Morris Louis (American, Baltimore 1912 - 1962 Washington, D.C.)
Signed in pencil, on back, upper left: M Louis no. 2-60
Acrylic on canvas
94 1/2 x 140 in. (247 x 355.6 cm)
Gift of Marcella Louis Brenner, 1969
Louis created Feh by pouring layer after layer of diluted acrylic paint on an unsized, unprimed canvas.1 By lifting, tipping, and folding the canvas, he stained the absorbent support with columns and
plumes of color. The tapering of the image towards the bottom corresponds to the direction of the poured paint.
Feh belongs to a series of large canvases in which transparent, striated waves of color suggest the movement and diaphanous, flowing qualities of hanging or draped veils.2 As a group, the works of 1957-58 are considered the first successful instance of Louis's characteristic idiom: a nongestural picture field of poured color, controlled both by the pull of gravity and by the painter's manipulation of the canvas.
As early examples of what Clement Greenberg termed "color-field" painting, Louis's veil series occupies a crucial position within the modernist account of postwar American painting. Color--abstracted color, or color in its purely "optical," two-dimensional function--was the principal term of Louis's achievement, for Greenberg and subsequent critics:
"Abandoning Cubism with a completeness for which there was no precedent...he began to feel, think and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open color. The revelation he received became an Impressionist revelation, and before he so much as caught a glimpse of anything by Still, Newman, or Rothko, he had aligned his art with theirs. His revulsion against Cubism was a revulsion against the sculptural. Cubism meant shapes, and shapes meant armatures of light and dark. Color meant areas and zones, and the interpenetration of these, which could be achieved better by variations of hue than by variations of value. Recognitions like these liberated Louis's originality along with his hitherto dormant gift for color."3
Louis learned the process of staining the canvas with thin washes of pigment from the abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928). At the same time, the veils' conception of painting as an expansive, flat, nonfigural field of paint drew on the example of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings.4 Michael Fried has discussed Louis's learning from Frankenthaler and Pollock in terms of the veils' peculiar presentation of "figuration," or the articulation of distinct configurations, without recourse to lines, edges, or contours denoting tangible things.5
Fried's visual description of the paintings' endlessly nuanced striations of hue and value is worth reviewing: "Louis discovered that if successive waves of thinned pigment, each a different color, were stained into a length of canvas, what was produced was a single, visually continuous configuration within which the individual configurations left by each wave in turn--or, perhaps more accurately, the limits of these configurations--were still visible. That is, by laying down wave on top of wave of liquid pigment, Louis literally put color into color--more precisely, color-configuration into color-configuration--so that, within the stained portion of any veil painting, the perception of a change in color, almost no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, indicates a transition between configurations....Even at their most salient, however, the limits of individual color-configurations are not experienced as though they were the edge of some kind of tangible thing; rather, one's eye is gripped and moved by an extraordinarily compelling continuity across them which divests them of tactile significance."6
What permits this sense of continuity is the gradual staining of the canvas, whose cotton fibers are utterly saturated with, and inseparable from, the transparent films of color. Louis would begin by pouring bright pigment (lime, pink, light blue, and yellow in Feh), in configurations suggesting flames, tongues, or plumes. The final wash of dark pigment gave a rich, "bronze" cast and chromatic unity to these configurations, while often superimposing a columnar format onto the flames and plumes "below"--this columnar effect is particularly evident in Feh.7 These bright colors dip and fall above the dark, horizontal "scrim" at the top of the image, and often peek out of the flamelike or columnar configurations as well, as is the case in the Oberlin canvas. Feh was titled posthumously by Louis's estate, which assigned a Hebrew letter to the many veil paintings that Louis had left untitled; towards the end of his life, Louis had titled two works of a later series with Greek letters.8
Born Morris Louis Bernstein in Washington, D.C., in 1912, Louis legally dropped his last name in 1938. He studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts in Baltimore, and then assisted in painting Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals in Baltimore public schools. Between 1936 and 1940, Louis lived in New York and attended the workshops of David Alfaro Siqueiros. In the early 1950s, Louis moved back to Washington, D.C., and devoted himself to developing a response to the New York School of abstract painters. After seeing the stained canvases of Helen Frankenthaler, Louis began to create a series of paintings using a similar technique. These large paintings, that form the core of Louis's oeuvre, are divided into groups: "veils" (1954), "veils II" (1958-59), "unfurled" (1959-61), and "stripes" (1961-62). After the artist's death in 1962, the critic Clement Greenberg named him a proponent of "post-painterly abstraction," in an exhibition of the same name held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964.
Fried, Michael. Morris Louis. New York, 1971.
Headley, Diane Upright. Morris Louis: The Veil Cycle. Exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1977.
Weyl, Martin. Morris Louis. Exh. cat., Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1981.
Elderfield, John. Morris Louis. Exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986.
Collection Mrs. Marcella Louis Brenner, Chevy Chase, Maryland, by whom given in 1969
Seattle Art Museum, 1967. Morris Louis: Veils and Unfurleds. Exhibited, but not published.
Upright, Diane. The Paintings of Morris Louis: A Catalogue Raisonné. New York, 1985, no. 141, pl. 44.
The support is a plain cotton fabric, attached to a mitered, nine-member strainer. There is no ground of any kind beneath the paint.The acrylic paint was poured in thin washes. Towards the bottom, left of center, the paint is thicker than elsewhere; otherwise, the canvas appears "stained" rather than "painted." The painter folded the canvas (the fold is perceptible near the center of the work) to facilitate his manipulation of the canvas and direction of the poured paint in the course of making the work. The artist applied the brighter pigments first. The areas of pink, blue, lime, and yellow are readily visible on the reverse. Dark blue and/or black layer(s) was (were) applied after these brighter passages were dry. The canvas is unvarnished.
1. Louis was notoriously secretive about his technique; see Nehama Guralnik, Introductory Essay in Morris Louis (exh. cat., Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1981), pp. 6-7; and Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Veil Cycle (exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1977), pp. 20-25.
2. Louis did not title these works either individually or as a group, and it is not clear when the term "veil" for Louis's works first came into general use. In his catalogue for the Louis memorial exhibition in 1963, Lawrence Alloway seems to suggest that the term "veil" was then applied to Louis's painting in general: "The words most often used, both by art critics and by journalists, about Louis's art [author's emphasis], are 'veils' and 'drapes.' The terms are apt, obvious even, not only because of the preservation of the canvas as part of the paint...but also because of the configuration of the paint trails. These are continuous and undulating. Like veils, the thin washes of color are continually overlaid, which produces a shifting density and a subtle, reserved, internal color relationship." Quoted from Morris Louis 1912-1962, Memorial Exhibition: Paintings from 1954 - 1960 (exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1963), unpaginated.
3. Clement Greenberg, "Louis and Noland," Art International 4, no. 5 (1960), p. 28; reprinted in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O'Brien, vol. 4 (Chicago, 1986), p. 96.
4. Louis referred to Frankenthaler as "the bridge between Pollock and what was possible"; in James Truitt, "Art-Arid D.C. Harbors Touted 'New' Painters," The Washington Post, 21 December 1965, p. 20 (cited in Michael Fried, Morris Louis, 1912-1962 [exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1967], p. 11).
5. Michael Fried, Morris Louis, 1912-1962 (exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1967), p. 11.
6. Michael Fried, Morris Louis, 1912-1962 (exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1967), p. 15.
7. See John Elderfield, Morris Louis (exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986), pp. 43-58, for an excellent chronology of the formal development of the veil paintings.
8. Diane Upright Headley, Morris Louis: The Veil Cycle (exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1977), p. 17.