In his brief but meteoric artistic career, Morris Louis undoubtedly created some of the most lushly sensual paintings in the history of American abstract art. His central subject was the power of pure, unadulterated color, freed from the agitated gesturalism of his Abstract Expressionist predecessors so that it seemed to flow upon his canvases as a force of nature. The spectacularly vivid color bands that soar through Pillar of Hope intensify one another in their contrasting hues, vibrating in a powerful aesthetic harmony. Painted in 1961, Pillar of Hope belongs to Louis's acclaimed series of Stripe paintings, which during his lifetime were his best-known works. As Louis tragically died only a year later, at the peak of his artistic ability, this work stands as one of the final summations of his unique contribution to the tradition of abstract painting.
Louis's Stripe paintings grew from his formative Veil series that had immediately followed his epiphany in Frankenthaler's studio. In the Stripe paintings, such as Pillar of Hope, Louis dramatically reduced the striations of his aqueous Veil paintings to their abstract essence. The Stripes, although limited to a small field upon the canvas, generate their expressive force from the way the colors abut one another, their contrasts creating intense visual vibrations. In Pillar of Hope, Louis alternated three cool colors with two bands of warm colors, creating particularly harmonious rhythm that exudes the optimism suggested in its title. Indeed, painted in 1961, Pillar of Hope seems to exude the prevalent mood of optimism that characterized the country during the first year of the Kennedy administration.
Louis was represented by one of his Stripe paintings in the 1961 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York titled American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists. The soaring verticality of his Stripes suggests the famed Zips of Barnett Newman's earlier Abstract Expressionist masterpieces. Indeed, in both painters' works, the primal verticality of the composition evokes feelings of transcendence. Like Newman, Louis also preferred to work on a monumental scale, enveloping his viewers in luminous fields of canvas, as demonstrated in Pillar of Hope, which is over seven feet high. He cropped this radiantly colored column at the bottom edge, suggesting its infinite extension below, while it surges upward to reach a climax in its rippling edge.