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.

Or do we need to look at that red once again? Could it be the first, bloody cough of an artist who died of lung cancer less than a decade later, at 49,when his late-blooming career was barely kicking in? Once we know a story's tragic end, we'll always read that ending back into what came before.

The blood in "Breaking Hue" does seem closer to a blot or clot than to a freshly bleeding wound. Which might make it read as more menstrual than Christological. That's a reading that calls up the hidden, taboo world of women's monthlies, as far from the macho world of 1950s abstract art as anything could be. And that brings us around, once again, to the bugbear of decoration. No way is our manly art like a tablecloth or wallpaper or any other ornamental women's stuff, those painters always insisted. Especially when, like Louis, they were making what amount to giant watercolors, always derided as a "feminine" art form. Of course, if this painting does come with some feminine threat, even though it was born in a high-testosterone art world, that only makes it better, deeper. Once again, it's full of conflict rather than just paint.

Speaking of women, how about Louis's veil of paint? If you read it as an actual, physical veil, the picture is less abstract than ever. The strips of creamy canvas at its sides stop being two bright stripes sitting on the top plane of the painting. Instead, they read as the two visible edges of a single pale surface that peeks out from behind a darkly translucent veil of cloth that covers its middle. Which instantly makes that blank canvas read as woman's skin -- Caucasian skin, of course, painted in a city that was busy rolling back its segregation laws the year this picture was made. So the picture has got race as well as sex in it.

Or is "stain" a better term for describing this picture than "veil"? Art historians use both: It's said to be one of Louis's first "veil paintings" done in his trademark "stain technique," in which thin washes of paint are poured onto unstretched canvas. But if it is a stain, does it undermine the idea of orderly creation that art is often seen as standing for? Imagine, for a minute, coming across a photo of this work without knowing it was art. It would read as detritus of some kind -- as the product of accident and mess and disaster, rather than of careful human making. As having more to do with Katrina than with Leonardo.

Which, maybe, is just how Louis needed it to read. It lets his watercoloring become a force of nature, flooding out whatever's handsome with a wave of darker stuff.

But he never quite succeeds. Pastel mauves and blues peek from behind his storm.

One final, inevitable reading: There's a rainbow ready to break out in this gloomy early work -- the one that gets revealed in later, brighter paintings.

THE UGLINESS: Beauty, Here's Mud in Your Eye

That is exactly what Morris Louis could not afford to paint. Not if he wanted to be seen as a serious artist. And he was on to something: Beauty, after all, tends to a certain sameness, whereas there are so many interesting paths for ugliness to take. So Louis makes sure that anything that's simply pretty in this painting gets broken down and canceled out.

In "Breaking Hue," the tidy, symmetrical spread of dilute color is ruptured with a sudden swerve that pulls its paint from left to right. It's almost as though some incident has happened to disturb the picture's peace.

The surface of "Breaking Hue" also works against a comfortable ride. If the picture's underlying washes of pastel color evoke a certain ease and elegance -- I picture windblown scarves -- that's canceled by the messy wave of clotted brown that's thrown on top. There's a dirty, sandy speckle to it, as the brown pigment comes out of emulsion and settles on the picture's top. It is indeed more stain than veil.

In fact, if you look closely, you can see that there's a kind of ghost of dirty liquid around the edges of all the colored shapes in "Breaking Hue" -- like when you get gravy on your nice white shirt, and it leaves a watery beige halo around its central splat of brown. Staining isn't just a technique. It's an anti-beauty treatment.

That "anti-" is the important part. More than simple ugliness, there is a canceling of beauty -- which doubles our awareness of whatever beauty's there. The deliberate blobs of "ugly" brown, at the picture's bottom left and halfway up its right edge, make the lovely glimpses of pure violets and blues we're treated to elsewhere mean that much more -- and vice versa.

Or, since great art is supposed to define what counts as beautiful in the first place, maybe "Breaking Hue" adds "ugly" to the very definition of beauty. After all, if beauty loses force without its ugly counterpart, then when beauty's at its best, it has to include its share of ugliness.

Or you can ignore such special pleading and simply come up very close to the painting. What once looked like gravy-stain brown in fact has a lovely kind of pointillist effect, with an even spread of dots of brown and blue and purple and red. A tight close-up on this picture could read only as looking good.

Same thing for a view from right across the room. From there, Louis's "stain" becomes a purer surge of color against dark -- more Northern Lights, less dirty mess.

THE FRAME: It, Too, Is Part of the Big Picture

Everything about a picture seems to matter. Anything that's there to see -- and lots that isn't -- is a part of what it is.

Even the tiny strip of gold that surrounds "Breaking Hue" ends up mattering to how the picture works. It mattered enough to the people who first sold and collected Louis that they put that kind of frame on almost everything he made.

The frame ties this radically modern work to the grand history of fine European oils. Collectors could buy into the artwork's radicalism and still be reassured that they were buying classic, gilt-edged painting. The frame makes it a luxury object, like all those other fancy possessions that come touched with gold.

It also makes this colorful stained canvas out to be a work of art, carefully denying its obvious links to all sorts of similar stuff that isn't framed -- to crafty textiles and draperies and wallpaper.

There's one link the frame sets up that works in favor of this abstract picture: a connection to the medieval sacred art that first came wrapped in precious gold. That evocation gives the new work a hint of spiritual glow. It helps assert profundity for a style often criticized as only about surfaces.

But the frame's effects aren't only social and historical. Its gold actually changes how "Breaking Hue" can strike the eyes.

Pictures such as Louis's, with a tendency toward free-form patterning rather than classic, self-contained composition, have an edges problem: It's often not clear why they couldn't just keep going inches or feet farther. (There's long been some debate about how clear Louis ever was about where each picture ended. He painted them in his small house in Northwest Washington and wouldn't have seen most of them framed, or even pulled tight on a stretcher. Many of his 600 paintings were left rolled up when he died.) Hang a picture like this without a frame, and the canvas tends to merge into the wall -- like a hanging or something equally "unserious." Frame it, especially in gold, and the eyes know precisely where the painted art begins and ends. They know where to look with close attention and where it's safe to graze across the wall again. Because the conservative gilt frame is so much not about the things the radically abstract picture is supposed to be about -- only colored paint and canvas and the mating of the two -- it helps make boundaries absolutely clear.

The difference between frame and art may have even more robust perceptual effects than that. Bright reflections shift and flicker across the frame when you move even a little bit in front of it, while the contents of the matte canvas stay essentially static. So, because the human eye is so absurdly sensitive to motion and to gleam, the glinting frame keeps pulling your attention toward different spots along the margins of the work. And that gets your gaze to explore the entire canvas, rather than to keep worrying around some single spot.

The gold surround gives you a nudge across the surface, like the little incidental details that come scattered round the outskirts of Renaissance images. In "Breaking Hue," the frame represents the busy world outside, letting the abstract composition stay reserved and self-absorbed as any veiled Madonna.

THE POLITICS: Stripes or Hammer and Sickle?

Even an abstract picture such as "Breaking Hue."

Let's not forget that it's a radical, dark-red, rippling canvas -- almost a red flag -- painted in 1954, when Joe McCarthy's Red Scare was nearly at its height. Come to think of it, "Red Square" wouldn't be a bad title for the piece: The art world it came out of was about as left as you could get. Clement Greenberg, the powerful New York critic who made Louis's reputation, had once been a full-blown Trotskyite. For many living in the 1950s, artistic radicalism and political radicalism would have been twins -- it was hard to hear "modern art" and not think "left." The rejection of the status quo in art was a fine symbol for defiance of all kinds of settled states. Abstraction still unnerves the forces of reaction, almost 100 years after its birth, and the ugliness that's in "Breaking Hue" can come off as angry provocation. Art historian Shepherd Steiner has read Louis's 1950s Veil paintings as fighting back against the "Happy Days" spirit of the Eisenhower years.

And yet couldn't that be a misreading of the picture's true place in American society? After all, Louis's abstraction pointedly rejected the tradition of social realism that had come before it, in the figurative pictures by New York's Ashcan painters and the politically conscious murals funded under the New Deal. As abstraction, "Breaking Hue" is relatively disengaged with consciousness of class or wealth, whatever its maker's politics. And, unlike public murals, it's the kind of picture that lived mostly as fancy, gold-framed decoration for rich people's walls. How could such art truly be against the things its buyers represented, when it could be such a comfortable prop in their lifestyles?

In the history of Western art, after all, huge canvases had almost always helped promote the upper class. They advertised the kings, popes and doges who commissioned them. By painting big -- "Breaking Hue" is almost nine feet tall; its biggest brothers can stretch 20 feet -- Louis inhabited that history.

In fact, as Alexander Nemerov points out in the exhibition's catalogue, in the optimistic time of the Kennedy Camelot, big, colorful, cheery abstract pictures could advertise the large-scale cheer the nation was about. Nemerov calls Louis and his peers "court painters of the Kennedy government," and Louis's crisp and bright late paintings "grand art of formalized emotion celebrating state power." It's not that the administration bought or commissioned such pictures -- though the author James Michener, who collected Louis early, headed a Citizens for Kennedy Committee -- but that the paintings had a small-l liberal celebration built right into them.

We can only imagine what lefty Louis would have painted if he'd lived into the Nixon or Reagan years.

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