During the 1940s and '50s, George L. K. Morris was a prominent figure in the painting movement in America. As a leading member of the American Abstract Artists and as a teacher and writer, he worked tirelessly to promote the avant-garde and to champion new sources of insight. His own art reflected his convictions. He derived influence from a range of sources, notably the work of Henri Matisse, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Juan Gris, and John Helion, which he had seen in Paris. He reached a personal synthesis in a body of work that is characterized by its order, clarity, and structure. Thoughtful and methodical, Morris had a steadfast belief that the artist should "… restore order and remind us that we can still be moved by clarity and quietness and that an artist's control of his expressive range is perhaps the most lasting attribute after all." (Undated printed statement accompanying an exhibition. Morris Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. roll D337).
During the 1940s, Morris continued to derive inspiration from European modernists, especially the Cubism of Picasso, Braque, and Leger, and he continued to create pure abstractions, but he also produced a number of semi-figurative works. One critic attributed this return to naturalism to his response to World War II.
‘"After long years of abstract cerebral creation [he has] suddenly begun to take to the physical facts of our waning world."' Another wrote: "Although [Morris is] an abstract painter who refuses to be literally descriptive, his best new pictures link his emotions to the cable news.... Commando raids, invasion barges, house to house fighting, night bombing - these are too immediate, too stirring, too important in short to reduce to a square or a circle."' (Morris: War Realized by an Abstractionist, ArtNews, April 1, 1944).
Rendered in 1945, TORPEDO STATION belongs to this group of works, reflecting the artist's response to the war. Within the abstract composition are the outlined forms of two torpedoes. While pointed toward each other, the torpedoes are divided into different color areas as if to anchor them in place, suspending their action. They are also positioned so that they would pass each other if sent off. Other shapes are suggestive of bullet holes, rifle barrels, and the gray of military metal. At the same time, the work is not explicit in its references to war. Overall the forms are treated in a flat, planar fashion, with some suggesting movement, while others provide a stabilizing effect.
TORPEDO STATION was rendered in the fresco technique, which entails painting on wet plaster. Usually reserved for wall decorations, fresco was a technique Morris had learned during his student days at Fontainebleau, in France. In Torpedo Station, as well as in a number of works from the mid-1940s, he used fresco for a portable work, in this case working on stone. The result is a highly tactile surface, imbued with a quality of warmth. He set the image within a marble frame, further calling our attention to the textural property of his materials.
Despite his commitment to capturing the contemporary world, Morris believed that art should play a transcendent role, providing an alternative to the ugliness of life. Shortly before his death in 1975, he wrote:
"Art is an expression of its time and even more of its creator, not only of his virtuosity but of his judgment and discrimination. The hour is overdue for a refinement of sensibility in our vulgar modem world: perhaps, against the pressures of contemporary life, the artist can again concentrate on the creation of the beautiful object, which after all, has been through the centuries an ultimate aim of aesthetic effort." (George L. K. Morris, Then and Now, Partisan Review 42 (1975), p. 555.) With its quiet balance of varied forces, TORPEDO STATION fully expresses this point of view.
CENTRIFUGAL COMPOSITION, 1958 is closely related to Labyrinth, 1957 (Oil on canvas, 49¼ x 36in., Collection Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey), a dynamic composition of strong but subtle colors, enlivened by the bold use of black and white. The centrifugal arrangement of the interlocking shapes and their gradual reduction in size toward the center create an illusion of depth. Morris explained, "In Labyrinth, there is a suggestion of three-dimensional space, layer behind layer, until the eye comes to rest on a flat plane near the center." But the careful repetition of colors and patterns, like the pink shapes and the ochre checkerboard design, keeps the eye moving along the surface of the painting, reinforcing its flatness. Morris suggested that artists should "restrict their horizons and close in upon a consciously ordered world where every facet is completely understood." In creating LABYRINTH and CENTRIFUGAL COMPOSITION, he has followed his own advice.