New York

Morris Louis

This is at once a connoisseur’s selection of choice works by Morris Louis and a retrospective tracing of his development. Louis begins, in such works as Atomic Crest and Intrigue, both 1954, with paint that more or less completely covers the canvas; he ends with works, such as Hot Half and Equator, both 1962, in which the bare canvas seems as assertive—seems to exist as much for itself—as the bright color. Louis uses various strategies to achieve this result, from the relatively abrupt termination of his color before it reaches the canvas’ edge, to the sense of displacement and hovering effect the cluster of colors achieves through their concentration. In general, Louis’ basic “unit” is the color flow, which becomes increasingly differentiated and “rational” as he develops, ending in stripe paintings. In the movement from the so-called “Veils” (1954; 1958–59) to the so-called “Unfurleds” (1960–61), the field of color becomes more divided and the colors more articulated for themselves, rather than as part of a generalized “colorness.” The eccentricity of the process seems peculiarly betrayed by the relative clarity of the final result.

The works are beautiful and shimmering, a kind of optical paradise—John Elderfield, in his brilliant catalogue essay, describes them as unprecedented in their “absolute visuality”—but empty, stripped of meaning. After the initial “shock of recognition,” they quickly fade into a thin, pinched pleasure. They are the dead end of estheticist art, and one wonders if their achievement is more negative than positive, that is, more important for what it denies that art can be than for what it asserts art is. For all Louis’ fine-tuning (fanatic fastidiousness?) of essentially dramatic color relationships—the delicacy of his sensuous exhibitionism—his paintings are puritanical and iconoclastic. For one thing, there is nothing of the uncanny, in which art can be so expert, about them. For another, they are best enjoyed in a mindless, feelingless state. They so completely inhabit and privilege one mode of experience—sense experience—that even esthetic experience, which depends on a contemplative “philosophical” attitude as much as on sensibility, seems beside the point. They are so completely presentational that they have no evocative effect. The pastoral titles Clement Greenberg gave some of them (e.g., Vernal, Russet, Air Desired) signal their radiant inertia rather than their associative power. Elderfield thinks they offer us “a deliverance through the senses”; I think they dead-end us in them.

In general, Elderfield persists in Michael Fried’s misinterpretation of Louis’ work as informed by “a Symbolist vision of art,” and as “nontemporal” in their instantaneousness. This is a confusion: what Elderfield calls the “Proustian” aspect of Louis’ paintings implies that they deal with “remembrance,” an experience of time; non-temporal presentness is by definition timeless. They are indeed “timely”; that is, they apotheosize the flow of paint, which is highly charged with temporal implications. But this flow is too self-evident to have surplus “spiritual” value, that is, to convey the sense of liberation from conflict that underlies the experience of timelessness, according to mystics and psychoanalysts. The only hope for Louis’ paintings is to see their concentration of colors as subliminally conflict-ridden, but that only works in theory, for the colors resolve their differences all too readily in the facile unity of their flow.

Donald Kuspit