The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Morris Louis and the Restructured Picture (1974)

Studio International, Vol. 188, #968, (July - August, 1974).

Artistic inspiration usually comes in company with innovation. The association is constant in the last 500 years of western painting, although the character of innovation - what it affects - is always changing. In retrospect, innovation seems inevitably obliged at any particular time to take a particular form, to change picture-making in a way that is consistent with its own time, as if there is only one type of innovation which will "catch" at the highest levels of art-making.

Inspiration is a useful word, but it is somewhere along the edge of what can be said and what cannot be said about art, as is the word quality. Inspiration is "in" the artist just as quality is "in" the painting. An inspired artist paints pictures of surpassing quality, and thereby is inspired. And so it goes. Though there is little doubt these things are of great human importance, they are available only through experience. Their use as words will be literally trivial if not backed by experience and taste.

But innovation can be pointed out and described. At its best, it is the path left by inspiration. Unlike quality, it is not one-sided; it is not always good for art, because it can proceed by deliberation rather than by feeling. We have ample evidence of this today. The recognition that good art is accompanied by innovation is widespread enough, and has sunk in enough, so that it is thought, always in desperation, that innovation alone - plotted, planned and contrived - will force quality up on art. Of course it doesn't work. Inspiration sweeps all before it. It is "getting it all together," as the current saying goes. Innovation is only a part of the grand combination. The artist, faced with the great art of the past, must ask himself not how he can do the same, not how he can do something different, but how he can do as well; how he can repeat the process by which that art was made. Real creation always forces change as it digests and integrates materials, and one of the materials is the art of the past, particularly the recent past. A great work of art is not merely a thing, it is the record of what the artist has done. Part of the measure will be the evolution he has forced on the art of his time, an evolution that sticks and endures, and serves itself up to the art of the future.

In this way quality in art is not duplicated but maintained. The evolution of art styles which is art history cannot be seen as progressive. There is no allover peak and decline, as there may have been in serious music. Quality in western painting has been kept up for a long time, but there is no distinct "more" or "better," though cycles can be seen and traced. But the evolution of innovation seems to have a changing character; it seems to be slowly substituting conception - an "idea" of fundamental structure - for skill or craft. More and more, as art moves on, we look to the artist as the source, rather than the vehicle, of inspiration, just as social thought, from primitive animism to mediaeval theology to the enlightenment to Freud, presses the vital point of life into the living, internalizing responsibility, or recognizing its real place, bit by bit. The artist is no longer asked to do well within a given framework but to invent the framework itself, to provide not only the muscle but the skeleton. This is the shape of art in our time, and it seems inescapable.

Once the problems of modelling, perspective and illusion in depth had been worked out painting gained a foundation which lasted for hundreds of years. The first problem of picture-making - creating a believably integrated set of variations on a flat surface - was automatically solved by the realistic depiction of recognizable things in an illusion of open space. That illusion gave painting a very strong, box-like structure. The old masters took the fullest advantage of this system; indeed, it was the only system. Its only inherent defect, if it can be called a defect, was that the character of the basic materials of painting - paint and the flat surface - were hidden behind depiction, and therefore, in themselves, relatively inexpressive. This made no difference to genius, which flourished then as now. No art uses all its resources at once. But perhaps it was inevitable that the natural materials of painting would come into their own. The Impressionists started it when they began to look hard at nature. There they saw not the careful modelling, shading and continuousness of the academics but pieces and patches of light and shade, and these pieces and patches of nature became pieces and patches on their canvases. Though ever so carefully tied to nature, painting, in their hands, began to become abstract, because the quality of their paintings could be seen to come from material parts in explicit relationship, quality which was internal rather than reflective, rising from the painting, and hence from the artist, rather than from fidelity to an external reality or ideal. The post-impressionists carried it further; parts were deliberately made distinct, and the subject rigid and remote, less real, forms to hang painting on. Through Cézanne, through the Fauves to Cubism, the use of the "parts" of painting went clearly away from depiction into direct internal relationship, and the first job of inspiration in painting became the fundamental organization of the picture.

The Cubists were the first to commit painting, or the structuring of painting, to a system of excluding or including components of form and material rather than things to be depicted or not depicted. When painting as the depiction of real things in an illusion of deep space disappeared, the usefulness, or better, the "usability," of the illusion disappeared. What was in the painting came up flat against the surface. This flatness resists the integration of the parts painted on it because anything painted on the surface automatically blocks the mere two-dimensional openness it contains, and works against the relating of the painted parts. Nothing was "lost" here; painting quality comes not from the accumulation of useful devices but from what an artist does with what he's got. But since Cubism the first problem of the ambitious painter is a problem realist painting had solved.

So far, in this century, most of the solutions have been found in Cubism. Early Cubism got rid of hue variation, strongly centralized the subject, or what remained of it, and rendered the picture into parts of very similar size and appearance, trued and faired to the edges. Later it brought color back, in the service of space, and connected its parts in shallow space in an over-and-under way, like a pile of awry papers seen from above. One way or the other, the Cubist vocabulary answered most of the questions, by reduction of hue or piece variation, by surface uniformity, by geometricizing, by balancing, by lining up with the edge. Plenty could happen on top of all this, and Cubism has been the backbone of a lot of great art. But no completely new method of pictorial integration came up in the Cubist mainstream (Cubist collage could have done it, but Picasso did not take it far enough).

The reason for this is as much psychological as aesthetic. Cubism, though a modernist style and the first abstract style, actually evolved with a very single-minded conservative intent: to save traditional composing from the "threat" of dissolution and dispersal implicit in Impressionism, a threat that was realized in the late paintings of Monet, appeared in the art of Clyfford Still, who hated Cubism, and is coming up in advanced painting today. Cézanne and the Cubists sought to impose traditional order on painting, an order Impressionism was moving away from. Apparently abstraction was not too high a price to pay. Cubism altered the face of spatial painting, but it "saved" it, and for forty or fifty years stood behind most ambitious painting.

Jackson Pollock was a Cubist, but he wanted to paint pictures much larger than the style had been able to support. Cubism never favoured large size, as Guernica so sadly testifies, because it is so difficult to relate Cubist parts across a large surface, to make the whole "hang together." Pollock got the interrelationship he wanted by eliminating the traditional opacity of the Cubist plane, leaving the drawing "around" it, to get a net-like configuration with very great and evident integration all across the surface, Pollock's linear tangle was open, covering without concealing, and the wholeness of the image and character of the line side-stepped the ticklish problem of lining up parts with the edge of the painting. He had only to pull in here and there, to "set" the painted image on the canvas "base," to compensate for the edge. The relative failures among the paintings of Pollock's best period often make no accommodation to the edge, don't "thin out" along the edge. The accommodation was slight but necessary. Though any number of lines could go off the edge there had to be some visible "withinness," some degree of containment. This was needed to avoid a pictorially destructive sense of randomness, as secure the canvas as a base, or support, like the base of a sculpture, rather than a quite arbitrary expanse of flatness.

Much has been written about Morris Louis's visit to New York in April 1953, in the company of Kenneth Noland and Clement Greenberg, and of the devastating effect of his exposure to the paintings of Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, particularly her Mountains and Sea. The evidence that he was strongly affected is there in his subsequent paintings, in an almost programmatic way. For the remainder of 1953 he made paintings which were meek Pollocks. But in 1954 he began the "veils," which were pure combinations of the expressive potential of Pollock and Frankenthaler, a brilliant synthesis of two styles to create a third, and a casebook example of modernist stylistic conception.

Though Pollock retained Cubist planarity and the Cubist insistence on centripetal integration of forms, he threw out the Cubist method of balancing and placing and plotted variations of density. Pollock's continuousness of pressure across the picture plane really sunk into Louis; he was obviously taken by the clear demonstration, in paint, that "composing," the most cherished and most conservative factor of the Cubist style, was not indispensable to painting.

Louis said of Frankenthaler's Mountains and Sea that it "showed the way beyond Pollock." But the "veils" show something else: that a peculiar and little-discussed aspect of Frankenthaler's style gave Louis the equipment to "clothe" the Pollock surface, to fill it out. Much has been written about Frankenthaler's staining technique and of course Louis used it. But it was a matter of colour which really got to Louis, just as deeply as the all-overness of the Pollock style. The colours of the Frankenthaler painting, including the canvas background, are of close enough value (light-dark difference) to enhance the effect of pictorial unity despite a lack of actual visual interconnection of pictorial parts - almost the exact converse of Pollock's style. This is a valuable technique for the full expression of colour because colour by nature is best seen spread out, and spreading covers effects of connection, defeats connection. The "veils" are not Frankenthaler beyond Pollock but Frankenthaler on top of Pollock - Pollock the framework and Frankenthaler the superstructure.

Though there are any number of great masterpieces of pictorial art among the "veils," one technical problem remained and would remain until the "unfurleds." Louis can be seen struggling with it in picture after picture in the years of the late '50s. The "veils" brought out his great talent as a colourist, a talent hidden in him heretofore, and, to a large extent, hidden in modernist art. But the compositional technique of the "veils" suppressed the full use of hue, which is the most effective component of colour. Pure or strong hue was kept from the "veils" because running different, or complementary, colours together greys them; running similar colours together allows greater saturation but limits hue variety; running different colours down different parts of the canvas reduces the power of the allover image. In the later "florals" pure hue was exposed at the edges of the image but still muddied at the center. Louis also tried separating the runs of colour in a kind of nonconnecting "veil," but while hue showed pure, the strong imagematic coherence of the "veils" was lacking.

The "unfurleds" solved all these problems, and have the curious simplicity and obviousness of all great inventions. Louis suddenly, so it seems, discovered that pictorial coherence could be strongly established by reversing the assumption Cubism, and to some extent all painting before Cubism, had forced on painting: that visual integration of the picture is achieved by putting the visible parts of the painting together. Instead of accommodating the edges of the picture, and fussing with the factors of design they imposed, the "unfurleds" throw the parts of the painting against the edge, and forced the edges do the job of holding the picture together. By doing this, Louis turned separation of parts into a virtue instead of a liability, and the banked streams of pure hue were entirely free to run separate, and to give out the full character of their colour and the sensuous liquid quality of flowing paint.

Much has been written about the empty centers of the "unfurleds." Most of it seems slightly defensive, as if it must be proven that there is "really" something there. But this attitude is just part of the old bias that there must be something "in" a painting, that a painting isn't a painting unless a coherent image is maintained within. In fact, the astonishing thing about the "unfurleds" is simply that the center is perfectly empty, and that the paintings remain great pictorial art. Louis showed us this nearly 15 years ago. He gave us a new constructive basis for painting, but one so extreme that it is a little scary. Unlike the pictorial discoveries of Cubism, and somewhat like those of Clyfford Still, what Louis laid down has been taken up slowly, if at all, mainly by Jules Olitski. But the future of painting will certainly spread its roots in the fertile ground of Louis"s "unfurleds," from a series of paintings which went unnoticed when they were painted, were slow to be critically recognized, have barely been taken in as influence by even the best and most serious of our contemporary painters and are still generally felt to be a little freaky, a little off-beat and probably nowhere near the center of the mainstream of western art.