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Morris Louis
PHOTOS: Morris Louis
Morris Louis's 1960 work, "Alpha Epsilon," is part of the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Revisiting Morris Louis's Lighter Touch

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By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 28, 2007

Morris Louis subtracted nearly everything from his paintings and kept subtracting throughout the defining last eight years of his career. Yet the Washington artist's canvases don't look empty -- even when they nearly are. That's because he was, in addition to being a masterly painter, a brilliant designer.

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Louis was born in Baltimore in 1912 and moved here in 1952. All of the major paintings in "Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited" were made after 1953, when the artist significantly altered his technique. He worked prodigiously after that, creating about 600 paintings and destroying untold more, as if he knew his time was limited. He died at 49 in 1962, two months after his lung cancer was diagnosed.

Neither Louis's story nor his art are obscure in Washington. His work is usually on display somewhere in the District. But it's wonderful to see 25 of these large canvases together, mirroring and modifying one another. "Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited," the first major new survey of his paintings in 20 years, opened last week at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

The exhibition begins with three heavily worked canvases created just before Louis developed his lighter touch. In 1953, he and fellow D.C. painter Kenneth Noland traveled to New York and saw the work of Helen Frankenthaler. She had begun painting on unprimed canvas, which allowed the pigment to seep into the fabric. Back in his small studio, the converted dining room of his upper Northwest house, Louis refined Frankenthaler's technique: He switched to new acrylic paints, which flowed more easily than oils, and dispensed with brushes altogether, pouring his pigments.

The first results were the "Veils," paintings that seem watery and richly earthy. Most are predominantly gray, brown or black, but they're constructed from streams of brighter colors, as can be seen around the edges. The other major series are "Florals," whose hues seem to bud from a central point; the self-explanatory "Stripes," prefiguring late-'60s minimalism; and the "Unfurleds," in which vast expanses of blank canvas are framed by rivulets of color.

If the "Veils" are the most layered of Louis's great work, the "Unfurleds" are the most splendidly direct. They retain the liquidity of the artist's previous series but are overwhelmingly blank, owing their power as much to the canvas's whiteness as to vivid pigments. The paintings combine a '60s pop art sensibility with an almost Japanese austerity.

Atlanta's High Museum of Art, which organized the exhibition, recently acquired "Para III," a hot-colored and loosely arranged 1959 work that doesn't fit into any of Louis's series, and is treating the painting as the show's signature piece. (It's on the cover of the catalogue.) Yet "Para III's" principal attribute is that this unusual painting is so unlike Louis's more artful work. His contribution was to find a balance between spontaneity and form.

Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited Through Jan. 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW Phone:202-633-1000 Hours: Open daily from 10 to 5:30 Admission: Free Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited Through Jan. 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW Phone:202-633-1000 Hours: Open daily from 10 to 5:30 Admission: Free


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