The Latest Gasp: Morris Louis’ Abstractions

It is good to see the canvases of Morris Louis (1912-1962) at a time when contemporary abstract painting is being exhibited at the galleries in some abundance. With the show of his work at Ameringer-Howard Fine Art, we are reminded that Louis is, in many ways, a key figure in terms of how abstract art is currently practiced. In his pictures, we see a fixed emphasis on technique, a detachment bordering on anonymity, and a signature motif conducive to modification, if not development. Of course, one could say that within his work lies much of what is awry in contemporary art. This would, however, be an unjust burden to lay on an art as self-effacing as that of Louis’.

Coming across individual pictures of his in recent years, I’ve been struck not just by their beauty–a characteristic of the work that has never been in dispute–but by how substantive their beauty can be. Admittedly, Louis’ art is best seen on a piecemeal basis; en masse its narrow scope is put into high relief. Yet standing before Twined Columns II (1960), a panoramic canvas bookended by blurs of swirling color, one sees a painting that is more arresting (and strange) than anything in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent retrospective of work by Jackson Pollock.

That says as much–and probably more–about Pollock as it does about Louis. Yet within Louis’ slender oeuvre , there are paintings that outshine the myths of Abstract Expressionism and the confines of Colorfield painting. On the occasions I visited Ameringer-Howard, gallerygoers entering the exhibition literally caught their breath upon encountering the paintings. Louis’ spare distillations of color and gravity hold one’s eye with a vaporous rush, as if paint itself had been transformed into a wraithlike apparition. True, the work isn’t far removed from the decorative trifles displayed on the walls of furniture showrooms. Nevertheless, the best canvases transform painterly calculation into something lush and austere.

We don’t need to buy into the extravagant claims once made for Louis’ art in order to admire the towering vulnerability of, say, Dalet Kuf (1958),a greenish-brown monolith surrounded by a wispy halo of vibrant color. This is an exhibition that should give pause to those who consider the history of postwar American art a done deal. Morris Louis: Major Themes is at Ameringer-Howard Fine Art, in the Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, until Dec. 4.

Nine Parts Turpentine, One Part Pigment

One would wager that Pat Steir, whose pictures are at Marlborough Chelsea, has looked at Colorfield painting, which her art recalls, as well as ruminated on its critical fortunes. Ms. Steir layers thinned oils on squarish supports, allowing it to dribble, blend and run down the canvas. Upon these grainy veils of paint, the artist splatters color; these splatters can drip in cascades, bubble up from the bottom of the painting or arc across its surface. The resulting images are meant to evoke landscape, the elements and atmospheric conditions.

Ms. Steir’s use of runny paint–a mixture that is probably nine parts turpentine to one part pigment–helps us link the work with waterfalls or rainstorms or vistas consumed by mist. Yet the manner in which she suggests natural phenomena–the one-to-one correspondence between the splashing of a river and the splashing of oil paint–is literal and rickety. Ms. Steir puts me in mind of sound-effects technicians who approximate the rumble of thunder by wiggling a thin sheet of metal. Nature is in her work, but it is at a theatrical remove.

Ms. Steir is the subject of an article in the November issue of Art in America by G. Roger Denson, and Kay Larson has contributed an essay for the catalogue accompanying the Marlborough Chelsea show. Both authors write about the role Asian art and philosophy have had in shaping Ms. Steir’s vision. I don’t doubt the artist’s enthusiasm and esteem for these subjects. I do question her ability to translate such passionate regard into a rounded art. It’s worth noting that both Mr. Denson and Ms. Larson spend more time writing about the Chinese and Japanese influences on Ms. Steir’s paintings than on the paintings themselves. One begins to wonder if such critical elucidation isn’t intended to provide an alibi for paintings in need of specificity and rigor–in short, oomph. Ms. Steir seeks to essentialize culture and nature, but ends up with an art self-satisfied in its pulchritude. What’s missing in these elegant canvases is the fulsomeness that art, both of the East and the West, is capable of embodying. Pat Steir: Moon Mountain Ghost Water is at Marlborough Chelsea, 211 West 19th Street, until Jan. 1, 2000.

Richmond Burton: Direction But No Drive

Harmonious diversity–the pleasurable pressure between this thing and that–is vital in establishing the independent life of a painting. This is a realization that Richmond Burton, whose paintings are at Cheim & Read, is beginning to deal with in his work. Mr. Burton’s new canvases dislodge the uniform patterning, reminiscent of wallpaper or thickly knotted vegetation, that has typified his art. The new pictures still utilize an all-over armature as a structural footing, but forms, colors and brushwork are allowed to break free, if not gain complete independence. In the current show, we see Mr. Burton trying this, trying that, letting his splotches of paint trail across–and punctuate–the canvases. Unlike the artist’s prior work, the pictures aren’t polished off; they’re wobbly, open and transitional. They make for Mr. Burton’s most interesting show to date.

Which isn’t to say that we should begin celebrating his art just yet. As heartening as Mr. Burton’s pictorial experimentation may be, the work still niggles. In some of the paintings, the artist creates an ornamental lacing of form and light that is not unlike the canvases of Richard Pousette-Dart. Even if one is skeptical of the latter’s mystical propensities, there can be no gainsaying the drive behind his pictures. Drive shouldn’t serve as the sole criterion of art, of course. But looking at Mr. Burton’s work we feel that, yes, he enjoys putting paint to canvas; we don’t, however, sense an exigency to his enjoyment.

Mr. Burton’s happy indifference divulges itself not only in his compositions–which aren’t resolved so much as left to maunder–but also in his brushwork. While the manner in which the artist dutifully applies oils–almost as if he were stacking poker chips–is likable, Mr. Burton’s paint handling never takes off. There’s a “Well, whatever” demeanor to the work. Mr. Burton’s hurdle as an artist isn’t in testing the limits of his style. It is in discerning why his style should matter in the first place. Richmond Burton: New Paintings is at Cheim & Read,521 West 23rd Street, until Jan. 1, 2000.