Seal, Unsealed

Morris Louis, Seal, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 101-1/8 x 140-3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Marcella Brenner Revocable Trust, 2011 ©1993 Marcella Louis Brenner

Last Thursday, I stood in front of Seal for the Spotlight Tour on Morris Louis, confronted with the colossal stretch of raw canvas covered in black, blue, and green paint, staring at the work in its overwhelming enormity and pondering the paradox presented by its name. I had joined the tour as Paul Ruther, Manager of Teacher Programs, was telling the story of how the painting, one of a series done for a New York gallery in 1959, was dubbed Seal by Clement Greenberg despite Louis’s aversion to naming his work.

Why Seal? Paul asked the group. I couldn’t help but think that “seal,” in its many meanings, represented exactly what Louis was trying to avoid with his nameless paintings, as his work was an attempt at art freed from illusion and association, art unmediated by narrative. I thought of a “seal” as an emblem, a symbol, a stamp; an adhesive, some binding substance. Does a name have the power to seal-off our response to a painting, to direct or limit our thoughts and emotions, to force us to find symbolism only where the name suggests it exists? Would this painting be better off unSealed?

However, “seal” proved to be as slippery a word as the animal it signifies, and its multitudinous meanings generated a series of thoughtful comments. The washes of black and gray swim amongst blues and greens: a partly-submerged seal. The paint, as Paul pointed out, is adhered to the raw canvas, “sealed” to it, forming not paint-on-canvas but a single object. Perhaps it doesn’t matter that the artist never intended to name his painting, for the associations we make are just one way we connect to his work.

I also couldn’t help but wonder about Louis’s mysterious methods, though apparently this type of speculation is often discouraged. What I did learn about this particular piece, though, is that the canvas was so large he never worked with it stretched, but curled, furled, twisted, and draped. I can only picture Louis, locked away in his room, canvas sprawled everywhere, maybe meditative, maybe frenzied, puffing through a pack of cigarettes and painting and painting, the finished piece a mystery even to its creator.

I think it may be the mystery itself that speaks so astutely to the creative process, and to the act of responding to or interpreting art. Artistic expression creates its own language; it speaks to the private, the hidden, the indescribable, and illogical, yet it somehow makes sense, as the motivation behind and responses to these works often transcend verbal description and enter the realm of the inexplicably universal, moving us in ways we cannot name. Despite the name of this painting and the associations it invites, we inevitably connect to it in ways we can’t quite articulate, our reactions a mystery even to us.

Amanda Hickok, Marketing Intern

Eye to Eye with Pollen and Egg Yolk

Joseph Marioni, Yellow Painting, 2003, No. 9. Acrylic and linen on stretcher 36 x 34 in. Photo: Charles Abdoo

On a recent Spotlight Tour, Joseph Marioni’s bright canvases left many in the group cold. Responses ranged from a resolute “not interested” to a searching, “what do they add to the history of art?” Gallery Educator Alice Shih pointed out that, for some, Joseph Marioni‘s paintings may be best brought into focus by the work of other artists hanging nearby. Alice pointed out sight lines from Marioni to Matisse, to Kandinsky, and along a river of blues and pinks in Gene Davis, to Morris Louis, Adolph Gottlieb, diving into two deep blue Marionis a few galleries beyond.

Alice built further context through metaphor. She told us that the feeling of “egg yolk” pops into her head when she looks at a particular yellow painting by Marioni. (I see pollen, which leads me to the work of another artist recently at the  Phillips).

Later I asked Alice if this kind of color association happens for her with other works by Marioni. She shared this list:

*Red Painting (2002): lava

*Yellow Painting, (2011): the song Good Day Sunshine by The Beatles

*Blue Painting (1995): the night sky (it has spotty moments when it could seem like stars)

Joseph Marioni, Blue Painting, 1995, No. 26. Acrylic and linen on stretcher 28 x 24 in. Photo: Nicholas Walster

Does Marioni’s work bring up particular memories, sensations, references, or metaphors for you? Please comment and let us know.

Cecilia Wichmann, Publicity and Marketing Manager

Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011

Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 44 x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001.

Abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler has died in Connecticut at the age of 83. Her painting, Canyon, 1965, is a favorite here at the Phillips and often on display. The canvas is stained by rich pools of poured paint, a method that would be adopted by other fellow members of the abstract expressionist movement. During a powerfully inspirational visit to Frankenthaler’s New York studio in April of 1953, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland saw her painting Mountains and Sea (1952) and were deeply moved by her inventive use of color and paint, bringing back techniques that would serve as the foundation of the Washington Color School painters. As quoted in Gerald Nordland’s essay, “Washington Color Painters: the first generation,” Louis said, “[Frankenthaler] showed us a way to think about and use color . . . She was a bridge between [Jackson] Pollock and what was possible.”