Morris Louis 2007 Retrospective

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.

The show covered various aspects of Louis's style, starting with a few paintings from Louis's mature period c. 1953 or so, right before he began with his first "Veil" series in 1954, and ended with the last series from Louis's oeuvre, namely, the "Line" or "Stripe" series around 1960 (Morris died after a lung cancer operation in 1962).  

Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery / Smithsonian Institution 

There are a few Louis paintings in the 2007 retrospective that can't perhaps be as neatly categorized as Louis's other paintings:

  • "Trellis" (1953, private collection) (Excerpts of the exhibition catalogue Morris Louis Now:  An American Master Revisisted: can be found online, and an image of "Trellis" can be found by choosing p. 6 of 8 in the Adobe pdf viewer.)
  • "Seal" (1959, estate of Morris Louis) and "Para III" (1959, High Museum of Atlanta, gift of Marcella Louis Brenner, the artist's widow) (images of both paintings can be found on the Hirshhorn webpage whose link I've provided)
  • "Alpha Epsilon" (1960, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art)
  • "Beth Chaf" (1959, National Gallery of Art) (I couldn't find an image in the collections database of NGA's website, but an image can be found on p. 58 of a teaching document by NGA called Teaching Art Since 1950.)

"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. 

Other Information and Reviews

This article is interesting not just for offering an overview of the show but also for discussing the conservation challenges for these paintings. Modernist paintings typically use unprimed canvas, in that the canvas does not have a preparation ground layer, and this presents challenges for conservation. The Hirshhorn show included a section at the end that showed damaged paintings in various states of conservation.

This review was written during the retrospective about twenty years ago. Here Hughes argues that Morris's time has come and gone, that his art represents "the beautiful impasse, the last exhalation of symbolist nuance in America, soon to be a period style."

  • Podcast by Diane Upright, a well known Louis scholar, courtesy of the Hirshhorn

This covers a great deal of biographical information on Morris Louis. It runs for about one hour.

  • There are a lot of paintings by Louis Morris named according to the Greek and Hebrew alphabet. In passing, we note that the Hebrew alphabet was used by Louis's widow after Louis's death for paintings that Louis himself didn't name. Louis actually used the Greek alphabet (example: "Alpha Epsilon" above) to name paintings.

© 2008 Ya & Shi

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