Morris Louis, Dalet Kaf (1959), acrylic resin (magna) on canvas; courtesy The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
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It is good to see the canvases of Morris Louis (1912-1962) at a time when contemporary abstract painting is being exhibited at the galleries in some abundance. With the show of his work at Ameringer-Howard Fine Art, we are reminded that Louis is, in many ways, a key figure in terms of how abstract art is currently practiced. In his pictures, we see a fixed emphasis on technique, a detachment bordering on anonymity, and a signature motif conducive to modification, if not development. Of course, one could say that within his work lies much of what is awry in contemporary art. This would, however, be an unjust burden to lay on an art as self-effacing as that of Louis.
Coming across individual pictures of his in recent years, I’ve been struck not just by their beauty–a characteristic of the work that has never been in dispute–but by how substantive their beauty can be. Admittedly, Louis’ art is best seen on a piecemeal basis; en masse its narrow scope is put into high relief. Yet standing before Twined Columns II (1960), a panoramic canvas bookended by blurs of swirling color, one sees a painting that is more arresting (and strange) than anything in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent retrospective of work by Jackson Pollock.
That says as much–and probably more–about Pollock as it does about Louis. Yet within Louis’ slender oeuvre , there are paintings that outshine the myths of Abstract Expressionism and the confines of Colorfield painting. On the occasions I visited Ameringer-Howard, gallerygoers entering the exhibition literally caught their breath upon encountering the paintings. Louis’ spare distillations of color and gravity hold one’s eye with a vaporous rush, as if paint itself had been transformed into a wraithlike apparition. True, the work isn’t far removed from the decorative trifles displayed on the walls of furniture showrooms. Nevertheless, the best canvases transform painterly calculation into something lush and austere.
We don’t need to buy into the extravagant claims once made for Louis’ art in order to admire the towering vulnerability of, say, Dalet Kuf (1958),a greenish-brown monolith surrounded by a wispy halo of vibrant color. This is an exhibition that should give pause to those who consider the history of postwar American art a done deal.
© 1999 Mario Naves
Originally published in the December 5, 1999 edition of The New York Observer.