When Quentin Morris enters a room, he appears unassuming, yet there is power behind his demeanor. He's impeccably dressed at all times, and his clothes neatly skim his tall, angular frame. The 71-year-old artist's sense of order permeates his quotidian rituals, his environment, and his approach to making art.
Known for creating black paintings and works on paper, Morris continues the dialogue pertaining to the color from Malevich to Ad Reinhart to Frank Stella, and includes a cross-cultural analysis.
Walking through an installation of Morris' work at the Larry Becker Contemporary Art gallery may leave the viewer a little perplexed or overwhelmed by massive voids that absorb everything. Morris' works are dramatic and powerful large-scale paintings that transform space. He has worked with rectangular and square shapes, but has recently focused on the orb. His prolific assembly of work created in the last 10 years exceeds 100 paintings on canvas and paper. "[It's] immersive. The artist and viewer become consumed by it. . . . There are no perceptual tricks or [high-tech] performances," said Heidi Becker, co-owner of the gallery, where Quentin Morris Untitled is on display through June 4. "Quentin uses black to distill everything to its essence."
Morris, who is also part of a current three-artist show at the Los Angeles gallery Blum & Poe, has been making black paintings since 1963. The Philadelphia native's first work of this kind was 25-by-30 inches and coated with more than 20 layers of acrylic enamel. Before he started the painting process, he incised the surface with a minimally drawn geometric design; as the layers filled in the geometric grooves, the paint formed raised mounds, resembling scarification marks. The overall surface of the work is akin to a mirror.
This nascent exploration of black was an investigation that fascinated him so much that the manipulation of matte, iridescent, and glossy surfaces has been the fulcrum of his career.
"I began exploring monochromatic painting . . . exclusively using black in a myriad of tonalities and textures to present black's intrinsically enigmatic beauty and infinite depth," Morris said.
Morris attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1963 to 1966. His heart wasn't satisfied with realism or figuration in art. He wanted his art to embody transcendence. "Most people are sensitive to art that transforms them or takes them out of themselves," he said.
Morris says he became aware of the transformative power of art at age 3 or 4. He recalls sitting in the parlor of his godparents' house. In an armchair, his feet barely touching the floor, he remembers reveling in the images he saw in a massive book on French impressionists.
He and his father, a gas station owner and jazz aficionado, would take regular trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They would critique the works on exhibit and select their favorites. Enamored with representational art and historic painting, the young Quentin ultimately embraced abstraction. He was drawn to the work of Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, and Stuart Davis, and, as a young teen, Isamu Noguchi, Henri Matisse, and Kenzo Okada, as well.
Music, particularly jazz, has also been a great influence on Morris. He loves John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and Coleman Hawkins. As jazz uses improvisation, Morris found that after years of approaching painting in a systematic way, he now works intuitively and spontaneously. This is similar to the way the jazz greats of the late 1950s, '60s, and beyond approached their art. They first mastered their instruments, and, upon venturing into the realm of pure sound and abstraction, pulled from their technical vocabularies to create new music.
Morris is a well-known figure in the Philadelphia art scene, with a growing reputation in New York and Los Angeles. Represented in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he is also in the private collections of Barbara and Larry Gross and Peter and Mari Shaw.
"I am interested in supporting local artists whose work is challenging," Larry Gross said. "We have known Quentin for many years and admire his techniques and use of materials. He has been committed to his style regardless of its popularity."
A man immersed in art and meditation, Morris has been a practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist since 1984. His friend and confidant Gary Smalls says, "Morris pursues consistency of an idea that is based on his relationship to the concept of Zen."
In chanting, Morris says, he feels purified in thought, word, and deed. He believes a strong sense of spirituality permeates his work.
It is the sentiment of spirituality that, in part, connects him to the likes of Kandinsky, and especially to Ad Reinhart and Barnett Newman, both of whom embraced minimalism as an expression of pure form in painting and their quest to embody an experiential realm beyond consciousness.
Alex Baker, director of the Fleishman/Ollman Gallery, says Morris' use of black is an "oblique reflection on racism. Morris, who is African American, exclusively works with black monochrome . . . thereby subtly critiquing the dominant white culture's history of racism."
Well aware of the negative connotations of black in Western culture, Morris has chosen to straddle multiple modes of thought by reassessing Western art theory and studying African, African American, and Asian philosophy and religion. He arrived at an aesthetic that inspires reflection and encompasses his personal worldview, which is universal.
He says his intent is "to refute all negative cultural mythologies about the color, and ultimately, to create work that innately expresses the all-encompassing spirituality of life."
Says collector and artist Ditta Hoeber, who has known Morris since the late 1950s, "The point of his work is an essence - variety and beauty."