It is time to reassess the art of Morris Louis - the most revered, most misunderstood of the local color painters - who died here of lung cancer in 1962.
He was not as "important" nor as influential, as his champions claim. Though they pretend otherwise, he made minor and provincial paintings until 1958. It is time to discard the cocoon of verbiage they have spun around him. When at last he soared, and tuned in to his time, he painted superb pictures. That ought to be enough.
Twenty of his major works, and a couple of his minor ones, are now on exhibition in Baltimore, his hometown, at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Morris Louis: The Veil Cycle) focuses attention on his most subtle abstract pictures. The works themselves are radiant. The accompanying catalog, like most recent writings on the artist, is timid and technical.
The "Veils" of Morris Louis no longer need the bodyguard of suspect "facts" and prose that has been used to hype his "historical significance," his prices and his fame.
The major Louis champions, Clement Greenberg. Michael Fried, and many of the minor ones (E.A. Carmean of the National Gallery of Art among them believe that Morris Louis had a stunning "breakthrough" while visiting New York in 1953, that he helped invent cool color field painting, and that his paintings prophesy more than they reiterate the abstract expressionist past. That is, at best, half true.
Take his "breakthrough," for example. It is said to have occurred in 1953 when Louis, in New York, saw "Mountains and Sea," a poured stain painting by Helen Frankenthaler that so Fried contends, "struck Louis with the force of revelation." It is true that Louis, for a while, played with her technique, but his early "Veils" of 1954 were messy, awkward paintings. When he sent them to Pierre Matisse, the dealer, Matisse would not show them. Two are in this show, and they indicate why.
Louis was, in those days, an imitative abstract expressionist painter who flung his paint around. His "breakthrough" did not last. Soon he left the stain technique to return to splattering with a loaded brush. Most of the gestural paintings he produced in 1955, 1956 and 1957, he intentionally destroyed.It would be nice if Louis had painted "mature" pictures in 1954, but that was not the case. He began to make pictures that would earn him fame in 1958, and by that later date, the mood of American abstract painting had undergone a change.
The "heroic" spontaneity of the action painters was going out of fashion; a new sense of reserve, of cool was in the air. Jasper Johns had already made his flags and targets. Frank Stella had already painted his "black paintings." Louis' late "Veils," in contrast to his early ones, are relatively free of abstract expressionist messiness, but Louis made his move toward ordered elegance in concert with a crowd of other abstract painters. He did not lead the way.
The later "Veils" now in Baltimore, with their tuned, controlled stainings of wet color, do not appear, inretrospect, to be all that new. Instead, they represent a kind of action painting tamed.
Nor do they adhere to Greenberg's famous "flatness." their superimposed stainings create a foreground-background play of subtle overlappings. Though Louis, at the end, was a "pure" abstract painter, one sees in his late "Veils" allusions to illusion, to plant forms, sea forms, flame forms.These sometimes lyrical, sometimes scary, often moody paintings are far less theoretical than writings on the artist had led us to suppose.
The catalog, which reproduces "Mountains and Sea," mentions Greenberg many times, and tells more about the stretching and the dating of the "Veils" than we need to know, ignores more pressing questions. How did Louis paint them? Who was it that taught Louis to refine and tame his stainings? Or did he teach himself? The tangled developments of Washington color painting in the mid-1950s have yet to be unraveled, as this show makes clear.
The "Veils" of Morris Louis are now known around the world. They fetch prices in six figures. Perhaps they are not as historically important as the champions claim, but their stately beauty and the radiant rightness of their inimitable colors remain to justify their fame. The Louis show in Baltimore closes Jan. 22.