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

Saf Aleph

Morris Louis (1912-1962)
Saf Aleph
magna on canvas
97½ x 140 in. (247 x 355.6 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Estate of the artist
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1993
D. Upright, Morris Louis, The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, pp. 155 and 212, no. 246 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Saf Aleph is a stunning Veil painting by Morris Louis, the main practitioner of the movement that has come to be known as Color Field painting. Championed by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg, Color Field rose to prominence in the late fifties and its primary characteristics were color, often in waves of unmodulated fields and, most importantly, a feeling for flatness and preservation of the picture plane as a two-dimensional surface.

Louis worked in series, creating a cohesive body of mature work that can be broken down into a few main themes: Veils, Florals, Unfurleds and Stripes. Saf Aleph is from the later group of Veil paintings executed by the artist and they include some of his most daring works. The second Veil series was painted on a much larger rectangle, which allowed Louis to greatly increase the proportion of width to height. Louis was no longer priming the canvas, and thinned the magna with acrylic medium and large quantities of turpentine. The paint was therefore easy to pour and dried quickly. Louis was free to experiment with layers of colors and the results were visually and technically stunning. Louis reveals his mastery of this medium, and the great lengths to which he went to challenge himself and the paint that he so powerfully poured across the canvas.

Instead of the monolithic wall of color of the earlier veils, Saf Aleph consists of two distinct layers of fields of color. The primary layer consists of horizontal ribbons of bright yellow, blue, green and orange. Over these riotous colors, Louis overlaps vertical streams of sheer black paint, which unifies the surface while adding subtlety and depth to the colors. In the Veil paintings, it is unusual for Louis to pour paint in opposing directions, but the result is astonishingly beautiful. The bright streams of color burst through the dark vertical veil creating a compelling tension between the vibration of the colors and the gravitational pull of the veil. Saf Aleph is a breathtaking work of Louis' mastery of the possibilities of color on a grand scale.

"If his technique of pouring paint down the canvas broke with the tradition of gestural brushwork, the Veils nevertheless remain as closely related in feeling to the complex, brushed surfaces of the action painters as they are to the evenly applied, flat color areas and geometricized forms of painting in the 60s. This technique was simply a means of achieving a desired effect; as such, it was devoid of the metaphysical significance that the action painters accorded to painting as an act of heroic self expression. The relationship between the artist and his materials, the flow of thinned paint over the canvas surfact, and the manner in which it soaked into and spread through the fibers, could be only partially controlled. Ultimately, Louis's paintings, because of this quasi-accidental process, become self contained, organic entities" (D. Swanson, Morris Louis: The Veil Cycle, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1977, p. 13).

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