How Innovations in Paint Fueled the Washington Color School Movement
The Art Genome Project
From the Catalogue
A mesmerizing example from Morris Louis’s illustrious Unfurled series, Gamma Epsilon engulfs the viewer with a vivid celebration of sheer color and epic scale. Within Gamma Epsilon, we witness a superb specificity in Louis’s brilliant ribbons of flowing pigment which recall the artist’s active presence throughout his measured composition. While Louis embraces the inherent characteristics of his raw materials, he does not allow them to entirely run free. Each band of color exists within a clearly defined rivulet which highlights the interplay of these rich hues while also carving out pristine channels which emerge between his pours and together work to define the contours of his pronounced central void.
With a distinct sense of immediacy, Louis’s bold colors cascade through his otherwise undisturbed white canvas to develop vibrating contours which challenge one’s powers of perception. The scale of the canvas dominates the viewer’s visual field in such a total manner that the painting is pushed beyond the basic existence of a physical object and becomes something of a greater pictorial statement. In the words of one of Louis’s greatest champions, Clement Greenberg, “the effect conveys a sense not only of color as somehow disembodied, and therefore more purely optical, but also of color as a thing that opens and expands the picture plane. The suppression of the difference between painted and unpainted surfaces causes pictorial space to leak through—or rather, to seem about to leak through—the framing edges of the picture into the space beyond them” (Clement Greenberg, Art International, May 1960).
Louis was an extremely private and often self-critical individual, especially when it came to his artistic practice. While the painter did not make a habit of speaking about his own work, he remained keenly aware of the art production occurring throughout the world beyond his studio in Baltimore, Maryland and later in Washington, D.C., drawing great inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters of his time. In 1952, Louis began teaching at the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts where he became close friends with a fellow instructor and painter, Kenneth Noland. Noland and Louis bonded over a shared enthusiasm for the work of artists including Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell and in April 1953, Noland and Louis visited New York for a weekend trip that would profoundly impact the future trajectory of Louis’s artistic practice and career.
While in New York, Noland introduced Louis to Clement Greenberg, the foremost art critic and essayist of their time. Greenberg would later become deeply involved with Louis’s work and eventual legacy as the one trusted advisor with whom Louis would freely discuss his paintings. Together, the trio visited a number of galleries and artists’ studios which most notably included that of Helen Frankenthaler. This particular visit was a transformative experience for Louis and his exposure to the staining techniques of Frankenthaler opened up a realm of new possibilities for the artist.
Upon witnessing Frankenthaler’s innovative technique of pouring pigment over a flat, unstretched canvas to invoke a staining technique, Louis declared her to be “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible" (John Elderfield in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Morris Louis, 1986, p. 13). For Louis, one aspect of “what was possible” meant an absolute abandonment of gestural representation. While entirely abstract, Pollock’s drip paintings maintain a narrative quality as they become graphic chronicles from distinct moments in time. In contrast, Louis’s work resists the rather active and gestural nature of Pollock’s compositions and instead embodies a distinctly meditative quality. Whereas Pollock's drips were loaded with the painter's action, Louis's stains reveal no evidence of struggle between the demands of art and of feeling. There is no pictorial or aesthetic significance of the work's construction. The beautiful wholeness is achieved in its immediacy of aesthetic revelation. In Gamma Epsilon, as with most all of the Unfurled series, Louis propels the possibilities of painting beyond the constructs of traditional drawing and standard pictorial form. He has detached his work from all pretenses, abandoning the restrictions of graphic structure, armature, and line. Instead, Louis orchestrates a purely abstract composition which appears to be illuminated from within.
With works like Gamma Epsilon, Louis embraced the tension between random chance and deliberate action. The painting feels spontaneous at first glance but upon further study of Louis’s work, it becomes clear that his actions are quite intentional. Although he allowed his materials to hold a distinct power, embracing his medium’s inherent fluidity, Louis maintained control throughout the entire production process and purposefully determined the ultimate composition. His staining technique encompassed not only careful pours with deliberate selections of pigment but also employed specific physical interventions such as folding and bending his canvas to direct the flow of the paint. With this, Louis fully removed the gesture of hand from the painting.
Louis’s preferred medium was a specific formula of Leonard Bocour’s Magna paint which held a uniquely fluid consistency. Leonard Bocour was one of the two leading American paint manufacturers of the time and became well-known for giving artists including Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Jackson Pollock free tubes of new paint to experiment with. In 1958, Louis wrote letters to Bocour complaining of his difficulties in thinning this acrylic paint and in April 1960, his complaints were answered when Bocour produced a special Magna formula for Louis and Noland which was more amenable for their particular staining techniques. Then, in the summer of 1960, armed with this newly formulated acrylic-resin, Louis embarked upon his most ambitious series yet, the Unfurleds. According to Greenberg, Louis found these works to be his greatest accomplishment as an artist.
Despite his relatively small studio, where he could only view one painting at a time, Louis embraced epic proportions and Gamma Epsilon was no exception. The Unfurleds were in fact so monumental that they surpassed the capacity of the artist’s studio, allowing him to only work on one half of a canvas at a time. This physical restriction forced Louis to develop a new practice of folding his canvases in two parts, working on just one half at a time, in order to achieve the epic scale he desired. Diane Upright praised the painter's output from this period in the catalogue raisonnné: “The Unfurleds present his most audacious, innovative pictorial strategy…The overwhelming impact of this series stems as much from its simplicity of composition as from the complexity of its effect. The basic pictorial components are readily described: two triangular zones of color rivulets confront each other across a huge center wedge of intensely white, unpainted canvas. With the directness and seeming inevitability so often characteristic of masterpieces, the Unfurleds provided Louis with the ideal framework in which to exploit his urge toward active draftsmanship and colorism without sacrificing structural coherence, a problem that had long preoccupied him” (Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1985, p. 22).
Louis was an astonishingly prolific artist and it is remarkable to consider that his many masterpieces, including Gamma Epsilon, were produced within just half a decade. In 1962, the artist’s life was tragically cut short, most likely a result of his heavy use of turpentine and other paint thinners. However, despite the brevity of Louis’s inspirational career, he developed a vital link between Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting and Minimalism which would continue to have a profound influence on the generation of artists who have followed his groundbreaking artistic achievements.
—Courtesy of Sotheby's
Münster, Westfälisches Landesmuseum; Musée de Grenoble, Morris Louis, May - December 1996, p. 88, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, Morris Louis, The Veil Cycle, 1977-1978, p. 7, illustrated
Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1985, cat. no. 395, p. 169, illustrated in color
André Emmerich Gallery, Inc., New York
Alistair McAlpine, London
Rutland Gallery, London
Lewis Kaplan Associates, London
Galerie Denise René Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1977
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.