When you walk down
the Howard Street Bridge, it's impossible to ignore the graffiti on the walls and the yellow-, red-, and green-painted steel arches. Even the sections on the wall that are periodically painted over are a kind of postmodern graffiti: The green and gray used to cover over the writing don't match the original grays and greens, creating something like an urban Rothko. Patches of color vibrate against each other through subtle differentiations, most noticeably where the person painting over the graffiti didn't bother getting into the grooves in the wall, or at the bottom edge where the wall meets the ground, so that the hot-pink spray paint still peeks out in sharp contrast with the more muted official colors. You may keep walking, but those little pink blips catch you, a small glimmer in your peripheral vision.
Surprising hints of color like this, along with aggressive paint-handling and pulsating color fields, are common characteristics in the work of many mid-century artists and are highlighted in
Morris Louis Unveiled
, on view at the BMA until Feb. 9, 2014. Louis was born in Baltimore and attended MICA before moving to D.C., where he gained renown as an innovator of the Washington Color School. While his colorful, paint-stained canvases are not necessarily as subtle as that covered-up graffiti, they are just as full of nuance.
Guiding you into the exhibition are some selections of mid-century abstractions, including a small Anne Truitt sculpture and paintings by de Kooning, Rothko, Stella, and Frankenthaler, among others. After seeing Louis' work, the viewer will find links to Stella's precise geometric abstractions, de Kooning's devotion to the material of paint, Rothko's vibrating color fields, Truitt's use of subtle, peripheral color, and, most clearly, Frankenthaler's staining technique. Frankenthaler's "Madridscape" pushes you right into the next room of Louis' work.
Though surprisingly small, this selection gives examples of most of his bodies of work: from his experiments with abstract expressionism-the "Veils"-and through the "Stripes"/"Columns." Two early abstract paintings, "Silver III" and "Untitled 5-76," create an altar around the monumental "Dalet Beth." The small room doesn't grant "Dalet Beth" much space to breathe; instead, it commands the viewer's full attention. Though Louis may have wanted his work to be purely about color and process (and the modernist notion of acknowledging the materiality of surface and paint), it is hard to not read into this painting as a symbol of monumentality and power. It is a large, loose, soft trapezoid of bright orange, pink, and green, diluted and stained onto canvas so that the colors run into each other, mixing, mingling, and muddying. And then another shadow of color almost entirely envelopes all of those hues. At the edges of this shape, the viewer can see the original layers of pigment in their pure form. Standing right in front of it, these colors aren't your central focus, but they beckon you from your periphery.
"Dalet Beth" is a counterpoint to the two more expressionist works that flank it. While these two-with their large scale and frenetic brushstrokes and drippy, thick and thin paint-anxiously seek to overwhelm, "Dalet Beth" acts with an overwhelming calmness. And where the expressionistic paintings unavoidably reveal the artist's hand, à la Pollock or de Kooning, "Dalet Beth" is more like an ancient natural wonder, a thing that has always been. Covering up all of those colors with a dark shadow quiets the painting, harmonizing it.
Louis creates harmony through order and control. This is especially prominent in the "Stripe" and "Column" works. One of his later paintings, "Drop," shows the most restraint. The shape of diluted blue-gray, poured from the top to the bottom-middle of the unprimed canvas, occupies not even a fourth of the wide picture plane. Nearby, "Number 1-65," one of the later "Stripe" paintings, finds its tension in its extremely vertical orientation and in the slight overlaps between uniform stripes of color, which neatly stop less than an inch from the top. Forest green fuzzily neighbors orange, next to yellow, next to burgundy, violet, pink, and so on. The colors don't bleed into each other but squeeze comfortably together. On the opposite wall, "Number 3-05" does something similar with the stripes, but lets the lines of color drip when they end at the top.
Some of Louis' drawings are also on display among drawings by Klee, Pollock, Picasso, Matisse, and Miró, to further contextualize his place in art history. Louis completed these line drawings a few years before he started the paintings for which he is known. In particular, one drawing seems like a sketch for the later, larger "Veil" paintings. A mass of scribbled and scratched ink lines are framed and contained by the outline of an ambiguous four-legged, mammoth-like figure, much as the colors in "Dalet Beth" are contained by the shape they create on canvas.
Louis' work bounces between Color Field painting and abstract expressionism, often navigating both at the same time. Paint stains and leaves a trace. It contains pigments, and something happens when edges of different pigments meet. Louis' technique of pouring and staining paint onto canvas emphasizes the material's capabilities, discarding any effort at making an illusion or a recognizable image.
The more you look at these paintings, you become more keenly aware of their nuances. What began for the artist as an exploration of material and process, to the viewer can become emblematic of order, chaos, and monumentality. Similarly, the more you look at the world, the more you notice and appreciate its various quaint oddities, from a sky-blue condominium tower that at the right time of day almost blends in, to patchwork paint jobs on a bridge.