Painted in 1958, Morris Louis’s Lower Spectrum is a dazzling example of the artist’s celebrated Veil paintings. Executed on a grand scale, the diaphanous cloaks of burnished bronzes, warm oranges, glowing red and radiant gold envelop the viewer in swaths of glorious ethereality. Using his unique method of combining gesture with pouring paint directly onto unprimed canvas, the Veil paintings marked a major turning point in Louis’s career and led to increased acclaim and recognition for the artist in an art world dominated by Abstract Expressionism. His bold new direction grew out of this tradition, but signaled an important shift towards a more contemplative, color-based movement. In paintings such as the present example, Louis allowed the color to possess and celebrate its own innate properties and qualities, unrestrained by the will of the artist and able to maintain its own flow and life across the surface of the canvas.
Lower Spectrum is distinguished by a kaleidoscope of warm burnished tones that are enriched with torrents of warm red and soft yellow pigment flowing in waves that ripple across the surface of this impressively-scaled canvas. Exactly how he achieved this effect is open to conjecture as Louis often worked in private, refusing to allow anyone to witness his exact process. But by laying down gossamer thin layers of acrylic paint he built up complex patterns of pigment. His exacting skill in creating these layers of color and concluding them with a final burnished tone recalls an inner light emerging from the darkness, softened by the texture of the individual threads of the canvas. Lower Spectrum belongs to a series of Veils known as the “triadic Veils”—distinguished by the pair of internal lines left by the vertical braces of the works stretcher—which in the case of this particular work characterize the sharper distinctions between the color areas, taking the form of spiked and jagged peaks and evoking the tectonic forms of Clyfford Still’s paintings.
Louis began his revolutionary Veils in 1954 and produced several different iterations of this unique form over the next few years. Clement Greenberg’s exhibition of the Veils at the French and Company Gallery in New York in the spring of 1959 (an exhibition which included the present work) marked the triumphant revelation of this important series to an unsuspecting New York Art world, with the influential museum curator William Rubin declaring it “one of the most significant [exhibitions] in years” (quoted by D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, New York, 1985, p. 20). Critics marveled at these bronzed “scrims,” with one eulogizing how “he…began with the subdued tonalities of the bronze triadic Veils, developing a wide range of smoldering color effects: intense hues flicker around the edges of the bronzed masses” (M. Swain, ibid., p.17).
One critic at the time succinctly summed up the excitement that these new works generated in an art-world that was dominated by the impact of Abstract Expressionism, “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, 26 April, 1959, p. X17).
Morris Louis redefined a relationship between the viewer, the canvas and the pigment which had remained largely unchanged for centuries. Inspired by the work of the French Impressionists and the atmospheric paintings of the English painter J.M.W. Turner, Louis conveys the same sense of awe-inspiring power. As Clement Greenberg proclaimed, “Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment almost everywhere thin enough, no matter how many different veils of it are superimposed, for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric underneath. But ‘underneath’ is the wrong word. The fabric being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like dyed cloth; the threadedness and wovenness are in the color” (quoted in M. Fried, Morris Louis, New York, 1970).
With Greenberg as his champion, Louis emerged as the pre-eminent artist in the Color Field movement. Their primary concerns were the unfettered power of color, often delivered in undulated waves of pure pigment that emphasized a feeling of flatness and the preservation of the picture plane as a two dimensional surface. The emphasis on the elemental nature of paint and its properties put Louis at the very heart of the New York School of painting, and Lower Spectrum's successful combination of incredible delicacy produced on such a scale acts as a fitting tribute to Louis’s efforts to redefine the frontiers of painting.