George L.K. Morris's Use of Abstraction to Convey the Urgency of World War II
Get to know the artist
By Emelia Scheidt
George L.K. Morris devoted his career to avant-garde painting and sculpture. After studying with Kenneth Hayes Miller and John Sloan at the Art Students League in New York, he traveled to Paris in 1929 and 1930, where he became immersed in study- ing abstraction. At the Acadèmie Modern, he studied with adherents to abstraction Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant. By the mid-1930s, his work bore almost no traces of figuration.
Among his extensive network in New York was Albert Eugene (A.E.) Gallatin—his distant cousin—whose substantial collection of modern art became the foundation of the Museum of Living Art at New York University. Gallatin named Morris a curator of the museum in 1933. Together with Charles Green Shaw and Suzy Freylinghuysen (who married Morris in 1935), the four became known as the “Park Avenue Cubists,” based on their shared artistic style and similar social status.
Morris was also deeply involved in art writing and criticism. He and Gallatin were among the founders of the Paris-based journal Plastique, to which Hans Arp also contributed. He was involved in the creation of the Partisan Review and was the first author of its “Art Chronicle” column, which in later years was continued by Clement Greenberg and Robert Goldwater.
In 1936, Morris was among the artists who founded the American Abstract Artists (AAA). The organization, dedicated to promoting abstraction at the time, included Ilya Bolotowsky, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Mercedes Matter, and David Smith. Morris served as the president of the AAA from 1949–1951. He assumed leadership of the group naturally, as a reflection of his impressive capacity for verbal expression as well as visual expression. The first annual AAA exhibition took place in New York in 1937; together with thirty-eight other American artists, Morris revolted against the domination of representationalism in American art.
During World War II, Morris strove to convey the urgency of the conflict in his own abstract idiom. He succeeded in a series of paintings that incorporate recognizable elements, an important exploration of the power of figuration as a means of social commentary. Works similar to Precision-Bombing, with titles such as Munition Factory (1943), House to House Fighting (1943) and Night Bombing (1942) were included in a 1944 exhibition of wartime abstractions at the Downtown Gallery. In Precision-Bombing the asymmetrical grid and the fractured elements reflect the upheaval and uncertainty of the period.
Cover image: George L. K. Morris, American, 1905–1975. Precision-Bombing (detail), 1944. Oil on canvas. 27 x 33 inches. Signed lower right; signed, titled and dated on the reverse