MORRIS LOUIS (1912-1962)
MORRIS LOUIS (1912-1962)
MORRIS LOUIS (1912-1962)
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MORRIS LOUIS (1912-1962)
4 More
Property from an Important American Collection
MORRIS LOUIS (1912-1962)


MORRIS LOUIS (1912-1962)
signed with the artist's initials and dated 'M.L. 58' (lower right)
Magna on canvas
91 1/2 x 149 3/4 in. (232.4 x 380.4 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Baron Alain de Gunzburg, Paris
Washburn Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1986
D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, p. 140, no. 82 (illustrated).
New York, French & Company, Morris Louis, April–May 1959, no. 11.

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

“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.” - Stuart Preston (“Sculpture and Paint: Contemporary Artists in Different Mediums,” New York Times, April 26, 1959, p. 17).

Cascading waterfalls of color envelop the viewer in Morris Louis’s Surge, an exceptional example of the Veil paintings he created in early 1958. Across a monumental canvas spanning over twelve feet, Louis orchestrates a stunning waterfall effect, using thinned-down acrylics to create passages of velvety depth, where darker bronze vies with glowing orange, golden yellow and pale purple, to evoke molten lava or dancing flames. As its title suggests, this singular painting brims with surging forces. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Surge was selected for Louis’s important exhibition at New York’s French & Company in 1959, where the Veil paintings debuted to critical acclaim.

Morris Louis was renowned not for his brushstroke or its emotional force, but for his process of pouring paint directly onto the unprimed canvas, unfettered by intermediaries of the hand or brush. It was a 1953 visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio, in fact, that proved to be the catalyst. There, he witnessed Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea (1952, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which she had made by moving her canvas to the floor and pouring liquified oil paint directly onto its surface and letting it pool into abstract forms. Louis later described this moment as revelatory, calling Frankenthaler, a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible” (M. Louis, quoted in J. Yau, “On Her Own,” in Helen Frankenthaler: East and Beyond, New York, 2011, p. 5). The Veil paintings are the body of work that finally brought Louis critical acclaim as a preeminent Color Field painter in the late 1950s. While he had painted a preliminary group of Veils in 1954, it was only in 1958 and early 1959 that he hit his stride, having learned how to effectively thin down the acrylic paints in order to create the gossamer-like “veils” for which they are known. Surge belongs to that exemplary 1958 series.

Clement Greenberg’s French & Company exhibit proved to be a turning-point in Louis's career, as it was hailed by critics and established him as one of the most talented and inventive Color Field painters of his generation. Writing in The New York Times, art critic Stuart Preston praised the exhibit, even using the word “surge” in his review: “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. 17).

Louis was a master at manipulating the different physical properties of the acrylic paints to which he dedicated his craft. To create the Veils, he thinned down the medium with turpentine, and then laboriously hand-ground the tiny particles of pigment even further. This resulted in a liquified, saturated color that bled into the very fiber of the unprimed cotton duck that he used for canvas. Exactly how Louis achieved this effect is still open to debate, as he was a private artist who preferred to work in his humble dining room studio in Washington, D.C. rather than New York. But he probably poured the shimmering liquids in a downhill effect, perhaps allowing the fabric to fold inward to control the direction of the pooling paint. This is most likely how he created the waterfall form in the present painting, as well as the subtle pools of bronze paint along the lower edge.

Louis almost always began the Veil paintings with brighter colors, and in Surge, these vivid colors are still visible along the upper edge in touches of orange, green and blue. Here, he creates a magnificent painting that is both cloaked in darkness but also wonderfully radiant, evoking what the MoMA curator John Elderfield described as “the capacity of open color to convey an extraordinary range of emotion” (J. Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 37). Surge also belongs to a sub-series of Veils known as the “triadic Veils.” These paintings are distinguished by a series of vertical lines left by the braces of the stretcher bar. Louis seems to have enjoyed these linear elements as a counterpoint to the organic flow of the liquified color. And indeed, a significant number of similar triadic Veil paintings of 1958 are housed in international museum collections, including the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk; the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart; and The Museum of Modern Art, Shiga, Japan.

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