‘Far from harmonizing the individual stripes by colour, Louis usually vibrates them, creating an illusion of painterliness in their optical flicker... [at times] they present the illusion of an almost corrugated surface, until the visible weave of the canvas tautens it, pulling out its creases’ (J. Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 74).
‘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. 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).
With its shimmering bands of colour cascading down the length of the canvas, Number 36 is an exquisite example of Morris Louis’ Stripe paintings, widely celebrated as his most advanced series of works. Extending over two metres in height, it unveils a unique chromatic rainbow of black, terracotta, ochre, burgundy, blue and yellow, rhythmically articulated in bold vertical striations. Defined by the intense optical vibrations that occur between adjacent strips of colour, the Stripe paintings were the last major cycle of canvases that the artist created before his untimely death in 1962. Executed that year, Number 36 stands among the final summations of Louis’ distinctive contribution to abstract colour-field painting. A colourist at heart, with a palette rooted in his studies of Post-Impressionism, Louis’ work sustains a rigorous investigation into the materiality of the painted canvas. Staining pure unprimed cotton with thinned acrylic, the artist creates an inextricable fusion between surface and support, permitting the pigment to permeate the very fibre of the canvas. Exhibited at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1967, Number 36 belongs to a specific subset of Stripe paintings in which Louis exploits a new technique: allowing paint to drain off the bottom of the canvas, he carefully manipulates the top ends of the stripes using a long daubing stick with cheesecloth wrapped around one end. Marrying visual splendour with a newly refined sense of control, other works from this individual grouping are held in museum collections worldwide, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindoven; the Museum Ludwig, Cologne and the Tel Aviv Museum, Israel.
Championed throughout his career by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg, Louis was hailed as one of the very few artists who had approached the stature of Abstract Expressionism’s ‘first wave’ pioneers. Indeed, the soaring verticality of his stripes suggests the famed ‘Zips’ of Barnett Newman’s early masterpieces. Like Newman, Louis also preferred to work on a monumental scale, with vast colour fields and incisive painterly striations designed to induce a transcendental sublimity. However, Louis’ exploration of staining – rather than painting per se – marked him out from his Abstract Expressionist forbears. ‘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). Inspired by a formative visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953, Louis began to use white, unprimed no. 12-weight cotton duck, applying deliberately liquefied acrylic that absorbed directly into the fabric like a dye. Spilling his pigments down the length of the picture plane, Louis cultivated a new painterly autonomy, divorced from Abstract Expressionism’s emphasis on the artist’s hand and psyche. In the Stripe paintings, Kenneth Noland has suggested that Louis may have dripped thin ribbons of paint down the centre of the intended stripe before using a putty knife to create the desired breadth (M. Fried, Morris Louis, New York 1970, p. 36).
Originally described by Greenberg as ‘pillars of fire’, the Stripe paintings represented a new departure from the Veils and Unfurleds that had dominated Louis’ previous output (C. Greenberg, letter to Morris Louis, 5 May 1961, Morris Louis Archives). Unlike the Unfurleds, in which raw canvas was left gaping in between banked rivulets of colour, the Stripes created a continuous spectrum of adjoining colours, reducing the blurred expanses of his aqueous Veil paintings to discrete linear bands. Whilst previous works had rejoiced in the bleeding between different colours, Louis gradually perfected a technique in which the stripes could touch but not overlap, allowing the relationships between the colours to function on a purely optical level. Witnessing a new level of technical refinement, Louis’ Stripe paintings seemed to prophesise the dawn of a new era within his practice. Cut short in his prime, amidst rapidly accelerating critical acclaim, Louis left behind him a body of work that had not only broken away from the domineering currents of Abstract Expressionism, but which also provided an important source of inspiration for a new generation of Minimalist painters. Created just months before his death in September 1962, Number 36 bears witness to the artist at the height of his powers.