A look at experimental painter Morris Louis

Paintings of middle-aged experimental innovator Morris Louis (1912-1962) are on display now through Jan. 24 in Atlanta. (Shown here: The painting “1-81” from 1961, when Louis was about 49.)

The timing of his most prized and most exhibited works suggests that Louis was an experimental innovator. The clues are in David Galenson’s book “Painting Outside the Lines”:

  • Estimated age at peak value: 50. (Louis died before reaching his 50th birthday, but Galenson uses an approximate age, simply subtracting the birth year.)
  • Age most represented in retrospective exhibitions: 50
  • Age at first one-person show: 45

Did Louis share other characteristics of experimental innovators?

The exhibition’s write-up from the High Museum of Art provides few clues:

“With an exceptional output of mature work that spanned little more than ten years, Morris Louis played an essential role in shaping post-war American art. … Louis worked in an innovative manner by ‘staining’ the canvas with thinned acrylic pigments, using intense, rich washes of color to create unified compositions.”

But a review by Blake Gopnik in the Washington Post describes Louis’s working style and experimental traits — specifically his disregard for the final product of his work:

Louis was “an introverted part-time art instructor who lived a suburban life in Chevy Chase, painting in the dining room while his wife was away teaching school.”

“When you come close to a Louis, you don’t understand it any better; if anything, you get more perplexed about how it achieves its ends. (Louis was intensely secretive. Almost no one ever got to see him work; even his wife apparently came home each day to a tidied dining room, with few signs of what had gone on there other than a length or two of drying canvas drenched in paint.)”

“… he barely got to see the most ambitious art he made. The room he worked in was 12 by 14 feet. His paintings ran as big as 9 by 20. That means that, during the brief span of his mature career, he may never have witnessed his biggest paintings stretched and on the wall.

“Most often, his paintings seem to have been made in a single day, with the artist bunching and unbunching canvas as he spilled paint across it. They were then rolled and stored almost as soon as they were dry, with maybe a quick look first across the larger living-room floor. In one 16-month stretch toward the end of his career, Louis finished something like 230 pictures; 422 were found rolled up in his house when he died.

“Louis painted big, lucid canvases that seem meant for distant viewing, and yet he rarely got to take them in that way himself. It’s as though the fact of making the pictures mattered as much as someone else’s later act of viewing them. For Louis, painting seems to have been more like practicing a solo sport, and becoming very good at it, than like producing fancy goods for others’ pleasure. Thinking in these terms gives Louis’s work some of the impact of performance art.

“Louis himself could be amazingly cavalier about the final look of his art. He once sent a picture to the Guggenheim Museum as a rolled-up length of canvas, leaving it to the art handlers to decide the size of stretcher it should be tacked to. What does an inch or 10 of extra cropping matter on the museum wall, when it’s an earlier moment of making that matters most?

“Louis didn’t even seem to mind which way many of his pictures ended up being hung. He was happy to let [Clement] Greenberg, his critical guru, decide which side was up — and then find that decision overturned by a dealer or client.”

The exhibition will also appear at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego from Feb. 17 to May 6, 2007.

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