MAUD MORGAN. Over a half century ago, three major museums each purchased a painting from her first New York show. This spring, to help celebrate her 90th birthday, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., honored her with its third exhibition of her work in the last 50 years.
I had the pleasure of going with Ms. Morgan to see these latest paintings. Morgan has always made and shown both abstract and realist pictures. It is one of the contradictions that defines her work and just might be the proof of her genius. To her, painting with such differentiated objectives does not show a lack of consistency, but displays a breadth of expression.
In a gallery on the upper level of the museum, eight or nine abstract paintings lined the walls with a lone self-portrait looking on from one corner. It was an uncanny installation. The windblown face in a self-portrait was firmly braced against bad weather. The painting just to its left resembled a wall, a fortress-like alter ego, the less fierce and vulnerable version of that same determined visage. Around the rest of the room hung large vertical abstractions, like open doorways. Each one overflowed, y et with incredible economy realized a striking vision in paint, one that revealed powerful emotions of anger, pain, joy, and hope.
While the style of these paintings could be described as modernist abstraction, pure form arranged in the flat space of the picture, the force of their presence springs from the passion of Morgan's life experience, which makes the work as fresh as its paint.
Although we can still sense the impact of her years of study (1932-40) with the great Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, we can also find the lines and shapes of life happening right now all around us.
Each of the abstract paintings in this show defined an evolutionary stage in Morgan's recovery from a recent crisis. She showed me that one extreme was catastrophic and the other was peace, but even in that first stage there was glimpse of light, of hope. She explained, pointing to a painting in the middle of the series, that the Greeks had a word for this process, which like alchemy turned a base emotion into a precious one. This painting represented a pivotal point in the healing process, where paintin g itself became an alchemical experience.
"I was fascinated by the thought that the emotion, which is so terrific, and can't go any further, slips over. So emotionally ... that was the period of change," she says. Ironically, it was the force of crisis that brought the paintings together. "These were nonstop: When I finished one, I stretched a canvas and went on to the other, with no interval.... I've never had a sequence like that, that was so united. And that's why I'm so excited."
MORGAN has completed but has not yet published her life story. It is a beautifully worded account of her experience with art and artists, into which she has mixed stories of growing up in New York City and the Canadian countryside and memories of painting her very first painting in Paris, marriage, family, divorce, and world travels. The language of it is as bold, frank, and colorful as her paintings. It is one more example of how completely her life and art are bound up together.
The first time I met Maud Morgan, I couldn't help but notice how much she looked at everything, how open her eyes were, how she seemed to drink in what she saw. The sparkle in her eyes greeted the world as if it were a new morning. I thought to myself, "Well of course, she is an artist, in mind, body, and spirit! She wouldn't miss anything." And it would seem that she hasn't.
These recent paintings are in so many ways an affirmation. And they are a challenge. Yes, we can all live this long, work this long, if we can find it in ourselves. We can make it all count.
When I look at the work of this artist, the abstractions, I get a wonderful sense of being tuned into the poetry of nature, as though, like Leonardo da Vinci, she carefully observed a flight of swallows and then resolved to make a painting fly. Not by simulation, but by assimilation. That is the experience. Maud Morgan thinks life is special, and her paintings tell us so, again, and again, and again.