A tour-de-force painting from 1962, Morris Louis’s Number 4-32 is an example of the artist’s highly-prized series of Stripe paintings, widely considered to be amongst his finest works. Originally titled Pillars of Fire by the preeminent art critic Clement Greenberg, these Stripe paintings display vertical bands of color arranged within a continuous spectrum. Having directly followed the Unfurleds, the Stripe paintings mark the culmination of Louis’s career, having been painted in the final months leading up to his death in September 1962. Arranged in snugly painted linear strips, one alongside the next, Number 4-32 is distinguished by its wide range of commingled stripes—one of the artist’s more complex and varied arrangements—containing no less than ten different colors. Soaked into the very fiber of the canvas support, Louis’s overlapping bands of brilliant pigment do not merely sit on top of the painting’s surface, but rather become one with it. The bright columns of color race upward toward their rounded capitals, “like capillary tubes carrying up moisture from their roots,” as Museum of Modern Art curator John Elderfield put it (J. Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 79). The electric colors maintain a strict uniformity of width—though one may occasionally overlap its neighbor—making them seem disembodied, as if materialized out of thin air. Indeed, the slightly mounded “peaks” near the upper edge of the canvas provide the only vestige of the artist’s hand. This prismatic, re-ordered rainbow ravishes the viewer in Number 4-32, making it a sublime marriage of color and form. Similar Stripe paintings are held in museums such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; and the Tel Aviv Museum, Israel.
Marrying pictorial splendor with a newfound sense of control, Number 4-32 displays the refined technique of a master colorist, who by this time in his career had perfected a staggering array of sophisticated arrangements. In Number 4-32, what appears to be an arbitrary assortment of bold and vivid colors actually adheres to a rational system. Louis divides the stripes into two nearly symmetrical groups on either side of a central black line. To the right, Louis depicts only primary colors beginning with bright red, cerulean blue and two versions of yellow (yellow ochre and cadmium yellow). Secondary colors are kept to the left: green, orange, a blueish purple, burgundy-brown and a deep forest green. Furthermore, each color proceeds outward on either side of the central stripe while mirrored by its opposite: red and green, then blue and orange, then yellow and purple, and so forth. The staggering sophistication of this internal system of organization belies the effortless simplicity and flawless appearance of Number 4-32, a further demonstration of the artist’s ingenuity and finesse.
Number 4-32 belongs to a particular subset of Stripe paintings in which Louis employed a long painting stick wrapped with cheesecloth to apply the acrylic paints at the top edge of the canvas, which he allowed to cascade down the painting’s surface canvas. The width of each stripe is meticulously controlled to the extent that each one nestles into its neighbor along an unflinchingly straight border. Only occasionally does Louis allow his human line to waver, as in Number 4-32 along the strip of green and orange, where a slight blurring of the green pigment can be seen. According to the painter Kenneth Noland, Louis may have used a putty knife to help control the flow of the paint, and in areas where the vertical border quivers, wavers or bleeds, a sensation of subtle movement is perceived--creating an “optical flicker,” which Elderfield described in 1986. “At times...they present the illusion of an almost corrugated surface,” he explained, “until the visible weave of the canvas tautens it, pulling out its creases, as it were. ...More frequently, Louis simply breaks up a harmonized sequence of close-valued, usually warm hues by punctuating them with one or two stripes that are darker…. or are from the opposite side of the spectrum...into an overall optical flicker” (J. Elderfield, ibid., pp. 74-5).
Louis was also interested in the varying degrees of opacity presented within each color, at times using turpentine to thin down the acrylics he used, and he notoriously hounded its manufacturer, Leonard Bocour, until he developed a special formula for him. The particular acrylic resin used as the material for Bocour’s Magna paint, called “Acryloid F-10,” maintained a transparency on par with the highest grade of optical glass. Furthermore, Bocour was able to achieve the consistency that Louis desired—a semi-viscous liquid comparable to maple syrup—while still allowing the paint to fully penetrate the fibers of the canvas surface. The result, barely perceptible to the naked eye, is that certain colors recede while others begin to float.
Louis was spurred on throughout his career by the influential critic Clement Greenberg, that vociferous champion of Abstract Expressionism and dogged proponent of Color Field painters, who touted the inherent flatness of the two-dimensional picture plane. Though he was an intensely private artist, choosing to live in Baltimore and later Washington, D.C., rather than New York, Morris Louis allowed Greenberg into his inner circle, with the critic providing advice and guidance as Louis’s career progressed. Greenberg visited Washington about twice a year and the two men regularly exchanged letters when not meeting face to face. Indeed, Greenberg is listed in the provenance in the artist’s catalogue raisoné, a further testament to the work’s standing. When Greenberg visited Louis in Washington in late March 1962, he was able to see the sophisticated group of Stripe paintings to which Number 4-32 belongs. “As usual, your paintings continue to haunt me,” Greenberg later wrote. “But first time I felt they were beyond my eye...Which, for me, means everything” (C. Greenberg, quoted in D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, New York, 1985, p. 29).
The final series of Stripe paintings that caused Greenberg to pen such a heartfelt note developed from years of intense study. Louis was at the height of his professional abilities, having painted many Stripes in the months leading up to the summer of 1962. As his color combinations became more sophisticated and advanced, he was able to create pellucid waterfalls of harmonious color from seemingly incompatible hues. The result—so clearly defined within Number 4-32–embodies an almost musical dissonance, not unlike a song written in a minor key, which ravishes its listener by nature of its strange and beautiful melody.