Unfurling sensuously from the upper margins of the vast eight-and-a-half by twelve-foot canvas, the sinuous rivulets of brilliant hue curve inward to delicately articulate the swelling void of raw canvas at the heart of the composition; while each band of color is clearly defined, the distinct veins curve and wind with unprecedented synchronicity and grace. The mirrored tides of color are conversant with one another, poised in a kinetic equilibrium in which both poles press inward and outward, toward and away from the contoured void between them, fusing support and pigment, mark and void, color and canvas in a single unified image. With works like Lambda II, Louis embraced the tension between random chance and deliberate action. While the painting feels spontaneous at first glance, upon further study of Louis’s work, it becomes clear that his actions are quite intentional. Although he allowed his materials to hold a distinct power, embracing his medium’s inherent fluidity, Louis maintained control throughout the entire production process and purposefully determined the ultimate composition. His staining technique encompassed not only careful pours with deliberate selections of pigment but also employed specific physical interventions such as folding and bending his canvas to direct the flow of the paint. Turning away from the gesture-laden, textured surfaces that typified much of Abstract Expressionist painting, Lambda II instead displays colors flowing effortlessly, infusing life, color, and artistic intervention literally into and across this vast canvas.
A virtuosic and prolific artist, Louis produced no fewer than three major series of paintings between 1958 and 1962—the Veils, Unfurleds, and Stripes—an astoundingly coherent sequence of innovations in abstraction, of which the Unfurleds are widely considered the crowning achievement. The artist traces the origin of these groundbreaking paintings to a 1953 visit to New York with his friend, and fellow painter, Kenneth Noland; there, Noland introduced Louis to Clement Greenberg, the foremost art critic and essayist of their time, who led the trio on a tour of galleries and artists’ studios in the city. This tour most notably included Helen Frankenthaler’s studio, to view her masterpiece, Mountain and Sea. Struck particularly by Frankenthaler’s ability to confuse depth and flatness through staining very thin pigment on to unprimed canvas, Louis was deeply moved and inspired by the ethereal pools of transparent color that he saw there. It was also in this same month that Greenberg not only acquainted Louis with Franz Kline, but also introduced him to the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Witnessing the expansive scale and pure openness of these works catalyzed the direction for Louis’s new artistic expression, initiating the development that would come to define his legacy as an artist, painter, and independent visionary. Working in a variety of series that included the radical breakthrough of the Veils, the dramatic pictorial solution of the Unfurleds, exemplified by the Lambda II, and subsequently, the colorful, controlled and refined Stripe paintings of 1961-62, Louis produced effects of incredible delicacy and subtlety.
Prior to the inception of the Unfurled paintings in the late summer and early fall of 1960, Louis had ordered canvas only ten or twenty yards at one time; following the commercial success of the preceding Veil paintings, increased critical attention, and newfound representation by the André Emmerich gallery, Louis was able to purchase wider quantities of canvas than ever before, and new, more expensive formulas of paint that radically contributed to the development of this groundbreaking new series of monumental pictures. Taking advantage of his improved finances, Louis began to use a higher grade of cotton duct material, a canvas whose superior porousness allowed the paint to permeate the canvas quickly, producing the crisp contours so vital to most of the Unfurled series. Despite his relatively small studio, where he could only view one painting at a time, Louis embraced epic proportions: indeed, the Unfurleds were so monumental that they surpassed the capacity of the artist’s room, allowing him to only work on one half of a canvas at a time. Armed with 16 gallons of Bocour’s new formula of Magna paint, the artist was able to finally realize the most mature, acute articulation of his staining technique; as described by scholar Diane Upright in the artist’s catalogue raisonné: “The Unfurleds present his most audacious, innovative pictorial strategy. According to [Clement] Greenberg, Louis believed this series to be his greatest achievement… The overwhelming impact of this series stems as much from its simplicity of composition as from the complexity of its effect. The basic pictorial components are readily described: two triangular zones of color rivulets confront each other across a huge center wedge of intensely white, unpainted canvas. With the directness and seeming inevitability so often characteristic of masterpieces, the Unfurleds provided Louis with the ideal framework in which to exploit his urge toward active draftsmanship and colorism without sacrificing structural coherence, a problem that had long preoccupied him.” (Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, p. 22) Exhibiting incredible control, confidence, and painterly audacity, Louis’s new materials allowed him to tightly guide and regulate the flow of paint across vast lengths of canvas while making sure that neighboring rivulets of paint would meet along their trajectories only where he intended. Even where the Magna overlaps at the base of Lambda II, the hues do not blend—each pour remains an autonomous, clearly articulated and contoured field of color.
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