PRINT December 1985


Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings.

By Diane Upright, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985, 264 pp., 25 black and white and 741 color illustrations.

THE NEW YORK formalist critics active in the ’60s got their name because they focused on matters of form: look at pictorial form the right way, they argued, and you can determine whether or not it possesses “quality,” a trait that Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and the other formalists treated like a substance—elusive, of course, but aren’t most precious substances elusive?

When accused of carrying on like laboratory detectives, the formalists would always hedge: to see quality, after all, is a matter of intuition, a good eye, and so on. But they didn’t rely on intuition. Formalism was a closed system in which essences, absolute meanings, inhered in the pigments of paintings by major artists—Morris Louis, for instance. As the formalists saw it, form and essence are identical. So, if properly carried out, the analysis of a painting’s form exhausts the work’s transcendent meaning. Criticism, in other words, need not be speculative. It can be right. And here, between two covers, is all you need to get your analysis of Louis absolutely right.

In three lucid and soberly Greenbergian chapters, Diane Upright describes Louis’ education, his stylistic development, his exchanges with critics and other artists, and the problems presented by the canvases he left unstretched when he died, in 1962, at the age of 49. The book includes a detailed sketch of the artist’s life, a chronology of his exhibitions, a bibliography, and the text of the catalogue raisonné. And, amazingly, 741 color reproductions of Louis’ paintings—81 of them full page. The effect of row upon row of luminous stripes is impressive.

The entire book is impressive. Upright and her editorial colleagues have done brilliantly what they set out to do: to produce a complete guide to formalism’s Morris Louis. If in the ’60s you didn’t quite see how a painting’s physicality can be identical to its essence, this book might help you see the light. Then again, you might be beyond formalist redemption—in other words, open to the possibility that formalism’s Morris Louis is not the only Morris Louis imaginable, irrespective of the artist’s deep allegiance to Greenberg’s ideas. Despite its intentions, this book could inspire a complete revision—a reenvisionment—of Louis’s art.

Carter Ratcliff