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.