15 February 2010

Morris Louis

[In my recent report on art in Washington over the year-end holidays, “Art in D.C.” (18 January), I wrote about an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum of works by Anne Truitt, a member of the Washington Color School. I mentioned another Washington artist, a contemporary and colorist colleague of Truitt’s, Morris Louis (1912-62), and made a superficial comparison between her art and his. In the late fall of 2007, I went to an exhibit of Morris’s paintings, also at the Hirshhorn, and I’m publishing on ROT an expanded version of that short, two-year-old report.]

On Wednesday, 21 November 2007, my mother and I took the bus down to the National Mall in Washington to see Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and exhibited earlier at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. There were four series in the 28-work Louis show—I think they are all the series he created in the short time he worked in this vein—and three are wonderfully vibrant and brightly colored: Florals (1959–1960), so called because the streams of intense color appear to blossom out from the center; Unfurleds (1960–1961), with streams of opaque color that flow in from the sides over an unpainted surface of plain, white fabric; and Stripes (1961–1962), tightly grouped bands of pure color producing a rainbow effect. His first series, Veils (1954, 1958–1959), does what the name suggests. After staining the canvas with bright colors, he "veiled" them by overstaining the colors with a wash of gray, brown, or black. (The series names designate the different ways in which Louis dripped and poured the paint. The works have individual titles, but they aren't really his—he didn't title his works; his widow, Marcella Louis Brenner, gave them titles, mostly letters from the Greek or Hebrew alphabets.)

Morris Louis, born Morris Louis Bernstein in Baltimore, began studying art in his home city at the early age of 15. He moved to New York in 1936 (where he legally dropped his last name) and stayed there for four years, working for the WPA’s Federal Arts Project. Louis, an Abstract Expressionist, started as a Realist—though he destroyed almost all his early works and what remains are his experimental color works from the '50s and '60s. He returned to Baltimore and began experimenting with the newly-developed acrylic paints, beginning with Magna, a medium made especially for him by friends in the paintmaking business in New York. Louis moved to Washington in 1952 and in that decade, working largely outside the New York art scene (of which he was never fully a part) with other Washington artists like Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis, helped develop what became known as Color Field painting—simultaneously establishing the Washington Color School. (Color Field painting is one of the two branches of Abstract Expressionism in the United States. The other is known as action painting, the style which characterizes the best-known works of Jackson Pollock.) The principal tenet of the colorists was to cover their canvases with unified blocks of bright, pure colors. Like all abstract painters, Color Field painters rejected the representation of identifiable figures. In addition, colorists also eschewed symbolism in art, feeling that even abstract forms distracted viewers from experiencing the pure color. There weren’t supposed to be any subjective, emotional connotations in the hues or forms on the canvas. Red was just a color, not an expression of passion. The painting was just art, nothing more meaningful or symbolic. It was all supposed to come to a pure sensation of enjoyment. The focus on purity of form strongly links Color Field painting with Minimalist art—as we saw in the exhibit of Anne Truitt’s work. Louis, for instance, pared his paintings down to just what he felt was necessary, the bare minimum to create his effects.

Between 1954 and 1962, the year of his death, Louis created about 600 canvases. At the same time, the artist was a perfectionist and harsh self-critic: between 1955 and 1957, he destroyed some 300 of his own paintings as unsatisfactory. Even in the cramped confines of his suburban home in Washington, however, Louis was able to make large paintings; the size of his canvases (the ones at the Hirshhorn were all 8-14 feet on a side) seems to conflict with the fact that he created them on the floor of the tiny dining room of his apartment. Louis was an early experimenter not only with color but with new media like acrylics and unprimed canvases. (There was a companion exhibit following the Louis show that demonstrated the hardships in conserving some experimental paintings, including those like Louis's. It seems that these artists, focused on creating new effects and exploiting new materials, never considered how their works would age.) In 1953, Louis and his fellow D.C. artist Ken Noland (who just died this past 5 January) visited New York where they saw paintings by Pollock and Franz Kline, another Abstract Expressionist. The two Washington painters also paid a call on Helen Frankenthaler at her New York studio where she introduced them to the idea of pouring the pigment to stain unprimed canvases. Louis has said that Frankenthaler, essentially the founder of Color Field painting, created “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” The exposure would have a profound effect on Louis’s own work from then on. Within two years, the painter had begun to produce the works that made him famous, the subject of the Hirshhorn’s Morris Louis Now. It was the first such retrospective in the U.S. since 1986.

Conventionally, artists prime their canvases with a base coat of some neutral paint—usually white—to prevent the oil-based pigments from bleeding into the fabric itself; the color stays on the surface of the primer. What Louis began to do, first with oil paint then with acrylics, was "stain" the canvas—allow the color to seep into the untreated fabric—to create thin swatches of intense color. By soaking into the untreated canvas, the streaks and fields of color also gave the impression of depth. (We ran into an acquaintance of Mom's at the exhibit, a docent at the Hirshhorn, and she said the backs of the paintings are as vibrant and striking as the fronts.) The oil paint created a corona as the oil spread beyond the edges of the color medium and was thus hard to control, so Louis switched to the new pigments made with acrylic (principally Magna, the first acrylic medium invented for artists) which he could manipulate more precisely. He didn't brush his pigment onto the canvas, which he also left unstretched so he could twist and fold it in any direction—he poured or dripped the thinned pigment. (In the beginning of this experimental stage, Louis took a leaf from the new book of Jackson Pollock who was just beginning to work on his spatter and drip paintings.) He nearly always let the pigment run off the edge of the canvas; you can see where his work started, but they have no "end." In fact, since Louis worked on his canvases in sections, never seeing the whole thing at once, and he didn’t work on a frame or stretcher, some of his paintings were trimmed and cut after he’d finished them so there might not even have been an “end.” In some cases, the little gold-rimmed frames put around the canvases when they were mounted for display—often the first time Louis would have seen the whole painting—put an artificial perimeter around the art, circumscribing the paintings in a way that the creation hadn’t. (Only one painting in the exhibit was entirely contained within the dimensions of the canvas.) The results are various stripes or washes of translucent color bursting off the canvas in random shapes that invoke flowers or flames or sunbursts.

The Veils are the most worked of the paintings at the Hirshhorn, with the additional covering of the layer of dark stain over the vivid colors underneath. In contrast, the Unfurleds make the most use of unpainted space as Louis left large expanses of the canvas bare, often framing the whiteness with pigment. The effect of these paintings comes as much from the blankness as from the color, bringing to mind the concept of “negative space” of which painter and teacher Hans Hofmann spoke. Playwright Tennessee Williams explains the idea in his pay Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?:

LOUISE: Did you set something on the table?
NORA: I just set down the upside-down cake on a vacant spot on the table.
LOUISE: There is no such thing as a vacant spot on the table.
NORA: — Ow, but there was a space with nothing on it, I didn’t move anything, not a thing, not an inch!
LOUISE: The spaces on the table are just as important as the articles on the table. Is that over your head?
NORA: I’ve seen your pitcher of ice tea on the table and glasses for it.
LOUISE: The pitcher of ice tea and the glasses for it are part of the composition.
NORA: — The what of the what did you say?
LOUISE: In painting there’s such a things as plastic space.
. . . .
LOUISE: If you’ve ever looked at a painting in your life you must have observed some spaces in the painting that seem to be vacant.
NORA: I’ve looked at paintings in the museum, dear, and I’ve seen vacant spaces between the objects painted.
LOUISE: The vacant spaces are called plastic space.
NORA: — Ow.
LOUISE: The spaces between the objects, as you call them, are important parts of the total composition.
NORA: — Ow?
LOUISE: What would a painting be without spaces between the objects being painted? . . . . Nothing. And so the spaces are what a painter calls plastic.
NORA: Plastic, y’mean, like a plastic bottle or --
LOUISE: No. Plastic like the spaces between the objects in a painting. They give to the painting its composition like the vacant spaces on my table give to the articles on the table its arrangement. . . .
. . . .
LOUISE: The articles on the table, including the spaces between them, make up a composition . . . .

(“Plastic space,” which Williams attributes to Hofmann and further defines in the novella Moise and the World of Reason, was never actually a term used by the art teacher. Williams, who was an amateur painter himself, knew Hofmann in the 1940s and was also friendly with Lee Krasner, a painter who had been a Hofmann student, and her husband, Jackson Pollock, whom she had introduced to Hofmann and who had attended some of the teacher’s lectures.)

Exactly how Louis created his effects is uncertain as no one has ever duplicated the pouring technique he used. While he didn’t use brushes or easels, or even frames, he did occasionally fasten his canvas to a support. Much of the time, however, Louis manipulated his canvas so that the poured acrylic paint would flow across it and stain it in different and unpredictable streams. Because the studio he made out of his dining room was so tiny, he worked on his paintings in sections. The artist was never able to see a whole painting at once, much less more than one canvas at a time. One thing’s pretty certain, however: the results are . . . okay, I know it’s a cliché, but there’s no other adequate word—luminous. By diluting the paint, the color staining the canvas is transluscent rather than opaque. Whether poured in ribbons or broad washes, the colors are rich and intense. As a result, the paintings shine with light and, well, color. They shimmer and vibrate and run off the canvas as if they were still wet. (Several reviewers described a “just-painted” quality of the 50- and 60-year-old works in the exhibit.) While Noland’s colors are confined and finite, hard-edged and controlled—his work formed a bridge to the newly-emerging style of Op Art—Louis’s colors bleed and overlap in unruly and startling combinations. Like other Abstract Expressionists, Louis rejected literal (or literary) meaning for his art. (The artist left little in the way of written interpretation or explanation of his intentions.) It is supposed to be all about the color, the paint, the textures, and the technique. It is raw color and raw form that evokes raw feeling at a visceral level. Baltimore Sun art reviewer Glenn McNatt even insisted of Louis’s art: “It mostly eludes critical analysis. Louis' paintings resist interpretation because no theory seems quite expansive or wise enough to encompass them.” But, as Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post asserted in his review of the exhibit, “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.” And so, I saw flags, flowers, leaves, sunbursts, Technicolor tornadoes, jewels, and all manner of other vibrant and delight-inducing images which Louis apparently never meant for me to see. Tough!

(Gopnik’s column, “Back to Color School: Four Lessons on Morris Louis,” 30 September 2007, an expository treatise rather than strictly a review, was four small essays to "interpret"—admittedly on a very personal basis—different aspects of one painting, 1954’s Breaking Hue, in the exhibit. The writer called this “reading” the painting. The first part focused on the colors and Gopnik's tag-line for this section was: “So much for ‘Breaking Hue’ as a purely abstract patch of red.”)

Louis died on 7 September 1962, just before his fiftieth birthday, from the lung cancer that had been diagnosed just two months earlier. The illness had gone undiagnosed until too late, just as his career was taking off. (In the days when my folks were partners in the Gres Gallery, a highly-regarded showplace near Dupont Circle, Louis used to come around to try to get a show, but the managing partner didn't want the gallery to be known as a Washington artists' gallery, so she kept rejecting him.) Until the end of his life, he’d had few paintings exhibited, but his prodigious work at the end of his life was about to launch him into the ranks of the famous and successful. (Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of the middle of the 20th century, was a champion not only of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, but of Louis himself. It was Greenberg who had introduced Louis and Noland to Helen Frankenthaler.) The work of his last eight years, from the Veils through the Stripes, were not only the basis of Louis’s fame and position in the continuum of American art, but began a shift in technique and approach initiated by other young artists who adapted his staining and pouring practices and the use of the new, synthetic paints because they flowed more freely than oils. Louis’s own work, such as that on exhibit in Morris Louis Now, continues to excite and stimulate strong feelings itself, too.


  1. Genuinely interesting and richly informative article about this optimistic and (literally) wonder-full painter, a first-rank one in my opinion.

  2. Robert: Thank you so much for the complimentary remarks. I appreciate your interest in and agreement with my sense of this exhibition and the artist whose work was displayed.