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Morris Louis: A Painter Of a Different Stripe

For all his canvases' immediate appeal, their effects turn out to depend on fiendishly complex structures. There's a buzzing play between how each looks from far away -- often legible and luminous -- and the clotted or fractured surfaces that make it up. When you come close to a Louis, you don't understand it any better; if anything, you get more perplexed about how it achieves its ends. (Louis was intensely secretive. Almost no one ever got to see him work; even his wife apparently came home each day to a tidied dining room, with few signs of what had gone on there other than a length or two of drying canvas drenched in paint.)

The idea that Louis is simply a charming, brilliant colorist also starts to fade away as you get to know his pictures.

In many of the earlier paintings, it's as though Louis set out to fight against the very possibility of prettiness. He often started his paintings by pouring on pleasant veils of color, to make something like the spillings of a watercolorist. These echo the passages of pastel color in the "stain" paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, which Louis saw on a rare, career-changing visit to New York in 1953. (That was when his Washington colleague Kenneth Noland introduced him to the painter and her new techniques, as well as to Clement Greenberg, her lover and the most influential critic of that time. He became Louis's great champion.) And then, as though rejecting Frankenthaler's overwhelming influence and those delicate effects, Louis poured black washes of paint over his colored veils. The result, full of sedimented pools of black and bold reds turned muddy brown, can sometimes look more like a stained mattress rescued from a fire than like a beautifully dyed silk scarf.

In some of these pictures, there's hardly even a trace of the colored paint left except for a few tiny licks that stick out around the edges of the black. Those licks tell us that Louis isn't simply playing at forging elegant new shades of color-tinged darkness. He's engaging in a deliberate act of erasure, of canceling-out, with the leftover shards of color meant as fragmentary evidence of his outrageous act.

In later works, Louis also resisted the title of colorist; he used his colors unmixed, just as they came out of the tube or can. (All of Louis's art relied on a new kind of paint called Magna, made by a New York friend of his. It was an experimental precursor to acrylics, and it's commonly thought to have hastened the painter's death.) By using hues conceived by someone else, Louis rejects the role of the traditional artistic alchemist, who takes raw matter and reworks it into colorful new substances. Instead, he takes on the mantle of the willful radical: He first imposes stringent limitations on himself, then lets that act become part of the substance of his art.

Making a perfectly attractive work, then annulling almost every trace of it. Forcing yourself to paint with pre-made colors. This sounds more like cutting-edge conceptual art than like the genteel fiddlings of a pretty-picture maker.

There are other aspects of Louis's practice that are equally peculiar and compelling. For one thing, he barely got to see the most ambitious art he made. The room he worked in was 12 by 14 feet. His paintings ran as big as 9 by 20. That means that, during the brief span of his mature career, he may never have witnessed his biggest paintings stretched and on the wall.

Most often, his paintings seem to have been made in a single day, with the artist bunching and unbunching canvas as he spilled paint across it. They were then rolled and stored almost as soon as they were dry, with maybe a quick look first across the larger living-room floor. In one 16-month stretch toward the end of his career, Louis finished something like 230 pictures; 422 were found rolled up in his house when he died.

Louis painted big, lucid canvases that seem meant for distant viewing, and yet he rarely got to take them in that way himself. It's as though the fact of making the pictures mattered as much as someone else's later act of viewing them. For Louis, painting seems to have been more like practicing a solo sport, and becoming very good at it, than like producing fancy goods for others' pleasure. Thinking in these terms gives Louis's work some of the impact of performance art.

Louis himself could be amazingly cavalier about the final look of his art. He once sent a picture to the Guggenheim Museum as a rolled-up length of canvas, leaving it to the art handlers to decide the size of stretcher it should be tacked to. What does an inch or 10 of extra cropping matter on the museum wall, when it's an earlier moment of making that matters most?

Louis didn't even seem to mind which way many of his pictures ended up being hung. He was happy to let Greenberg, his critical guru, decide which side was up -- and then find that decision overturned by a dealer or client.

Morris Louis's
Morris Louis's "Delta Theta" (1961) is part of the Hirshhorn's collection.(Courtesy of the High Museum of Art)
In fact, one of the fascinating things about many of Louis's later stripe pictures is that they invite at least two different, equally definitive readings of which edge ought to be the top. You're most likely to hang them so each stripe of color seems to be a drip running "down" the surface of the canvas, with its blobby end stopping just short of the bottom edge. But if you do, you'll have hung them in precisely the opposite direction to how they were made, and to how some critics feel they absolutely must be seen. Those "final" blobs apparently represent the pool of paint that formed just before each stripe was poured or pulled along the picture's length, rather than the endpoint of a giant drip. (As usual, we don't know the technical details behind these works. There's talk both of Louis pouring stripes freehand and of daubers and putty knives.)

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