The Malcolm Morley show, which goes on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, is a tantrum thrown on purpose.
The painter, when we meet him, is on his best behavior. The oldest Morleys here--his neat, mid-'60s images of transatlantic liners under postcard-perfect skies--are chic, detached, ironic. Their brushwork is fastidious. Their manners are impeccable. And then . . . decorum cracks.
What happens next is scary. Morley, without warning, begins X-ing out his paintings. He stabs at them with knives. His yells grow ever louder. His agitation mounts. He hurls his toys about.
There are many paths to art. Morley, it turns out, picked one that served him well. The London-born New Yorker was an art star in the '60s when cool was still in favor. Now, in 1983--with expressionist excesses and fervid self-indulgences once again in fashion--Morley, at 51, is an art star once again.
Morley, to his credit, has never merely followed fads. Rather, he's helped start them. The astonishing restraint of his ocean liner paintings of 1965 helped detonate New York's Photo Realism boom. The highly personal, and daring, energies he loosed in his frequently unlovely paintings of the '70s helped spark the big and messy--and frequently unbearable--New York New Expressionism that now is all the rage.
Some artists seek maturity. Morley is not one of them. Instead he's gone the other way, steadily advancing toward the fantasies of childhood and the fears of adolescence. At the core of his accomplishment is a sort of backward growth, an intentional regression. Morley's newest oils--"Landscape With Bullocks" (1981), "Macaws, Bengals, With Mullet" (1982)--though childish in spirit, are among the strongest and finest works he's done.
Morley is accomplished, intelligent, ambitious. His painting is improving. And yet he refuses to grow up.
The backward path he's chosen is everywhere apparent. Morley still hungers for holiday escapes to the sea or to the countryside. He still finds pleasures in old toys and in cartoon catastrophes (in crashing trains and falling planes and bloody, stabbing knives). Morley, in his fifties, is still playing with toy soldiers, toy cowboys and toy Indians and toy foreign legionnaires. Had your childhood been Morley's, your dreams might be his.
He never knew his father. A just-glued-together model of a warship was drying on his windowsill when a German V-bomb destroyed his London house during World War II. He spent one year in reform school, and then three in Wormwood Scrubs (he learned to paint in prison; the exhibition catalogue does not reveal his offense). Morley, we are told, has spent 12 years in analysis.
All this fits together. The image of a boy imagining himself at peace in pleasant fields, or riding on a liner to the parrot-brightened tropics, or, armed with bow and bayonet, righting ancient wrongs--Take that! and That! and That!--burns throughout his show.
When Morley, who attended the Royal College of Art, emigrated to Manhattan in 1958, he was, as were so many beginning painters then, an Abstract Expressionist of sorts. At first, his ocean liner paintings--those careful reproductions of images he'd found on postcards and brochures--made him seem an ally of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Morley has said he "wanted to find an iconography untainted by art." That art-less-ness was found by Johns in targets, maps and numbers, by Warhol in comic stips and soupcans. Morley's postcard imitations may be similarly untainted by art. But they're tainted by his dreams.
Though Morley's style has changed radically, every painting in his show, whether pastoral or violent, seems a fulfillment of old wishes. The violence that seethed in him was held in check at first--although it's given something to the sarcasm with which he portrayed the champagne-drinking toffs in "Ship's Dinner Party" (1966) and "Marine Sergeant at Valley Forge" (1968).
Then, in "Race Track" (1970) it suddenly bursts out.
"Race Track" shows a horse race on green turf at the Greyville Race Course in South Africa. A thousand little spectators fill the sun-bright grandstands. It took Morley months to paint them. What makes the picture startling is the huge, blood-red X with which the image is crossed out. No longer is the artist asking "What is imitation?" or playing mental games. Is he striking at apartheid? Is he summoning the memory of another angry Malcolm, the Black Muslims' Malcolm X? Almost all the Morleys made since "Race Track" seem admissions of old rage.
The phone book cover that appears on "Los Angeles Yellow Pages" (1971) has been scarred and smeared and torn. A bag filled with gray paint has been pierced with arrows so that its gray paint drips across the surface of his "Piccadilly Circus" (1973). Morley still paints postcards, but in the 1970s he paints them folded, crumpled, damaged, torn. His "Belly" (1973) is one of modern art's least-flattering self-portraits: It shows Morley with no body. The necklace-noose that is his belt is tightened round his neck so that his jowls feel full of guts. Toy war planes now begin to crash into his once-proud ocean liners. Swastikas and snakes, penises and outlaws begin appearing in his pictures. With every passing year his wildness intensifies and his brushwork grows more free.
New York's first Abstract Expressionists also mined old myths and dreams, but they did so in an effort to leap beyond the walls of story-telling narrative. Morley plunges into it. Even when his brushwork is as wild as de Kooning's, he is speaking of himself. All his paintings, strong or weak, are at center autobiographical. Morley's art relentlessly hollers Me! Me! Me!. His intimidating show, organized by the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, already has been seen in Basel and in Rotterdam. It will travel to Chicago and Brooklyn after closing at the Corcoran Nov. 6.