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Morris Louis: A Painter Of a Different Stripe

So here we have a painter whose pictures seem to talk about novel processes for making art, busy making pictures that send precisely the wrong message about how they got made.

The early stains and veils of paint represent Louis's most radical, innovative gesture, and yet there's a sense that they look more like natural phenomena than like man-made objects. Louis uses extreme artifice -- mysterious to this day -- to evoke the random leavings of the surf on sand or flows of wind and weather across rock. His pictures come closer to the abstractifying nature photos of an Edward Weston than to the works of Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, painters who, even when working at their most abstract, always left behind clear traces of the actions of their hands.

Louis's accidental-looking pictures, with their frequent drippings and puddlings of paint, come closer to being a denial of such human skill and manual virtuosity than a celebration of it.

Leonardo da Vinci said that artists ought to stare at stains and patterned stones to get ideas for making art. Louis set out to make such stains himself, and present them as his art. He manufactured objects so they'd have precisely the look of having been found.

Then, in the later, stripy pictures, Louis seems to turn his back on all of that. What could be a clearer sign of human intervention than a line drawn across a surface? It's almost the epitome of the artist's personal mark. And yet, Louis's colored lines are so big, and so devoid of any telltale signs of human making, that they obscure the man behind them rather than reveal him. They're more like immaculately rendered pictures of the artist's mark, hugely magnified, than like handmade marks themselves.

When ganged into tight bunches, as they most often are, the stripes could even represent the multiple ridges of single, hugely magnified brush strokes -- which, of course, means that they also represent the symbolic presence of the brush-wielding artist, even if they don't actually bear witness to any single motion of his hand.

Catalogue essayist Shepherd Steiner reads one very late, horizontal set of Louis stripes as evoking classic pictures of the dead Christ awaiting burial, laid out in profile on his back. The artist, maybe aware of his approaching death, leaves a record of himself. Think of it as a stripy Shroud of Turin, made by the very painter that it represents.

Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited is at the High Museum of Art through Jan. 24. Call 404-733-4444 or visit .

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