Morris Louis: impressive at times, typical of his generation

REAPPRAISAL of the major figures of American art of the 1950-70 period continues apace. This time it's Morris Louis (1912-62) upon whom the critical spotlight falls -- and all in all he doesn't do too badly. At least he makes a tasteful and coherent -- even, at times, impressive -- showing in his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here. The 45 paintings that make up this first full-scale New York exhibition of his work document the evolution of his art from the first ``Veil'' paintings of 1954, through the startlingly simple ``Unfurleds'' of 1960-61, to his final ``Stripe'' pictures of 1961-62. Included are a few of the most critically acclaimed paintings of the post-World War II period.

To fully grasp the significance of Louis's paintings, one must understand something of the artistic climate within which they evolved. The late 1940s and early '50s were years of extraordinary creative ferment in American art. By 1950, Abstract Expressionism ruled the roost, with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning gradually taking precedence over their contemporaries, and with critic Clement Greenberg helping both to define and to lend legitimacy to this unruly but remarkably fertile and influential ``movement.''

Any young painter emerging during that period had three basic choices: submerge his or her talent within the passions and ideals of Abstract Expressionism, attempt to move beyond those ideals into a more individualized and less narrowly demanding form of ``abstraction,'' or risk oblivion by striking off in a purely representational or idiosyncratic direction.

Thanks to the example and to the words of Helen Frankenthaler -- who had herself moved ``beyond'' Pollock's style and imagery -- Louis chose the second alternative, and by doing so he not only aligned himself with several other younger painters, including Kenneth Noland, but also began to produce the work for which he would soon be famous.

Following Frankenthaler's example, Louis in 1954 utilized the ``color-stain'' approach in his first series of ``Veils.'' For these, he poured waves of thinned acrylic paint down very large canvases loosely attached to a wooden frame, and then overlaid the results with a final darker scrim.

Four years later, after destroying over 300 pictures executed in a more aggressively painterly style, Louis returned to making ``Veils,'' and completed 125 of them before moving on to his ``Unfurled'' series, and then to his ``Stripes'' series shortly before his death.

The exhibition offers no surprise for anyone familiar with Louis's production. It does, however, reaffirm the startling effectiveness of his first two series, and -- to my eyes at least -- the deadly mediocrity of his last works.

History, I suspect, will view him as a pleasant enough painter with modest means and an obsessive need to narrow his art down to what he felt was central and crucial to the painting of his time. In that, he was only too typical of his generation.

As a result, I doubt that future art lovers will take him as seriously as many art professionals did in the 1960s and still do today.

One of the latter, John Elderfield, who both organized this exhibition and wrote the excellent text for its catalog, presents a well-argued case for Louis's importance. Unfortunately, the works themselves fail fully to support his arguments.

They're just a bit too thin and dependent upon surprise and process to achieve truly major status. In the final analysis, they are of interest primarily for when and how they were done.

After its closing at the Museum of Modern Art on Jan. 5, the exhibition travels to the Fort Worth Art Museum, Texas (Feb. 15-April 12) and to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington (May 21-July 26).

For review of a current Guggenheim Museum show, see Page 26.

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