It has been a week since I was “legally bound” to the Carl Morris painting “Untitled 1968” in a mock marriage ceremony at the Portland Art Museum. I had admired the painting before that, was physically attracted, you might say, and have abandoned other galleries in mid-visit to go stand before the piece I am now “married” to.
Each time I see it I feel the same leaping up of spirit that I feel when I stand before any of Morris’s great works. The shock of bright values amidst the stack of ovals that float up the canvas, the motion suggested by the composition, are thrilling. Once again he has pulled off that great trick: spontaneous depiction of nature’s vitality. And yet there is something else in this painting. Unlike most of Morris’ works, which favor the organic form over the symbol, these shapes are deliberate, less like collections of rock or sunlight and more like the undisguised sumi-e images he sometimes painted along with his wife, the sculptor Hilda Morris.
It was these sumi-e images I was thinking about as I said the wedding vows-- “to cherish and hold”--even the blackened turpentine half-toning over the canvas looks like thinned ink on Japanese paper. The simple figures in East Asian sumi-e paintings, like the orbiting ovals in the piece, are related to nature, but they are stylized, like the calligraphy from which they are derived. How informative of Carl Morris’ work were these sumi-e images? His uncanny mimicry of natural proportion and composition, the ecstatic energy present in asymmetrical clusterings, the dance of emptiness and form- were these derived through the study of Japanese calligraphy and Zen painting, as well as the meditations on Northwestern landscapes that I thought had been his primary inspiration?
Yesterday I began a monotype series, a place to put my recent musings on autumn, yellow, grief, and dancing. As nature was present in all these considerations, here at the time of year when the beautiful sadness of the passing year is most flush, I was also thinking about the work of Carl Morris, his shapes and the light they catch. I began with half a dozen prints that calligraphically blended musical lines and autumn yellows.
Today I took a different tack. I wanted to create something arising from Spirit: a picture of the opening heart, a heart flowing outward with joy toward possibility. I sat with a pad in a soft chair and waited for the image to come. What arrived: simple rounded enclosures radiating outward concentrically, almost-circles wobbling on their axis of symmetry. When I pulled the print there was a moment of recognition, a leaping up of the spirit. I had not been trying for a sumi-e nature image, nor for a Morris image, yet there was something of both in the piece. Just as lovers might see the face of their beloved in every face, perhaps artists can’t help subtly recreating the work they admire.