PHILADELPHIA – When Quentin Morris begins a painting the only thing he knows is that it will be black. This has been true for him since 1963. Morris also avoids frames, because he has always disliked them, hangs his work flat against the wall, and never uses titles.
Like much monochromatic work, Morris’s only appears to be so. In his current exhibition at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, a powdered pigment and Rhoplex painting from December 1980, and another from December 2015, made with silkscreen printing ink and polymer acrylic, reveal traces of blue and green underneath the black. Part of the intention in his use of black is to show its subtly, that the color isn’t necessarily uniform.
He also likes to use “whatever happens.” In a powdered pigment and Rhoplex painting from October 1980, two fissures run from top to bottom. Morris told me that the painting has seven to ten layers of gesso on it, which caused it to stick to his studio floor. When he tried to pick it up, the canvas ripped.
Morris, who is African American and practices Nichiren Buddhism, lives and paints in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia where he was raised. His studio is his basement, which was once his aunt’s hair salon. From 4th through 8th grade Morris took watercolor classes on Saturday mornings at the Fleisher Art Memorial. It was during this time that he decided to become an artist.
By 1963, the same year he decided to paint in black, he was offered a scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He made the decision to paint the figurative work that was expected of him at PAFA while also painting his earliest black paintings. Today he sees no difference between figurative and monochromatic work.
In his artist’s statement, he explains,
I am exploring monochromatic painting … exclusively black; using a myriad of tonalities and textures to present black’s intrinsically enigmatic beauty and infinite depth; to refute all negative cultural mythologies about the color, and ultimately to create work that innately expresses the all-encompassing spirituality of life.
This statement emphasizes the spiritual concerns in Morris’s art, but, as Gerard Brown points out in his astute catalogue essay for Morris’s 2004-2005 exhibition at PAFA, the artist is also quite aware of the social element in his choice to use black. Brown quotes Morris from a February 19, 1998 issue of the Philadelphia Weekly, in which the artist had been asked about the “negative mythologies of black.” Morris responded that he is working against “the whole idea that black is supposed to be something macabre, negative, dirty, filthy. [But] there are also racial stereotypes in there as well, and the whole thing about it being funereal.”
It’s worth pointing out that 1963 is an incredibly significant year for an African American artist to decide to work exclusively with black. In August of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; mid-century painters Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, and Ad Reinhardt participated in that march. Segregation was also made illegal in ’63 despite Alabama governor George Wallace’s statement on the steps of the state capitol: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever.” And in November of that year, JFK was assassinated in Dallas.
From a distance, monochromatic works can appear mass produced. Many of Morris’s works, however, show an attention to detail that would be impossible under that model. For all of his paintings, Morris typically starts to paint as soon as he applies the gesso. In a circular painting from March 2016, countless white rivulet clusters throughout the canvas are actually small cracks in the paint that allow the gesso to show through. On top of that are three layers of silkscreen printing ink and polymer acrylic. Another easily forgotten material is the humidity in his basement, which affects both the drying time and texture of the work.
The largest painting in the exhibition, which dates from November 1993 and hangs in the gallery’s second room, has a ten-foot diameter. This work spanned the width of Morris’s studio floor. To reach the middle, the artist had to fold over the sides. After spending time with the smaller works in the front room, the sudden increase in scale is breathtaking.
On the wall opposite the November ’93 painting are some smaller works, two of which are drawings. Both of these drawings were done with graphite, but the surfaces lend differing effects. The work from March 1997, done on architect’s Mylar, appears metallic, while the drawing on Fabriano charcoal paper from August 2001 is a muted gray. Morris’s drawings, maybe because of the smaller scale, underscore the devotion the artist must have to each work. Each stroke of graphite on the page becomes a groove in one’s consciousness.
In the tradition of monochromatic painting, Morris’s work comes at an interesting time. Fifty or sixty years ago monochromes were, for some artists, a challenge to the orthodoxy of Abstract Expressionism or the ascendancy of Pop Art. For viewers at that time, paintings such as Ad Reinhardt’s or Robert Ryman’s may have challenged their notions of art.
Today, monochromes are perhaps more subversive. The more time we spend twitching in front of our tiny digital screens, the less that we have for art that resists the easy duplication of digital programming. To get work like Morris’s means slowing down and ignoring the chance for a selfie in front of some hollow Jeff Koons puppy.
Quentin Morris: Untitled continues at Larry Becker Contemporary Art (43 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia) through today.
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