Intellectual, critic, and art historian Robert C. Morgan also makes paintings, and has been doing so for most of his long career. The current show, on view in the large, high-ceilinged main space of the Scully Tomasko Foundation, consists of a series of drawings called “Living Smoke and Clear Water”: small, mostly black-and-white works, of both an abstract expressionist and calligraphic nature (early on in life, Morgan studied with a Japanese calligrapher). These beautiful studies were done in 1967, when he was quite young. The set offers a sharp contrast to Morgan’s main offering, the “Loggia” series (2019), a long suite of 22-inch-square works made with acrylic and metallic paint on canvas. The extended track of paintings, staged in an order determined by Morgan at the moment of their hanging, spreads across two walls. Although the artist began as a painter of lyric, usually organic abstraction, later works are resolutely hard-edged, although still non-objective in form. Morgan’s extensive knowledge of painting on both historical and technical registers has enabled him to work productively within this style, even decades after it was first established in the late 1950s and 1960s.
In his recent paintings, Morgan has picked up the graphic stringency of the historical art described above. His “Loggia” paintings consist, on a regular basis, of black masses, gold and sometimes white lines, and also diminutive white squares that help the viewer focus on the usually brown background. Along the sequence’s arrangement, which Morgan regularly varies, the different paintings start to look like alternative visions of a basic pattern. The works are similar but not so similar as to constrain viewers’ interest as they move from one work to the next. For example, in Loggia II the brown background is dominant, with a black rectangle standing in the middle on the left. Then, on the right, we find a black L-shaped form in reverse, with a yellow bar resting on the lower part of the shape and a small white square on the upper right. The arrangement is very well done; a sense of balance is demonstrated throughout this sequence. In Loggia III, the brown background is very dark, while in the painting’s dead center is a square that should be called “midnight” in color, with just a hint of blue. Underneath is another square, with its upper right corner hidden by the centered form, as well as a yellow stripe that descends from the top of the painting to wrap around the lower part of the dark square’s middle, before rising up on its right side and then moving off to the composition’s right edge. Although the components in this sequence are relatively few, Morgan sustains visual interest by painting manifold planes through mostly dark colors and straight-edged forms.
Optical Flip (2010) is a diptych. Two paintings are presented side by side with some space between, each consisting of three panels: brown on either end with a black panel in the middle. In the center of the middle panel is a white vertical plane. On the left painting, the plane has a black stripe running down its middle, while in the work on the right, that line shifts a bit to the right. Another line, in a lighter color, is placed on the edge between the brown left panel and the black middle panel, and appears to pull the right-shifted line a bit back toward the center. This visual effect establishes a tense balance in the work, and it shows how sophisticated Morgan’s use of spatial illusion is throughout his more recent paintings. As a craftsman he does remarkably well, but the compositions are more than mere craft: they are exercises in perception and subtle variation using a minimum of means. The show offers its audience a sense of even tension, balanced by the relationships between shapes and between paintings. The intelligence of the artist is evident throughout.