Carl Morris, early paintings

“Ascending Forms,” Carl MorrisIt seems unfair to write about an art exhibition that has already been taken down, but that’s exactly what’s about to happen. Sorry!

For a variety of reasons I haven’t been able to get to Carl Morris: figure, word, light at Marylhurst University’s Art Gym until now. But I want to say a few things about it, and Morris will come up again on Art Scatter. All of us are interested in his work; I wrote the catalog essay for his retrospective at the Portland Art Museum in 1993; and just last summer I wrote about the sublime show of his 1959 History of Religions paintings at the University of Oregon’s art museum, organized by Lawrence Fong.

So, maybe you saw the show (the Saturday I went, the Art Gym was crowded), maybe you didn’t but wanted to, or maybe you just want to start jumping on the Carl Morris bandwagon with the rest of us.

The show was described to me originally by one of the behind-the-scenes organizers as a look at Carl’s work from the 1940s — those dark, symbolic, angular paintings, with their heavily painted surfaces. That sounded promising. These paintings hadn’t really been gathered together in numbers since an art museum show in the early ’50s. A chance to give them a good look again, struggle to reconnect to their iconography, test their power to affect us, place them in their context of Northwest painting, is an excellent idea.

These are amazing paintings — “In the Stillness of Time,” “Burned Earth,” the “Figures Out of the Coulee” series, “Boy With Chalice” — all in the show, and I would like to be able to do more than describe them to you, the haunted people that populate them, huddled together, almost sculptural looking, the sad Godot-like trees, the empty plains — of both color and geography. But I don’t know exactly where they came from, what their intention was, who or what influenced them, though sometimes I could hazard a guess. But an art historian might be able to track some of these things down, if only to make better guesses than I could muster. These paintings await that historian.

The show and the catalog essay by curator Prudence Roberts (who has done more important curatorial work on the history of art in the Northwest than anyone in town I can think of) focus on a later period, though, during which Morris moved from paintings with a figurative dimension into pure abstraction, like “Ascending Forms” above. That transition IS interesting and even sexy, because it involves the famous Abstract Expressionists of New York, many of them friends of Carl and Hilda, his sculptor wife. But these paintings steal attention — and wall space — from the paintings of the ’40s.

I’m not sure I agree with some of Roberts’ descriptions here. I don’t think of Carl’s work in the ’40s as connected to Rothko’s “myth-making,” for example. Symbolic, yes; myth-making, I’m not persuaded. And I don’t think Carl was involved in Barnett Newman’s “New Sublime” project, either. That would have been too high-falutin for Carl, too conceptual, I think. I would need some citations from him directly to believe that. Maybe they exist in his papers now in the possession of the Smithsonian.

I entirely enjoyed looking at the paintings. I stared at “Corona Segment” for what seemed like hours, a sweet arrangement of geometric shapes and colors, each shape containing little worlds within it. It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen by Carl. What the the early abstract paintings show is a fully developed approach. Shadows and shapes merge, lines turn into ragged edges. Get a fix on a color and the longer you look the less it seems to be that color — flecks of other colors surround it, underpainting slips to the surface, it is modulated, a more neutral background color fights at the edges. This shifting isn’t flashy or dramatic; it’s subtle. Carl’s paintings don’t reveal themselves in a single gulp of the eye.

Which is why seeing them a lot is so important. But enough on a show that has closed. As I said, we’ll be getting back to Carl and Hilda Morris in the future.