As a tribute to the British-American painter Malcolm Morley, who died in New York City on June 1, 2018, I have resurrected a review I wrote of Malcolm Morley: The Art of Painting, a retrospective exhibition held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, January 20-April 16, 2006. The review, which until now has remained unpublished, was written for The Wall Street Journal. The images reproduced with this post are akin to, but not necessarily the same works featured in the show.
Malcolm Morley at MOCA
Malcolm Morley emerged in the late 1960s as a prominent member of the group of artists known as Superrealists who made paintings based upon photographic sources. Then, for the better part of the next 30 years, his art veered off in various and often highly personal directions. Mr. Morley has recently come full circle, back to the rendering of photographic reproductions in works that display a vigor and range of know-how culled from a lifetime engaged in the act of painting. These new works and the paintings that led up to them are on display in the exhibition Malcolm Morley: The Art of Painting on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Organized by museum director Bonnie Clearwater, it is the first retrospective of the artist’s work to be presented in the U.S. since 1984 and consists of about forty paintings spanning as many years.
The exhibition opens with several paintings that feature images of luxury ocean liners taken from travel posters and brochures, among them his well-known SS Amsterdam in front of Rotterdam of 1966. To produce these works, the artist would superimpose a minutely rendered grid upon his selected image. He would then meticulously transfer the image square by square onto his canvas, often employing a magnifying glass so as to accurately transpose fine details. In most of these paintings, an unpainted band of white canvas surrounds the image like a frame, asserting its identification as a photographic representation of a scene (rather than a realistic depiction of the scene itself). These works are characterized by smooth surfaces, tight brushwork and a palette dominated by the primaries, black and white, the colors used in the photomechanical printing of the posters and brochures.
It is something of a shock to step from the gallery in which these works are displayed into the next, which would seem to present the work of a wholly different artist. In the early ‘70s, Mr. Morley moved to a loose, brushy style of painting that came to incorporate passages of drips and splatter and a full range of intense, strongly contrasting colors. These works combine images from a range of sources and vary widely in subject–from encounters between Native Americans and cowboys to memories of a beach vacation in Crete.
By the early ‘90s, Mr. Morley redefined himself yet again, moving to a predominantly crisp and linear style of painting and returning to a focus on boats and water. Rather than painting luxury liners from photographic reproductions, he began to assemble model war ships, sailing vessels and planes from kits purchased in hobby shops that he would arrange in seascape tableaux and paint from life. Most of these works suggest children’s book illustrations and many depict battle scenes, linking these paintings to the artist’s youthful experience. Mr. Morley, who moved to New York in 1958 and became a U.S. citizen in 1990, was born and raised in London. At age 13 during W.W. II, a German bomb destroyed not only part of his family home, but also a balsa wood model boat that he had just completed and put on the windowsill to dry. This series of paintings, then, on one level, may be seen as an attempt to recover a childhood loss.
Another recovery became necessary in 2002, when the artist experienced an emotional collapse. In order to find his way back into painting, he began to create works based on newspaper photographs, his focus coming to rest largely upon sports imagery (baseball and hockey players, swimmers, racing cars, jockeys and the like). As in his early Superrealist works, grids were superimposed over both the photographic reproduction and the canvas to assist in the transfer of the image. In the new works, however, the squares of the grid are considerably larger, producing images soft in focus in which paint marks (now made with a brush, knife and wad of cellophane) often break away from their representational functions to exist as lines and dabs of paint upon the painted surface. Although images were selected primarily for their formal characteristics, such as flatness, calligraphic nature, dynamism or evocative color, the heroic quality of the sports imagery is appropriate to the scale and ambition of these works. The Art of Painting, 2005, which presents two vertically stacked images of racing cars thrusting in different directions, crashing and crumpling, set in the midst of billows of emanating smoke, is among the most complex and exciting of his career. The guidelines of the grid left visible at the work’s edges call attention to its hand-made nature, asserting the continued viability and strength of painting in a photography-dominated age. At age 74, Mr. Morley has reinvented himself yet again, producing a series of handsome and accomplished works.