New York

Morris Louis

Andre Emmerich Gallery

An overrated artist is doomed to become underrated later; but eventually justice may be done. Has the time arrived to give Morris Louis his due? The Louis retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1986 was a less than celebrated event, provoking at best a cold admiration for what seemed a genuine but limited decorative talent. The present exhibition of works from 1960—the year Clement Greenberg proclaimed him one of the two “serious candidates for major status” after the Abstract Expressionists, and just two years before his premature death—was fuller and more various, both sensually and emotionally, than one would ever have suspected. It made the best possible case for Louis’ art.

Color has always been recognized as Louis’ primary instrument, and these paintings confirm it, but they also show drawing to have been far more essential to him than is generally acknowledged. In paintings like Delta Zeta, Louis’ typical quasi-symmetrical pours around an empty center twine with an almost art-nouveau sinuousness or, as in Delta Pi, conjure the abstracted botanical forms of Matisse cutouts. There are also surprising tonal modeling effects. In Aqua, with its two straight columns of overlapping pours, a sequence of blues modulates to turquoise toward the left as though turning back through the space behind the painting to reach the greens that darken toward the right; when orange twists over blue in Lambda II it not only deepens to rust but shades away around its edges. Not color alone but drawing with color accounts for the paradoxical antigravitational uplift of configurations that insist so strongly on the literal downward flow of poured paint, just as it allows Louis to treat the empty center as an active form, most notably in Beta.

Despite Greenberg’s claim that Louis’ staining technique divested color of its “tactile associations,” the paintings remind us that this investment of the pictorial surface actually sharpened such associations by refining them to the most extreme point of attenuation. The result might be characterized as the apotheosis of softness. Louis’ color hardly seems “disembodied” or “purely optical”; its powdery texture espouses the weave of the canvas itself, representing the latter as a quasi-photographic grain but at the same time endowing it with a sense of tenderness it could never have had in its virgin state. In these paintings the relation between color and texture, between paint and canvas, allegorizes the most intimate and empathic form of touch. To imagine Louis working these paintings in the cramped space of a two-room apartment—more like a poet than a painter—is to see how they can be read as confidences drawn from an esthete’s diary of sensations.

Barry Schwabsky