Morris Louis, ‘Dalet Sin’, 1958, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction

From the Catalogue

Dalet Sin’s deep palette provokes a fantastic sense of chromatic intrigue. The thoroughly layered composition of poured paint forces its onlookers to intensify and slow their gaze as they move throughout the engulfing landscape of color. The painting invites its viewers on a pictorial quest, scanning for clues around the perimeter of this amorphous form and searching throughout the rich gradients for hints of the unique chromatic ingredients which have melded together to produce the majestic veil. Through such an examination, this monumental picture absorbs the viewer with its sweeping arches of poured pigments as rich hues of regal reds and purples emerge throughout the body of Dalet Sin with lively flecks of beaming yellows peeking out at the edges.

With a unique pouring technique, Morris Louis achieved his intensely vivid hues by staining his canvases with Magna, a newly developed form of synthetic acrylic resin which fully penetrated the fabric and completely covered the fibers of his canvas to build glowing fields of voluminous color. While influences of Jackson Pollock are clearly present within this technique of applying paint directly onto a horizontal canvas spread across the studio floor, Louis’s work resists the rather active and gestural nature of Pollock’s compositions and instead embodies a distinctly meditative quality. Unlike many of the Abstract Expressionist and Color Field painters of his time, Morris Louis was never a part of the preeminent New York art scene and instead chose to live and work in Baltimore and Washington D.C. He was a relatively private artist and did not speak much about his practice, although he did become friends with fellow Washington, D.C. based artist Kenneth Noland in the early 1950s.

The present work was painted five years after a transformative weekend when Louis and Noland traveled together to New York City to meet the preeminent art critic and essayist of the time, Clement Greenberg. As a standout champion of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Greenberg brought Louis and Noland on visits to galleries to view works by Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, among other artists. Their tour also included a number of studio visits which most notably included that of Helen Frankenthaler. This New York tour proved to become a transformative experience for Louis in terms of his practice and his exposure to the pouring/staining techniques of Frankenthaler opened up a realm of new possibilities for the artist.

Louis began his first series of Veil paintings in 1954 before moving into a somewhat less successful period of increasingly gestural abstract expressionist paintings over the next few years. Louis eventually destroyed most of his paintings from this 1955-57 period and today only one surviving painting bears the date 1955, but Louis’s canvas order receipts for that year indicate that he received 158 yards of canvas. Given the average size of his paintings at that time, he probably destroyed about one hundred paintings made in 1955 and about two hundred more painted in 1956 and 1957. Dalet Sin was then painted in 1958, a year that marks a pivotal moment in Louis’s career. It was at this time that Louis regained a distinct confidence in his work when he returned to produce a new series of Veils, this time more monumental and majestic than ever. This important series would provide the momentum which would carry the artist to produce a number of masterworks over the next several years of his career and lifetime.

Courtesy of Sotheby's

New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Kasmin's Sixties, April - May 2001, n.p., illustrated in color

Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1985, cat. no. 89, p. 141, illustrated in color

Estate of the Artist
Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2001

About Morris Louis

Known for his vivid “stain” paintings, Morris Louis was an American Abstract Expressionist and color field painter. Rather than adopt the gestural and painterly style of contemporaries Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Louis instead took to pouring diluted paint directly onto the canvas, letting pigments soak into the support in brightly colored bands. He often left large areas of the canvas untouched, with the negative space playing a significant role in his work, as in Gamma Omicron (1960); his initial inspiration for this method is said to come from a visit to the studio of Helen Frankenthaler, a pioneering stain painter. Working in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, Louis was part of the transitional movement dubbed Post-Painterly Abstraction by the influential critic Clement Greenberg; living in Washington D.C., he also joined the artistic group known as the Washington Color School.

American, 1912-1962, Baltimore, Maryland, based in Washington, D.C.