New York

George L. K. Morris

Hirschl and Adler Galleries

The retrospective of George L. K. Morris was worthwhile, even though the work was not very good. Morris’ paintings are typical of so much American painting of a somewhat earlier generation, the generation of Dove and Joseph Stella, in being cerebral and emotive in almost equal measure—in which respect they are truly a kind of Abstract Expressionism. It may be my temperament, not Morris’, but I think it is the emotivity that keeps the work from being better than it is. After all, Morris is an intelligent painter, and in addition the abstract models to which he looks are both homogeneous as a group (Picasso, Gris, Léger, Delaunay) and extremely lucid themselves, which is to say that they are easily intelligible. With all this going for him, there would have been no reason why Morris could not do good work more consistently than he has, if something had not prevented him from using his intelligence.

It is interesting to speculate why Morris, like Dove, Stella, and others, seems to have felt that abstraction and intelligence were not enough. There would appear to have been two reasons for it. One is that the only domestic tradition they could look back to was a kind of expressionism that evolved from mid-19th-century landscape painting into such styles as those of Ryder, Blakelock, or late Homer Martin. The other major current, a cosmopolitan one including such artists as Duveneck, Tarbell, and Chase, was the local equivalent of what the American abstractionists’ European models were combating. As for these European models, secondly, they must have appeared overwhelmingly sophisticated in dealing with pictorial problems, and American artists seem rightly to have felt that in this respect they could never hope to equal the Europeans. If, therefore, they wanted to do significant work they had to develop a faculty that was very different from the formal analysis on which the Europeans relied, and so they turned to expression.

At any rate, it is this kind of interest that made Morris adopt the one among his models who does not harmonize with the rest, Arp, from whom he got a fluid, plastic space that he has never succeeded in reconciling with the tight, shallow depth and pronounced angularity of the Cubists. Léger might have served as a bridge between the two, but for some reason Morris has not used him for this particular purpose. The contradiction has persisted in Morris’ work, and has prevented it from developing to anywhere near the extent one would have wished for. As I said, even in the ’30s Morris’ paintings looked back to work of an earlier decade; today, they appear so anachronistic that, what with their pictorial deficiencies as well, they can only be taken as historical documents.

Jerrold Lanes