Back to Color School: Four Lessons on Morris Louis

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

Abstract art? Yawn.

Colors, stripes, paintings? Get me a sofa to hang them over.

Morris Louis? Hasn't he been dead for almost half a century?

All plausible reactions to the news that the Hirshhorn Museum has launched a major retrospective of the abstract, colorful, stripey paintings of Morris Louis, dead for 45 years but still a hero of the Washington art scene. Haven't we moved on from there, and him?

We may have moved on, but Louis is catching up, after decades of neglect. The Hirshhorn retrospective, the artist's first in 21 years, makes a case for Louis as an even better artist than we knew. The paintings in the show are good enough, at first gawk, to get us looking. At second, third . . . 100th look, they continue to pan out. It's not only that they're better abstractions than we might have imagined. They actually make us realize that many of our notions about abstract art are wrong. The ideas that abstraction first came packaged with may be tired, but the works -- like all really good art -- are strong enough to make us think again.

Inside this section, a single Morris Louis painting, and some thoughts that a morning with it sparked.

THE SUBJECT: Testing Blood's Symbolic DNA

Just for starters, "Breaking Hue" is full of watery veils of blood-red and mud-brown paint. So how could it not be a picture of water, veils, blood and mud?

By the time Louis hit his stride -- this 1954 canvas marks the start of his eight-year bid at greatness -- "pure" abstraction was almost a holy grail: The ideal "modern" painting was only supposed to be about the paint that went into it, how it was applied and the surface it was laid on. Any other kind of content was sniffed at as "literary," a storyteller's imposition on painting's "natural" abstraction. But -- sorry, guys -- humans are such deeply "literary" creatures that we'll find a story and meaning in anything and everything we see. Our entire brain is geared to take a wild mess of "abstract" stimuli and read it as an image of some world outside our head.

So let's read this picture.

Blood-red reads as blood, which has its own inevitable readings, in life and art. In life, it's about pain and suffering and even death. Which, according to the history of Western art that Louis was working in, means it also points to Christ. Which means this abstract picture conjures up a history of spiritual thought. That reference might have appealed to Louis, to counter accusations that the painting's nothing more than decoration. But it also had a downside: What could be more literary, more subject-packed, than discussions of the soul?

And then, of course, there's the complicating fact that Louis -- born Baltimore's own Morris Louis Bernstein -- was Jewish. If "Breaking Hue" is about blood, it's about Christ, which evokes Christian theology, which puts its Jewish painter in a cultural tight spot -- immersed in a history of art that's not evidently his. Maybe some of the picture's obvious, anxious complexity comes from the ambivalence bred into its roots.

So much for "Breaking Hue" as a purely abstract patch of red.

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