The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Morris Louis, by Michael Fried (1971)

Print Collector's Newsletter, Vol. II, #3, (July - August, 1971) p. 58. Book review.

Each artist finds his own way to get the most from his art, and each way takes its own path and form. Monet and Titian painted on and on, slowly developing and modifying their styles; Turner found himself abruptly after his father's death; Hofmann burst into full bloom well past middle age; Picasso splurged his genius as a young man and then petered out, and Rembrandt narrowed his sights and slowly pulled away from his audience as his art ripened. Today our best artists "break through," like a chick cracking out of an egg, and the breakthrough is preceded by a lonely apprenticeship of fifteen or twenty years and accompanied by a seasoned understanding of the best art of the moment and of the recent past. Morris Louis was born in 1912 and devoted his life to art before he was twenty. But until 1954 his art was an earnest and personal but rather heavy-handed variety of the late Cubist modes so much in the air in the late thirties and forties.

Like a hermit, Louis kept to himself in Washington and resisted contact with or influence from the outside. But in April of 1953 he was coaxed to New York City to see what was going on. This weekend visit, in the company of his friend Ken Noland and with Clement Greenberg as Virgil, cracked the shell with its devastating exposure to the work of Pollock and Frankenthaler and opened Louis first to influence. He painted Pollock-Frankenthaler-Louis paintings for a while - and then, through their influence, achieved self-discovery. In 1954 he became a great artist. From then until his death in 1962, he sustained the quality of his art, except for several lapses when he either did not paint, or, according to testimony, painted inferior pictures, most of which were destroyed. The absence here of pictorial evidence of these weak moments makes me itch. There are some of these pictures around and I would like to see them.

The text of Morris Louis follows Professor Fried's essay in the February, 1967, Artforum. It has been reworked and expanded, especially the latter part which considers Louis' paintings directly. It begins with the slight biographical information we have about Louis, describes his character (especially as it relates to his painting) and the conditions of his emergence as a great artist. It sets up his art in the light of Frankenthaler and Pollock and then gets to the paintings individually and in the groups which have come to have descriptive names: Veils, Florals, Unfurleds, Stripes. There are 72 tipped-on color plates which look pretty good to me, and about 100 more reproductions in black and white. Looking at a Louis in black and white is like watching the sunset on portable TV, but they are there for reference anyway. This is an excellent, very useful book; the pictures are quite good and the text is close to the art, earnest, accurate, and intelligent.

Professor Fried has been one of the few critics willing and able to take a position on the "frontiers" of art, ready to grapple with the difficulties of high art in each new guise as it comes along. He is like Clement Greenberg in this way, though the style of each is quite different. Greenberg is sure, wise, sparse, moralistic, sensuous, prodding, content to plant mild phrases which stick; Fried is intense, brittle, evangelistic, and sharply aware of visual facts and distinctions which he loads up into urgent blocks of thought. I think Fried's weight as a critic of new art is second only to Greenberg's. I fault Greenberg only for not publishing more. He remains a constant, paramount influence, and a good influence, but I would like to have more of him to read. Fried's writing, excellent though it is, could benefit from Greenberg's style; I would like to see him let up on the pressure and hit the mark not with a spray of bullets but with the relaxed lob of a grenade. Pure pressure is not enough. Up against the toughest problems, Fried's prose strains and heaves, and overuses adjectives and phrases like "acutely problematic," "ineluctably alludes," and "sheer primacy," and words ending in "ness," like "drawingness." Then the writing is more emphatic than effective. I don't mean to say that Fried is obtuse by nature or that this seriously affects the essay. It really only happens when the going gets very rough. The section on the Unfurleds, for example, is remote, over-literal and does not quite engage the pictures. But the Unfurleds probably are Louis' best paintings; they are extra-ordinary, stately and opaque, they have my awe and resist my comprehension, and Professor Fried has my full sympathy.

Fried's discussion of the relationship between the paintings of Pollock and Louis was most helpful to me. I missed the point when I read his 1967 Artforum article, and since that time I have written that Pollock was an artist who closed off and finished up. My mistake was only bearing down on the Cubist aspects of Pollock's art, and what Louis got from Pollock was something Pollock set against the Cubist roots of his style. Fried correctly points to the Pollock-Louis continuity, but I think he loses the main thread of that connection in a welter of subordinate qualities, such as, opticality, drawing, and figuration. One of the many things original Cubism took over from traditional painting was the semblance of depiction. Though often abstract, or almost abstract, the Cubist picture remained "of,' something; it had more and less "important" parts. Pollock, by extending his network of line continuously above the unpainted canvas ground, with little thought of placement or variety of density, swept away the ghostly residue of depiction and the accompanying qualities of placement, weight, substantiality, and balance. It was the continuousness of pressure and the density of the painted parts of the Pollock painting which came across so strongly to Louis. Louis said of Frankenthaler's Mountains and the Sea that it "showed the way beyond Pollock." What he really meant, by the evidence of his subsequent work, was that the Frankenthaler technique gave him the equipment to fill out the Pollock message. Compositionally, Mountains and the Sea is as traditional as 1947-50 Pollock painting is innovative; the painted parts are gathered toward the center and arranged like a landscape. It is Frankenthaler's staining technique which has been so well noted as the carryover into Louis' later work. But a more important fact has been generally neglected: the colors in the Frankenthaler painting, including the canvas background, are of close enough value to provide the effect of allover pictorial unity on a fully covered area without establishing actual visual interconnection of picture parts. This is necessary for the full expression of color, because color is best seen spread out, and through spreading covers effects of connection. Once Louis got the notion of uniform pressure from Pollock, Frankenthaler's paintings provided the means - means which, as it turned out, were right in line with Louis' unexercised talent for color. The Veils are really the result of the addition of Frankenthaler to Pollock, rather than the extension of Frankenthaler beyond Pollock. It was visual unity through continuousness rather than through balance and emphasis which came across to Louis, and I think all matters of drawing, opticality, and figuration are merely aspects of this general condition. That value-uniformity was present in Louis' mind as he painted can be seen by the final "wash" of color so often spread across the greater part of his early paintings.

As always happens in good art writing, a slipped phrase can lodge as securely as a thoroughly worked idea. Fried describes one of the Veils in four or five lines of broad, almost poetic language, as if the painting must be one of the masterpieces of the century. But no, the one to which it is being compared "strikes one as wholly devoid of internal felicities," and it turns out that this is precisely what hikes it up a few degrees in quality. The phrase has stuck with me. "Internal felicity" brings up in two words all the contrived and useless baggage so many artists load on their art. And the striking thing about Louis' art is the absolute absence of smallness and fussiness, of false starts and compromised finishings. Fried has addressed himself squarely to the huge aesthetic scale of this great body of work, and has done what few others could do, at least at this point in time. For the serious student of the best present-day art Morris Louis is required reading. It is not easy going, but nothing worthwhile is. And it should be reread until everything is wrung out of it, and the reading should be accompanied by seeing whatever Louis paintings are available.

The book reviewed is Morris Louis, by Michael Fried, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1971, 220 pp. 177 illustrations including 72 color plates. Its price was listed at $25.00.

Bannard was credited: "Walter D. Bannard, a painter, writes frequently on contemporary American art."