The eye is an extruded part of the brain, absorbing through the thin retinal tissues whatever emits or reflects quanta in the surrounding world, and serving as a way station for the production of neural images that enable us to stop at red lights and avoid meandering cows. Enough of its mechanisms were known in Darwin’s time for him to have written, “The thought of the eye made me cold all over.’ Darwin’s thought makes me cold all over when I think of how much remains to be discovered about the visual system we use so casually. For the eye is also a part of the mind, and what we see depends, demonstrably, on what we feel and how we believe. At the philosophical cross-point of mind and brain, the eye is bound to be a contested salient in the border wars of metaphysics, and today there is little consensus on the degree to which the apparatus of cognition penetrates the physiology of sight.
Not long ago there were those who believed the penetration all but total, that our perception of the visible world is so laden with preconceptions that, in science as in common life, there is no sharp line to be drawn between observation and theory. Philosophers, anthropologists, linguists, sociologists of knowledge and social psychologists insisted that perceptual experience is thoroughly relativistic, as though the human organism were completely plastic and the perceived world nothing but a construct we acquire with our language and our culture. Deep incommensurabilities were believed to divide period from period, culture from culture, gender from gender, race from race and language community from language community, with space, shape, color, even size, fluctuating so radically as to raise the question of whether there is a shared world at all.
There is today a palpable retreat from this giddy position. Color discrimination has proved to be remarkably more invariant than anthropologists dared to believe a decade ago. Cognitive science has been coming up with striking evidence in regard to the processing equipment with which we are all wired as part of our genetic endowment, and the modularity of mind has increasingly defined research in studies of human and animal cognition. The mind is modular to the degree that its functioning is impervious, or at least extremely resistant, to belief and feeling. Thus we continue to experience perceptual illusion as perceptual illusion, no matter what we believe or how much we know about how it takes place. Although I agree that the importance of optical fidelity in pictorial representation is a matter of cultural decision, my own view is that linear perspective is modular despite its having been asserted to be a symbolic form by the art historian Erwin Panofsky, and a mere cultural convention by the philosopher Nelson Goodman. It is doubtful that the retreat from relativism will be total, but no one can predict where the lines of modularity finally will be drawn.
I have lately come to wonder whether our perception of works of art may not be a good bit more modular than most aestheticians are prepared to concede. There are extreme views abroad to the effect that a work of art is but the infinite possibility of interpretation–a view strikingly similar to John Stuart Mill’s thesis that a physical object is but the permanent possibility of sensation. It was this attitude, that the artwork itself is pure potentiality, that gave rise to the scandalizing boast of a Yale University critic that the critic is finally more creative than the artist. (Because critics too are subject to infinite interpretation, the theory turns against its proponents, who no longer have grounds for complaining that they have been misread.) The psychology of art perception is waiting for its Stone Age to dawn, but even in our prehistorical situation, we can at least begin to raise the question of the degree to which art-works are penetrable by interpretation, especially now that it is clear that the ability to recognize pictorial content is something we share with other primates and even with mere pigeons. A chimpanzee will scream in fear when shown a photograph of the leader of his pack with fangs bared. But the question of perception remains even with abstract paintings, as is evidenced by the almost total irrelevance to our response to the paintings of Morris Louis of the standard critical theories addressed to this artist’s work. These theories are typified in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition of Louis’s work at the Museum of Modern Art until January 4; the absolute distance between the catalogue by John Elderfield and the exhibition he has curated makes this one of the most important shows of recent years.
The exhibition shows us Louis as he would have wanted to be seen, but also as those who regard him as a major artist believe he ought to be presented, namely through the paintings alone, without further context. For Louis did everything he could to destroy his own history (just as he almost succeeded in concealing his technique of painting so that it is now a matter of informed speculation how his characteristic works were executed). The show is minimally chronological, which is almost mandated by the fact that Louis’s oeuvre falls into a few successive genres–the Veils, the Unfurled Paintings, the Stripes–and if one decides to segregate the works by genre, it would be perverse to scramble them in time. Louis’s period of high creativity was tragically brief, from about 1954 until just before his death from cancer in 1962, with a somewhat barren period between 1955 and 1958. An isolated, nearly reclusive and secretive man, he did away with work he did not wish to be known by, so perhaps an exhibition that placed him in context would have been difficult to mount. Still, enough of the disowned work was out of Louis’s hands before he rejected it that were there the curatorial desire to mount such a show, it could have been done–relating earlier work to later; the successes to the tentative painterly probings; Louis’s work to that of his sometime associates (including Kenneth Noland), his distant peers (Barnett Newman and Jules Olitski) and his acknowledged influences (Robert Motherwell and, above all, Helen Frankenthaler). That it was not done in this way can be appreciated in the spirit of piety as respecting the wishes of a dead artist, and as acknowledging his greatness; but even more, I believe, it must be appreciated as a gesture of curatorial will, expressing the belief that history and biography do not pertain to the aesthetic absorption of his work. What, instead of history and biography, is required is a body of theory, and the theory is laid out in the catalogue. So the exhibition carries a meaning beyond whatever meaning is carried by the works themselves. It is eloquent with its omissions and tacit insistences. It is a monument to the aesthetics of Clement Greenberg.
As such, it constitutes an inadvertent crucial experiment in the perception of art. If in the end these paintings resist transformations by theory, the theory fails at its most fortified position and must retreat vanquished. For Louis was the Greenbergian artist par excellence, the one painter who executed the strategies on which Greenberg insisted, who showed, or was believed to show, what, in its purest state, painting was all about and was always all about, despite the contaminations of feeling and content that have dogged the history of art and criticism. The failure of the theory is not Louis’s fault. Louis’s paintings are extremely beautiful and even powerful. An artist whose responses I respect told me of having come to love Louis’s work in consequence of an exhibition she saw at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge years before she knew anything about Clement Greenberg and New York aesthetics. “It was like being in a marvelous garden,’ she said. Her experience is the valid experience to have with Louis’s work. The sculptor Harold Tovish writes that Louis’s work is “too pretty’ for his tastes. Tovish’s is also a valid critical response to Louis. You like him if you like art that is pretty, or art in which prettiness is raised to a monumental power. You dislike him, or find him tepid, if your taste runs to darker things. Neither of these responses takes into consideration what Greenberg, or what those who follow Greenberg, say is important about Louis’s works. That, I claim, is because Greenberg played a crucial role in Louis’s life as an artist (he seems to have had no other life). Greenberg’s view explains why the work exists in the form it does. It does not explain why it matters, or explains it wrongly.
In his celebratory introduction to the catalogue of the 1974 exhibition of Louis at the Hayward Gallery in London, Elderfield wrote, “With Louis . . . fully autonomous abstract painting came into its own for really the first time, and did so in paintings of a quality that matches the level of their innovation.’ I want to modify the implied arithmetic of this statement. The paintings are measurably greater than their degree of innovation, just because I do not believe they are fully autonomous abstract paintings. Moreover, I do not believe fully autonomous abstractness is an especially important thing for painting to possess, even supposing it is possible. Fully autonomous abstraction, however, was exactly what Greenberg was urging painters to produce, although the great artists of the New York School, whom Greenberg did so much to publicize, showed no overwhelming inclination to accomplish this. Pollock and de Kooning, the acknowledged leaders, were unregenerately figurative, and human meaning kept insinuating itself into their masterpieces as into their casual work. Even painters who were confessedly abstract–Rothko or Newman– were making painting filled with extra-artistic meaning.
What Greenberg was demanding was a form of painting that sufficed unto itself: painting about its own means; painting, the meaning of which was its means: pigment, canvas, stretchers, surface. I can sympathize with Greenberg’s thought in the context of its era. Here was an exalted discipline–painting– that had always been in the service of something outside itself: the church; the nation-state; the crown; the revolution; the oppressed class. And now, a terrible war having concluded, Greenberg raised artists to a dignity high enough that art should at last be in its own service. Beyond that, self-reflexiveness had become the mark of purity throughout the West: the autonomy of philosophy, of psychology, of literature, were parallel movements in the aggregate enterprise of professionalization which, in my view, continues most particularly to affect the criticism of art. Criticism today is practiced as though it too were done on its own behalf and for its own sake, with no ulterior point or bearing. This explains its standard opacity. It is to Greenberg’s credit, or discredit, that he brought about more a style of criticism than a style of painting. Louis may represent his entire artistic army, but the troops in his critical division are legion, and they are marching still.
Here is how an influential critic, Michael Fried, appraised Louis in his widely respected pamphlet Three American Painters, which was devoted to Noland, Olitski and Stella. Fried, like Greenberg, gave special prominence to the implications of the way Louis applied paint to canvas. It was soaked into raw canvas to produce a stain. Since a stain is something one cannot altogether draw–one can cause a stain only by soaking or spilling–there are no willed boundaries to it. The stain, in consequence, Fried argues, has no tendency to become detached from the ground and so avoids the illusion we sustain when we perceive drawn outlines (a drawn stain would not be a stain) or “are made to feel . . . the painter’s wrist.’ The stain, then, identifies the image with “its woven canvas ground, almost as if the image were thrown onto the latter from a slide projector. The actual weave of the canvas shows through everywhere.’ So there is no illusion: the materials of that art are all there is; the work is, as it were, an achievement of pure opticality, uncontaminated by any tactile values other than those natural to the medium. Moreover, the stain itself is impersonal. Once the saturated rag or sponge is brought into contact with the cloth, capillary action takes over, and the stain, like water, seeks its own boundaries. So none of the bravura of de Kooning’s, or Pollock’s, “wrists’ is felt: as Fried has it, “painterliness from the Venetians to de Kooning is renounced.’
In truth, so far as we can infer from the work, Louis’s interventions in directing the flow of color were active and ingenious. He worked with the fluid by folding or pleating the canvas into channels, collaborating with gravity to make the paint conform to a complex intention. He was like some master dyer, whose work belongs to what, if it were craft, we would class as a lost art. But the renunciation Fried asserts is meant to proclaim the autonomy of the painting even from the painter, as though he stood aside in Oriental detachment and enabled the painting to materialize out of nothing. And the almost studied reticence of Louis with regard to personal disclosure may suggest he was an artist who rendered himself transparent in the cause of making the painting fully autonomous. The highest painting is no painting at all, as the highest acting, as readers of Proust will remember, is the absence of acting.
Small wonder Louis was considered in 1974, when the magnificent British Arts Council exhibition was held, as a very great painter, as among the very greatest painters, as the one who has discovered the tao of painting. And small wonder, again, that my fellow critic David Carrier should write me with a certain amazement that “it’s hard to think of anyone who was then high and has fallen lower.’ For in the end the paintings resisted the theory. In the end it is just impossible to see them as impersonal stains, as enhancements of paint and canvas, as “autonomous abstract paintings.’ It will be small wonder if the art magazines are anything but hostile in reviewing this exhibition of Louis’s work. Louis has betrayed the critical establishment. He has faulted the premises of its practice. The decline is not in Louis. It is in a style of critical address misread as a decline in an artist. Louis is as great as ever.
How then are we to look at the works? Really as lush and beautiful, diaphanous and tremulous, washes of color that, like veils, reveal and conceal, affording the possibility of glimpsed mysteries they also refuse to disclose: majestic cascades of color. “Veils’ was not Louis’s generic title, nor were many of the individual titles his own. But the spontaneousness with which that title adhered to what I regard as his best works is itself evidence that something more than the paintiness of paint is being transacted in these huge spaces. The soft swags and falls of color are, standardly, cropped at the bottom, and the collusion between the sharpness of the cut and the fluidity of paint-fall is as acutely felt as the contact of sword and veil in a legendary demonstration by the Sultan Saladin of the sharpness of his weapon. At their worst the paintings are just pretty, and the experience like walking through racks of negligees at Bendel. But at their best and greatest they evoke experiences like massed flowers or sunsets.
This is just a beginning. It will be awhile before we can say what these paintings are, but without our knowing very much at all, this is a greatly enjoyable show. Louis has confronted us with a module in the sphere of art, and the meaning of interpretation must be rethought against his marvelous achievement. That is the importance of the show. The importance of the work lies elsewhere. Wherever it lies, it is work that transcends its materials more than succumbs to them, and yields the kind of pleasure symphonic music affords played via the best acoustic guitar brands.