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

Eta

Details
Morris Louis (1912-1962)
Eta
acrylic on canvas
101 5/8 x 159¼in. (258 x 404.5cm.)
Painted in 1961
Provenance
The Artist.
André Emmerich Gallery Inc., New York.
E. J. Power, London.
Waddington Galleries Ltd., London.
Alistair McAlpine, London.
Waddington Galleries, London.
Lewis Kaplan Associates, London.
Blum Helman Gallery, New York.
Pasquale Iannetti Inc., Los Angeles.
Alfred A. Taubman, Michigan.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's New York, 15 November 1995, lot 31.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
D. Upright, Morris Louis, The Complete Paintings, New York 1985, p. 225, no. 413 (illustrated in colour, p. 171).
P. Kaiser, 'The Recollection Issue - The Essl Collection', in Parabol Art Magazine, Section D, 2007 (illustrated in colour, p. 48).
Exhibited
West Palm Beach, Norton Gallery and School of Art, 1977-1979 (on extended loan).
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum - Kunst der Gegenwart, Permanent 01, 2000-2002.
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum - Kunst der Gegenwart, Permanent 02, 2002-2003.
Klosterneuburg, Sammlung Essl - Kunst der Gegenwart, Visions of America: Zeitgeno¨ssische Kunst aus der Sammlung Essl und der Sonnabend Collection, New York, 2004-2005, pp. 155 and 300 (detail illustrated in colour p. 6; illustrated in colour pp. 32, 40,153-154 and 266).
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum - Kunst der Gegenwart, Passion for Art: 35th Anniversary of the Essl Collection, vol. II, 2007, pp. 230 and 549 (illustrated in colour, pp. 228-229).
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum - Kunst der Gegenwart, Die Sammlung, 2008-2009.
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum - Kunst der Gegenwart, Vier Tage Sammlung Essl, 2009.
Klosterneuburg, Essl Museum - Kunst der Gegenwart, CORSO, Werke der Sammlung Essl im Dialog, 2010.
Sale Room Notice
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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

‘On waking from my sleep I had the paintings before my eyes again.
Particularly Eta by Morris Louis.
It seemed to me that there was a spirit of deep contemplation in how he slowly poured the paint over the canvas in stripes’
(A. Sutterlüty, quoted in Passion for Art, exh. cat., Essl Museum, Klosterneuburg, 2007, p. 217).

‘Where our experience of the earlier Unfurleds was one of solid areas of bold colour moving across the surface, in the later works we experience what we might call a “multitude of colours” flowing inward from the exterior. Louis’ placement, drawing and colour juxtaposition, all ingredients which alternately dominated one another in earlier works, are here made equal and mutually supportive. Like Pollock’s art, here what at first appears so strikingly simple is, in fact, astonishingly rich in its nuances. In Pollock’s classic poured paintings, the composition, colouration, and application come together in an incredibly complicated coalition. In Louis’ later Unfurleds there are comparable elements, but they are pulled apart and yet, like those in Pollock’s work, still articulate a single presence … Louis himself considered these later Unfurleds his greatest works’ (E. A. Carmean Jr., Morris Louis: Major Themes & Variations, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1976, unpaged).

‘Beginning in 1957-58, Louis created pieces with several translucent layers of paint, applied to the canvas vertically and horizontally. As can be seen in “Eta” of 1961, flowing paint was applied from both sides of the canvas, softly “feathering out” diagonally towards the white centre’ (B. Steffen, ‘Visions of America’ in Visions of America, exh. cat., Essl Museum, Klosterneuburg, 2004, p. 40).

‘In the unfurleds Louis made major art out of what might be called the firstness of marking as such – a firstness prior to any act of marking, prior to individuation as a particular type of mark … One’s experience of the unfurleds can be vertiginous. The banked rivulets – here again their vibrant, biting colour is crucial – open up the picture plane more radically than ever before, as though seeing the first marking we are for the first time shown the void. The dazzling blankness of the untouched canvas at once repulses and engulfs the eye, like an infinite abyss, the abyss that opens up behind the least mark we make on a plane surface’ (M. Fried, Morris Louis, New York 1970, pp. 32-33).

Spanning over four metres in width, Eta, 1961, stems from the latter stages of Morris Louis’ Unfurled series of paintings, considered by the artist to be his greatest and most ambitious works. Twin banks of vibrant rivulets flank a vast expanse of raw canvas. Inclined at a steep gradiant, these bright streams of opaque colour cascade down the length of the picture plane in uneven diagonal ribbons, colliding and intersecting as they fall. Executed between 1960 and 1961, the Unfurled works take their place alongside the Veils (1954), Veils II (1958-59) and the Stripes (1961-62) that defined Louis’ approach to painting. A colourist at heart, with a palette rooted in his studies of Post-Impressionism, Louis’ work is equally marked by a rigorous commentary on the materiality of the painted canvas. Staining unprimed cotton with thinned acrylic, the artist creates an inextricable fusion between surface and support. The Unfurled works are among the most sophisticated examples of this technical and conceptual innovation: by relegating his paint to the sides of the picture plane, Louis powerfully spotlights his untouched canvas, drawing attention to its threaded physicality. Titled with Greek letters, in the order of their being stretched, the works invoke an artistic ground zero – a concept rife among the artists of Louis’ generation. Created at a time of profound reflection upon the meaning and function of painting, the Unfurled works have been deemed to embody what Walter Darby Bannard calls ‘the seeming simplicity and obviousness of all great inventions’ (W. D. Bannard, ‘Morris Louis and the Restructured Picture’, Studio International, no. 188, July 1974, pp. 18-20). Other examples from the series are housed in major international collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the National Gallery, Berlin.

Originally coming to prominence within the throes of Abstract Expressionism, Louis was strongly influenced by the painter Helen Frankenthaler, whom he first visited in 1953 with his colleague Kenneth Noland. Her large-scale stained canvases, in particular the 1953 work Mountains and the Sea, were to change the course of his oeuvre. Like Frankenthaler, Louis began to use unprimed canvas, applying deliberately thinned pigment that absorbed directly into the fabric like a dye. Louis worked without a brush, leaning his canvas against the wall and spilling his paint down the length of the picture plane. Colour and form were thus infused with a new autonomy, divorced from Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on the artist’s hand and psyche. ‘Many examples of twentieth-century art reveal a new expressive ability or a new direction based on the use of a novel technique or material’, writes E. A. Carmean. ‘We can cite pasted newspaper in Braque and Picasso collages, painted paper in a Matisse découpage, the painterly poured line of Pollock’s classic abstractions … For Morris Louis the staining technique was such a breakthrough’ (E. A. Carmean Jr., Morris Louis: Major Themes & Variations, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1976, unpaged).

The rivulets of the Unfurled paintings represented a new configuration in Louis’ work. Caught somewhere between line and shape, and blurring the distinction between painting and drawing, they recall Jackson Pollock’s pouring technique, as well as the automatist practices of Surrealism. These works instigate a new kind of artistic handwriting, exalting the primacy of markmaking. ‘In the unfurleds Louis made major art out of what might be called the firstness of marking as such – a firstness prior to any act of marking, prior to individuation as a particular type of mark … One’s experience of the unfurleds can be vertiginous. The banked rivulets – here again their vibrant, biting colour is crucial – open up the picture plane more radically than ever before, as though seeing the first marking we are for the first time shown the void. The dazzling blankness of the untouched canvas at once repulses and engulfs the eye, like an infinite abyss, the abyss that opens up behind the least mark we make on a plane surface’ (M. Fried, Morris Louis, New York 1970, pp. 32-33).

The later Unfurled works, of which the present painting is an example, are noticeably different from their earlier counterparts. The innermost diagonals fall at a sixty-degree angle, dividing the lower edge of the painting into thirds, with the bare expanse of canvas broadening to the full width of the painting at the top. The rivulets themselves are greatly thinned and consequently more abundant, allowing the artist to incorporate a wider spectrum of colour. As Carmean explains, ‘Where our experience of the earlier Unfurleds was one of solid areas of bold colour moving across the surface, in the later works we experience what we might call a “multitude of colours” flowing inward from the exterior. Louis’ placement, drawing and colour juxtaposition, all ingredients which alternately dominated one another in earlier works, are here made equal and mutually supportive. Like Pollock’s art, here what at first appears so strikingly simple is, in fact, astonishingly rich in its nuances. In Pollock’s classic poured paintings, the composition, colouration, and application come together in an incredibly complicated coalition. In Louis’ later Unfurleds there are comparable elements, but they are pulled apart and yet, like those in Pollock’s work, still articulate a single presence … Louis himself considered these later Unfurleds his greatest works’ (E. A. Carmean Jr., Morris Louis: Major Themes & Variations, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1976, unpaged).

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