By ROBERT C. MORGAN, SEPT. 2014
Throughout mid-town Manhattan, most of the color we see is generated electronically. Because we are conditioned to seeing color in relation to neon and LED light, we have become immune to the process of seeing color that comes more slowly. The manner in which we instantly catch the flush of digital light is distinctly different from the way we scan the surface of color applied with pigment. Therefore, to actually see a Rothko, a Baziotes or, for that matter, a Morris Louis requires a mental process of slowing down. In fact, Louis never intended his paintings to appear in a virtual context the way we expect to see color in the twenty-first century the instant we open our laptops or click on our iPhones. Rather Louis was an artist from a different time in search of an exemplary form of color derived through the process of physical manipulation, essentially the pouring of water-based pigment on to folded canvas. Louis clearly recognized the importance of color during his time in the late 1950s as a visual phenomenon. He intended that a physical saturation of pigment should be poured directly into the fabric, thus evoking a sensation barely known or understood at the time. Even so, Morris was recognized by the critical establishment as having developed a point of view in painting – indeed, a way of pouring paint – that would influence not only Helen Frankenthaler. but a litany of artists who became known as Color Field painters.
During the mid-1950s, while abstract expressionism was ascending toward higher echelons of acceptance and recognition internationally as America’s first truly original art form, the Washington Color School at the Corcoran Museum in the nation’s Capitol was just beginning to emerge. This was the place where Louis lived and grappled with a form of painting than was not a repetition of the New York School, but existed on an entirely different level. Louis was close to his colleagues – Ken Noland, Gene Davis, Paul Reed, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, among others, who were more involved in the function of color as being possessed by physicality. This physicality is what gave the color its meaning– if we can use the word “meaning” – and thereby qualitatively enhanced its presentness in relation to the painterly surface. Over time, Louis’s canvases began to appear increasingly reductive through the Columns and the Unfurleds, both developed from the mid-1950s onward. They took on a sheer density, an interactive presentness, though an unrelenting physical quality.
The current exhibition by Morris Louis of the Veils (1958-1960) offers a kind of revisitation of what was once read by critics, such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, as an exemplary fusion of classical painting and a Modernist spatiality of color. There was nothing optical about his work as one might find in Noland or Davis, Instead Louis went for something formerly understand in the critical rhetorical of the 1960s and early 1970s as pure visuality. So here in this revisited exhibition, the viewer may once again establish an interactive dialogue (in the nearly archaic terms of “an aesthetic experience”), as viewers become the subject in relation to the object of these paintings.
During the course of this encounter this delicate, yet forceful visual interaction may offer the viewer a form of transference whereby the subject and object reverse momentary, implying a moment of transcendence, a minor stretch of infinity given entirely to color and the spatiality that contains it. This experiential quality is held in suspension within the interior structure of the Veils. They are paintings given to gravity, but also capable of iterating a set of conduits as if these translucent drapes were merging the viscous liquor of poured paint occurring in a timely manner as the light within the consummate form begins to settle into place.
By late 1960 (he died in 1962), Louis knew how to hold the effect of color, which possessed a quality he struggled to obtain in paintings such as End of Fall (1959-60) and Curtain (1958). The question was how to hold the density of these overlaid colors in a way that would evoke an indecipherable fusion of color. Louis’s challenge was to permit the seepage of light to pass through these diaphanous curtains so that it merged in total with the surface of the canvas. In virtually every Veil painting, Louis retains the feeling of a nearly deified presence more than any other series of work he completed. This affect became as clear as any Rothko I have seen. These are difficult paintings in that one cannot work so easily through the “spiritual” as a concrete entity in co-existence with the material fabric. In fact, it is much easier to address the notion of color as a physical substance that synthetically mimics the origins of pigment, found in the minerals taken from the soil.
The early form of acrylic is in its nascent stages, called Magna, used in these Veils, is a synthetically manufactured color that imitated the effects of oil pigment, but at the risk of health. The insidious encroachment of its chemistry on the pulmonary cells of the human body gradually became a problem for Louis as he continued to chain smoke while working in a non-ventilated garage space. But little, if anything, related to these hazards was known at the time. The focus was less health of the body than a near detachment of the eye/mind from other surrounding organs.
Even so, despite these conditions, Morris Louis managed to create some of the most remarkable paintings in twentieth century Modernism. Italian Veil (1960) and Beth Samach (1958) literally hum with vigor. They are more than audacious. They are refined equivalents to what the abstract expressionists could never approach, at least, not at the time their paintings were reaching their apotheosis. For Louis, the task of painting was essentially a classical one, and therefore, the feeling of these paintings exalts a paradoxical transparent density that both opens and culminates a major chapter in the history of Modernist painting.WM