Lucidity and Profanity
By Alexander Nemerov
Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University
Stained-glass windows catch light and transfigure it. They portray “the luminous aliveness of the world,” in the phrase of art historian Erwin Panofsky, describing Abbot Suger’s 12th-century aggrandizement of the Abbey of St.-Denis, in Paris. The new windows at St.-Denis brought down the “superessential Light,” “the invisible Sun,” that the theologians wrote about. Morris Louis’s Devolving is a kind of stained-glass window of its own—only without a church.
Painted some time in 1959 or 1960, Devolving comes from a time when art itself was the holy place of transcendence. Looking into Louis’s canvas, the viewer finds patterns and luminosities not quite like anything on earth. Red, yellow, purple, blue, and green overlap and interfuse, crossing through one another in a dense but immaterial weave of stalk-like shapes. Tendrils and buds with soft edges, the colors align and spread in bands and beams that have the satin feel of flower petals, like a floral aurora borealis.
The painting is a secret. No one knows exactly how Louis (1912-1962) made it or ones like it. He worked alone in the small Washington, D.C., studio that was a part of his house, pouring and staining streams of an acrylic paint called Magna into unprimed canvas. How he got the pours to move and spread is a matter of conjecture. It is clear however that there is no brushwork, no show of hands. Louis’s aim was to make a painting that would appear to have made itself—that would be an equivalent to natural—even supernatural—phenomena. A light, a radiance, focused and gathered in the “window” of a picture: let there be Light, so said Morris Louis, born Morris Bernstein. Art would be its own religion, a prism of all profanity, where the fallen world would transmute to jewels and colored stones, to radiances past the point of recognition.
Louis possessed a magical power. His widow, Marcella, told of how on the speeding train from Washington to New York her husband could read the swiftly passing junction signs out of the corner of his eye. Likewise, he always perfectly tied the ribbons on a birthday present, never getting them wrong, always fastening and spreading the colored bands just right on the first try. Some flair, some affair of sight: Louis said he did not like to go to The National Gallery of Art in Washington, because the paintings “got in his eye.” Better to keep his prismatic vision clear, the better to refract the ordinary world, to distill and refine it until it took on the “luminous aliveness” it really possessed but rarely showed—unless gathered by magical summons into a work of art.
No wonder the colors in Devolving look so lively. They have been brought still living down into the container of the picture. There they cast and thread about, yet to settle (never to settle) into orders and arrays. The butterfly collector captures and stores the world, framing it in ever-fading desiccation. To that man with the net, the flitting world pays with its life to be studied and known. But the artist loves the unknown, and gives it life when he portrays it slipping through his fingers. His art is to advance through life with his net full of holes. What escapes him is what he is fascinated by. The cosmic or humble phenomena—the pulsation of stars, or just the sign that speeds by at the small-town railroad crossing—all are signs of this glorious evanescence. Color seeps from the collector’s bug, but the artist makes the ever-vanishing, ever-appearing beauty of the world stay and stay.
Light is at the center of it all. The critic Clement Greenberg, Louis’s champion, encouraged an “Apollonian” art. Like the god Apollo, such an art would be above it all— disinterested, un-emotional, impersonal, a godly radiance that would avoid the clichés of expression, angst, and mood. All of that was “Gothic,” to use one of Greenberg’s epithets. Describing Jackson Pollock’s pre-drip paintings in 1947, Greenberg noted their “violence, exasperation, and stridency”—qualities he saw also in the novels of Herman Melville and William Faulkner. Look into the trees or stare into the seas, felt Greenberg, and you will find a peculiarly American form of chiaroscuro, an expressionistic darkness, a great turmoil of the soul shivering in the person of Melville’s Ahab, or Faulkner’s Benjy, or Pollock’s banshee-like figures. But enough of that, Greenberg felt. Show us something without expression—free of the self, free of personal feelings. Show us instead the world as it is, transfigured by art. Enter Morris Louis.
It did not matter that Louis himself had once been a figure of darkness. A committed leftist back in the Depression, he came of age as a painter after the Second World War with a series called the Charred Journal pictures. There, Pollock- and Picasso-like hieroglyphs float in white on the black grounds that give the series its title. The Holocaust, burned books, lost futures—the “Gothic” feeling of these blackened pictures is difficult to miss. But by the time Greenberg first began to admire Louis, in 1954, the painter had already moved past chiaroscuro, past the tremor, rage, and sadness of light and dark, and into the luminous impersonality of his colored and poured pigments.
Five years later, in pictures such as Devolving, Louis’ grand portrayals of light curiously heralded a new political era. They did not do so on purpose. In his mature work Louis never sent messages or embroiled himself in “real-world” statements. But the paintings he made starting in 1959 and continuing until his death in September 1962 (not just the so-called “Florals” like Devolving, but the “Alephs,” the “Unfurleds,” and the “Stripe Paintings”) all coincide with the rise of Senator John F. Kennedy to national prominence.
First as Democratic presidential candidate, then as party nominee, and eventually as President, Kennedy portrayed a brave new world. Camelot demanded a brilliant pageantry: JFK’s smiles and Pierre Cardin suits, Jackie’s Chanel dresses, as well as presidential patronage of the arts. Robert Frost in his inauguration poem predicted the Kennedy years would be: “A golden age of poetry and power/ Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”
The President and First Lady never knew who Morris Louis was, but there in Washington, D.C., he made pictures like Devolving that suggest a new era, a “beginning hour.” Exit the dowdy Eisenhower Fifties (the Eisenhower Presidency having been decidedly unfriendly to the arts). Enter the brightly colored banners of coat-and-tie liberalism—a heraldry of the Sixties as they began. Devolving suggests the Best and the Brightest before the assassinations, before the Vietnam War. before so much else made the American chiaroscuro descend again.
Devolving heralds this brief shining moment because it is a picture of Firsts. The critic Michael Fried, when he wrote of the “firstness” in Louis’s Unfurled paintings, aptly described a quality they all possess. It is a quality of beginning, as in first light, a dawn. Apollo’s steed rising up on the East Pediment of the Parthenon—just the massive champing jaw and head having become visible—is a fit example of this ever-renewing power. The sun rises up, clearing the rim of the earth. As in Guido Reni’s Aurora, the chariot floats on the clouds, attended by swirls of maidens in colored gowns (fig. 1). The day begins—the light alights, all glory, no gravity. The moment of beginning, never growing old, defeats time. Louis, aspiring to make pictures that would look fresh long after his death, always sought the effects of first light.
Most of these paintings would be rolled up, never having been seen or exhibited at the time of the artist’s death at the age of 49 from lung cancer. But even in the darkness, recoiled upon themselves, the brightness of their colors remained in potential, a glory equivalent to the morning as it gathers in the darkest part of the night. The inglorious state of storage, when a painting lies dark, unseen, was itself a guarantee of the sensation of prismatic warmth and luxury it held in store; that it knew it would produce for the person who encounters it. And every such person would be a first person, an initial beholder, for so the painting aims to burst into view for anyone who sees it. Anointing even the lowliest of us with this special gift, Devolving allows that the revelation of the world’s splendor exists entirely within us, as it always has. So strong is the painting’s power that it would remain itself even were it not to be seen, if it were secreted away in a vault. But when it sees the light of day, it comes into its own.