New York

Morris Louis

Rubin Gallery

While it is undeniable that the paintings of Morris Louis excel in optical luminescence and colorism, I have sometimes felt that putting them too confidently in the Post-painterly bag does them a kind of violence of historical reduction. In this I feel confirmed or at least encouraged by the recent exhibition of seven of his paintings at the Lawrence Rubin Gallery. Certainly works like these, in their latter-day rayonnance, belong to the party of Matisse. In Untitled B, painted in 1954, the very year of Matisse’s death, there is even a whole area on the right-hand side of Matisse Blue, almost as if in direct allusion. But Louis’s whole attitude toward the fabrication of a work still seems to me to be part and parcel of the esthetic of action painting.

In the first place, I am struck by the ever-present feeling of arrested flux and second, the application of pigment. Despite the decision to avoid the realism of paint as a plastic substance and to opt instead for the idealism of pigment as pure hue in temporary suspension, the way it actually goes onto (or into) the canvas is still obviously of central import. Third, if we examine our own responses and consider what other kinds of art elicit similar ones, things like T’ang ceramics and 19th-century British watercolor paintings come to mind—arts in which coloristic luminosity goes hand-in-hand with real love of bold application at great risk.

In Untitled B, just mentioned, and in Untitled A (also 1954) many areas of pigment are applied with such apparent body-motor determination that it is as easy to empathetically reconstruct the kinesthetic action as it is in the work of, say, Kline who, like Louis, died in 1962. And surely the very title of such a work as Louis’s Saraband (1959) is meant to suggest the irrevocable dance gesture in time quite as much as a Nijinsky by Kline, or any Pollock “polka.”

Other works in the show belong to the category of Louis’s familiar “veils,” those thirst-quenching Baroque fountains (flux again) of color. These are as moving as ever, but they require little mention here because with them our familiar vision of Morris Louis’s achievement takes over, and from there on nothing suffers distortion by being mobilized in the service of contemporary needs and desires.

The “veils” fall into two categories, treating two kinds of central motifs. These comprise great unitary mushroom clouds of color, with tones both hovering in suspension and also seeming to drift by some almost meteorological conduction up or down, and, on the other hand, paired, partly fused, half “mushrooms,” two to a picture. Number 189 (1958) is a painting of the first type, and in it the sense of atmospheric interplay is increased by the fact that the image runs off the upper and lower edges of the canvas. Number 64 (1959) is of the second kind and is, at the same time, “uncropped.” The fusion of two half mushroom-cloud motifs, probably managed by folding the canvas down the center before staining it, produces a certain initial irritation, as would a row of holes from upholstery tacks running down the center of a beautiful silk, and we are also bothered by the illusion that at this point there is an unnecessary and muddy overlap: some kind of fudge. But as we look longer we realize that the weld was only a trouble when it seemed a cue to symmetry, when in fact it is a cue to asymmetrical composition. The two halves are only in their broad handling reflections of each other, and within each half there is a sub-symmetry both governing itself and in opposition to the other: the righthand half suggests two arcs touching at their points; the left-hand half, two arcs touching along their circumferences, back-to-back. This utterly Rococo construction on the basis of symmetrical parts relating asymmetrically to a symmetrical whole even extends, it could be argued, to work as an entirety: where the two halves join we find a situation like the touching points of the right-hand half, while the farthest edges of the motif, left and right, approach like the arcs within the left-hand half. A curious effect of this upon the observer is that one feels unusually fully kinesthetically engaged. The asymmetries seem as anthropomorphically natural as those in, for instance, a drawing of a vase which we would attempt to make with both hands at the same time. What happened in 1954 was, sure enough, of its day but was never superseded, eclipsed, or denied, which may be a proof of strength and truth in the art of painting.

Joseph Masheck