In the late 1950s, Morris Louis forged a bold new direction for abstract painting by focusing on the unadulterated force of pure color on a truly epic scale. Acclaimed as a leader of the Color Field movement, Louis drenched his large-scale canvases in diaphanous veils of color that envelop the viewer. Turning away from the gesture-laden and heavily encrusted surfaces that characterized so much of Abstract Expressionist painting, Louis created compositions that allowed the color to flow and breathe across open expanses of white canvas. Untitled of 1959-1960 is a luminous example of this radical new direction, and is a masterpiece of Louis' mature style.
Louis' investigation of pure color and light places him in an art historical lineage that can be traced back to the experiments of the French Impressionists, and even further back to Turner. In the present work, he focuses on the contrasting force of plumes of brilliant colors, which seem to explode from within the core of the canvas. While towards the center of the canvas these transparent colors overlap, as they pull outward they reveal their individual hues. Using thin washes of magna, a type of new acrylic resin paint, Louis imparted an extraordinary luminosity to his canvases. His paint, which soaked into the weave of the fabric, seems to become one with the surface and retains both the paint's original coloration and its fluid character.
Although Louis began his career working in a somewhat conservative Cubist-inspired style, after meeting Kenneth Noland in 1952, he began exploring more avant-garde routes in painting. Both Louis and Noland worked in Washington, D.C., close enough to New York that they could keep up with the latest developments of the art world centered there, but far enough away that they could feel a certain creative independence. Noland also introduced Louis to the influential critic Clement Greenberg, who would provide important critical support throughout Louis' life, by introducing him to dealers and clients, mounting exhibitions of his works, and writing influential reviews. It was together with Noland and Greenberg that Louis paid a visit to Helen Frankenthaler's studio in New York in April of 1953, an incident that has now become legendary. Both Louis and Noland were profoundly affected by Frankenthaler's painting Mountains and Sea, in which she employed her innovative technique of staining raw canvas spread across the studio floor, resulting in pools of color that alternately seemed to merge with the fabric and float upon it. Frankenthaler had in turn been influenced by a visit to Jackson Pollock's studio in 1951, where she was struck by his working methods, and especially the stained passages of his own painting. Viewing Mountains and Sea proved revelatory for both painters, who returned to Washington D.C. and totally transformed their approach to painting.
Louis was in many ways a reclusive figure, who preferred to work in strict privacy in a small studio on the first floor of his home. In this 12 by 14 foot space, Louis performed almost miraculous feats of painting, working on an enormous scale, as in the present work, which measures over 8 by 11 feet. He worked with unstretched rolls of canvas, although his exact techniques remain mysterious to this day, adding in many ways to the aura of his work, on which pigments seem to float in an almost otherworldly way. Louis rarely allowed anyone into his studio, and refused to let anyone see him paint. He masterfully exploited the expressive potential of the new type of acrylic resin paints that allowed color to be applied to unprimed canvas. Even the person who developed the acrylic magna paint that Louis used, Leonard Bocour, was astonished by the unique luminosity that Louis extracted from his paint, although Louis would not reveal even to him how he achieved such effects.
In 1959-60 Louis experimented with variations on his breakthrough Veil paintings of the mid-fifties. The present work is part of his series known as the Florals, also sometimes referred to as Floral Veils, which suggest abstract blooms of aqueous color. In this series, he returned to working from all four sides of the canvas, as in his first experiments with staining. The Florals had the new goal, however, of exploring color in discrete hues, as in the present work, where each color is possessed of its own energy, pulling in its own direction. This palimpsest of jewel-like tones conveys a mood of unrestrained ebullience, reaching upward from a shadowy core, where the colors overlap and bleed into one another, creating an emotive counterpoint. The virtuosity of Morris' painterly technique is demonstrated in full force here, in both the unprecedented clarity of color and the way it seems almost disembodied, not mitigated by brushwork or any other signs of the artist's hand.
In the rich coloration of present work, Louis' unabashedly lush approach to paint relates his work to the sensuality of the great master of color, Rubens. As Frank Stella once commented, Morris Louis was nearly the last abstract painter to hint at the potential that abstraction might have for creating a full and expansive pictorial space like that of Rubens. Rubens knew that the success of painting depended on the ability of painting to reach out, to create pictorial space which would in turn appear to be expanding into the real space around it (quoted in Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited, Atlanta, 2006, p. 33). Louis' achievement as one of the luminaries of Color Field painting all the more astonishing in light of the fact that he created his rich body of work in less than a decade, as his life was suddenly cut short in 1962.