Morris Louis

Morris Louis had a strange career. Born in 1912, he painted in Manhattan between 1936 and 1940; then, working always in isolation, in Baltimore and Washington, DC. But it wasn’t until 1953, inspired in part by the constructive criticism of Clement Greenberg, that he really found his artistic purpose. He died in 1962, just as he was becoming famous, the victim of lung cancer caused, reportedly, in part by working with toxic pigments in a tiny studio. A 1986 Museum of Modern Art retrospective amounted to a referendum on the concerns of Greenberg, his early champion, and those of Michael Fried, another of his supporters. In that show, it was hard to respond to Louis’s art without feeling overwhelmed by formalist rhetoric. And during an extended period in which the art world turned against “beauty” and nudged abstraction toward the margins, it was natural to refuse his significance. Now, however, he seems ripe for revival.

A group of drawings from the ’40s and ’50s hanging in a side gallery, as well as three paintings from the early ’50s displayed in the show’s opening room, revealed a skilled but derivative provincial artist. Trellis, 1953, for example, could be a below-par Joan Mitchell. It is Breaking Hue, 1954, that marks the point at which Louis’s art takes off. Pouring paint from the top of the canvas as it hangs, as in Pendulum, 1954, and Beth Tzadik, 1958, Louis creates expansive fields of color. In Dalet Tet, 1959, he applies multiple layers of pigment so that pure color is visible only at the top and edges of the picture plane. Some late-’50s paintings are very dark. Others the lush blue and green Tet, 1958, for example—reveal their many translucent strata of color more clearly. The odd-looking Seal, 1959, is worked from the top, bottom, and side, while Para III, 1959, has black coming from the left and other colors bleeding from the top—as well as moving in a diagonal sweep from left to right.

Toward the end of his career, Louis tended to work in pure colors. In 1960, he made Alpha Epsilon by pouring paint toward the edges of the canvas from a vertical line just left of center. The “Unfurleds” series of 1960 and 1961, while still majestic, now seem less challenging than the earlier paintings, which use color in more complex ways, though the horizontal- and vertical-stripe canvases from 1961 and 1962 remain elegant; the show ends with Hot Half, 1962, in which six parallel stripes of pure color descend from top left to bottom right.

What made this show (which included twenty-seven works made between 1951 and 1962) important was the way in which it clarified Louis’s concern with process, linking him to other, seemingly very different artists of the ’60s. Like Eva Hesse and the young Richard Serra, he was concerned with the legacy of Jackson Pollock’s drip techniques—he was a belated Abstract Expressionist. And while he was a virtuoso paint handler, he developed a far more innovative technique than, say, Willem de Kooning. Since no one, except perhaps Greenberg, saw Louis at work in his studio, and since he—like his near contemporaries Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski—has had no influential followers, his style of paint manipulation has remained exotic. Outwardly, Louis’s pictures seem to have little connection with the art of Hesse, Serra, and de Kooning; only a consideration of process allows him his due. Ultimately, all the talk about the beauty of Louis’s oeuvre has been distracting; art is gorgeous, but we cannot fully appreciate it without understanding its radical newness.

David Carrier