Morris Louis and Negation

May 17th, 2008

Three paintings by Morris Louis, reproduced with commentary in Morris Louis Now.

Beth Chaf

Beth Chaf, 1959, cat. 10.

“Lucy Lippard wrote in 1965 that Louis was a ‘meditative action painter,’ and there is something in that oxymoronic phrase — a thoughtful, deliberate expressionist — that captures this view of Louis as the painter of disinterested displays of emotion: feeling, yes, but always subject to elaborate rules” (p22).

Dalet Tet

Dalet Tet, 1959, cat. 11.

Says Louis, “Am distrustful of over simplifications but nonetheless think that there is nothing very new in any period of art: what is true is that it is only something new for the painter & that this thin edge is what matters. I suspect it is possible to relate every bit of abs. exp. to other art in a breakdown. It comes out new & different when art history is submerged and making a painting is a simple experience not precisely like any the artist had before… I don’t care a great deal for positive accomplishments… that leads to an end… I look at paintings from the negative side, what is left out is useful only as that leads to the next try and the next” (p45).

Alpha Tau

Alpha Tau, 1960-61, cat. 21, click for larger version.

“To use one of Fried’s favorite words, the only ‘perspicacious’ thing about [Louis’s Unfurleds] is their slight of hand: perception is made oddly criminal, perverse, or underhanded because it is pushed to grasp color quickly on the margins. One looks at these huge works in complete bafflement. I am tempted to say that negation is not experienced here but read. But this is not the case. Faced with the overwhelming presence of negation, front and center, it is color that is read or that does the narrating. Confronted by the monumental chiasm of Alpha Tau, for example, it is as if one can steal only furtive glances of the ribbons that are spread or pushed to the sides. Looking directly at these ribbons renders them devoid of meaning or sense: they exist as inconsequential details in comparison with the expanse of blank canvas. One feels insincere or disingenuous to the painter’s intention when one does focus on the ribbons. One knows that in focusing on either end one is blinding oneself to the position that color occupies within the whole. Color is best served here when buried in a uniquely metonymic grave, not only within and beyond negation but distinctly beside or just past it” (p53).

3 Responses to “Morris Louis and Negation”

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