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Rich with layers of warm, translucent washes of paint, Morris Louis’s Gothic from 1958 is a stunning example of his celebrated Veil paintings. True to the series’ title, paint flows down on the canvas like a succession of diaphanous veils, layered together to sumptuous effect. Using an unprimed canvas and a custom-made diluted paint, Louis succeeded in composing his painting through gesture and pouring, resulting in a glorious almost ethereal effect. The Veil paintings, which were revolutionary when first created in 1954, marked a major turning point in the artist’s career, and led to increased acclaim and recognition in art world. This bold new direction grew out of the tradition and influence of Abstract Expressionism, but signaled a shift towards a more contemplative, color-based movement. In these paintings, 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.
At first glance, the dominant color in Gothic appears to be a translucent burgundy, with hints of bright yellows, deep oranges, and rusty browns. Yet, beneath the surface appearance, the color has more depth and complexity than any one single area would suggest. Upon closer examination, there is an almost-blue tone to the base layer, its presence hinted at in various spots along the vertical flow, and then peeking out along the upper edge. Similarly, around the border of the main body of color, hints of pure yellow and orange add to the complexity and painterly composition. The plumes of color appear to flow vertically, in a downward motion, in a form that is wider at the top and narrows as the paint makes its way to the bottom of the canvas. Louis used a special paint called Magna, which was a new, more diluted, form of acrylic that allowed the artist to create washes of color, and when combined with raw canvas, meant that the paint and base would become a harmoniously integrated surface. Two vertical lines, one at the center, the other to its right, add to the linear beauty of the painting, and serve a double purpose: they mark the spot where braces that held the stretcher in place were located, but also add an element of bold vertical structure to the nuances of the painting’s composition. With this union of paint, canvas, and form, the surface becomes a contemplative whole, where painted and unpainted portions serve to define the design, and where negative space is as deliberate and finished as the painted segments.
Louis spent most of his career working outside of New York, save for a few years in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Based instead in Baltimore and then Washington DC, he had the benefit of familiarity with but also distance from what the Abstract Expressionists were doing in New York. A major shift in his progress arose from his meeting Kenneth Noland in Washington in 1952. It was Noland who inspired him to begin exploring new modes of painting and also helped to strengthen his network back in New York with new acquaintances and regular visits. Louis’s introduction to Helen Frankenthaler and her work, through a studio visit he undertook with his new friend, was particularly impactful. During that visit, both were deeply impressed by her technique of poured stain painting onto an unprimed canvas. In 1953, Louis met Clement Greenberg and the influential critic would prove to have a major impact on the artist’s career. Over the years, Greenberg provided him with the guidance and feedback that would play a key part in his artistic evolution and increased recognition.
Greenberg was instrumental in bringing the new Veil paintings to the public eye with an exhibition at French & Company in 1959. This exhibition proved to be a breakout for Louis’s career, with numerous positive reviews for the 23 Veil paintings on display, including praise from the New York Times, which said: “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, April 26, 1959, p. 17).
Painted at the dawn of a prolific and exceptionally innovative period of Louis’s career, Gothic is an exquisite example of the artist’s individual style and unrivaled painterly skill. Said to be a reclusive figure, Louis worked in isolation much of the time in his dining room, which serves as a 12 x 14-foot studio. That he was able to create such magnificent large-scale paintings in this space is a testament to the enormity of his vision and artistry.
PROPERTY SOLD BY A CHARITABLE FOUNDATION
Morris Louis (1912-1962)
D. Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, New York, 1985, p. 144, no. 124 (illustrated).
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
J. L. Hudson Gallery, Detroit
Collection of Irwin and Bertha Green, Boca Raton
Their sale; Christie's, New York, 13 May 1998, lot 265
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner