Morris Louis (1912-1962)
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Morris Louis (1912-1962)

Para IV

Morris Louis (1912-1962)
Para IV
Magna on canvas
101 x 137 in. (256.5 x 348 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Estate of the artist
Private collection, Paradise Valley
Anon. sale; Phillips, New York, 8 November 2015, lot 5
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, New York, 1985, pp. 154 and 211, no. 232 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, Manny Silverman Gallery, Six Paintings from 1958-1962, January-February 2001, n.p. (illustrated).
Los Angeles, Honor Fraser, Morris Louis, June-August 2017.
New York, Yares Art, Fields of Color, January-February 2018.
Washington, D.C., Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, George Washington University, Full Circle: Hue and Saturation in the Washington Color School, June-September 2018.
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Lot Essay

The rich, jewel-like colors of Morris Louis’s Color Field paintings remain among the finest emblems of their era, poured and stained in glorious hues that benefit from the precision of the artist’s technique. Louis used a particular brand of acrylic paint called Magna in his work, which he thinned down with turpentine and other agents. This allowed the individual particles of acrylic paint to become suspended within the clear liquid. As a result, Louis’s highly-saturated colors appear to glow from within—illuminated as if by a soft, inner light. He typically worked on bare, unprimed canvas, and this allowed the rich, unbridled majesty of the individual colors to become the modus operandi of his work. Beginning in 1954 with his first series of Veils, Louis poured liquified acrylic down the canvas in translucent, flowing streams. He continued to refine and perfect his technique in ever more dazzling arrangements as the 50s progressed, creating a second series of Veils in 1958-1959. After the Veils, Louis created the Florals, the Unfurleds and the Stripes, always seeking out a harmonious balance between the emptiness of the bare canvas support and a flickering arrangement of color.  

After he’d finished the iconic Veils, Louis embarked on an era of innovation that spanned the years 1959 and 1960, during which time he created Para IV. Over a period of about fourteen or fifteen months, Louis created a variety of large-scale paintings where a rainbow array of primary and secondary colors explode before the viewer’s eye in larger-than-life sized displays. During this time, he no longer veiled the bright colors beneath a scrim of black or dark brown paint, but rather allowed the individual colors to exist freely, creating ever more colorful combinations and on an increasingly larger scale. Para IV belongs to this unique moment in the artist’s development. With its stunning array of luminous, jewel-box colors—one from each slice of the rainbow—Para IV presents a joyful explosion of pure color. Bare canvas allows each bright, gemlike color the opportunity to breathe, and their rapturous presentation calls to mind the exuberance of Matisse. Only six paintings belong to this small subset, and two of the six Para paintings are owned by major museums. Para I belongs to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, and Para III is owned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.

Across the large expanse of a nearly twelve-foot wide canvas, Morris Louis presents a stunning tour-de-force in Para IV, where glorious, rainbow colors have been liberated from the sky and unleashed in a spectacular optical display. Each prismatic color has been liquified, and this allows the colors to be poured, soaked and absorbed within the very fiber of the painting’s fabric construction. Rather than allow each color to overlap in a series of translucent layers or veils, Louis lets each color be itself, buffeted by wide margins of empty space so that the undulating contours of each vibrant, liquid color seem to dance before the viewer’s eye. In the center of the painting, a column of blue rises upward in a wavering, liquid plume, while flanked on each side by passages of bright yellow (“para” of course, means “side by side”). In what might at first seem like a random arrangement, it becomes clear that Louis organized the painting around the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue. These central colors proceed outward, “side by side,” toward the painting’s edge. Blue is flanked by yellow, and yellow is flanked by red, until they are joined by secondary colors in varying shades of green and orange. It is only here that Louis allows the individual, columnar “bodies of color” to intermingle and co-mix. Delicate, translucent passages of light green overlap yellow, and orange meets green in stunning passages of poured and seeped paint. A lively black border extends upward along the left and right edges in order to frame the central drama of the piece. In Para IV, Louis seems to have distilled the Veils, finally, into their constituent parts by separating out the individual colors and allowing them to breathe. The basic building blocks of painterly representation have been unleashed, and the power of pure color unfolds before our eyes.

The heavy, impasto-laden paintings that had become a primary feature of Abstract Expressionism just a decade earlier had, by the end of the 1950s, reached their emotional peak. When Louis created his ethereal stain paintings, such as Para IV, he allowed his color to breathe and flow in utterly new ways. The thinned-down Magna acrylic paint that he used had the unique capability of being able to be liquified but still retain the vibrant character of its color, so that when the paint soaked the canvas, it was as if color and ground had become one. This particular feature of Louis’s work appealed to the art critic Clement Greenberg, who championed the artist’s staining technique in articles he wrote and the exhibits he curated. Greenberg organized several exhibitions of Louis’s work at French & Company in New York, where he served as Contemporary director there. One major exhibition in March of 1960 focused on the 1959-60 paintings to which Para IV belongs. Writing in Art International, Greenberg described the effect of Louis’s liquified, liberated color: “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” (C. Greenberg, quoted in D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, New York, 1985, p. 21).

It is remarkable that Louis achieved the success he did in such a short amount of time, considering that the artist made the bulk of his stain paintings in a roughly eight-year span. Beginning with the Veils of 1954, Louis’s work lasted only until his last series of Stripes were painted in the months before his death in the autumn of 1962. He was just shy of fifty years old.

Louis painted the majority of his large-scale paintings in the modest, 12-foot by 14-foot dining room of his home in Washington, D.C. He worked on the paintings unstretched—a remarkable feat given the mural-like scale of paintings like Para IV—and some aspects of his working method remain unknown even to this day. He rarely allowed visitors into his studio, and he was notoriously obsessive about the Magna paint that he used. Louis wrote countless letters to Magna’s manufacturer, Leonard Bocour, imploring him to adapt the Magna to his own unique specifications. He often crushed, smeared and pulverized the Magna in order to create even more minute granules of pigment that he could suspend within the liquifier he used. This time-consuming and laborious process was nevertheless an integral component to his working method. Ultimately Bocour was able to achieve the consistency that Louis desired—a viscosity comparable to maple syrup—that allowed the paint to fully soak into the fibers of the canvas material. The result, barely perceptible to the naked eye, is that his colors are infused with light and actually appear to float.

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