WASHINGTON — We are standing before a rectangle of canvas on a stretcher, perhaps 20 feet wide by 8 feet tall. About a dozen trickles of poured color run from the sides down to the bottom, forming loosely triangular shapes that nestle one into the other. Apart from that, the canvas is bare but not featureless, as it would have been four decades ago, when Morris Louis painted it. Age has given the void a subtle character of its own. "It's a beautiful patina," says Tatiana Ausema, assistant collection manager of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Diminutive, articulate and 29 years old, Ms. Ausema is the lead conservator and coordinator of an open-ended partnership formed four years ago by specialists at the Hirshhorn, the Getty Conservation Institute, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Tate in London. They are investigating appropriate techniques for Color Field paintings.
"If all of the paintings could be like this one," says Ms. Ausema, who has the openness of mind to view matters case by case, "there wouldn't be the same need for the project."
The bare canvas goes right to the heart of the matter. For centuries, painters have worked on primed canvas -- canvas, that is, that has been prepared with a thick coat of gesso or glue to isolate it from the paint. Louis worked on unprimed canvas, which soaks up paint like a stain, creating effects not unlike those of watercolors on paper. (The fact that Louis painted in acrylics rather than oils is immaterial.) Varnishing unprimed canvas, as some well-meaning conservators have done, is potentially disastrous, since the varnish, like pigment, soaks in and cannot be removed without simultaneously washing out the paint.
Louis, the reclusive panjandrum of the Color Field, has suffered a certain critical neglect of late. For 20 years, no American institution saw fit to give him the spotlight until last winter, when the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, organized "Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited." Later seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the show has now made its way to the Hirshhorn, its final stop, where it hangs through Jan. 6.
There are artists, even great ones, who can show poorly in a retrospective. Matisse is a cardinal example, as is Morandi. Canaletto in bulk is insupportable. Overexposure can dull the sheen even of the sublime Chardin.
At a guess, Louis would seem vulnerable, too. What museum with any 20th-century American art at all does not have a Louis? And his signature style is so readily apparent -- broad flows of color spilled or poured across huge expanses of canvas -- that to see any one of his paintings in a sense is to see them all. In point of fact, the shapes on the canvases vary greatly, from long, narrow tongues of color, their edges perfectly smooth and even, to gauzy chevrons and flares and splashes and branching rivulets as in a river delta seen from the sky. Sometimes one color bleeds into another, dissolving into delicate speckles in the process; sometimes the fields are kept strictly apart. Even so, the DNA from one work to another seems curiously invariant. Yet the current show is ravishing.
A lone black-and-white composition called "Charred Journal: Firewritten V" (1951) in the first gallery gives a rare glimpse of Louis as an Abstract Expressionist, scrawling large, free-style calligraphy (white) against a slate-like background made up of vertical black brushstrokes. From that point forward, it's a medley of greatest hits from Louis's Color Field heyday, which lasted from 1954 until his death at age 49, of lung cancer, in 1962.
Louis's work in those years falls into four principal pigeonholes. The Veils are distinguished by overlapping washes of translucent color. The Florals handle color in much the same way, but the designs flow outward like the petals of a daisy or a sunflower around a well-defined center. In the Unfurled series (including the one with the beautiful patina), streams of opaque pigment flow inward from the sides. The name of the Stripes, which likewise leave much of the canvas blank, describes them in a syllable. Also on display are some unclassifiable transitional or experimental works that are looser, wilder, and less methodical in character -- the Nervous Breakdowns, I am tempted to call them.
How Louis achieved his effects remains a mystery. No one has yet been able to duplicate his pouring technique. Never a man of means -- once he splurged on a second-hand Thunderbird and felt like a king -- he made his studio in the tight little dining room of his apartment in his native Baltimore, a room scarcely wider than the table. He used no brushes. He did on occasion staple the canvas to a support (telltale holes remain). Given the scale of his paintings, he had to work on them in sections, never seeing the entire composition at once. Only when a show's worth of work was put on stretchers and hung in a gallery did he ever see several works at once. This happened on perhaps two or three occasions in his life; each time, the experience precipitated a major new departure. He self-edited mercilessly, discarding untold numbers of paintings; yet such was his output that over 600 canonical canvases remain. The High/Hirshhorn show includes some two dozen, the best of the best.
Apart from making a great case for the artist, "Morris Louis Now" dramatizes an issue we hear more about in connection with the Leonardo of "The Last Supper" or the Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel. Louis's work is old enough by now to have taken some heavy wear and tear. Some pieces have been punctured. Some have been splashed when a cleaning crew was mopping the floor. Some have stains from their wooden frames and stretchers. According to the attorney Ann M. Garfinkle, president of the Morris Louis Conservation Fund, a nonprofit corporation established in 2001 to help conserve works by Louis and other Color Field painters, at least one has been stained with Coca-Cola and tomato sauce.
Can such pictures be saved? Sometimes yes, but not by traditional means. "Like any textile," Ms. Ausema says as we stroll through the gallery, "the unprimed canvas grabs dirt and dust. Louis's paintings, unlike a traditional oil painting, don't have a smooth surface that you can dust with a soft brush. On textile, you need more mechanical action. We vacuum Color Field paintings. We try just to vacuum the unpainted areas, but often the painted areas need it, too. Sometimes, we clean the paintings with lab-baked bread. It's made of flour, water and yeast -- no salt, no oil. It smells great, and it tastes horrible, but it has soft crevices and just enough moisture to lift off oily material. I've tried with chemists to develop a gel that would do the same thing, and we haven't found anything nearly as good."
In a gallery adjacent to the Louis retrospective, Ms. Ausema has put together a display on her specialized conservation issues. "Coming out of a show of paintings in beautiful condition," she says, "here you see things that are more representative of what museums or private collectors might have." A Helen Frankenthaler exemplifies the "halo" that forms when oil paint is used on unprimed canvas -- an effect the artist intended. There's also a Kenneth Noland that has been conserved in traditional fashion and looks faded and simply filthy as a result.
"It was probably washed by immersion in water, which isn't inherently bad," Ms. Ausema says. "But it was probably bleached, too. Touch it." It's OK. She works here. "The canvas feels abraded. It doesn't have that good, nappy texture." Another Noland, which Ms. Ausema has been working on for two years, has overpainting that shows and probably always will. She points out another piece that was treated under pressure, flattening a thickly doused surface to a "place mat."
At that, at least one Louis has suffered worse: "Delta KSI," which sustained severe damage in a fire in New York. After settling the claim of the owner, a private collector, the Chubb Group took possession of the work and donated it to the Morris Louis Conservation Fund for educational and conservation purposes.
"It's been soaked with oil and water and soot," says Ms. Ausema, who hasn't tackled that one yet. "That's a lethal combination. We'll learn a lot working on that piece. But restore it? Never."