New York

Malcolm Morley, Aircraft on a Yellow Plane, 2014, oil on linen, 50 × 40".

Malcolm Morley, Aircraft on a Yellow Plane, 2014, oil on linen, 50 × 40".

Malcolm Morley

Malcolm Morley, Aircraft on a Yellow Plane, 2014, oil on linen, 50 × 40".

The fifteen paintings in Malcolm Morley’s latest show at Sperone Westwater, like all of his finest works, snap, crackle, and pop. In this instance, the British-born, American-based artist activates these sensations from a mix of bold, vivid colors, rambunctious compositions, and themes that refer to aerial dogfights during World War II, cannon fire during the Battle of Waterloo, medieval warfare, and even Viking exploration. All told, Morley, at age eighty-four, has become one of our preeminent history painters.

Though he had a brief period when he painted abstract pictures—they were in his solo exhibition at the Kornblee Gallery in 1964—Morley has, for the most part, remained a representational artist. Lately, his subjects relate to his boyhood in wartime London. In addition to hearing bombs bursting and feeling walls quaking, he and his family became homeless after an aerial attack destroyed their flat above a shoe store. Then too, as a child, he enjoyed assembling planes and boats from model kits, which he still collects by the dozens.

The battles being waged in Morley’s art have the character of war games being fought by children. Instead of planes flying and dropping explosives under the cover of night, we find serene blue—or even green or yellow—skies with feathery clouds. Some of the aircraft look like they date from World War I. Moreover, the stripes, crosses, bull’s-eyes, and the like that personalize the planes are reminiscent of the patterns found in abstract paintings from the 1960s rather than of actual manufacture. All of this is further underscored by the fact that the miniature, artist-crafted three-dimensional planes that are attached to the surfaces of the paintings mimic the kind sold in kits.

There are certain moments when you look at Morley’s latest paintings and ask yourself, What’s wrong with this picture? The perspectives, for example, are often askew. Then there are the collaged elements that he’s introduced. Liberties have been taken. Have you ever seen a triptych like Trafalgar-Waterloo, 2013? The side panels are exquisite portraits of the heads and torsos of the British commanders who led those respective battles. In the center, a faux cannon is aimed directly at gallerygoers. Morley incorporates assemblage as if he were a sculptor rather than a painter. He has said he attaches model planes to the flat surfaces of works such as The Searchers, 2014, because he likes the shadows they cast. I wonder if it took him longer to make these three-dimensional elements than it did to paint the skies on which they appear. The cannon and the cannonballs he’s made from paper and encaustic not only introduce the third dimension but also enliven and make “real” the way we experience works such as Napoleon Crossing the Alps with Cannon, 2014, as well as Trafalgar-Waterloo. Between the presence of cannons aimed at viewers and the variety of aerial dogfights the artist has depicted, this was the noisiest show I’ve ever attended without actual sound being piped in.

Recently, Morley has talked about being inspired by the Comte de Lautréamont’s famous image of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table. But he uses the “meeting” of these objects differently than the Surrealists did. It’s almost as if Morley’s understanding of the image of that union gave him permission to make free associations, and not necessarily poetic ones. Sometimes he forces the connections. The bulldog, kachina doll, and planes in a work named after Lautréamont’s 1869 novel—Maldoror I, 2014—seem to be oddly related. The warplanes, fire engine, cargo freighter, and medieval castle replete with knights, jester, and king and queen, however, make perfect sense. After all, don’t we live in the age of channel surfing and Facebook feeds? One minute you might be referring to The Tudors and the next Downton Abbey and after that The Alamo, while Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover sits on your nightstand. It’s all historical drama, isn’t it?

With consummate skill, Morley connects the past to the present. I found myself spending more time than usual in front of the artist’s work at Sperone Westwater. It grabbed my attention, causing me to pause and think about war and peace. As he has for decades, this transplanted English representational artist here managed to stay a few steps ahead of everyone else.

Phyllis Tuchman