BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 05 MAR 93
Featured in
Issue 9

Morris Louis

BY Stuart Morgan in Reviews | 05 MAR 93

Success came late to Morris Louis: by 1969, when his first one-person exhibition was held, he had only three more years to live. Lateness became part of the myth: of an underdog determined to make it the hard way; an artist working from daybreak to sunset in a studio so small it could hold only a single canvas; a secretive man who kept neither diaries nor notes, nor even talked to his wife about his work. He only talked painting to one person: Clement Greenberg, who advised him, wrote about him, planned his debut and finally became advisor to the Louis estate - inevitably, for only he had any idea of how the canvases should be stretched. So the case of Morris Louis remains an odd one. In 1985, when Diane Upright introduced her catalogue raisonnée by claiming that Louis' reputation was 'securely established', she was telling the truth, but not the whole truth. For despite the fact that significant criticism of Louis had been written by this time, it had all been by Greenberg and his acolytes. Nowadays, Louis is history and history goes unquestioned. Yet it is possible to voice misgivings, not necessarily about the excellence of the paintings but about the reasons why they are excellent. (This, perhaps, should be a function of retrospectives, rather than the unthinking hero-worship they encourage.) Enter Lars Nittve, with a series of exhibitions called Re-visions, starting with a dozen Louis paintings of different sizes and formats, hung in one of the most beautiful spaces in Europe.

It is almost impossible to see how the artist who made the Charred Journal Firewritten series of 1951 could have become a great painter. Taking their title from Nazi bookburnings, a topic Louis and Greenberg discussed, they adapted the style of Louis's drawings (from Picasso through Calder) with equally undistinguished results. Seven years later, everything changed. Dalet Nun and Dalet Ayin (named by Greenberg) were made by directing broad runs of paint down large canvases which, by means of a process akin to filtration, separated the constituents. Then he turned them upside down. As it stops short just before the top edge, the flow resembles the mobile tip of a fountain, or a gas jet, for sometimes at the limits of a form unexpected colours appear. At an opposite extreme would be Happy Friday, a 'stripe' painting from the following year, in which the almost straight, vertical bands of colour occupy a central position, touching but never mixing, producing an effect that is different in tone from anything else of the period. An earlier title for this painting was Pillars, reminiscent of the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night that guided the children of Israel through the desert. Was this an attempt by Greenberg to situate Louis against that background of Jewish mysticism to which Rothko and Newman had already laid claim? Or was he suggesting a visual emanation in which qualities of manifestation and concealment were combined?

Louis himself may have thought in more practical terms. Already he had banished tactility, shown the weave of the canvas and even the constituent parts of the paint. He had left large areas of canvas primed, but unpainted. In doing so he raised the status of the painting to a kind of miracle, for since nothing was hidden, every mark had to be perfect, resonant and unique. Using acrylic paint, he adapted and flattened the 'gesture' of the 50s, underplaying its calligraphic potential and emphasising its similarity to kindergarten markmaking. In the Unfurled series, with its multiple drips the shape of a dog's hind leg running diagonally down each side, he achieved this. Yet these brackets of mobile colour activated a negative version of that same broad, funnel-shaped space that the 'veils' had formed. (Dated 1961, Beta Epsilon, the latest painting at the Rooseum, is a perfect example.) Unfurleds was the name Greenberg attached to these, as if flags were being caught by the wind or curtains were being pulled. It is transitive only by association: despite the way they clog, flare or dribble, the distances between each run prevents their acting in unison. The childlike quality of the markmaking is due to an expertise so superb that it is neither primitivistic, nor faux-naif but looks as if it just happened that way. If he had lived longer, Louis's ga-ga play might have acquired an entire cultural setting: Berryman's babble; Roethke's rickety rhythms... There is a cartoon quality in, for example, Para 1 of 1959, that hints at a parallel to their boozy babytalk.

Yet this exhibition rejects the idea that the formalist critics were eager to promote: of a strategic painter intent on finding ways to prolong the concerns of Abstract Expressionism, making it more open, more Matissean. Addition III of 1959, for example, reveals a more episodic picture-maker, with a sense of wholeness more risky that we had suspected, while in a tamer way, Para No. 1 explores the idea of blobby columns which jostle and prod. Robust, even rambunctious, both works steer clear of that radical simplicity we have come to associate with Louis. Yet it is impossible not to look for one's own essential Louis by asking what it is that he did best. Alpha Zeta (1961, according to Nittve, 1960 in Upright) is what painters of the time called 'mural-sized'; it measures 165.4 x 609.6 cm. Two simple forms appear on the canvas, roughly the same: each consisting of four slanting paint-strokes, angled to nearly touch at the top. This mountain or tent-like structure in rust, dirty pink, lavender and bright yellow on the left, more distant greens and blues on the right, offers one half that seems definite, attention-grabbing, and another more demure, traditionally beautiful; then equalises their force. The technique never seemed simpler: less like paintstrokes than paw-prints, elementary daubs. And that effect is again undone by the utter sophistication of the product, meant (it seems) to be hung in the office of an ad agency or a fashion magazine. For there and only there have we seen such artificial colours. Gone is what the New York Times critic Stuart Preston called Louis's 'chromatic mysticism'. Perhaps it has been replaced by a certain Oriental tinge. For only certain Pollock drawings and the gigantic calligraphs that Clyfford Still made toward the end of his life could be compared with this strange drawing. Yet comparisons do not help. Too late for the scholarly and critical treatment that has been extended to even minor painters of first-generation Abstract Expression-ism, Louis has had to wait until now for us to realise how baffled we are by him and how urgent it has become to know the work better.