A rhythmic tour-de-force that diametrically marries incandescent color and calculated form, Morris Louis’s Number 38 from 1962 is an exquisite final realization of the artist’s Stripe paintings. This series, widely heralded as his most significant and advanced body of work, was the artist’s last before his untimely death in September 1962. Number 38 is an especially rare Stripe painting, bearing thirteen shimmering stripes (nearly the highest number of stripes seen in the entire body of work); a complex palette balanced by primary, secondary, and tertiary tones; and an impeccably-executed, symmetric composition of equal width stripes. A testament to the museum-quality caliber of the present work, similarly scaled Stripe works are held in major international public collections including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Palm Springs Art Museum, California; and the Flint Institute of Arts, Michigan.
Out of public view since it was painted in 1962, Number 38 bears the incredible distinction of having been first acquired by pioneering British collector E.J. ‘Ted’ Power. That this work was formerly in the Ted Power collection adds immediate importance: Power was one of Britain’s leading collectors of the post-war period and essentially single-handedly brought Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting to Britain’s shores. Power bought only the best of the best; he collected voraciously and assiduously for more than 35 years, but during the 1950s and 1960s, the breadth and depth of his collection was unparalleled. Alongside the four Morris Louis paintings Power owned by 1964, Power counted 79 works by Jean Dubuffet, 6 works by Pablo Picasso, 5 Mark Rothko paintings, 4 works by Jackson Pollock, 7 Clyfford Still paintings, 16 Ellsworth Kelly paintings, 12 Barnett Newman paintings and 10 works by Agnes Martins in his collection, among many more. The present Number 38 hung in great company in Power’s London flat (albeit upside-down), alongside Constantin Brancusi’s Fish, now in the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery, London, and Jackson Pollock’s 1948 canvas Black, White and Grey/Number 11A. In speaking about his love for the paintings in his collection, Power remarked, "To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of a painting which I like is that it is an unique expression or statement of an artist’s ideas and emotions communicated through color, shape and texture, by him to me, in a form which I can hold, and keep, and own, and live with, and use, and enjoy, and perhaps with time to get to know and understand. This knowing of a picture should always be a challenge” (E.J. Power, 10 International Artists, Norfolk Contemporary Art Society, Norwich Castle Museum, 1959).
Louis began working on his seminal Stripe paintings in early 1961, immediately following his Unfurled series. In the Stripes, the artist continued focusing on the fundamental precepts that had launched his career, specifically how to overcome the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic that had taken the art world by storm in the 1950s and cultivate a distinctive style of his own. The Stripe series represents the absolute apogee of Louis’s intense concentration on color and his desire to elevate color as an individual force unto itself, as described by John Elderfield: “Color is now no longer part of painting, no longer services and pictorializes the empty canvas…The colored stripes, then, are not neutral modules that combine homogeneously to form a multicolored sheet or field, as in Noland’s work, but things with identities. Louis’s choices of color (hue and tonality) and his handling of color (of its relative tactility) were designed not only to visually combine the stripes but to preserve their identities within that combination” (John Elderfield in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Morris Louis, 1986, p. 75).
As seen in the present work, each band of color exists as an autonomous entity, bleeding into the fibers of the canvas and becoming one with it. Louis’s color palette here is highly complex, and his deliberate ordering of each colored stripe engages a tonal push-pull between primary, secondary, and tertiary hues. His seemingly ordinary red, yellow and blue pillars are offset by gorgeous secondary tones of plum violet, cadmium orange, and jungle green. Pushing the palette even further, Louis enraptures the viewer with nearly indescribable tertiary tones of more muted—yet all the more interesting—offshoots of ochre, sienna, olive, and velvety purple. The effect of such amalgamated sumptuous tones is that their brilliancy is not hindered by the stark midnight navy and black stripes, but rather enhanced as a result of this visual weight.
In addition to its complex color palette, the present work is distinguished as an especially rare example of the Stripe paintings as it displays a near-perfect symmetrical alignment of the block of stripes at the center of the composition with equal margin of raw canvas on either side. While Louis created over 200 Stripe paintings, most examples tend towards an asymmetrical arrangement of stripes—yet as seen in a few striking works, such as the present one, he achieved an indescribable visual harmony by centering the stripes within the landscape of the canvas. The ‘cap’ of each stripe is also immaculately finished. Earlier examples of Stripe paintings show that Louis had not quite figured out how to address the caps of the stripes, which is where he initially deposited the paint before letting it seep down the surface according to gravity’s pull. In contrast to the often messy or irresolute treatment of caps in the preceding works, Number 38 elucidates Louis’s sheer confidence in his pouring technique, resulting in pristinely executed tips of each stripe. As described by John Elderfield, each band of color seems to race upward towards its rounded capital, “like capillary tubes carrying up moisture from their roots,” (Ibid., p. 79). Painted just a few months before his death, Number 38 is a searing visage of an artist at the height of his production, flawlessly synthesizing color and form into a sweeping composition that hypnotically holds the viewer’s eye.
In Number 38, Louis carefully controlled each vertical stripe, maintaining an even sense of saturated color throughout the entire vertical length of each stripe. Here, Louis’s noticeably calculated application of paint marks a departure from many of the earlier Stripe paintings, in which the stripes often overlapped or bled into one another. In creating the present work, Louis would have carefully poured a thin ribbon of paint down the surface of the canvas, then employed long painting stick wrapped with cheesecloth to spread the paint to its desired width, carefully nestling each stripe up against its neighboring stripe. Therefore, the stripes are touching but not bleeding together. The present work consequently reveals Louis as master of his own technique, having perfected the process of pouring paint onto the canvas and controlling the width of each stripe.
This specific, restrained control and evenness seen in Number 38 was a direct result of advancements in the chemical makeup of Louis’s paint formula. Louis exclusively worked with Magna paint, which was mixed by the manufacturer Leonard Boucour and preferred for its highly fluid consistency. Boucour was one of the two leading American paint manufacturers of the time and became well-known for giving artists including Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, and Jackson Pollock free tubes of new paint to experiment with. In 1958, Louis wrote letters to Boucour complaining of his difficulties in thinning this acrylic paint and in April 1960, his complaints were answered when Boucour produced a special Magna formula called Acryloid F-10 for Louis and Noland, which was more amenable for their particular staining techniques. Louis first used Boucour’s new Acryloid F-10 in his Unfurled series but continued to employ it with its syrup-like consistency for the Stripes. Enabled by the specific tactility of the new Magna paint, Louis was capable of meticulously controlling each pour and achieving an unforeseen luminous glow, as radiantly witnessed in the present work.
As a summation of Louis’s most salient accomplishments, Number 38 encapsulates and reflects back to certain milestones of the artist’s development and personal biography. His expertly honed technique here contains a wider frame of reference, one illuminated by the path he took to arrive at a type of grand finale such as the present work. Louis was an extremely private and often self-critical individual, especially when it came to his artistic practice. While the painter did not make a habit of speaking about his own work, he remained keenly aware of the art production occurring throughout the world beyond his studio in Baltimore, Maryland and later in Washington, D.C., drawing great inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters of his time. In 1952, Louis began teaching at the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts where he became close friends with a fellow instructor and painter, Kenneth Noland. Noland and Louis bonded over a shared enthusiasm for the work of artists including Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell and in April 1953, Noland and Louis visited New York for a weekend trip that would profoundly impact the future trajectory of Louis’s artistic practice and career.
While in New York, Noland introduced Louis to Clement Greenberg, the foremost art critic and essayist of their time. Greenberg would later become deeply involved with Louis’s work and eventual legacy as the one trusted advisor with whom Louis would freely discuss his paintings. Together, the trio visited a number of galleries and artists’ studios which most notably included that of Helen Frankenthaler. This particular visit of 1953 was a transformative experience for Louis and his exposure to the staining techniques of Frankenthaler opened up a realm of new possibilities for the artist. Upon witnessing Frankenthaler’s innovative technique of pouring pigment over a flat, unstretched canvas to invoke a staining technique, Louis declared her to be “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible" (Ibid., p. 13). For Louis, one aspect of “what was possible” meant an absolute abandonment of gestural representation. Thus, after the formative visit to Frankenthaler’s studio, Louis reached a turning point in his career. By soaking the canvas with paint, rather than painting onto its surface, the paint and the canvas became one.
Further perfecting the techniques of the Veils and the Unfurleds, Louis's Stripe paintings are a glorious denouement of his artistic aims. Unlike previous bodies of work, the Stripes are characterized by an inextricable fusion between paint and support—rather than merely sitting on top of the canvas, Louis’s painted ribbons of color become one with the canvas, burning into it and setting it ablaze in a prismatic optical experience. It is this precise luminosity that distinguishes Number 38 as an exquisite finale of the series, possessing an unforeseen quality of compositional dominance and tonal complexity. Illuminated by a valiant energy, Number 38 consummates Louis’s most esteemed body of work and endures as a shimmering apotheosis of Louis’s creative genius.
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