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."

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.

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.

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.)

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 http://www.high.org/ .

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