Locked away in his home studio Louis perfected painting techniques that are still being speculated by art historians over 40 years later. Why? Because he kept his techniques guarded by not sharing how he made his paintings with anyone.
…no one ever saw him work. Not even his wife was admitted to the tiny studio where Louis worked his magic, and the huge canvases that emerged were canonized as masterpieces of this intimate alchemical process.
(Machine in the Studio, Caroline A. Jones)
So what we are left with is the object, these masterpieces. However, to stand in front of one of Louis’ paintings, to witness the threads of bare canvas, the shift in colors stained through the fabric, and to peek around at the limits of the support, reveals nothing of the creator’s hand. Not a single brush stroke can be seen. It is as if the painting was always present. Greenberg describes this experience, “The fabric, being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like dyed cloth: the threadedness and wovenness are in the color.” Because of Morris’ strict work ethic and artistic morality, he never let a photographer near his studio. With no document in existence we are left imagining him pouring, dabbing, mixing, stretching; a mystic figure working, locked away from the public.
What adds further substance to Morris’ integrity is that every other major painter of his generation and the generation before him has a photograph taken of them working in their studio. These photographs of painters, more typologies than portraits, are so common during this period that they all share specific characteristics. All the photographs contain the painter residing in their studio, their recent creations surrounding them. The painter doesn’t acknowledge the camera spying on them as they work. However, the painter is absorbed either in thoughtful contemplation or the act of painting. The presence of the camera changes everything as I have learned, and the person being photographed in this situation becomes a performer in a role. The role in this case is that of an artist working in their studio. The theatricality of these types of photographs stifles the artistic intensions these painters explored, and predate the “stage presence” of minimalist art by decades. But unlike minimalism it is not the art object that is on a theatrical stage, it is the artist, and the photograph remains allowing us to witness the drama unfolding, the artist creating in their studio.
Upper right: Morris Louis, Point of Tranquility, 1959-60
Lower right: Hans Namuth, Jackson Pollock, 1951