New York

Malcolm Morley

Pace Prints | East 57th Street

As far as I know, no one has pointed out that among contemporary painters only two are capable of transforming their extreme sensitivity to natural light into oil paint: Willem de Kooning and Malcolm Morley. De Kooning’s place in history is assured, though I also believe that the magnitude of his accomplishment has yet to be addressed fully. For many observers, however, Morley’s place is still a matter of debate. Critics fault his work’s unpredictability and supposed lack of the “big theme.” They seem to have forgotten that Picasso and, more recently, Philip Guston committed the sin of unpredictability and that to look for the “big theme” in art is to approach it like a college student assigned a term paper: you keep looking for something rather than at something. Certainly, there are a number of savvy artists around who have made careers for themselves by doling out the “correct” allusion or the right dose of angst-ridden images of saints and skulls. Morley, like de Kooning, refuses to participate in this kind of intellectual consumerism.

The paintings and watercolors on display were done between 1984 and 1986, the prints and various related materials during the last decade. The paintings The Sky Above, the Mud Below, 1984, and Albatross, 1985, pick up where the artist left off since his traveling retrospective of 1983–84. In the former, Morley juxtaposes two distinct images derived from watercolors. The upper half of the painting depicts purplish mountains tinged with slight traces of lime-green clouds, while the bottom half is composed of two reddish-brown horses in a grassy field. The bottom half’s warm pink is set against the upper half's icy blue. Morley pushes this method of juxtaposing even further in Albatross. Deriving its composition from two prints, the painting incorporates a wider range of disparate images and colors. Morley connects images and deploys color in a wonderfully inventive manner; in one instance, the shape of a kite echoes a horse’s back.

By 1985, Morley had jettisoned this approach in favor of focusing on a single image. In Love Boat, 1985, the artist lovingly depicts an “old tub” that has seen better days. As sentimental and sweet as this jerry-built subject may be, Morley’s treatment of it is tough and enduring. He doesn’t try to knit a seamless painting together; his brushstrokes often move in different directions. The painting appears to have been done by sections. This seemingly haphazard method perfectly complements its subject.

Few contemporary artists achieve such a sustained state of relaxed freedom and absolute necessity in their work. Morley keeps finding ways to let the paint speak for itself; his is an exhilarating accomplishment.

John Yau