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Morris Louis

UNTITLED A 1960 (in the "floral" series)

By Jonathan D. Fineberg

The paintings of Morris Louis (1912-1962), temporarily on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, embody the contemporary feeling of bewilderment at the task of understanding a world which continually eludes rational explanation. Although modern man's accuracy becomes greater and his reason more profound, the enigmas increase and the solutions recede even further. In the same way, Louis' mature paintings provide more questions than answers. The more the viewer attempts to structure the space and to define forms in the picture, the more elusive they become.

The first group of mature works, the so-called "veils" and "florals," date from 1954 through 1960. The overlapping washes of transluscent Magna (acrylic) colors on the unsized, white canvas produce a veil-like form whose colors, although rich and sensuous, seem to mystically dematerialize like shifting, almost gaseous, vapors into the texture of the canvas. One wash of color is applied over another, but the transparency allows all the layers to come forward simultaneously. The visual effect is breathtakingly beautiful and bewildering at the same time. As the viewer becomes involved with a specific passage, he feels that he is on the verge of perceiving the relationships of colors as configurations in space. Yet a concrete sense of space always eludes him, and the configurations appear only as fleeting interactions of diaphanous color-mists. This quality of continual change results from the viewer's ongoing train of association and his simultaneous and selective perception of other parts of the canvas.

This constant unfolding, at once captivating and exhausting, sets the Morris Louis paintings apart from other contemporary paintings. The works of Kline, Rothko, and Newman--to mention only a few--impart their dominant mood at first glance and further investigation only elaborates and refines the sensation. "Optical" art, although it also changes continually and has a sustaining visual fascination, fails to elicit the excitement of the Louis paintings because it is devoid of any mood or emotion.

Nevertheless, Louis derw on contremporary painting for his vocabulary, if not his inspiration. His veil-like clouds of color come from Rothko, and the active Oscillation of spatial structure has precedence in Rothko and in "optical" art as early as Albers.

The romantic mood of Louis' paintings has a atrong kinship with the lyrical, misty spacelessness of the late paintings by Monet. In the Water Lilies, Monet produced a rhapsodic mood of ethereal spacelessness by painting abstract surfaces in which continuously changing relationships of form and color exist for themselves, in spite of some vestigial remains of subject-matter. The rich, almost voluptuous, color of the Louis paintings and the organic growth of the forms have more in common with Art Nouveau. Gauguin's rich palette and his gently curving patterns immediately come to mind. Louis' forms also suggest some affinity to the verdant, celluar shapes in the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe.

Although the "veils" and "florals" differ in shape, as their names indicate, the similarity in the quality of the experience justifies grouping them togeher. But the next major group of paintings by Louis, the "unfurleds," drastically departs from the "veils" and "florals." The "unfurleds" are huge horizontally-oriented white canvases with several multicolored, parallel rivulets of paints--interspersed with bare, white canvas - cutting across thye bottom corners. The parallel strands of color in each corner act like a pair of springs, compressing the large white field above and giving it astonishing luminosity and depth. The optical oscillation of space in the earlier paintings is muted, and the language finds a more selfconscious, intellectual expression.

The "intellectual" tendency, the opaqueness of the paint, and the distillation of the language in Louis' paintings are carried even further in the last group of works, the "stripes." These paintings are composed of parallel, usually vertical, bars of dense, raw color side by side. The occasional overlapping and white spaces are accidental. These paintings are a curious combination of a Mondrianlike interest in the two dimensional representation of space; the optical effects of color juxtapositions in Albers, gestalt psychology, and "optical" art; and the immensely personal, romantic, color sensitivity which characterizes all of Louis' work.

The most outspoken "experts" on the painting of Morris Louis discuss his work as if it grew in total isolation from artistic influences, and, hence, has no art historical past. They align him with lesser painters (notably Kenneth Noland), they ignore all his romantic emotionality, and they explain him largely in intellectual terms. The quality of feeling in Louis' paintings is undeniable and though the influence of the intellectual approach of Noland and the critic Clement Greenberg is clear, Louis cannot be discussed as part of that movement.

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