Morris Louis' pieces just drip with color

Art Column

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October 04, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun art critic

The paintings of the Washington Color School artist Morris Louis are as impossible to describe in words as an aria by Puccini, and as inexplicably lovely. Even after we've learned to experience them with open hearts, an irreducible kernel of mystery remains.

During the last five years of his life, tragically cut short at age 49 by cancer in 1962, Louis created more than 600 works by pouring and dripping thin washes of acrylic paint on heroically scaled rectangles of unprimed canvas. The procedure gave his wholly abstract images the luminous transparency of watercolor drawings.

His art, on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, is a celebration of color as visceral experience, even though it mostly eludes critical analysis. Louis' paintings resist interpretation because no theory seems quite expansive or wise enough to encompass them.

Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried thought they saw in Louis the apotheosis of modern painting: flat, nonrepresentational, concerned only with the materials and processes of applying pigment to canvas.

Greenberg, who became the artist's most influential champion, viewed Louis and fellow Color Field painters such as Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski as the only legitimate heirs to the abstract expressionists of the late 1940s and '50s.

Fried thought Louis' staining technique, in which he allowed flowing rivulets of thinned paint to soak into the raw canvas while leaving the weave of the fabric clearly visible underneath, was the polar opposite of drawing, and thus of imitation.

But it's almost impossible to look at a Louis painting and not see flowers, leaves, trees, rainbows, sunrises, etc. Louis' art seems to distill the pure disembodied beauty of the world, if such a thing is possible; yet through a strange alchemy of feeling and color, it manages to look like the world, too.

Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited runs through Jan. 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street Southwest in Washington. Call 202-633-1618 or visit hirsh horn.si.edu.

Appreciating Turner

The abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, on seeing a 1964 exhibition of watercolors by the 19th-century English artist J.M.W. Turner, famously quipped: "That fellow obviously learned a lot from me!"

Turner's colorful Romantic landscapes and maritime paintings, on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, have long been admired for having inspired the Impressionists and thus helping to launch the revolution that led to modern art.

When Turner's watercolor sketches were exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2002, the selection was skewed toward the works in which the artist's radical experiments with the optical effects of light, color and atmosphere were most apparent.

The National Gallery show, however, is a more comprehensive retrospective that includes many of Turner's unapologetically academic paintings. It suggests not only that Turner was also very much a man of his time, but that his contemporaries valued his art for quite different reasons than we do today.

Throughout his life, Turner was inspired by the sea and its restless, often violent moods. In The Shipwreck (1805), he depicted the survivors of a disaster at sea desperately clinging to their fragile lifeboats and rafts as waves furiously rise around them.

Such images reflected the political turbulence of the Napoleonic wars, as well as anxieties over England's precarious position as a great power entirely dependent on its naval forces for survival.

Turner's greatest treatment of the theme came in his huge canvas The Battle of Trafalgar: 21 October 1805, which depicted the decisive British victory over the combined French and Spanish fleet and which he painted for King George IV nearly 20 years after the battle.

Turner meticulously researched the subject, interviewing surviving seamen on Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson's flagship, The Victory, which is shown in the center of the picture.

But he also compressed the battle, changing the time of the engagement and showing events such as the sinking of The Redoubtable on the right side of the canvas, which actually occurred the next day.

Turner's late experiments with color and light did inspire the Impressionists in France, but he was roundly condemned by conservative critics at home, who derided the "blurriness" of his pictures as "the fruits of a diseased eye and a reckless hand."

They never learned to appreciate these works for the qualities we admire in them today, and most of them remained unsold at the time of his death in 1851 at the age of 76.

J.M.W. Turner runs through Jan. 6 at the National Gallery of Art, Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington. Call 202-737-4215 or visit nga.gov. glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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