Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Born on this day in 1912. Morris Louis

Morris Louis, Where, 252 x 362 cm. magna on canvas, 1960, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Born on the same day as William Blake but obviously not in the same year, Morris Louis could also be called an American Mystic. He spent his life in obscurity, painting away without much recognition, lonely, gifted and insecure. He was briefly proclaimed the king of abstract painters in 1966 but his reputation quickly faded out as did the style he, among others  better known. popularized. The lyric stain and transcendent wash was not to be the future of modern painting. (Robert Graves, Nothing If Not Critical. 200-203).

Morris Louis Bernstein (November 28, 1912 – September 7, 1962), known professionally as Morris Louis, was an American painter. During the 1950s he became one of the earliest exponents of Color Field painting. While living in Washington, D.C., Louis, along with Kenneth Noland and other Washington painters, formed an art movement that is known today as the Washington Color School.
From 1929 to 1933, he studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts (now Maryland Institute College of Art) on a scholarship, but left shortly before completing the program. Louis worked at various odd jobs to support himself while painting and in 1935 was president of the Baltimore Artists' Association. From 1936 to 1940, he lived in New York and worked in the easel division of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. During this period, he knew Arshile Gorky, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jack Tworkov. He also dropped his last name.

He returned to his native Baltimore in 1940 and taught privately. In 1948, he pioneered the use of Magna paint - a newly developed oil based acrylic paint made for him by his friends, New York paintmakers Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden. In 1952, Louis moved to Washington, D.C.. Living in Washington, D.C., he was somewhat apart from the New York scene and he was working almost in isolation.

The basic point about Louis's work and that of other Color Field painters, sometimes known as the Washington Color School in contrast to most of the other new approaches of the late 1950s and early 1960s, is that they greatly simplified the idea of what constitutes the look of a finished painting. They continued in a tradition of painting exemplified by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt. Eliminating gestural, compositional drawing in favor of large areas of raw canvas, solid planes of thinned and fluid paint, utilizing an expressive and psychological use of flat, and intense color and allover, repetitive composition. He worked in a tiny space, 12 x 14 feet while his paintings ran as big as 9 x 20. That means that during his maturity, he may have never seen his biggest paintings stretched and on the wall.

No. 3
Louis characteristically applied extremely diluted, thinned paint to an unprimed, unstretched canvas, allowing it to flow over the inclined surface in effects sometimes suggestive of translucent color veils. The importance of Frankenthaler's example in Louis's development of this technique has been noted.  Louis reported (via the critic Clement Greenberg) that he thought of Frankenthaler as the bridge between Jackson Pollock and the possible. However, even more so than Frankenthaler, Louis eliminated the brush gesture.

Morris Louis was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1962 and soon after died at his home in Washington, D.C. on September 7, 1962. The cause of his illness was attributed to prolonged exposure to paint vapors.

In an exhibit in Washington DC in 2006, Blake Gopnik wrote, " Louis's pictures are as gorgeous as their original supporters claimed. In the earlier works, known as "veils," Louis got thin washes of poured paint to float across his canvases like frozen Northern Lights. In his later "Unfurleds" and "Stripes," undiluted colors glow like petrified rainbows. Ironically, that beauty made the painter's reputation fade."

"By the 1980s and '90s, there came to be a sense that Louis's work was just fiddling around with pretty paint. It was billed as self-indulgent, disengaged from things that really matter in the world or in art. It was simple-minded and content-free -- all looks and no brains. The art world equivalent of the hunky jock or dumb blonde."

"For all his canvases' immediate appeal, their effects turn out to depend on fiendishly complex structures. There's a buzzing play between how each looks from far away -- often legible and luminous -- and the clotted or fractured surfaces that make it up. When you come close to a Louis, you don't understand it any better; if anything, you get more perplexed about how it achieves its ends. (Louis was intensely secretive. Almost no one ever got to see him work; even his wife apparently came home each day to a tidied dining room, with few signs of what had gone on there other than a length or two of drying canvas drenched in paint.)"

But I think that Robert Hughes has the last relevant word on Louis, "For what it is, the work can still offer intense pleasure to the eye while inadvertently reminding you that beauty, in art, is not necessarily enough." Nothing if not Critical, pp 203.

Complete bio at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morris_Louis


1 comment:

Carla Ives said...

I had never heard of Morris Louis or Color Field artists, probably because this type of work is not to my liking. However, I tend to be attracted to color, so some of these pieces *do* appeal to me. I'm not so sure about the stripes, though. I may check out a few more pieces at some of your links.