Morris Louis Now’s work at the Hirshorn Museum

Sept. 7 marked the 45th anniversary of the premature death of the D.C. art scene’s favorite son, Morris Louis. A retrospective of the artist’s work, “Morris Louis Now:” An American Master Revistited, will be on display through the end of the year at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. This exhibition asserts that despite his long absence, Louis’ work remains strong and his presence is still felt right here in the District.

Louis’ work is typically broken down into four major categories – veils, florals, unfurleds and stripes – which were painted in approximate chronological order during his time of manic productivity from 1954 to 1962. Due to all of these groups being well-represented in the exhibition, the viewer is given a better opportunity than usual to see the basic similarities and key differences between the categories of work.

There are three important characteristics that all of Louis’ paintings share. First, their surprising scale literally surrounds the viewer, as they are all eight, 10, 12 or 14 feet on a side. Secondly, their appearance is directly related to the paint used to produce them. Louis was among the first to use a trial version of the original acrylic paints. Unlike the acrylics of the present, these colors still needed to be watered down with turpentine, the same thinner used for oil paints. But like today’s acrylics, they maintained their intensity when thinned and dried very rapidly. It is this unique combination that allowed Louis to create his distinctive compositions and move quickly from one to the next. Finally, as a whole, this body of work represents a crucial moment in art history, fulfilling Louis’ goal to develop a new language in which to both create and discuss paintings.

Another thing to be sure to consider when observing these paintings is the process of their creation. Louis was a kind of recluse shaman, spending the majority of his time holed up in the dining room of the home he shared with his wife, Marcela, in Northwest Washington. From here he would emerge, with canvases that were larger than any of the walls of the room, their surfaces full of mysterious wisps and trails of paint. This element of the unknown adds to his legend and to the magical nature of his finest works.

Despite the qualities that all of these pieces share, within the span of this show it is clear that those which waver elegantly between mystery and discovery stand out. In the veils, patches of dyed canvas settle at the very edge of recognition. Just when a rain cloud, plateau or spirit appears, it vanishes into a wash of color. The marks in the florals envelop the viewer more assertively but also remain just out of reach. This aggressiveness is taken too far in the unfurleds and stripes. The larger patches of raw fabric and harsh marks of straight-from-the-tube color resist quiet consideration, the volume turned up one notch too high. Although born from the same materials and processes as veils and florals, these pieces never quite reach their level of effectivity.

Even decades after his passing, Morris Louis’ legacy extends from the art world to our campus. Marcela Louis Brenner was not only an unflinching supporter of her husband, she continues to triumph in the ongoing management of his massive catalog and remains an overall champion of the arts. Brenner is the generous sponsor of multiple grants here at GW, including her own named internship award in museum studies and the Morris Louis Fellowship in painting. This fellowship provides a direct connection from Louis, who furthered his own education while on scholarship, to the latest generation of aspiring Washington artists.

Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited, open until Jan. 6, 2008. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at 7th Street SW Open daily: 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

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