On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview
Save to active project

MORRIA LOUIS AT THE GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM 1963

Among the heroic generation of American painters, the impulse toward an elemental image was so strong around 1950 that it is easy to pinpoint what might be called the platonic ideal of each of their new styles. The archetypal Pollock or Kline, Rothko or Newman may be quickly described or sketched on paper. Often, in fact, the evolution of their work suggests a three-part development, in which the artist first struggles to pare his pictorial language down to an irreducible term; then, having at last extracted this primary image, repeats it triumphantly for a few precious vintage years; and finally begins to lose this monolithic power either by venturing into more complex and alien vocabularies or by relaxing into self-imitation.

For those accustomed to this historical pattern, Morris Louis's last and best-known works of 1961-62--those rainbow trajectories that speed across an open plane of unprimed and unsized canvas--may look like the definitive distillation of a style that had just then reached maturity. And if they are equated, in evolutionary terms, with a newly emerged personal style, like the first giant Kline calligraphs in black and white or the first symmetrically tiered Rothkos, then Louis would seem to belong to a later historical phase. Slowly, however, his achievement of the 1950s is being disclosed. By presenting only seventeen canvases from an ostensibly premature period, the Guggenheim Museum has obliged us to reconsider not only Louis's stature but also his proper historical position. It should be said that the sheer visual assault of these huge canvases is so breathtaking in its direct sensuousness that matters of history, of influence, of better or worse instantly wither into pedantry. But once one's habitual critic's and historian's breath is caught again--a very long wait that attests to the numbing beauty of these works--a good deal of juggling has to be done.

Thus, as Lawrence Alloway persuasively suggests in his catalogue text, Louis is perhaps best aligned historically with, and not after, the first great generation of American abstract painters. If, indeed, he was able to paint a picture like Intrigue in 1954, then he was already an accomplished master, whose work could be looked at as the equal, and not merely the promising reflection, of his more famous contemporaries. And if such a picture can hold its own next to a Rothko, Newman, or Still of the same year, as well as sharing the exhilarating impact of these masters' sublime scale and immediacy, then Louis may well be situated more comfortably with these artists than with their progeny. Born in 1912, he belongs chronologically to their generation; and if his art lags a few years behind theirs in achieving full stature, this can be explained by his relative seclusion in Washington from the New York scene.

-130-

Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this page

Cited page

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
On Modern American Art: Selected Essays
Table of contents

Table of contents

Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 386

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?