“Far from harmonizing the individual stripes by color, 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, as they were”
Terra-cotta, navy, evergreen, burnt orange, crimson, marigold, and plum—seven vertical bands of pure, unfettered pigment cascade down the center of Morris Louis’s Alcor. These rich colors saturate through the fibers of the white unprimed cotton duck, unwavering and in perfect synchrony, forming one single vivacious column simultaneously hovering over and intertwined with the space of unadulterated canvas. A grand exemplification of Morris Louis’s Stripes paintings, Alcor stands as a primary testament to the extraordinary talent of one of twentieth century’s foremost Color Field painters.
John Elderfield wrote of the Stripes series: “Far from harmonizing the individual stripes by color, 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, as they were” (J. Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 74). A work of technical mastery and optical magnificence, Alcor is a tremendous example of Morris Louis’s last and arguably most advanced series of works.
Unlike his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, Morris Louis chose to minimize evidence of his own hand’s work within his paintings. Rather than conforming color to either physical or psychological representation, he incorporated chance into his paintings and permitted his mediums to dictate the outcome of his images with few constraints. By pouring washes of acrylic or acrylic resin, and thus allowing gravity to carry the paint throughout the picture plane, Louis emphasized the fluidity and dynamism that emanates from the material itself and not from his own manipulation. By allowing the paint to soak and dye the raw canvas, Morris Louis flattens the picture plane, eliminating the separation between foreground and background. This technique indicated Morris Louis’s central role as a Color Field stain painter alongside artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Kenneth Noland.
It was, in fact, Morris Louis’s contact with Helen Frankenthaler that motivated him to move in the direction of Color Field and stain painting. Prior to visiting Frankenthaler’s studio with Noland in 1953, Louis painted numerous representational portraits, still lives, landscapes, and even cubist, surrealist, and abstract expressionist styles. Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea in particular made a lasting impact on both Noland and Louis. Upon his return to his home in Washington, Morris Louis immediately embraced his newly found inspiration and embarks on his Veil painting series in 1954—rejecting representation in favor of abstraction through the application of overlapping thinned acrylic colors onto primed canvas, allowing the color to seep into and bond with the fabric. Between 1955 and 1957, Louis abandoned the Veils, resumed producing work on primed canvas in an Abstract Expressionist style, only to return to the series in 1958 but without priming the canvas. This time Morris Louis revisited Veils with the revelation that a color needed to become part of its ground in order to be liberated from representation.
“Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment almost everywhere thin enough 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 woveness are in the color” (C. Greenberg, quoted in M. Fried, Morris Louis, New York, 1970, p. 23).
Upon the conception of his stain paintings, Morris Louis became obsessed with the consistency and quality of his colors and kept very close correspondence with Leonard Bocour in order to develop the ideal medium to suit his artistic vision. Leonard Bocour was the manufacturer of Magna paint, used by artists such as Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Jackson Pollock, in addition to Morris Louis. Starting in 1954, Morris Louis painted in exclusively Bocour’s Magna paint and ordered it by the gallon. The majority of Louis’s corresponding letters to Boucour took the form of complaints. In one letter to “Len” in 1962, Louis orders nine gallons of Magna all the while griping about hardened old paint and machines that are “hardly cleaned between the different colors” (Morris Louis, quoted in letter to Leonard Bocour, Washington, 22 May 1960). Nonetheless, we see in Alcor that Bocour was able to successfully create a medium that allowed Louis to thin it out to a liquid state and pour it over a canvas without leaving large flecks of unground paint on the surface.
Alcor, painted in 1962, displays a particular mastery of his mediums and process. In each strip of color, the paint is consistently brilliant from top to bottom. Even Bocour himself was baffled by Louis’s ability to maintain each color’s vibrancy throughout the entire length of the canvas, and was unable to reproduce the effect. Alcor, unlike Stripes painted in 1961, also shows a more intentional and careful handling of the tops of each vertical line. Whereas accidental drips and pools of gathered paint can be seen in earlier works, the start of each line in this work is neat, regular, and rounded. Alcor is truly a spectacular example of a work which has been perfected to suit its maker’s incredible vision.