“Morris Louis,” Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, NY. Through Jan. 19.
Widely recognized as an influential American post war painter, Morris Louis became an inspirational figure for other artists in the Color Field movement in the 1960s. From 1954 to 1962, Louis produced hundreds of canvases that represented a new direction in painting. He worked in his tiny DC dining room on wall-sized pieces of folded, unstretched canvas, endlessly pouring paint. When he died of lung cancer at 49 years old, his house was full of work, stored in rolls, that had never been shown. In the NYTimes review of the Kasmin show, Roberta Smith writes that Morris Louis’s stained paintings can look as if they were made “about a minute ago.” When I saw Louis’ retrospective at the Hirshhorn last month, I had the opposite reaction.
The unprimed, yellowed canvas and fading colors placed the paintings definitively in the past, back in the day when painters earnestly investigated their medium’s endless possibilities. Smith concludes that Louis “painted himself into a corner and didn’t live long enough to work his way out. But in that corner he reached a modernist pinnacle in terms of freshness and immediacy, with his breathtakingly economical conversion of gesture, liquid color and canvas into abstract painting. Louis had a wonderful sense of scale that made his efforts imposing yet not overwhelming. This is because his loose poured forms have no weight and because you see the whole composition — and grasp how it was made — pretty much instantaneously.” I had never been a fan of Color Field painting, but considering the scope of Louis’s endeavor as revealed in the Hirshhorn retrospective, dismissing the paintings as decorative was misguided. (Note: his paintings were mostly untitled. After Louis died, his wife Marcella Louis Brenner assigned the titles for reference purposes.)
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