Thursday, April 17, 2014

Morris Louis Unveiled

The Baltimore Museum of Art’s newly reopened Contemporary Wing was the setting for an exhibition of more than 25 works that illuminate seldom seen aspects of Baltimore-born painter Morris Louis’ artistic practice. On view September 8, 2013-February 9, 2014, Morris Louis Unveiled included
Louis’ iconic Dalet Beth (1958) ‘veil’ painting

and Silver III (1953)

 and Untitled 5-76 (1956),

two bold gestural paintings that reveal the artist’s little-known exploration of Abstract Expressionism. Louis’ range of influences is also vividly shown through related works on paper by Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock.

The exhibition was inspired by a gift of two large-scale paintings and a number of surprising drawings that came to the BMA last year from the estate of the artist’s widow. These are presented along with other works drawn from the BMA’s collection and from a Baltimore private collection. In conjunction with the exhibition, the BMA will present important examples of works by Louis’s influences, peers, and followers, including Helen Frankenthaler’s majestic Madridscape (1959). The era of the Washington Color School was represented through works by Sam Gilliam, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, and Anne Truitt.

Morris Louis Unveiled
was curated by BMA Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman with guest scholar Antonia Pocock, a Ph.D. candidate at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, who conducted new in-depth research on Louis through the project.

“Louis’ commitment to experimenting moved painting in a new direction, and his art ever forward,” said curator Kristen Hileman. “We see in these beautiful, expansive paintings the artist reconciling two very different approaches to abstraction—chaotic layers of spontaneous expressive marks, and flat expanses of pure, pulsating color at times taken to a radically minimal extreme.”

Morris Louis (1912–1962) is considered an influential originator of the Washington Color School, a group of mid- 20th century painters who explored the language of abstraction using new materials and a focus on color. A pioneer of Color Field painting, Louis gained renown for his innovative method of staining raw canvases with washes of newly developed acrylic paint to create vibrant, large-scale works. Born in Baltimore and a graduate of what is now known as the Maryland Institute College of Art, Louis had a long history with the BMA, having exhibited in the museum’s annual Maryland artist exhibitions four times in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and having served on the BMA’s advisory artists’ committee.

From an outstanding review:

There's also an etching by Jackson Pollock, himself influenced by those Europeans. That Louis responded to Pollock's poured, all-over expanses of tangled lines is made evident by "Silver III," a field of exuberant loops, scrawls and stuttering brush marks that momentarily coalesce into rounded forms before dissolving again into detached strokes. But the pale hues and open, floating composition of "Silver III" also suggest that it was provoked by the 1953 visit Louis and his friend Noland made to Frankenthaler's New York studio—an endlessly retold anecdote—where they were fascinated by her uninhibited drawing and her method of staining canvas with transparent color, itself a response to Pollock. Realizing the implications of Frankenthaler's innovations, Louis broadened and simplified his gestures, eventually thinning his paint into wide stains—the genesis of the "Veils." 

At the BMA, "Dalet Beth" (1958), a superb bronze-brown "Veil," all shifting depths and looming presence, completes the story. It was donated in 1991 by Louis's widow. 

"Untitled 5-76," a clotted accumulation of cursive lines, spatters, splotches, blots, washes and sweeps, is more difficult to place within Louis's evolution. The painting plays luminous yellows and pinks against saturated blues, reds and blacks, all hovering on bare canvas—a dramatic contrast more typical of the Abstract Expressionists than of Louis and the Color Field painters. "Untitled 5-76," in fact, is a rare surviving canvas from a group Louis referred to as "rougher works," painted between 1954 and 1957, after he had already made a series of "Veils," a format to which he returned in 1958. Only 13 rougher works are known, several only from photographs. Louis exhibited some of them in New York. A few found their way into important public and private collections, but the artist, apparently dissatisfied with the series, destroyed most of the others.