Malcolm Morley


Malcolm Morley first encountered the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko at a show of American art at London’s Tate Gallery in 1956. The artistic atmosphere in England at the time was more inclined toward the emerging Pop art than to Abstract Expressionism; resisting the local zeitgeist, however, Morley opted for the latter path, taking it as a personal challenge. After briefly inspecting the New York scene in 1957, he moved there in 1958. For once, the issue is not that famous “American in Paris,” but the “Englishman in New York,” an entirely different situation.

All the more astonishing appear the developments in Morley’s work as shown in this first comprehensive retrospective. The ship paintings of 1965 and 1966 seem less Abstract Expressionist than photorealist, but the illusionism in the work is the result of abstraction. While these ships have a strong emotional component for Morley, his concern here is not primarily with problems of reality and its portrayal, but with problems of artistic perception. Conceptually, the procedure is specific: media materials—postcards, travel brochures—showing the paintings’ subjects are covered with a grid; Morley then paints each square individually on his canvas, carefully placing colored dot by colored dot. He is not painting a picture of a ship, then, but a series of pictures of small squares that ultimately yield the picture of a ship, or another such subject. The long-familiar method of transmitting a picture by means of a grid serves here not only for the enlargement of the motif, but also for the delimitation and thus the concentration of the field of vision; the topic of the painting dissolves into discrete colors and forms to be perceived separately.

At the zenith of the popularity of photo-realism Morley concluded these exercises in self-discipline with the large painting called Race Track, 1970, showing the homestretch of a South African racetrack with the main grandstand filled with thousands of people. The work is painted in the familiar photorealistic manner, but is crossed through with a large red X. This X is printed as a monotype over the painting; paradoxically, it looks like the result of a broad stroke of the brush, while the real painted surface beneath it looks like printed material. The X also stands for the black activist Malcolm X, thus commenting ambiguously on the situation of blacks. With English understatement a link is made between the South African situation and its American counterpart.

At this point Morley starts to paint with conspicuously more self-assurance than before. After his long training he permits himself his own handwriting. He is no longer subservient to the painting’s content, but informs it with an evaluation of it in unity with his painting style. This unity rarely means harmony, however, for the motif and the painting disrupt each other. When At a First Aid Station, Vietnam, 1971, is viewed closely, for example, the sad, ugly motif and the splendid abstraction of the painting come into a dialectical relationship; the motif mocks the brilliance of the painting, and vice versa.

While Morley had thus far worked in acrylic, and had more or less retained the grid as a means of control, the greater freedom in his brushwork demanded a new resistance, and Morley began to work in oil. He now created strongly aggressive paintings into which he frequently integrated objects—be it as anecdote in, for example, Room at Chelsea, 1972, or as part of the creation (or destruction) of the painting in Piccadilly Circus, 1973. These works are a transition to the “catastrophe paintings”—railroad cars wedged into each other, painted from illustrations of model railroads; an airplane that crashes onto an image of one of Morley’s earlier ship paintings. These pieces reflect a powerful and terrible zeitgeist, and are also directed against Morley’s own work; he constantly questions his own accomplishments and seeks new resolutions.

A stay in Florida in the late ’70s produced yet a further change in style, and Morley’s output came to include mysterious jungle scenes, as in Parrots, 1978. Also, he broadened his subject matter, deriving his motifs from toy figures, drawings, watercolors, and pastels, and attempting to convey the specific qualities of these media in his paintings. Landscape with Bullocks, 1981, for example, is a large oil based on a watercolor, and successfully evokes the delicacy of the watercolor technique. It summons not only recollections of the long tradition of English landscape painting, but also commands admiration for Morley’s skill as a painter and colorist—a skill, however, which is never exploited for its own sake in his work, but constantly questions itself.

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.

Max Wechsler