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Morris Louis (1912-1962)
Property from the Morris Louis Art Trust
Morris Louis (1912-1962)


Morris Louis (1912-1962)
magna on canvas
90¾ x 140 in. (230.5 x 355.6 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
The Estate of the artist
D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, New York, 1985, pp. 148 and 206, no. 168 (illustrated in color).
New York, French & Co., Morris Louis, April-May 1959, no. 16.
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Denver Art Museum; Fort Worth Art Museum; Syracuse, Everson Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art, Morris Louis: The Veil Cycle, February 1977-January 1978, pp. 17, 20-21 and 23-24, no. 17 (illustrated in color).

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Robert Manley
Robert Manley

Lot Essay

The layers of translucent color that spread flawlessly across this painting place Plenitude at the pinnacle of Morris Louis's mature achievement. Turning away from the gesture-laden, textured surfaces that typified much of Abstract Expressionist painting, Plenitude displays colors flowing effortlessly, breathing life into and across this vast canvas. The subtle gradations of hues create an image shimmering with a lustrous kaleidoscope of color. This effect is amplified by the flames of pure color that enliven the edges of the canvas and remain as traces of the earliest pours of paint.

Louis worked in a tiny (12 by 14 foot) studio in his modest home in Washington, D.C. Space limitations meant that he created one painting at a time and rolled each one for storage in his basement as soon as it dried. Although Louis was intensely private and did not permit anyone to see him paint, it has long been accepted that he created his paintings by tacking them to a temporary work stretcher. He manipulated the stretcher to gently control the diluted acrylic paint that he poured from the top and side edges of the canvas toward the bottom where it collected in pools or was drained off.

Clement Greenberg, arguably the most influential art critic of the time, met Louis in 1953 and promoted his work in writings and exhibitions. Although Louis's art prior to their meeting was unexceptional, his earliest Veil paintings from 1954 represented a total breakthrough. As Greenberg proclaimed, "Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment almost everywhere thin enough, no matter how many different veils of it are superimposed, for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric underneath. But 'underneath' is the wrong word. The fabric being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like dyed cloth; the threadedness and wovennness are in the color" (C. Greenberg as quoted in M. Fried, Morris Louis, New York, 1970).

Following a three-year period during which Louis floundered in a derivative, gestural style and created about 350 paintings he later destroyed, he re-emerged in 1958 to create his astonishing series of mature Veil paintings. This accomplishment was celebrated by a museum-scale exhibition in 1959 curated by Greenberg in New York at French & Company, Louis's first major solo show. Plenitude was one of the paintings selected for inclusion. An important review at the time succinctly expressed the excitement these works generated in an art world still dominated by the impact of Abstract Expressionism: "Veils of pale, refined color, laid on as thin as can be, surge with monumental grace on these large, strangely dramatic canvases, like chiffon back drops in the dream sequence of some symbolist play. Louis translates the chromatic calculations of Rothko into something that might be called chromatic mysticism. These pictures are esthetic to the last degree, and none the less unsubstantially beautiful for that" (S. Preston, 'Sculpture and Paint: Contemporary Artists in Different Mediums," New York Times, April 26, 1959, p. X17).

Given the achievement of the Morris Louis's Veil paintings, it is hardly surprising to note that of the 135 Veil paintings dating from 1958-59, nearly half are in museum collections in the United States and abroad.

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