Morris Louis - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Morris Louis, 'Singing', Lot 24

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    André Emmerich Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner on December 14, 1963

  • Literature

    Portable Gallery Press, Morris Louis: Paintings from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Memorial Exhibition, 1963 and additional later works, vol. 1, New York, 1963, slide 10 (illustrated)
    Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, no. 485, p. 231 (illustrated, p. 176)

  • Catalogue Essay

    “[The Stripes] by Louis… are extraordinarily optimistic, as well as candid, pictures. They had, of course, no successors” – John Elderfield, Chief Curator, The Museum of Modern Art

    With its cascading, prismatic bands of color, Singing is exemplary of the elegant clarity that characterized Morris Louis’s production in the last year of his life. The artist made fewer than 75 pictures during his acclaimed Stripe period – the ten-month span before his death in September 1962 – and this chapter symbolized the culmination of his oeuvre. Exuding a dynamic vertical energy, these Stripe works feature tall bands of kaleidoscopic color, poured snugly side-by-side, which saturate the canvas weave rather than simply sitting atop it. The first works from this series, including Singing, signaled an immediate shift in Louis’s production from his Unfurleds as color ceases to compose merely an element of the painting: in these Stripes, painting is color. Perhaps it is this quality that most attracted Florence Bassett Knoll to Singing—who acquired it for $5,500 soon after its execution—as she was introduced to the raw pathos of color by Josef and Anni Albers during a visit to Black Mountain College. Evocative of Clement Greenberg’s comment that in 1954 Louis began “to think, feel, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open color,” Singing is exemplary of the extensive developments in form and pigment evident in the artist’s work during the final chapter of his career (Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland”, Art International, vol. 5, May 25, 1960, p. 28).

    Singing is the outcome of Louis’s idiosyncratic painterly practice: after stapling canvas to his studio wall, he would pour turpentine-thinned paint in a trajectory that was purely ruled by gravity and controlled chance. This staining exercise – executed in Magna, a brand of acrylic resin paint – was primarily inspired by a visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio that he and Kenneth Noland took in April 1953, during which the two were astounded by her seminal painting Mountains and Sea, 1952, on extended view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Louis’s material of choice since its creation in 1947, Magna fully penetrates the fabric and engulfs the fibers when applied to unprimed canvas, the artist’s process in Singing and throughout much of his oeuvre. The results of this technique include a heightened brilliance of tone as well as a tendency for the paint to soak through the canvas to the point where the shades are almost as saturated on the verso as they are on the recto of the work. Moreover, Louis never combined the Magna shades for his Stripe paintings, instead utilizing the pure colors straight from the cans, a procedure which accounts for the clarity of the luminescent hues that compose Singing. The painting’s waterfall stripes gracefully demonstrate both the formidable power of gravitational pull and the faculty of the artist’s hand.

    It is unsurprising that Greenberg originally christened the Stripe paintings “pillars of fire”: Singing seemingly alludes to the earthly elements of falling water and raging flames. Moreover, similar to other earlier works within the Stripes series, the fiery bands in Singing are centered, lending the picture a majestic monumentality. The bright pillars of paint paradoxically appear to dart upward toward their circular capitals, as “capillary tubes carrying up moisture from their roots,” as John Elderfield, the renowned formed Chief Curator of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, described (John Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 79). This distinguished prodigiousness is captured in the painting’s title, possibly a reference to the awe-inducing, even sacred, potentiality of music and likely chosen by Greenberg himself, who frequently provided Louis with name recommendations for the series.

    Following Charles Millard’s assessment of Louis’s Stripe paintings, the palette and composition of Singing make it a first-rate work from the series; according to the curator and scholar, “the most successful pictures are those in which only one end is anchored… Louis used ever richer and more brilliant combinations of color in these paintings, combinations relieved only by the introduction of darker values or of mixed hues such as mustard or shades of violent. In some of the best of them he preferred sour color combinations such as yellow, green, and deep blue, abandoning the dramatic beauty of the Unfurleds in favor of a concentrated intensity” (Charles Millard, “Morris Louis”, The Hudson Review, vol. 30, no. 2, Summer 1977, p. 257).

    Simultaneously emotive yet controlled, Singing demonstrates Louis’s position as a crucial link between Abstract Expressionism and its variety of descendants encapsulated in a movement that Greenberg coined “post-painterly abstraction.” As Millard has contextualized, “considered historically, Louis was a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and the less frenetic color explorations of the sixties, his work a microcosm of the passage from dramatic, freely drawn, large-scale canvases to the more contemplative, not always so large, but nonetheless powerful work of the generation after Abstract Expressionism” (Charles Millard, “Morris Louis”, The Hudson Review, vol. 30, no. 2, Summer 1977, pp. 257-258). However, other scholars have appraised Louis’s contributions to modernism and 20th century art more widely. “At the height of his powers,” Elderfield wrote, Louis’s paintings achieved a sense of “deliverance through the senses… the condition toward which the best of modern painting has aspired” (John Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 23). The culmination of Louis’s brief yet robust experimentation with process, color, and composition, Singing thus not only attains the highest aims of his Stripe paintings – and his oeuvre overall – but those of modernism as well.

    Created less than a year before the artist’s death, Singing is ebullient yet meditative, vibrant yet poignant, a joyful portrait of a sorrowful song sung in a minor key. Both evocative of Frankenthaler’s stained works as well as Barnett Newman’s “zips”, it is an undoubtedly emotive picture, a refreshing embrace of the romanticism and raw power of abstraction that was becoming increasingly abandoned during a time in which Pop Art was rapidly gaining popularity and was posed to eclipse Abstract Expressionism to become the dominant force in the New York art world. In this way, Singing was not just one of Louis’s last love letters to his own experience with painting, but also a signal of the end of the reign of the first wave of Abstract Expressionism before it was supplanted by Pop, Minimalism, and color field painting.

  • Artist Biography

    Morris Louis

    Exceptionally prolific yet meticulous over the course of his all-too-brief career, Morris Louis cemented a status as one of the most important proponents of Color Field Painting and one of the leaders of the Washington Color School. Working with such figures as Kenneth Noland and Sam Gilliam, Louis pioneered a greatly simplified form of abstraction that served as a stylistic conduit between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. By pouring greatly thinned washes of paint over the surface of unprimed canvas, Louis alternately achieved luminous, cheerful ribbons of color and an eerie and ethereal effect, marked by the use of chance and the participation of atmospheric elements such as gravity in the creation of his paintings.

    Louis developed his mature style after a visit with Noland to the New York studio of Helen Frankenthaler at the suggestion of critic Clement Greenberg, where he learned of Frankenthaler’s innovative soak-stain technique. He used this method to pioneer no fewer than three major mature series that can be characterized by their atmospheric intensity, psychological presences, and crisp, pristine mellifluousness. Louis succumbed to lung cancer in 1962 and was honored the following year with a posthumous exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. He has been the subject of major retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the High Museum, Atlanta, and the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

    View More Works

Making Modern: Property from the Collection of Florence Knoll Bassett



signed, titled and dated ““SINGING" M. Louis - 61" on the reverse
Magna on canvas
83 5/8 x 34 1/4 in. (212.4 x 87 cm.)
Painted in 1961.

$1,500,000 - 2,000,000 

Sold for $1,700,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019