Morris Louis: A Painter Of a Different Stripe

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006

ATLANTA -- Lo how the mighty have fallen.

In September 1962, Morris Louis, the great Washington abstractionist, died of lung cancer. He was 49 years old, with barely five years' worth of major work behind him. But by 1966, kingmaker-critics had anointed him the greatest painter since Jackson Pollock.

It didn't matter that Louis had been an introverted part-time art instructor who lived a suburban life in Chevy Chase, painting in the dining room while his wife was away teaching school. The critics said that his giant canvases, built from swathes and belts of color, had the authority of full-time genius.

Forty years later, everything has changed.

A major Louis retrospective, the first in 20 years, premiered last weekend at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, not a major art-world destination. To date, the show's other venue is in San Diego, equally off the beaten track. (The High has been trying to hook a Washington museum, so far without success.)

On the morning of the press preview, not a poster or banner was in sight at the museum or on Atlanta streets. Guards at the museum doors had yet to hear about the show. A total of six journalists showed up.

The museum is consumed with a wannabe blockbuster called "Louvre¿ Atlanta," and there's no love left to give to a has-been abstract artist.

Judging from the splendors of "Morris Louis Now" and its engrossing oddities, that "has-been" ought to be an "is."

Morris Louis, a great Washington abstractionist, died in 1962 at the young age of 49.
Morris Louis, a great Washington abstractionist, died in 1962 at the young age of 49.
Louis's pictures are as gorgeous as their original supporters claimed. In the earlier works, known as "veils," Louis got thin washes of poured paint to float across his canvases like frozen Northern Lights. In his later "Unfurleds" and "Stripes," undiluted colors glow like petrified rainbows.

Ironically, that beauty made the painter's reputation fade.

By the 1980s and '90s, there came to be a sense that Louis's work was just fiddling around with pretty paint. It was billed as self-indulgent, disengaged from things that really matter in the world or in art. It was simple-minded and content-free -- all looks and no brains. The art world equivalent of the hunky jock or dumb blonde.

The 27 paintings in this exhibition argue that Louis's good looks run much deeper than that.

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