by Ya & Shi
Morris Louis: An American Master Revisited
The 2007 retrospective for Morris Louis was the first retrospective for Morris Louis in about 20 years. It was a joint effort among the High Museum of Atlanta, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
There are a few Louis paintings in the 2007 retrospective that can't perhaps be as neatly categorized as Louis's other paintings:
"Trellis" was made after Louis had met Helen Frankenthaler (more about this below). I found this painting interesting because it didn't yet demonstrate the full-scale staining of Louis's later works, but as the excerpt of the catalogue points out, the work's "elusive and nature-allusive blots" took advantage of Frankenthaler's technique. As Diane Upright's podcast (below) points out, this painting represents a watershed in Louis's development.
The second "Veil" series began to appear in 1958 or so, and the "Unfurled" Series started in the early 1960s. Thus "Seal" and "Para III" can be regarded as transitional paintings and cannot be categorized easily. "Seal" brought to mind the ink-wash paintings of the Chinese painter Zhang Daqian (張大千) and his special ink-and-wash technique (潑墨, literally: pour ink), with links to Western abstract styles.
"Beth Chaf" graces the cover of John Elderfield's book on Morris Louis during the retrospective about twenty years ago. It can be regarded as one of the "Veil" paintings, yet it is unusual among them. "Beth Chaf" is different since it retains its "original hues" without the "final unifying wash of darker tones" that characterizes the other "Veil" paintings, as pointed out by the wall text.
"Alpha Epsilon" can be viewed as one of the paintings in the "Unfurled" series. However its composition is again unusual compared to the rest of the series, as pointed out by the wall text. In the other "Unfurled" paintings, Morris typically poured rivulets of paint down the bottom corners of the canvas in a diagonal fashion. By contrast, there's an "offset diagonal symmetry" in "Alpha Epsilon" when the two halves of the composition are joined together. Proportionally, the composition fills a much larger area of the canvas as compared to the other "Unfurled" paintings.
Note: A link for the wall text of the Hirshhorn retrospective is provided below.
Louis's Medium and Technique
To appreciate Morris Louis's technique and his position in art history, it is necessary to discuss Helen Frankenthaler's influence on this painter. Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland (another important artist) visited Helen Frankenthaler in her studio in April, 1953.
Seeing Frankenthaler's "Mountains and Sea" "led Louis to change his direction abruptly.... [H]e began to feel, think, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open color." "Frankenthaler, he said, 'was a bridge between Pollockand what was possible.'" (John Elderfield, Morris Louis, p. 13)
Morris Louis then absorbed Frankenthaler's technique and perfected it for his use. Louis's paintings are frequently awash with colors and appear luminous. These oil paintings look as if they are watercolor paintings.
Elderfield describes Frankenthaler's (and, by implication, Louis's) techinque this way: "By diluting the paint more than Pollock had, Frankenthaler was able to soak thin washes of color into the surface, thus literally identifying figure and ground and, thereby, allowing color to spread uninterruptedly across the surface as pure hue...." (p. 31)
The paint Louis actually thinned "was an oil-miscible acrylic resin paint called Magna, which contains pigment, an acrylic resin residue, and small amounts of bodying and stabilizing agents to keep the pigment and resin bounded. It can be thinned with turpentine or with additional doses of resin." (p. 34)
What is remarkable, given the sheer size of Louis's paintings, is that his studio didn't afford him with enough space to view his paintings as they are intended to be viewed. Most paintings, upon completion, were simply rolled up and put away. According to Elderfield, Louis's "studio... was tiny -- only fourteen by twelve feet two inches.... In fact, some of his paintings were actually larger than the studio." (p. 39)
Note: The page references in this section refer to Elderfield's book that covers in the MoMA retrospective in 1986.
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© 2008 Ya & Shi
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