|One of 9 huge paintings by Carl Morris painted for Oregon's Centennial Exposition in 1959.|
Editor's Note: I'm using Arts Dispatch these days to re-post for linking purposes articles I've written in the past. This one was written for The Oregonian in 2007.
They practically glow: nine great abstract paintings by the late Carl Morris in the hush of the main gallery of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene. No one has seen them together since they were removed from the Hall of Religious History at the Oregon Centennial Exhibition in 1959. And they are as bright and fresh, shimmering, as they must have been then: fields of perfectly modulated color, calligraphic gestures, irregular shapes, even a few figures confined to tight spaces.
Painted when Morris (who died in 1993) was 48 and arguably at the height of his powers as an artist, the set acts as a divide in Morris' career. It summarizes important currents in his work up until then and suggests some of the paths he followed later.
But really, that's not as important as the glow, the luminescence, in the paintings themselves. From almost the beginning of his career, Morris' work was lit by a spiritual dimension, nothing explicit, perhaps, but always implied. In his paintings of the 1940s it came from the trapped figures, then the focus of his work—limited, tragic, but somehow maintaining an essential dignity. Later, as his work became more and more abstract, it came from the artistic impulse itself and the acceptance of the impossible challenge to represent the multiplicity of the world, a spiritual quest. And the pursuit of light, the glow.
Lawrence Fong, curator of American and regional art at the museum, understood the power of the 8-foot-by-10-foot paintings, seven of which have been in storage at the museum since the centennial, the other two on display at the University of Oregon's music school. And once the remodel of the museum created a gallery large enough to give them and their viewers the contemplative space they needed, he reassembled them and gathered a small exhibition of other Morris paintings from earlier in his career to provide context.
It's a cause for celebration -- these paintings, by Oregon's most-decorated artist (Morris was included in multiple Whitney Biennials as well as major group shows at the Metropolitan Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Art, among many others, and his work was collected by major American museums) are finally out of the basement and back into our consciousness.
Emphasis on the abstract
At its best, Morris' work had a transcendental quality, a lot like that of his wife (and in the case of these painting, collaborator), the sculptor Hilda Morris. Even today, it lifts us out of the here-and-now and deposits us . . . somewhere else. The nine paintings invite us into the almost infinitesimal marks that the Morrises made on canvas, each a little universe of its own. And they suggest the far greater, if inexplicable, whole that integrates each of these tiny gestures, cuts, spots, into patterns and then pictures. They surprise us: Nothing on these canvases is predictable.
Taken together they don't tell a story, certainly not the tale of circuit-riding preachers bringing the gospel to the deepest reaches of the state that the commission first envisioned for the cozy modernist structure, a little like a tepee, that housed them. The ecumenical committee overseeing the hall started exchanging ideas with Morris, though, and must have been persuaded by his questions about their idea for a narrative, WPA-style mural. How could the literal origin of a religion be depicted? For that matter, what does a Roman Catholic look like? How can these things be represented "realistically" in good conscience?
Morris found an answer for an inclusive set of paintings about religious history in the approach to abstract art he was pursuing. He would paint what all religions in the state had in common: "The land; The color; The spirit." He continued: "This is my theme— The light, The people, Light intersects people, The word, The Structure, Across the universe."
This is the language of the time and of Abstract Expressionism. From the beginning, such Abstract Expressionist heroes as Rothko, Newman, Motherwell, Kline and Pollock believed the form could be used to pursue the big questions of existence: psychology, philosophy, even politics. The ecstasy of Pollock, the authenticity of Kline, the ability of Rothko to invoke the spiritual with his color fields (specifically in the Rothko Chapel in Houston) -- this is the way we think about Abstract Expressionism and part of why Pop Art satirized it out almost out of existence. The paintings became so freighted, the ideas so pompous, the orthodoxy so rigid, that a reaction was inevitable. Was it really possible that artists would never again represent the human figure and the world around them?
Whatever we think about the inevitability of aesthetic developments or their advisability, Morris' paintings make the case for themselves as we look at them. We understand what he means by light, spirit, structure. We sense his absolute commitment to the revelatory act of painting.
Two working together
Morris characteristically began a canvas by establishing its structure in quick, large calligraphic strokes. From conversations with him, I think that deep down he believed that at that moment he was channeling something important, something bigger than himself, something that somehow elucidated the nature of the universe for him and potentially for viewers of his finished paintings. His friend, painter Mark Tobey, felt the same way, and so did Hilda: If we devote ourselves completely to this task, something important will happen.
Does it? Specifically, does it in these paintings? Do we need the representation of a circuit-riding preacher, Bible in hand, to say "religion in Oregon"? Or is the luminosity of Morris' painting, the miracle of its particularity, the tension it captures (among those separate human religious tribes, perhaps) enough?
The Morrises themselves believed that was a subjective judgment. They believed that abstract art was like music: Some people are going to respond in a profound way to Mozart's Quintet in C Major, and some people aren't. Not that they ever would have presumed to compare themselves with Mozart.
Created in a mere six weeks, the paintings have some shortcuts, passages that haven't had as thorough a scrutiny as Morris habitually brought to his work. On the other hand, the speed, the excitement of the deadline, maybe even working hand in hand with Hilda, give them a fresh quality. There aren't second thoughts. That first impulse is clear and pulsing in each of the paintings.
How did Oregonians visiting the centennial's exhibitions react to the paintings? I suspect that they were puzzled by the absence of specific religious content and symbols. But it's possible that the glow worked on them, too, the deftness of Morris' color combinations, the muscular structure, the transience suggested in his sketches of people.
In any case, I like to think so.