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by Bill Lasarow

“Horizontal VII," acrylic resin on canvas, 27 x 96", 1962.

(Manny Silverman Gallery, West Hollywood) A selection of six paintings constituting a complete exhibition would not ordinarily seem like much of a crowd. But when each measures eight to twelve feet a gallery gets filled up quite fast. The spectral presence of the now classic poured acrylic works of Morris Louis is both comforting and overwhelming. Comforting because the flowing movement of fluid color in each work is so downright soothing. The encompassing scale of each painting allows you to lose yourself in each and in all. They ask you to merely give yourself up--they will carry you along, a river devoid of rapids and sharp rocks.

Overwhelming because along the way all of the soft edges and thin washes manage to solidify, the outsized scale gathers weight, and the mental journey takes some sharp turns. Then there is the historical bearing that lends an air of majesty to any such gathering, particularly if you are aware of Louis’ role in the drama of Abstract Expressionism and color stain painting. The show consists entirely of good quality examples of the artist’s Veil, Unfurled, and Stripe series (too bad no examples from the Floral series are included). No early works, no small ones, only full scale efforts representing the artist’s mature period. This is a test of the iconic power of an artist whose historical place is settled.

Although four of the six works on view are drawn from his extensive Veils series, each work is a happily distinct visual encounter. Green Shade, the earliest among these paintings, has the shape of a massive tooth. A wash dribbling down from the top of this form like paint from the mouth of a bucket removes and lightens the dark tones of the lower 70% of the image. The vertiginous space of Para IV is activated by jagged black paint handling along either vertical edge of the canvas. Looking at the rainbow hues of wiggly vertical lines of color is like staring into a bright sky framed by surrounding mountains. There is a semblance of spacial perspective here that lends the image its drama.

If Para IV is like staring into the sky from a prone position, the vertical spaces that intertwine with graceful columns of predominantly dark green in Ambi IV are like entering into a dark-crowned forest. Seal divides the canvas into three distinct areas, with the most vivid and dimensional in the center. The blues and greens that dominate are chilly, and the surface has a wet and slippery feel that could conceivably account for the title.

The single Unfurled here, Lambda II, echoes the earlier Green Shade with its visual bulge at the top of the canvas, but inverts it by defining the interior of the form with the negative space of the raw canvas. The new technique Louis employed in this series emphasized each color pour as if it were a giant brushstroke, and resulted in a more open and airly composition.

The final piece in the show’s cycle, Horizontal VII, also completes it. Two bundles of poured stripes float in the implied space of the canvas. They intermittently twine together into powerful, if attenuated, volumes, only to break down into quavering lines that float unmoored and free of both object and association.

Louis’ untimely death from lung cancer at the age of fifty in 1962 prevented him from further developing the options and implications of these pioneering works. As a committed statement of the advanced aesthetic thinking of their time they may be as pure as any single artist’s body of work, in part due to this tragically early closure. In addressing their continuing power to move it is important, but difficult, that we attempt to separate their inherent visual qualities from the historical mythos that elevates and burdens them. Louis’ critical champion Clement Greenberg could only be pleased.
All images copyright © 1993
Marcella Louis Brenner.

“Lambda II,” acrylic resin on
canvas, 102 3/4 x 142”, 1960.

“Green Shade,” acrylic resin
on canvas, 91 x 134”, 1958.

"Ambi IV", acrylic resin on
canvas, 98 x 132 1/2", 1959.

"Para IV", acrylic resin on
canvas, 101 x 137", 1959.

"Seal", acrylic resin on
canvas, 101 1/2 x 141", 1959.