Morris Louis - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Monday, December 7, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Titled after two letters from the Hebrew alphabet, Beth Sin is a monumental masterpiece from Morris Louis’s first mature body of work. Belonging to his Veils series, which he executed in two distinct spurts in 1954 and 1958-1959, the work is comprised of translucent washes of cerulean, violet, and moss green that gloriously flow down the surface of the work as overlapping waterfalls. One of the most refined and vibrant of its kind to come to auction, Beth Sin is an exquisite example from the pivotal series that would launch him to international acclaim



    A Consequential Encounter


    Working outside of the art world epicenter of New York for most of his career, Louis lived in Baltimore and then Washington, D.C., where he benefited from both the easy access to downtown Manattan as well as the relative distance from it, which he regarded as an echo chamber of Abstract Expressionist ideals. A breakthrough in Louis’s artistic trajectory came from meeting fellow Washingtonian Kenneth Noland in 1952. Introducing him to prominent critic Clement Greenberg in 1953, Noland was Louis’s link to some of the most significant post-war artists working in the United States.


    Though the two were united by their adoration of Jackson Pollock’s work, it was actually Helen Frankenthaler’s work that would forever alter Louis’s and Noland’s trajectories during a visit to her studio in New York in 1953. Her revolutionary soak-stain technique and unique translation of Pollock’s innovations galvanized the two painters, and Louis was so stimulated by her masterpiece Mountains and Sea, 1952, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. that it “led [him] to change his direction abruptly.”i Upon returning home, Noland and Louis began experimenting together with diverse paint application techniques, and in 1954, the latter executed his first Veil paintings—and the Washington Color School was born.


    Behind the Scenes of the Veils



    Characterized by intersecting and superimposed washes of color, this breakthrough body of work marked the beginning of Louis’s formidable contributions to Color Field painting—though Louis destroyed a considerable number of them. In 1958, he revisited the Veil compositions on a monumental scale, executing 126 colossal works in over 14 months—approximately one painting every three days—a significant proportion of which are now in notable museum collections.


    Louis meticulously prepared the paint for Beth Sin and other Veils, using acrylic medium to thin down Magna paint before further diluting the solution with substantial quantities of turpentine. He then poured the resulting liquid—an aqueous mixture that flowed and poured comfortably—onto the top edge of the canvas and directed it in narrow channels towards the bottom.


    Helen Frankenthaler, The Bay, 1963. Detroit Institute of Art, Artwork © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    “The crucial revelation he got from Pollock and Frankenthaler had to do with facture as much as anything else. The more closely color could be identified with its ground, the freer would it be from the interference of tactile associations; the way to achieve this closer identification was by adapting water-color technique to oil and using thin paint on an absorbent surface,” Greenberg elucidated of the artist’s idiosyncratic process. “Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment almost everywhere thin enough, no matter how many different veils of it are superimposed, for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric underneath. But ‘underneath’ is the wrong word. The fabric, being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like a dyed cloth: the threadedness and wovenness are in the color…The effect conveys a sense not only of color as somehow disembodied, and therefore more purely optical, but also of color as a thing that opens and expands the picture plane.”ii


    A Master of Color


    Beth Sin stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing Abstract Expressionist style championed by masters such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, which prioritized gestural brushwork and glorified the artist’s hand. By allowing gravity to do the work, Louis shifted his focus to the potentiality of color—a radical progression towards a more contemplative approach towards abstraction than his forbearers.


    Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957. Collection of Christopher Rothko, Photo credit: Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    A true master of color, his deep understanding of tonal relation lends Beth Sin a sense of harmony and balance evocative of Mark Rothko’s expressive paintings. Indeed, “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,” critic Stuart Preston expressed in a 1959 exhibition review. “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.”iii


    Louis’s Blue Veils


    Though Louis executed many Veils in 1954 and 1958-1959, he only painted four Blue Veils—three of which are now held in notable museum collections—characterized by dominant blue and green tones.

  • Cut from the Archives


    i, ii Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland,” Art International 4, May 1960, p. 28.
    iii Stuart Preston, “Sculpture and Paint: Contemporary Artists in Different Mediums,” The New York Times, April 26, 1959, online.

    • Provenance

      André Emmerich Gallery, New York
      Shirley L. and Herbert J. Semler Foundation, Portland, Oregon
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Honolulu Academy of Arts; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria; Auckland City Art Gallery; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Morris Louis, April 30, 1971 – February 7, 1972, no. 4, n.p.
      Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; The Denver Art Museum; The Fort Worth Art Museum; Syracuse, Everson Museum of Art; The Baltimore Museum of Art, Morris Louis: The Veil Cycle, February 6, 1977 – January 22, 1978, no. 10, p. 44

    • Literature

      Elwin Lynn, “Louis in Australia", Art International, 15, November 1971, pp. 29-30
      Roy M. Close, "‘Veiled’ Paintings Are Considered Artist’s Finest", Minneapolis Star, February 10, 1977, p. 1C (illustrated)
      Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, no. 172, pp. 206-207 (illustrated, p. 148)

    • 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.

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Property of an Important Collector


Beth Sin

signed and inscribed "M Louis #108" on the reverse
Magna on canvas
91 7/8 x 113 1/4 in. (233.4 x 287.7 cm)
Painted in 1958.

Full Cataloguing

$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Contact Specialist

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


20th c. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 7 December 2020