End Games/Morris Louis: Regaining a Measure of Intention in Painting after Pollock

Morris Louis
The French & Co. Show of 1960
Riva Yares Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ
November 6–December 27, 2004
Sheperd Steiner

Important exhibitions can crop up in stranger places, but not much stranger! The restaging of Morris Louis’s 1960 French & Co. show at the Riva Yares Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, is significant for at least three reasons: the first curatorial, the second art historical, the third art critical.1 In face of the reservations and hesitations we all still harbor with regard to the high modernist moment in American painting, this was a surprisingly compelling and incredibly diverse exhibition of paintings by Morris Louis, originally curated by the art critic Clement Greenberg. That Dave Hickey has recently flagged the “fatwa” still out on all things Greenbergian in the context of LACMA’s survey of global abstraction is reason enough to comment briefly on Greenberg’s curatorial and critical eye.2 That the exhibition’s only other stop was Santa Fe, another desert township, is a sad commentary on the fate of both critic and painter (not to mention the current undervaluing of aesthetic judgment at
the hands of theorizing and historicizing methods), for it obviously needs to be said that the past-ness of an art practice like Louis’s, or indeed a critical approach to painting like Greenberg’s, does not mitigate against the contemporaneity or timeliness of Louis’s practice of painting or Greenberg’s practice of criticism.

As a curatorial exercise alone the exhibition is noteworthy for the unique glimpse it offers into Greenberg’s obvious sensitivity to the highly variable nature of Louis’s practice. Looking at the nine paintings on show one feels a certain transparency vis-à-vis the singularities of Louis’s practice that not
even the critic’s own writing on the artist
was able to articulate. With each and every painting looked at there is a palpable sense of one’s own aesthetic prejudices bumping up against new limits and obstacles. It suggests that Greenberg’s original criteria for selection emerged through close dialogue with individual works and not merely by way of generalized theory of painting. The point is that besides a historical inclination to value “Modernist painting” as “self-critical”3 we should be sensitive to a sub-narrative running throughout the critic’s enterprise— one that suggests that Greenberg’s take on aesthetic judgment was both provisional and pragmatic as well as far more flexible than we are want to assume. This “beside-ness” links up to two theoretical developments on Greenberg’s criticism. Firstly, there is
the rhetorical pressure Stephen Melville adeptly places on the question of “purity”
in Greenberg’s writing.4 Second is the important tension Michael Fried teases out in Greenberg’s criticism between a “global claim about modernist painting, which in its drive to distinguish itself from sculpture is said to have pursued opticality along with flatness from the start,” and a “distinctly nonglobal, chronologically specific” notion of opticality, that Fried calls “one of the key stylistic markers of the recent American painting [Greenberg] had come most to admire … work, for the most part ‘keyed to the primacy of color,’ of Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock (in his thinned black Duco enamel paintings of 1951), Helen Frankenthaler, Louis, and [Kenneth] Noland.”5

The small window this exhibition opens on to Greenberg’s sensitivity to the differences within Louis’s corpus complicates
even Fried’s notion of a “nonglobal, chronologically specific notion of opticality.” Such openness to variability and diversity within Louis’s practice should help unsettle the prescriptive charge often leveled at the critic. The fact is that Greenberg’s version of close reading cannot entirely be assimilated to the theoretically totalizing and transparent discourses through which art criticism generally approaches its object today.6 Nor do I think the variability one sees here can be ascribed to the commercialization, or slackening, of the critic’s enterprise during his short collaboration with French & Company. No, the intimacy and lack of fit existing between Louis’s corpus and a work like Horizontal I, 1962; an anthropomorphic anomaly like Seal, 1959; the carnivalesque atmosphere of While, 1959-1960; the theatrical nature of Addition, 1959; and the photographic veneer of 7 Bronze, 1958, are present in this exhibition, not because they are second-rate paintings that never made
it into the accepted canon and were thought better channeled into private collections, but simply because Greenberg was a critic with an astute eye always open to the new and other experiences that art had to offer.7

Morris Louis, <em>Seal</em>, DU #219, 1959.

Of course, this also speaks volumes about Louis’s practice itself, and one of the idiosyncrasies of viewing his paintings: In spite of the propensity to study and group his works by virtue of the series to which they belong—say by preceding from the veils, to the florals, unfurleds, and finally stripes, as one sees in Michael Fried’s chronological and epistemologically oriented account8 —one of the crucial effects Louis’s paintings are able to galvanize is precisely the abrupt and always disconcerting move from one painting of a particular series to another. One cannot make much of this gentle pressure placed on the movement between works, rather than the experience of singular works, but it should be carefully noted; and Greenberg seems to have been sensitive to this aspect of Louis’s practice. No doubt it has some connection to Louis’s early interest in Rorschach Pyschodiagnostics, one of many psychological testing procedures that found a purchase in the climate of suspicion that marked the early Cold War. Despite the absence of twelve works that were in the original French and Co. show, this exhibition at Riva Yares more than adequately conveys the often deeply moving and emotionally charged changes of pace that Louis was able to command through his delimited technique of pouring or spreading various dilutions of paint down and about the length of a canvas. Perhaps the best example of this is the radically disjunctive experience of viewing Aqua, 1960, a painting with two upright jets of blue and green, separated by about 3 feet of blank canvas, and then, turning one’s attention to Horizontal I, a long painting composed of eleven narrow bands of tightly compressed colors. If the former presents
a somewhat marvelous figure, which one must straighten up to assess and take in as
a whole, one responds straightaway to the latter with an attentiveness to detail, bleeds, and inconsistencies in appearance that might well be reserved for a figure on its death bed: the myriad forms of deadness that Louis is able to tease out of paint on canvas is stunning.

In obvious dialogue with the optical vigor and speed of Kenneth Noland’s stripe paintings from the same period, what
one feels up close in face of Horizontal I
is infirmity. One becomes detached and coldly analytical in face of the pathologies of paint on show. One notes just how cruddy paint can be; how fluorescent yellow dries with a patchy sheen; that red bleeds through orange; that green on yellow reads as a mistake; how disconcerting the four or five staple marks; how vulgar the combination of brown, orange and blue; and most revealingly, that the stripes look painted, or perhaps pushed by a brush, and not poured as first suspected. Compared to the compositional autonomy, the fluid, even refined sense of dignity that the work presents when initially seen as a whole, this particular symptomatology of intention exists as a complete and utter reversal of fortunes first secured from a distance. Because of the ample cropping on the top and at the sides—something that lends the whole thing an aura of impersonality and allows it to hover gently as if on a cushion of air—one moves in close to the painting without a second thought, but not without having first gained the measure of this very beautiful work.

In chronological terms, Louis’s horizontal stripes seem to encapsulate a career-long contemplation on death that initially emerges in the first veil series as a rigorous and very personal response to negation in Pollock. Interestingly, it would appear that if this thematic was originally circumscribed to questions of painting and process— especially as a work against intention, the category of the beautiful and specifically the decorative in Pollock; something one detects, for example, as the muddying or ruination of color and organic form in the first veil series of 1954—by 1962 death had taken on a far more transparent, though not untroubled, connection to autobiography. As is well known, by this time Louis was diagnosed with cancer apparently precipitated by inhaling the toxic paint fumes with which he worked. In a letter to Greenberg he worries that the fact of his illness will afford him a less critical audience for his painting, and thus adversely effect the hard reception of his corpus of work. I think one finds a trace of this worry built into Horizontal I. And not least through the registering of closeness and distance—that has its own purchase on self-reflection—as felt and overturned in viewing the work.

7 Bronze is very different. As with a number of the second veil series (specifically, the so-called Italian veils, a group to which 7 Bronze does not belong), one finds oneself locked into the uncertain task of global interpretation on the one hand and on the other keying in on the intense captivation by orange flecks which dot the surface and pull one in. On close inspection the scattered flecks appear to have been both applied and subtracted after the fact of painting, to finish the painting. Some seem to be the product of flicking an odd drop or two from a brush or tool, while others appear the result of flaking off little dried chunks of veneered pigment—perhaps with a fingernail. Scanning the surface one notes there are still more to remove! Even if this ontology of paint is a fiction, one imagines this to be both true to process and a procedure that would have been quite satisfying.9 And not only because the marbled surface reveals an undercoat of rich orange-red, but more essentially because it represents a rare moment in the practice when the artist seems to have touched paint or canvas and left a trace of this unmediated contact.10

Morris Louis, <em>7 Bronze</em>, DU #100, 1958.

On the whole, 7 Bronze looks like it is painted on paper. Incredibly, it could pass for a badly aged photograph of a painting. There are just so many visual incidents detailing the surface that the veil itself takes on a variety of mimetic potentialities. In part, this is why the flashes of pure color at the top edge do not jump to one’s attention quite as quickly as they do in other darker, more impenetrable veils. No, the mimetic power of this veil is very different from the darker veils where one sees the painting as if under low light or out-of-focus conditions. Compounded by the fact that one can only make out the softening and unifying effect of the canvas’ weave—something Louis exploits to great effect elsewhere—from under two feet away, 7 Bronze has a crispness about it.

The point I want to make here is that this spectrum of photographic-like details is intended to provide the viewer an initial entrance to the painting; that one gains a purchase on the practice at the level of micro-textual reading, and then again on
the level of global effect, in spite of the disappearance of the artist in between. In effect one picks up on these “likely” signs
or marks of intention at the local level, in spite of leading nowhere other than to an irreconcilable global account where former certainties are squashed and intention disappears into a completely other set of questions revolving around another kind of mimesis. Inasmuch, intention itself stands under the sign of error or a former truth overcome—as gesture in the vein of abstract expressionism, conformity to accepted taste and complicity in the face of totalitarianism, as well as a kind of conceptually premeditated and technical capacity to picture objects through tactile associations. In 7 Bronze, this twofold fabric of intention becomes the lynchpin of a system of negative assurances that Louis was variously able to build into many of the so-called Bronze veils. Negation and dissatisfaction is the motor of this system, for in spite of the spectrum of visual teasers that spring to the eye, all peter out, trail off, or become muddied by a second set of conflicted intentions that have no relation to the first. Thus, the incompatibility of focusing on the insignia-like impression just left of center—presumably an index of some object that left its mark while the painting lay half on the floor of the studio, still saturated with wet pigment—and then zooming out to register the way the green coloring of the left hand side of the veil can dominate the browner right hand side, in order that the whole painting takes on the semblance of an antique veneer that has a distinctly mimetic, and again entirely fictive horizon. One cannot help but imagine this veil to be a flat slab of marble. Under the right conditions one imagines the surface might shimmer, but not just now—the effect is of a mineral-like solid that has lost its tarnish. In confirmation one need only glance to the lower edge of the painting where one sees what look like the effects of splash-up— maybe mud or dirt particles sent flying from the dark pools of pigment that lie at bottom.

Being receptive to both the fictiveness of beginnings as well as endings is fundamental to opening up the difficult set of intentions Louis entertained upon setting to work on the second veils series—a moment separated from the first veils series by nearly four
years of uncertainty during which the artist returned unsuccessfully to the vocabulary of abstract expressionism.11 If in the first veils Louis found a way to load up the individual pour with the busyness of self-conscious thought or poetic association,12 then in a work like 7 Bronze from the second veils series one is contending additionally with
the effects of a combination of pours that
not only identify painterly process and the processes of an interior life, but also conjure up a world of objects far outside of Louis’s cramped suburban studio—perhaps of their own accord, but maybe not. A once symbolic mode of representation has here become allegorical or twofold: neither the whole, nor the web of particular details out from which it apparently sprang, has the veracity or power to hold up as a penultimate site of intentional effects. They exist beside one another in uncomfortable syntactical proximity, each the complement of the other.

This is Louis pushing himself into unknown ground, using the fiction of intention established earlier on as a springboard. This dialogue moves the painting. For if the presumably intentional effects of
the particular rein in the wild metaphor
or likeness of the other, these tactile associations hovering about the whole and which seem an utter contingency of painterly process, unsettle earlier certainties in turn and in such a way that one unwittingly falls into a truly expansive dialogue on the mobile limits of painting. The facts of an all-too-transparent process of painting are constantly recycled or reused to expand the field of painting without leaving the medium.

Without laboring the point, some of the paintings on show are not perhaps Louis’s strongest. Gamma Nu, 1960, which employs nearly symmetrical and identically ordered, colored rivulets on both sides of the canvas, does not show the daring of Louis’s later unfurleds, where the imaginative task of holding on to aesthetic wholeness does battle with the casual glances one constantly makes to either side. But it is an early 
work, and even here one feels the pull of
the abyss. Given the substantial size of the canvas, one must similarly plunge into the blank center. While presents an altogether different problem for critical judgment: its comical appearance, like a row of circus balloons or a feathered headdress, lacks
the seriousness one comes to expect from Louis’s painting. A wan purple streak, bleached of pigment (presumably by the application of turpentine), makes a mockery of a line of sober, more obdurate colors. Generally speaking, in Louis’s canonical works, compositional elements do not involve themselves in such public displays
of antagonism or self-conscious mockery. Intentional effects take a far less tangible form. The Louis that has come down to us tends toward the impersonal. His symbolic vision hinges on far more singular forms in which movement, if complex, eddied, or even at odds, is always reconcilable to natural or physical processes like vegetal growth, the ebb and flow of tide, or gravity.13

Seal is one of the works I had expected to be decidedly second rate, and even though it shares in the vaguely schematic quality that Fried calls “foreign to Louis’s art,” it is a far stronger painting than one would expect.14 No doubt this is due in part to
the anthropomorphic effect of the black form breaching the surface that its title unabashedly flags, but also it has to do
with the looseness of the painting that feels almost unformed by Louis’s strict aesthetic. The very different processes one sees in the painting have the feeling of taking place over vast distances, and across insurmountable differences in matter, in spite of a white fault line that cleaves the picture in two
and may offer some a digestible form of symmetry. That these disparate processes, color areas and intensities hold together at all is quite a feat. It seems to hinge on two very different kinds of intentionality—one far more deliberate and premeditated than the other. The first can be detected along the framing edge, where all the colors become squared off and are made to tow the line afforded by the rectangle, as one sees in the works of Jules Olitski. The pressure that all four framing edges exert on the wild array of forces inside feels slightly over-determined, or too sure of itself for Louis. Beyond this, there is a certain quality to the handling of paint—for all intents and purposes far beyond the reach of the artist’s touch—that borders on technical prowess. This is most palpably felt in terms of an identity forged with a kind of omniscient presence, who has managed to control all of the various processes, uncontrollable effects and interactions of color, the tactile qualities of paint, the opposing movements and worlds these conjure up. If, for example, the black at lower left is parched, dry and scarified, it also comes in the form of wet paint as slick and black as the skin of a seal. There is the feathery blue color with air rushing through it, the aqueous green, and the cake white of the gesso that looks distinctly applied or painted on. This is Louis at the height of his command over the limited resources that his technique provides. The rhetorical breadth he achieves here is astounding, but the price of valuing intention on this level is high. The language of painting is slightly stripped of its efficacy, and one feels how central Pollock’s practice is to the limits Louis’s practice was so eager to push.

Morris Louis, <em>Aqua</em>, DU #293, 1960.

To put it bluntly, a rhetoric of intention is itself the crux of Louis’s practice: the way
he puts pressure on this notion, multiplies its registers, and cuts it off at the knees as when the willfulness of a certain passage of paint disintegrates before one’s very eyes
by sliding off the scale of purposefulness
to simply become one more fact in a larger syntactical context where natural processes like gravity appear to be the only law. Louis’s touch is a sublimely gentle one, and it is no wonder (and not without a little irony) that the entire issue of “non-compositional painting” arose around his work at the Guggenheim’s memorial exhibition in 1963—the moment of the artist’s first retrospective shortly after his death.15 The subtle rhetoric Louis employs to give paint, texture, forms, and spaces meaning or mimetic coordinates on both the global and the micro-textual level can easily be lost or forgotten at the expense of a reading that privileges complete and utter contingency. At his best it seems Louis was able to balance the effects of both in such a way that what Fried calls the “’elocutionary disappearance’ of the artist,” allowed for an authorial voice (more a whisper, but apparently not always) to make its presence felt as a spectrum of modalities or registers of varying intensities trailing off to zero.16

Morris Louis, <em>Addition</em>, DU #221, 1959.

That Seal, and other paintings like Doubt, 1959, and Addition—with its apparently naïve formula for adding color by simply approaching the canvas from a different edge or side—demand that they be judged for their value as paintings at all is a mark of Louis’s real worry about just such matters. That Louis’s signature keeps turning up, upside down, on the top left or right edge in works like Floral, Seal, and Addition seems a confirmation of this. In the latter especially, the plume of red pigment at left, the large watery blue triangle at right, and the mossy green intrusion from the top edge barely hold together as a picture. That aesthetic integrity in this incredibly disparate painting is consolidated around the row of theatre- going-like-ghouls, silhouetted in black, at the bottom, and apparently watching the forms coalesce on screen before them, goes to show how tenuous, provisional, and to what lengths Louis would go to push even his radicalized aesthetic. No doubt it is also an indication of the very close relationship he maintained and a set of values and concerns about painting he shared with Greenberg. Like no other painter, Louis’s practice conjures up and multiplies the ethical questions we must ask of painting, commanding the viewer to enter into dialogue with the medium as the strangest, most peculiar, and undervalued of languages one can imagine.17

Shepherd Steiner is an art critic and art historian. He is currently writing a book on the painting of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and the criticism of Clement Greenberg.


  1. Please note that X-TRA has been granted special permission by the Estate of Morris Louis to reproduce Louis’s paintings here in black and white. For correct color reproduction, please see Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings. A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1985).
  2. Dave Hickey, “Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s,” Artforum, vol. 43, no, 3, Nov. 2004, p. 214.
  3. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” ClementGreenberg:TheCollectedEssaysand Criticism, Volume 4, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 85. One could summarize the term “self-critical” in the context of Greenberg’s interest in Louis by saying that at a certain moment in the history of painting when abstract expressionism ruled the day, acknowledging, as well as dialectically overcoming, this debt possessed a modicum of urgency, precisely because the critic himself was so attentive to the conformity of his own taste, as well as the work of negation that is so central to Louis’s practice.
  4. StephenMelville,“OnModernism,” Philosophy Beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), pp. 5-7.
  5. Michael Fried, “An Introduction to my Art Criticism,” Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 20.
  6. Given that after 1960 one sees an increasing interdependence between art and theory, as well as the consolidation of theory as an autonomous discipline, it is worth mentioning that coming to grips with the original set of intentions that might have driven stain painting in all of its various forms, is a far more difficult task than the 40 odd years that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ might suggest. Criticism “from the outside,” what Greenberg called “the criticism of the Enlightenment,” and something which he knew was already well entrenched in his day, is entirely inadequate to the task of speaking to Louis’s form of 9. “Modernism …(which)… criticizes from the inside.” (Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” p. 85) One has to read oneself reading, or better, be attentive to the way one performs form — which is why there is no better way to understand Louis’s painting than by pushing, not dismissing, Greenberg’s and Fried’s versions of close reading.
  7. It should be noted that While, 7 Bronze, and Horizontal I were not exhibited in the original French & Co. show, but I think there is enough diversity in Greenberg’s original selection to substantiate my claim nevertheless.
  8. Michael Fried, “Morris Louis,” Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, pp. 100-131.
  9. Diane Upright has kindly informed me that “the flecks were caused by particles of pigment that did not dissolve in the original mixture of turpentine, pigment and medium that Louis poured on the canvas.” Upright maintains that “they were not applied later”… that the “subtraction” to which I refer “was caused by flecks that came off the canvas as a result of rolling the paintings and not by a conscious decision on Louis’s part.” Upright’s technical point is worth keeping in mind here, but it should not mitigate against an interpretation that imagines Louis’s involvement to be instanced in these details. The fact is that in face of the disappearance of intention one looks and one finds the signs of intention even if wrongly attributed. One should perhaps see the limits of Upright’s formalism here in terms of an essentializing of technique. If interpretation is to overcome the limits of a post-Greenbergian formalism, much of which tends to prioritize medium specific techniques and issues, this point more than any other will have to be acknowledged as a site of narrative intensity. Diane Upright in correspondence with the author, April 25, 2005.
  10. There are other such moments, more or less mediated. In Floral, 1959, for instance, one could point to the two distinct sets of staple marks along the top edge of the canvas that speak of a very hands-on practice of manipulating and gathering up folds of loose canvas for guiding the slow flows of pigment. There should be little doubt that Louis intended one to notice these punctures. For a more tangible example one can look to the pinch of canvas on the lower right side of the same painting. The passage offers a breathtaking glimpse into Louis’s relationship with the canvas that is very different from Pollock’s. With the loose canvas on the floor, it looks as if the artist has simply gathered up a little section of fabric with his fingers, and poured a small amount of orange and then blue pigment down the ten-inch hillside formed, controlling the extent of the flow into the green stain at its left by simply dropping the miniature summit back down to horizontal. Thinking one’s way back into the thick of the very secretive processes at the core of this most transparent of practices is one of the great aesthetic pleasures viewers of Louis’s paintings enjoy; and this in spite of the protestations that more traditional formalists might raise! That the original orientation of the veils when painted relative to their orientation when exhibited is not something as easily determined as one may think, goes a long way to frame this very simple pleasure as one of the crucial coordinates of the practice. Such imaginative investment in the process of painting at hand just is the performative key to Louis’s practice.
  11. This is a period little understood and discussed; the artist destroyed almost all of his paintings produced during the period.
  12. I take it for granted that one invariably and naively believes that each individual pour is consubstantial with poetic meaning or an emotional content, as well as being an index of process and technique.
  13. Such hesitations should serve as a reminder that even if one is interested in a fresh reappraisal of Louis’s intentions, one will be constantly brushing up against the aesthetic prejudices of the modernist canon.
  14. Michael Fried, “Morris Louis,” p. 118.
  15. I would like to acknowledge a debt to Howard Singerman, who brought this issue to my attention, and who fleshes out some of the interesting implications of this in his essay “Non-Compositional Effects: The Process of Painting in 1970,” Oxford Art Journal 26, no. 1, 2003, pp. 125-150.
  16. Michael Fried, “Morris Louis,” p. 127.
  17. I owe a great debt to Robert Linsley with whom I have had many long and compelling discussions about Louis’s work under the auspices of a PREA grant from the University of Waterloo. In addition, I would like to acknowledge an informative conversation with Jules Breeze who took me through the Louis’s in the Tate Collection, and especially Diane Upright who provided acute comments on an early draft of this essay and whose knowledge of Louis’s practice is unsurpassed. Finally, I would like to thank David Mirvish who graciously allowed me to study his fine collection of paintings, an opportunity without which I could not have written this review.
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