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

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  • With its cascading, prismatic bands of color, Infield 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 10-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. This body of work signaled an immediate shift in Louis’s production from his Unfurleds as color ceased to compose merely an element of the painting: in Infield, painting is color. Evocative of Clement Greenberg’s comment that in 1954 Louis began “to think, feel, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open color,” Infield is exemplary of the extensive developments in form and pigment evident in the artist’s work during the final chapter of his career.i



    "[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

    The Art of Chance


    Infield 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, 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 Infield 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 Infield. The painting’s waterfall stripes gracefully demonstrate both the formidable power of gravitational pull and the faculty of the artist’s hand.


    Pillars of Fire


    It is unsurprising that Greenberg originally christened the Stripe paintings “pillars of fire”: Infield seemingly alludes to the earthly elements of falling water and raging flames. Moreover, similar to other earlier works within the series, the fiery bands in the present work are split into two groups, lending the picture a dynamism and 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 former Chief Curator of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, described.ii This distinguished prodigiousness is captured in the painting’s title, possibly a reference to the tranquility and beauty of arable farmland and likely chosen by Greenberg himself, who frequently provided Louis with name recommendations for the series.


    "As usual, your paintings continue to haunt me. But [for the] first time I felt they were beyond my eye for [the] time being. Which, for me, means everything." 
    — Clement Greenberg to Morris Louis

    Following Charles Millard’s assessment of Louis’s Stripe paintings, the palette and composition of Infield 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.” iii


    The Power of Abstraction


    Simultaneously emotive yet controlled, Infield 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 ‘60s, 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.”iv 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.”v The culmination of Louis’s brief yet robust experimentation with process, color, and composition, Infield thus not only attains the highest aims of his Stripe paintings and his oeuvre overall –but those of modernism as well.


    [left] Barnett Newman, Onement III, 1949. Museum of Modern Art, New York, Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY, Artwork © 2020 Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [right] Clyfford Still, PH-303, 1943. Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, Artwork © City and County of Denver / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

    Created less than a year before the artist’s death, Infield is ebullient yet meditative, vibrant yet poignant. 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, Infield 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.


    i Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland,” Art International, vol. 5, May 25, 1960, p. 28
    ii John Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 79.
    iii, iv Charles Millard, “Morris Louis,” The Hudson Review, vol. 30, no. 2, Summer 1977, p. 257-258.
    v John Elderfield, Morris Louis, p. 23.

    • Provenance

      André Emmerich Gallery, New York
      Mr. and Mrs. Morton G. Neumann, Chicago
      Private Collection
      Christie's, New York, November 18, 1992, lot 8
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Morris Louis, October 16 - November 10, 1962, n.p. (inverse dimensions listed)
      Art Institute of Chicago, Directions in Contemporary Painting and Sculpture: 66th Annual American Exhibition, January 11 - February 10, 1963, no. 50, n.p.
      Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, The Morton G. Neumann Family Collection, August 31 – December 31, 1980, no. 130, vol. I, p. 139 (illustrated upside down, p. 128); vol. II, p. 91

    • Literature

      Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1985, no. 534, pp. 38, 234 (illustrated, p. 181)

    • 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 from a Midwestern Private Collection

Ο ◆7


signed, titled, inscribed and dated "MORRIS LOUIS #492 "INFIELD" 1962." on the stretcher; further inscribed by the artist's widow ""INFIELD" M. Louis 62" on the reverse
Magna on canvas
90 1/4 x 24 in. (229.2 x 61 cm)
Painted in 1962.

Full Cataloguing

$900,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for $1,179,500

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