Morris Louis died on September 7, 1962, at the age of 49. Although he'd painted original pictures as early as 1954, and all but continuously since 1958, he was hardly well known at the time. But after his death, his art has won a place for itself. By the end of the '60s it could be found in museum and in private collections around the world.
But while Louis' painting has won a place for itself, Louis the artist remains a shadowy figure, ringed round with problems, peculiarities, and questions. In this, he's virtually unique in this century: an artist known almost exclusively by his art. This happened because Louis was, in a certain sense, a provincial. While he did spend a few years in New York as a young man, he seems not to have made or retained contacts among the artists there. He was reintroduced to New York in 1953 by the young Kenneth Noland: to the critic Clement Greenberg and, through Greenberg, to an adventurous younger painter, Helen Frankenthaler. That visit awakened something in Louis, calling forth his great early "Veils" of 1953-54. But the breakthrough was short lived. He seems to have lost direction until, encouraged again by Greenberg, he returned to the format embarking on his great series of large "Veils" in 1958.
Another peculiarity: in addition to being a provincial, Louis, it seems, was an on and off painter. When on, he worked in series in a narrow direction and painted masterpieces; when off, he painted much less well. Furthermore, he seems to have relied on Greenberg (and Noland) to keep him on track. That's peculiar, too; but, as I've observed, Louis's career is ringed round with peculiarities. Perhaps the explanation for his going on and off lies in the very originality of his art. There, the fact of his being a provincial art teacher, detached from the pressures of New York, may have contributed positively to its development. But isolation may have led as well to self-doubt, and that may explain his turn away from his accomplishments of 1954.
Nevertheless, those accomplishments were remarkable. In relation to the art being made in New York City in 1953 and 1954, they seem more remarkable still. To be sure, the New York School was flourishing, but it wasn't flourishing everywhere equally. Above all, it was struggling -- with mixed results -- to break free of cubism. Franz Kline wrested something new from cubism in 1950, but his accomplishment was short-lived. His reputation notwithstanding, de Kooning was in decline by the early fifties and in the process of carrying a second generation of Abstract Expressionists along with him. Academic cubist design was a symptom of that decline, along with "gestural" brushwork, although it continued to contribute in a positive way to the art of Motherwell, Gottlieb, and especially, Hans Hofmann. In 1953 Barnett Newman wasn't exhibiting and Jackson Pollock was mired in the slump that characterized his last years. Rothko, perhaps, was a special case. 1953 seems to have been his banner year, sustained at least until the mid-'50s. Helen Frankenthaler was just starting up. As mentioned, her emergence seems to have been crucial for Louis. She'd taken something from Pollock and had begun to stain paint into canvas-laid out on the floor. When Louis saw Frankenthaler's work in 1953 he apparently conceived a new way to use acrylic paint.
Louis didn't take up acrylic paint in 1953; he'd been working with it, more or less after the fashion of oil paint, since the late forties. Frankenthaler hadn't yet begun to use it; her now-famous Mountains and Sea of 1953 was painted with turpentine-thinnned oils; but it suggested to Louis a new way of using acrylic in thin washes, and this seems to have triggered his creative explosion. In any event, Louis's 1954 production contains remarkable paintings -- so remarkable, so different, that they must have puzzled Louis, himself, and may have caused him to back away from their implications. From 1955 to '57 his paintings were closer to cubism and current abstract expressionism; most of these he subsequently destroyed.
When he returned to the "Veils" in 1957 a lot of water had passed under the bridge since 1954. Pollock had died; Frankenthaler had progressed; Noland was developing; Gottlieb was pushing farther from cubism; Motherwell was stretching out, getting larger; Still and Rothko had passed their prime but their achievements had perhaps become more accessible; and Abstract Expressionist painting, especially when painted from the easel, seemed more bankrupt than ever.
In the "Veils" Louis discovered something hinted at in Pollock's allover painting and Rothko's paintings of the fifties: a new alignment of the image with the picture rectangle. This offered a liberation from cubism, specifically from the tendency of cubist design to echo the edges, and it began to liberate color. Rothko, in particular, had pushed cubist design to a kind of crisis during the fifties by enlarging his more or less amorphous rectangles until two or three of them fully occupied the surface. He'd got that far by 1950 and had wrung outstanding pictures from the format until 1955, but thereafter something in his art gave way. He seems to have come up against the picture shape, to have wrested a kind of eloquence from it, but to have been brought to a standstill thereafter. After about 1955 his pictures became increasingly flat, forced, and unyielding, and his basic format didn't change.
Pollock's all over drip paintings of the late Forties may have pointed a way out of cubism more than Rothko's paintings did because Pollock drew so freely within the rectangle. His drawing virtually filled the picture surface with a kind of self-contained quasi-rectangular web. Louis adopted a similar device in 1954 pictures like Spreading . The title of that painting is apt. Louis assembled a surface-filling rectangle from transparent, overlapping washes of dilute color, much as Pollock had assembled his own from interlaced drawing. Louis seems to have quickly discovered the next step. He poured washes down the canvas and severed the resulting shape with the bottom edge of the canvas. The "Veil" format resulted. Thereafter, the days of cubist design were numbered.
The great chains of accomplishment in Louis' art came in 1957 and after -- and came, insistently, in series. Louis' accomplishments are tied to a series of "Veils" (1957) followed by an uneasy transition ("Florals," etc.), then a series of "Unfurleds" (1960), then the "Stripes" (1961): long runs of intensity and originality followed by periods of uncertainty. Louis tended to falter, it seems to me, when he lost the tension between the paint image and the picture shape.
His great discovery lay there, in a new kind of paint image -- thinly stained and resonating with color -- and in a new relation between that image and the picture shape. It wasn't a new formula. It wasn't that simple, not any more than cubism had been simple. The veil format was the prototype of that new image. It swelled up and out from the bottom of the canvas and terminated parallel to the top edge. It was bilateralIy symmetrical, but it seldom rectangular in profile, at least not in the beginning. The sides of the image were usually convex, but it was often most powerful when it seemed pulled and tugged "into shape" by a kind of attraction from the picture edges. When the shape was drawn in too far towards the center, and especially when it was cut off too abruptly by the bottom, it could suffer -- suffer from too much canvas around it and from a too inert background. The bilateral symmetry of the shape was important, too. Departures from it, especially internal ones, added expressive tension and helped bind the painting to the overall design.
But the "Veils" didn't simply depend on the shapes of the paint image and the rectangle. Above all, they depended on stained color, mostly warm color or color inclining towards warmth. The "veiling" in them, their sense of murky luminosity, came from overlapped pourings, sometimes buried and unified within a final dark wash. The effect was sometimes one of a rather chromatic palette, foreshadowing the color of the "Unfurleds," but submerged and embrowned. This was true, especially, when a radiant fringe of spectrum colors emerged at the top and sides of the image. Added to this was a wonderful expressive effect peculiar to Louis, a kind of mirrored patterning like the enormously enlarged grain of fine, wood veneer. This was a graphic and decorative device, exploited as a kind of framework. He used it to reinforce and to subtly vary the internal symmetry of the veil image, and to articulate the overall spread of color.
Louis' periods of transition between series involved departures of one kind or another from simple, canvas-filling design. The first, as I've mentioned, involved a retreat into cubism. The second, much less serious, produced the "Florals," which tended to merely occupy the rectangle. They relinquished at least some of the tension between the paint image and the shape.
Louis rediscovered that relation and turned it inside-out in after with the great "Unfurleds" of 1960. The "Unfurleds" discovered a new palette for Louis, too: optically dazzling color keyed on the hot half of the color wheel and interrupted by intense darks -- often dark greens or blues which gained in impact from being tied to intense complementaries, especially to reds and vermilions. And this rediscovery emphasized something essential about shape which was inherent in the "Veils." As I've suggested, the relation of the veil image to the rectangle broke away from cubist design. It did so by recognizing that the sides of that rectangle weren't necessarily the same as the top and bottom. In the "Veils" the sides exerted a kind of attraction ("magnetic," for want of a better word) while top and bottom quite literally exploited the power of gravity. The veil motif didn't respond to an equal four-way tension from the sides as in a cubist painting, and as a result didn't fall into grid patterns. The "Unfurleds" reemphasized this by bridging the gap between the sides and its bottom.
Louis seems not to have faltered after the "Unfurleds" and went straight into the Stripes, exploiting the intense palette developed in the "Unfurleds" in smaller, seemingly simpler pictures. The more or less central pillars of color in these last paintings were a variant of the veil motif, but they were narrower and weren't tugged at by the sides. Instead, they seemed to bind one end of the to the other: side to side or, more frequently, top to bottom -- notwithstanding the fact that, in most cases, one or both ends floated free.
The small size of the "Stripes" was unique for Louis. Previously, he'd tended to paint large pictures as a matter of course, what Kenworth Moffett has called "portable murals." I've never seen a really small mature Louis, neither a work on paper nor a small painting. The 1954 pictures averaged about 6 or 7 feet in their smaller dimension. A few later "Veils" were smaller than that, but most were very large horizontals, often huge, wall-size pictures. And, if anything, the "Unfurleds" were bigger still. How could this Washington provincial, a painter who had virtually no audience (let alone market), how could this unknown and unappreciated painter paint such large and "public" paintings? And so many of them? That's another Louis peculiarity.
Louis's consistent inclination towards very large paintings is hard to explain. No doubt it had something to do with materials and working methods; more likely it stemmed from an attempt to get the full effect from color (perhaps this was necessary, especially in the "Unfurleds," where reduction in size might have enhanced the graphic "bite" of the rivulets to the detriment of color). Whatever the reasons, the large scale, the reliance on bilateral symmetry, and the harmonious relation between drawing and color were evidence of a kind of classical style, in which beauty and harmony were infused with expression on a grand scale.
But the "Stripes" of 1961-62 weren't big, at least not in the sense that the Veils and Unfurleds had been. They also seem to have followed hard upon the "Unfurleds," without an intervening period of uncertainty such as had followed the first two series of "Veils." Perhaps accumulated experience helped Louis by that time. Whether or not he was looking for an intimate format, a smaller-than-mural size, he seems to have found one, and he pursued it with his habitual relentlessness. In a sense, the "Stripes" were "Veils" and "Unfurleds" combined. In fact, some small, fairly narrow "Veils" from 1959 had similar shapes with relatively straight sides. The color in the "Stripes" was drawn from the "Unfurleds," but was jammed and fused together in a new way within an overall pillar shape. What was most striking about this color was its intensity, its impact. Once again, it hinged on saturated hot colors -- reds, vermilions, and oranges in particular -- interrupted by dark complementaries. But where color in the "Unfurleds" dazzled, in the "Stripes" it glowed and smoldered, the result of an extraordinary sense of compression. To some extent this sensation was caused by the shape of the paint image itself, a narrow column or pillar, but it was reinforced by the way the shafts of color within that shape blended into each other. When the bands became too clear-cut and flat, the pictures sometimes suffered. (I've even seen ones that look like copies or reproductions.) But when the fire was alight, the "Stripes" possessed an elemental power.
A final word about scale and power: the abundance of large Louis paintings made for museum acquisitions -- often, perhaps, for the wrong reasons, who can tell? Those in the museum collections spent little time in storage for many years. They were often on the walls, and there they held sway, awakening a response in casual and sophisticated visitors alike. But holding their own in museums doesn't mean that they're museum art or even public art, at least not in the commonly accepted sense. I've seen Louis paintings, large and small, in people's homes -- "Veils" and "Unfurleds" as well as Stripes -- and I've been bowled over by how warmly they assert themselves. They don't shout, but neither do they whisper; they don't intrude, but neither do they merely decorate. Despite their size they're surprisingly intimate, yet they transform their surroundings as only great art can. For make no mistake, Louis's art -- despite the peculiarities of its making -- is very great art indeed.
© Terry Fenton
Comments on article by Clement Greenberg (1982):
Yr piece on Louis in Arts was the best shorter piece on him I've ever seen -- not that there are any longer pieces that are as good.... you discerned Louis. Some corrections: he actually began to come through in 1953, not 1954. After that he didnt rely on Noland at all for his direction, though I'm glad you gave Ken some of the credit, which belongs properly only to his leading Morris to NY, Frankenthaler, & me in the first place in 1953.... It was in 1957 not 1958, that I turned him back to "veiling" (Bill Rubin's word). You shd have pointed but that his use of acrylic was confined to Bocour's Magna, which is oil-miscible; Louis never used the water-miscible kind. Kline broke through in 1950, not in 1953, by which time he was starting to go down-hill into deKooning-(?)-induced painterliness. Rothko broke out in 1949, not 1950, I'd say he'd shot his bolt by 1955, not 1953 -- the latter is too early, though this may be a matter of opinion, as the start of Kline's decline I don't think is.... A last word: Morris didn't paint big for museums, but only because he was fed up w. cabinet sizes, nothing more.