Malcolm Morley could be the most underrated old-timer in the art world. He first came to attention about 40 years ago, but has never settled into a comfortable niche. He has connections to Pop Art, but he isn’t a Pop artist. He founds his paintings upon photographs, but he isn’t a photorealist. Pigeonholers don’t know what to make of him. His inability to fit into the usual museum genealogies is not, however, a sign of irresolution. Morley is a trickster, a kind of double agent. He camouflages himself in the appearance of our time—using grid-making, digital photography, juicy colors—but is really a member in good standing of the Great Tradition. He’s closer to Cézanne than to Warhol.
At the Sperone Westwater gallery, Morley is exhibiting a series of new paintings based upon digital photographs of sports scenes or catastrophes, such as the collapse of a building. (In an image of the crash that killed the NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, he combines the two subjects.) Morley’s practice is to apply a grid to a photograph and then paint each individual cell of the grid onto the canvas. This approach gives his work an air of measure, detachment, and reserve. At the same time, Morley never just copies what he sees in each cell. Instead, his painting of the pieces is full of visual variety and spontaneous inspiration; every Morley contains numerous paintings within the painting. And yet the ensemble holds together. To know Morley’s work, you must see it in person: The images in reproduction appear much more photographic than they actually are.
Exactly what a Morley picture conveys to a viewer is never obvious. House in Brooklyn, for example, depicts a partially collapsed building. The viewer has a kind of doll’s-house view of the structure’s innards spilling out: sagging floors, torn walls, beds exposed to the open air. The place is a shambles, yet the painting imparts to the scene a feeling of careful, almost formal order. This could almost be a Cubist picture. The mess is seamless-ly stitched together, without foreground or background, despite visual cues for perspective and deep space. The color is rhythmic and sometimes surprising, even including a strong but delicate robin’s-egg blue. A similar spirit is found in Theory of Catastrophe. Morley gives us a bird’s-eye (or helicopter’s-eye) view of a vast pileup of cars and tractor trailers on a freeway. But it is his treatment of visual space, not the accident itself, that finally claims and sustains our attention.
Morley takes no particular interest in his overt subject matter. Often his selection of subjects actually diminishes their impact. Could there be anything less interesting to the New York art world, for example, than NASCAR? (Morley himself says that he doesn’t follow sports much.) Nevertheless, his paintings contain narrative whispers. In the current show, for example, a number of images convey a sensation of explosive, almost transcendent release. In one image, a swimmer in black goggles opens his mouth amid an extraordinary eruption of white. In another, the bluish smoke of a racing-car smash-up seems to swirl away from the destruction, loosening everything strict, linear, and rational. The most mysterious picture in the exhibit is an overhead view of Sammy Sosa about to hit a baseball. With the ball just inches from the bat, home plate floats mysteriously in space, a sharply angled pentagon that seems to have something important to impart to the loosely smudged chalk lines nearby. The field of color has a Rothko-like luminosity.
Photography long ago wormed into the heart of painting. Today, not surprisingly, photographs often dominate paintings. They appear more contemporary than paintings do, more accurate about our cultural moment. But Morley hasn’t conceded to the power of the newer media. No photograph owns him. Instead, he always seems to own the photograph, controlling, challenging, and transforming its effects. There’s something appealing, in a David-and-Goliath way, about Morley’s particular enterprise as an artist. Photography, film, and video may now be our dominant forms of visual expression, but there are important things that they will never do as effectively as painting does. Prose will never fully supplant poetry.