"He began to feel, think and conceive almost exclusively in terms of
open color." -- Clement Greenberg
Saf is an extraordinary Veil painting by Morris Louis, the main practitioner of the movement that has come to be known as Color Field painting. Championed by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg, Color Field rose to prominence in the late 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.
Saf is from the last group of Veil paintings executed by the artist and they include some of his most daring works. One gets the sense of an artist at the height of his powers and fully in command of the medium, stretching his prior innovations to the limit. Instead of the monolithic wall of color of the earlier veils, Saf consists of a series of jagged peaks and valleys. The overwhelming sensation is one of fire, as the tongues of flame rise up to the top of the canvas. The high-key orange and reds are contrasted with a brown layer towards the top edge, throwing the "flames" in high relief, which lend the composition a psychedelic quality.
Louis's Veil paintings garnered Louis the first significant acclaim of his career. The first solo exhibition of the Veils was organized by Greenberg for French & Company's prestigious and cavernous museum-quality space in New York. Included were a group of 1954 Veils and a large number of Veils from 1958-1959. They were admired for their "thin films of exquisite color, overlaid to fantastic depths without appreciable change in surface. They are paintings of incredible delicacy on an enormous scale...Louis is very much apart from New York School painting, yet he is seriously engaged in a totally independent effort to extend painting's frontiers" (M. Sawin, as quoted in D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, New York, 1985).
Intensely private, the artist's working method remains a mystery, but what is clear from an examination is that they were executed in sections and that the works were poured from the top down, where the pigment pooled up at the bottom. Louis's technique is inextricably linked with his work. "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" (C. Greenberg as quoted in M. Fried,
Morris Louis, New York, 1970).
Saf is that rare combination of coloristic splendor, compositional complexity and formal balance that mark Louis's most daring and compelling work.