New York

Malcolm Morley

Pace Prints | East 57th Street

Malcolm Morley’s works could be regarded as a skewed contemporary development of Maurice Denis’ famous assertion that “a painting—before being a war horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” While Morley has vehemently disavowed Greenbergian formalism, the considerable power of his work inheres in the tension between his usually mundane and even hackneyed representational imagery and a quintessential Modernist idea of the picture-plane: Cézanne’s desire for the creation of three-dimensional perceptual experience on a two-dimensional plane. Paradoxically, Morley generally works from two-dimensional models, as in his prototypical super-realist works of the ’60s in which he relies on trivial painted imagery for sources. (“Superrealism” was Morley’s term; he always disdained “Photorealism,” the movement of which he was the putative father.) Seemingly the furthest extension of realistic representation, the superrealist paintings nonetheless retain an irreducible core of abstract formalism in their reliance on an underlying grid structure. By carefully filling in the grid, Morley was able to “scale up” his printed sources to monumental size while achieving an equality of value throughout the picture.

Since the mid ’70s Morley has used his own watercolors as models, but for all the painterliness and expressivity of these works, they still adhere rigorously to the grid as a formal and methodological skeleton. Morley showed ten vast and incandescent new paintings, as well as the watercolors that served as their models. Initially, they look disconcertingly like bad Sunday painting writ large. The loose, spontaneous, transparent washes of watercolor have been transformed into the solid opacity of oil and wax. Regardless of their seemingly radical dissimilarity, these paintings share with the superrealist works of the ’60s an overriding preoccupation with the nature of pictorial illusionism and the vagaries of two- and three-dimensional perception.

Yet the paintings do suggest themes, sometimes loudly. In Barcelona Cathedral as a Blood Red Orange, 1986–87, the artist depicts the cathedral convulsed and exploded from within: hortatory religiosity and the fury of apocalypse? The title itself is lugubriously portentous. Aegean Crime, 1987, couples Greek tragedy and modern tourism, the Aegean of the present and that of Sophocles. This is almost kitsch, and Morley even seems to acknowledge it in his juxtaposition of images. The painting does not work as a sincere expression of tragedy, nor as an intimation of timelessness bridging ancient and modern concerns. Rather, lurid and melodramatic as it is, it’s also inescapably parodic.

How does one negotiate the chasm between Morley’s virtuoso formal means and his often staggeringly banal subjects? In his practice he has always resorted to relatively trivial sources for his paintings, whether a travel brochure or one of his own slapdash watercolors, as if to emphasize their status as painting. The profusion of themes seems subversively to announce its own inconsequence. And Morley remains a primary exponent of a kind of abstraction, doggedly pursuing it in his own perverse and underhanded fashion.

David Rimanelli