louis’ technique of staining colors into each other—probably while underneath layers were still wet—created a smoky residue that often appears to lie on the surface of the veils, a result of the way pigment dried irregularly. These delicate mists of surface residue form patterns within the veils. Not reminiscent of drawing in any sense of creating shapes or contours, these surface inflections are related to drawing in that they subsume one of its most essential functions: the creation of elegant detail which carries the eye from point to point.

As Pollock abandoned the drip paintings, Louis moved on from the veil paintings for reasons we can examine. Between 1955 and 1957, Louis painted brightly colored abstractions (now mostly destroyed) related to action painting, and undoubtedly stimulated by the vogue for the gestural style. In these works Louis regressed to a form of illusionism based on color contrast reminiscent of Hofmann’s “push-pull” theories. Abandoning the stain technique for the moment, Louis appeared to be pursuing the goal of greater color intensity. But the combination of opacity of color with overlapping planes created Cubistic space and an unsatisfactory integration of image with surface.

Mercilessly critical of his own work, Louis destroyed most of these paintings. Two which remain are an untitled 1956 abstraction in the Detroit Arts Institute and another work of the same year in the Melzac Collection in Washington. These works, although not successful, are extremely interesting in terms of Louis’ development. Experiments in gaining luminosity through color saturation as an alternative to the muted receding tones of the veils, they reveal the extent to whichthe unity of the veils depended on the special properties of the stain technique. In the series of “unfurl” paintings of 1960, Louis was finally able to achieve the brilliance and purity of hue he desired, but only by separating colors out from one another, setting them adjacent to each other, and contrasting them with the dazzling whiteness of the raw canvas, which made them appear that much brighter by contrast.

Of course it was Noland and not Louis who initially realized that opaque, fully saturated colors had to be separated from one another so as not to create situations involving Cubist overlapping. Indeed this may explain why those unfurls and later “stripes” by Louis in which one color bleeds out into another color are not as uncompromising as those in which such overlapping does not occur. Noland had different painting goals than Louis, but Louis eventually became converted to the younger man’s vision. Noland was determined to create, as he once described them, “one shot” paintings perceptible at a single glance; and he was prepared to make any sacrifices necessary to achieve that goal. His development as a painter of emblematic, heraldic images had a decisive effect on the whole of the Washington School, including Louis. To achieve maximum immediacy, Noland was ready to jettison anything interfering with the most instantaneous communication of the image. This included any kind of detail or irregularity, even such minor surface variations as those created through transparency. Adopting a more impersonal, less painterly technique and hardening his contours, Noland around 1960 began painting more opaquely, with as little variation in the saturation of an area as possible. But opacity and lack of internal detail had advantages for Noland that they had for no one else in Washington.

Before Noland achieved the kind of powerful visual impact characteristic of his mature works, Louis had been interested in quite a different expression. The relative transparency of the veils created an illusion of light filtering through from the canvas behind the image. This illusion was no doubt related to his subsequent use of the reserved center as a light source in the unfurled paintings. The sense of a light source within the canvas links Louis to the entire tradition of luminist landscape paintings from Claude Lorrain to Turner, in which a radiant source of light issuing from the background within the painting floods the foreground. Indeed the very structure of the unfurls, with their dual banks of diagonal rivulets of color framing an empty center, recalls the structure of Claude’s classical landscapes in which architectural monuments in the foreground, acting as repoussoir elements, frame a light filled center. Again his technique permitted Louis to recall such a structure, without actually creating planes that detach themselves as genuine repoussoir elements.

In certain respects, the treatment of reserved areas of raw canvas as negative images in the unfurls—the opposite of the central image flanked by reserved frame structure of the veils—recalls paintings by Pollock like Out of the Web in which figure-ground relationships are rendered ambiguous through inversion. By virtue of the contiguity of surface created by the stain technique, however, figure ground relations are obviated by Louis rather than made merely reversible.

The way Louis painted could not help but influence the kind of images he created. For Louis worked as Pollock and Frankenthaler worked: that is, on a canvas roll that was cropped and stretched after the painting was finished. Louis’ cropping, however, was quite different from Pollock’s and even from Frankenthaler’s. Pollock cut the canvas close to the image, obviously with the dimensions of the stretcher in mind as he painted; perhaps this is the reason his drip paintings are closer to easel painting frontality than are the paintings of Frankenthaler, Louis, and the color painters who followed them. Frankenthaler was willing to allow her images to break the frame, and be “cropped” as Degas had cropped his images, in imitation of the camera eye. Louis, on the other hand, placed his images in the center of areas of unpainted canvas, taking full advantage of the ability of the bare canvas to suggest limitless space. However, except in his very last narrow stripes, which float freely in space, Louis anchors his images to at least one edge of the canvas, usually the bottom, emphasizing a sense of gravity. The better stripe paintings are those in which the stripes are broad enough to let color breathe, expand, and come across with sufficient intensity; those in which stripes are bundled together, separated and framed by channels of raw canvas that heighten their brilliance by contrasts; and those in which irregular tails or streamers shoot upward, creating an image of momentous imminence dramatic enough to sustain interest.

For Louis the advantages of an automatic technique were immense. We have spoken of some of its advantages. The immediacy Noland sought was to a degree given in an automatic technique because the eye reading an image created automatically perceives the image as a whole rather than as a series of marks made one after another; hence no single mark has sequential priority over any other. An image created mechanically or automatically cannot be read in time because the entire homogeneous surface appears generated in a single moment. A painting made this way can only refer to the present, for no mark appears to have been made before or after any other. Moreover, the mystery of how these marks were made alludes to a transcendent creator. Like Pollock’s dripped webs, which have no sense of beginning or end, but endlessly and timelessly meander in and out piercing and crossing themselves, Louis’ veils appear mysteriously self generated and mysteriously whole. Louis, like Pollock, identifies the moment of creation with the image created, impressing one with the aloof impersonality of the creator, whose remove seems only to augment the grandeur of an image apparently as spontaneously generated as the cosmos itself. The power of such an image is immense. Any exclusively formal interpretation of Louis’ work which fails to mention the importance of the cosmic visionary imagery of the veils misses a large part of their content and quality. The sacrifice of natural imagery in the cause of pure abstraction that Louis made toward the end of his career decidedly impoverished the content of the more abstract works in relation to the richness of the nature imagery of the veils. It is precisely the cosmic image—of a spontaneously generated natural formation—that identifies Louis’ paintings with those of the first generation of the New York School.

For many reasons, the veils represent the pinnacle of Louis’ career. With the veils, and to some extent the unfurls, rests Louis’ claim to originality as a colorist. Examining the color of the stripe paintings, we find it is dominated by the conventional primary and secondary colors and variations of them. The grayed twilight pastels of the early veils and the bronzed autumnal tones of the later veils are, however, another matter. Here the technique of pouring color into color enabled Louis to create an unusual optical mixture within the canvas itself through subsequent pourings. As a result of this process, bright vestiges of earlier stainings are visible in and through the smoky transparent surface “veils.” As long as Louis continued working this way, his color was original. As soon as he began following Noland’s example and setting colors adjacent to one another, however, he lost much of his originality as a colorist. In the unfurls the image of a vast expanse of reserved canvas flanked by curtains of brilliant color was sufficiently dramatic to carry the paintings. When Louis moved on to the stripes, he became involved in a neutral format lacking inherent drama. Without the interest created through highly charged allusive imagery, the stripes in themselves must rely exclusively on the power of Louis’ color combinations and relationships in order to engage and arrest. Often, his color is simply not unusual or surprising enough in these late works to carry the full burden of pictorial expression placed on them. Moreover, in the narrower stripes, color does not cover enough area to carry exclusively as color.

Unlike Johns’ targets and Pollock’s webs, Louis’ veils belong to a special category of images representing singular and unrepeatable solutions to a number of formal and technical elements within a new synthesis. It could be argued that Louis’ synthesis of the separable elements of painting is the most complete and complex to date; and that the veils announce a new phase in the history of art. There is every possibility that after Jackson Pollock, or at any rate after Morris Louis’ extraordinary synthesis of the disparate elements of pictorial form, abstract art is a mature style in which no further fundamental changes can take place. In this event, innovation is a matter of inflection and variation, not of redefinition. For, once instant communication makes sources available to many at the same time, the viable alternatives present themselves simultaneously to a group of artists rather than to a single individual. As in simultaneous discoveries in science, it becomes inevitable that more than one individual is capable of arriving at a satisfactory solution given the available data. This appears in many ways to characterize the current situation.

Barbara Rose