Morris Louis (1912-1962)
Floral V
signed and numbered 'M. Louis #97' (on the reverse)
acrylic and Magna on canvas
98½ x 137¾ in. (250 x 350 cm.)
Painted in 1959-60.
Estate of the artist
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, p. 157, no. 271 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

Floral V is an extraordinary and rare painting by Morris Louis, the main practitioner of the movement that has come to be known as Color Field painting. Louis developed his mature style following an introduction to the work of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, including a visit to the latter's studio to see her masterpiece Mountains and Sea. He was influenced by the large scale and emotional responses to color of Abstract Expressionism and was particularly impressed with the possibilities inherent in Frankenthaler's staining techniques. Within months, Louis developed the breakthrough style that would be the hallmark of the nearly six hundred works that he would produce in a five year period.

Championed by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg, Color Field painting rose to prominence in the late nineteen-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, Columns and Unfurleds. According to Diane Upright, "The Florals are among the most successful of Louis's 1959-1960 Themes and Variations. The majority are characterized by a hovering mass of intense, discrete hues, which are unified by a veiled wash. In the best of these paintings, Louis achieved a delicate balance between gesturalism and colorism without sacrificing compositional coherence" (D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, p. 20).

Floral V is a tour-de-force of the artist's staining technique in which he delicately balances the riotous color and intricate overlapping pattern to create a harmonious overall composition. By 1959, Louis had eliminated the priming from his canvas, allowing the pigment to soak into the canvas and create the velvety appearance of the layered colors. Here, Louis has poured most of the individual colors from the top of the canvas, while orienting the confluence of paint toward the bottom, to enhance the feel of the gravitational pull. The veil-like overlay of sheer black paint adds subtlety and depth to the colors. Although the composition reveals the artist's formal rigor and experimentation, the result is unabashedly concerned with visual pleasure.

"The effect [of Louis' stain technique] 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. The suppression of the difference between painted and unpainted surfaces causes pictorial space to leak through--or rather, to seem about to leak through--the framing edges of the picture into the space beyond them" (C. Greenberg, quoted in Ibid, p. 21).

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