The many masks of modern art

I doubt that Morris Louis's ''Untitled (1960)'' could have been conceived or painted anywhere but in the United States. It's just too open, expansive, and huge (roughly 9 by 17 feet), to have been painted anywhere else at that time. And besides, it represents and carries forward the very American tradition of portraying wide open spaces that began in the mid-19th century with Bierstadt, Church, and Cole, was made Midwestern in the 1930s by Curry and Benton, and was given dramatic form in the Abstract-Expressionist canvases of Pollock, Rothko, and Still.

I'm not suggesting that Louis consciously viewed himself as part of that tradition. He was, after all, too much the international modernist at the time he painted this work to see himself in national or regional terms. Nor am I suggesting that his art should necessarily be viewed from this perspective. I'm only pointing out that it shares a particular quality with a large number of 19 th-century and post-World War II American paintings, a quality I believe derives from certain peculiarly American ideals and values pertaining to size and space. And a quality which has never been successfully translated into European terms.

Important as it is to their identity, it's not their size so much that distinguishes these American works from those produced by their European contemporaries - after all, Picasso and Matisse, among others, had also seen fit to express themselves at times in huge canvases--it's their open-armed expansiveness, their calm acceptance of the notion that a painting should be an environment of equal size to the viewer, and not just a pictorial ''stage'' into which he peered.

What is interesting about this is that it was a most significant latter-day challenge to Cubism's sacred decree that the flat canvas was indeed flat and indeed a canvas, and that neither the artist nor the viewer should pretend otherwise by using it in any way to create the illusion of deep space or of three-dimensionality.

I say a latter-day challenge because it followed by many years Miro's rejection of Cubism. To Miro, the canvas was not a flat surface, it was space itself. And the forms he drew out of his imagination and from observation were the objects occupying and moving freely about and within that space. It was a simple enough step to take, but by taking it, Miro freed painting from the two-dimensionality imposed upon it by Cubism and opened the door to a great deal of what was to happen in American painting immediately after World War II.

The uniquely American contribution to Miro's spatial legacy was the notion that space itself could be an appropriate subject for works of art. The vast canvases of Pollock, Still, and Rothko were not huge by accident; their tremendous size was very much a part of what they were all about. And the feeling that art could and should be huge and immense stayed with us right through Pop, Op, Minimal, Conceptual, Photorealist art - and is, in fact, with us still.

As a result, we have tended to make the viewing of paintings very much a participatory and kinesthetic experience. We walk up to and physically engage a painting by Pollock, De Kooning, or Still by ''entering'' it and ''becoming'' the fierce slash of red paint moving at top speed diagonally from bottom left to upper right; the long, drawn-out thin line that rushes across the canvas only to end as a tiny, elegant loop; or the area of sky blue suddenly ''drenched'' at the very top by a massive wash of acid yellow. And we do all this within a pictorial area that may equal the size of a wall of a medium-size room.

This perception of pictorial space as something alive and dynamic, as something that can be entered and roamed around within, has haunted us for the past forty years, and haunts us still. We may once again have made our peace with other styles and perceptions of painting, may once again accept the more traditional forms of ''realism'' and spatial illusion, may even, at times, see the value of such devices as anatomical renderings and Renaissance perspective. But, all in all, we aren't really happy about it. It all somehow falls short of the pictorial grandeur envisioned during the first decade or so after World War II. A vision given form by the likes of Pollock, Still, Rothko, De Kooning, carried forward by Frankenthaler, Louis, Johns, Noland, and then dissipated and diminished by the appearance and worldwide dissemination of Pop.

The vision, however, has not died. The art it produced is still very much alive, and is hanging in almost all our museums. And the ideals, tales, and passions it generated are now very much a part of our art mythology.

But, although it may not have died, it hasn't remained truly alive either, and exists now more as a source of nostalgia, and as an excuse for self-serving calls for a return to its ''Golden Age'' than as a reality or as a viable ideal.

It should, I believe, be allowed to die, quietly and without fanfare--and allowed for the reason that it still haunts us and still divides us. There is also the disturbing tendency on the part of a few to revive, if not the vision, then at least the styles and some of the other external features of the art it produced. There is at present, among a few younger artists as well as one or two art critics, a powerful backward-looking tendency, a feeling that it is possible to ''purify'' the ambiguities, and remedy the apparent lack of direction of today's art by creating a sort of Pre-Pop movement similar to the Pre-Raphaelite movement of 19th-century England. Only in this case we would return to and attempt to sanctify (and to fossilize) the qualities and styles of the Abstract Expressonists.

I can understand the impulse--we all ache, to a degree, for a ''Golden Age'' - but it never works. And it most particularly would not work with a movement so grandly conceived, but so tragically aborted as Abstract Expressonism.

We tend, as a matter of fact, to forget that Abstract Expressionism was never a true movement, was never planned with the aid of a manifesto, was never directed in a particular direction by a consensus of its members or by a dictatorial leader. And forget that it basically just ''happened'' because a small group of like-minded creative individuals found the focus of their creativity in New York, and in an expanded and ''explosive'' approach to painting. An approach that would only later be given the name by which it is now known.

By the time these separate strands of individual creativity did begin to fuse and to point roughly in one direction, the movement was already beginning to lose momentum. Even the infusion of such a strong ''second-generation'' talent as Helen Frankenthaler's couldn't keep it going for long. And then, with the appearance of Johns, Dine, and Rauschenberg - and very shortly thereafter, the Pop generation - it lost direction altogether.

Except, that is, for a brief moment with Morris Louis. Not in the sense that he was an Abstract Expressionist and furthered its goals (although he had tried some of its techniques), but in the sense that he had caught some of that ''movement's'' vision, passion, and fire, and was beginning to find new and exciting means through which to project these qualities at the time of his death in 1962.

But even Louis, powerful and forward-moving as he was, could not stem the twin tides of dogmatism and derisiveness that had descended upon American (and thus upon world) painting in the early 1960s. And so, with his death, his accomplishment ended more as an unfulfilled promise than as a true, direction-altering experience.

''Untitled (1960)'' represents Louis at his best and most noble. It also, unfortunately, pinpoints what had happened to the Great American Vision known as Abstract Expressionism. Without Pollock's passionate, labyrinthine complexities , Still's grandiloquent visions of Romantic spaces, Kline's dramatic collisions, Rothko's haunted aches and yearnings - or the qualities represented by the others of that group - there was little left but the vision and the huge, empty spaces.

Now, for all the nobility, inventiveness, originality, and art-historical interest of Louis's paintings, this was, simply, not quite enough.

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