PRINT February 1967

The Achievement of Morris Louis

The forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present.

MORRIS LOUIS WAS BORN MORRIS BERSTEIN in Baltimore, Maryland on November 24, 1912 and died of lung cancer in Washington, D.C. on September 7, 1962 at the height of his artistic powers.1 He lived for painting. According to his widow, the former Marcella Siegel and now Mrs. Abner Brenner, he habitually rose early and worked as long as there was daylight in a small, first-floor room in their suburban Washington house. The period of Louis’s major accomplishment began some time in 1954, after he had given up traditional easel painting in favor of staining acrylic paint into lengths of canvas (at first sized and later unsized), and continued until about three months before his death, when the malignancy was first diagnosed. Louis’s technique during these years entailed constant stooping and bending, which resulted in a chronic condition of the lower back that caused him great pain but could not keep him from working. Among those who knew him there is universal agreement that Louis’s integrity was remarkable. This integrity—which, not surprisingly, appears to have made itself felt from time to time as something harsh, secretive, even ungenerous—went hand in hand with a deep confidence in his own powers, though not necessarily in the value of what he had already done. Mrs. Brenner has remarked that Louis always thought of himself as young, with his life’s work still in front of him, but that he never doubted that he would accomplish what he had to do. Louis’s belief in himself survived not only the long maturing of his art but, after 1954, periods of uncertainty about what to do next. It is characteristic of his strength of mind that he was able to ride each episode out, and then put it behind him: once Louis found himself in a new vein all uncertainty vanished. Throughout his career he destroyed large numbers of paintings that failed to satisfy him. On one occasion, when he became convinced that an entire series of paintings that had just been exhibited in New York were inferior to his previous work, he did not hesitate to destroy all those within his reach—at least a year’s work.2 Louis seems to have had little taste for artistic gatherings of any kind. He never learned to tolerate light conversation about painting, nor to reconcile himself to the inevitable circumstance that his students were often less passionately devoted to painting than he. Above all Louis appears to have been profoundly serious, and to have respected only those individual men and women whose integrity, discipline, and seriousness could stand the test of his own. The assumption behind these brief remarks is that the impress of Louis’s seriousness can be felt throughout his mature work: the sensuous, subtle, sometimes electrifying color of his finest paintings ought not to numb us to the fact that, for Louis, painting consisted in far more than the production of sensuously pleasing or arresting objects. Rather, it was an enterprise which, unless inspired by moral and intellectual passion, was doomed to triviality, and unless informed by uncommon powers of moral and intellectual discrimination was doomed to failure.

The ambition to make good paintings has always entailed a stringent artistic morality. But for Louis, as for modernist painters generally, the relation of his personal integrity to that actually manifest in his paintings seems to have been acutely problematic. Louis’s notorious reluctance to visit New York, both before and after his breakthrough to major achievement in 1954, is a case in point. This was characteristic of his integrity. Louis clearly felt no need to expose himself to much contemporary painting, and in fact seems actually to have been reluctant to do so. What is fascinating, however, is the possibility that this very reluctance may have played him false here: Greenberg has remarked that Louis might not have executed the series of paintings he later came to repudiate and destroy had he allowed himself to visit New York more often in order to see what kind of painting he did not want to do.3 Such visits, Greenberg seems to be claiming, not only would not have compromised Louis’s integrity—they would have helped him to make it count pictorially. This is a characteristically modernist insight into a characteristically modernist situation. It implies that even the most incorruptible integrity in combination with the highest gifts cannot guarantee that the paintings that result will evince integrity in pictorially significant terms. And this in turn suggests that, in modernist painting, integrity is not only a moral condition but a pictorial problem. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this is always the case, only made lucid and explicit in modernism, with the result that the problem is experienced with unprecedented sharpness.

THE KIND OF PROBLEM THIS IS becomes clearer if one considers even cursorily the most important event in Louis’s career, his breakthrough to major achievement. Until 1954, Louis’s work is of limited significance. One is tempted to characterize it, what has survived of it, as both minor and provincial. This is not to say that by the late 1940s Louis was not an extremely accomplished painter, or that his dedication to painting was incomplete. But there is nothing in The Ladder of 1950, owned by Leonard Bocour, or the Charred Journal pictures of 1951, or the collages of 1953 that, even in retrospect, presages his subsequent emergence as a painter of the first importance. Sometime during 1952 Louis entered into friendship with another Washington painter, twelve years younger than himself, Kenneth Noland; in April 1953 Noland persuaded Louis to come with him to New York to visit Clement Greenberg and see what they could of current painting. In both respects their trip (April 3–5) was a success. They talked at length with Greenberg, who arranged for them to visit Helen Frankenthaler’s studio where a recent painting, Mountains and Sea, impressed them powerfully. Noland recalls that Louis in particular was struck by Frankenthaler’s picture, which seemed to him pregnant with implications he was anxious to explore. For several weeks after their return they worked together, sometimes on the same canvas; Noland has described their cooperation at this moment as an attempt to defeat their previous assumptions about painting. This entailed trying to eliminate everything recognizable (because familiar) as structure, as well as experimenting with new techniques.4 Within a short while each returned to working alone.

In January 1954 Greenberg went down to Washington to see if either Louis or Noland had done anything that ought to be included in an exhibition of Emerging Talent he was then choosing for the Kootz Gallery in New York. Greenberg recalls being shown about thirty paintings that Louis had made since their first meeting. Many contained floral motifs and all but five or six seemed to Greenberg to depend too obviously on Pollock. From these five or six, Greenberg finally chose three—Trellis and Silver Discs among them—for the exhibition at Kootz (January 11–30, 1954). In the light of Louis’s subsequent development the tentative, unrealized character of these paintings is unmistakable. At the same time they document Louis’s desire to align his art with that of Pollock and Frankenthaler. Later that year Greenberg suggested to Pierre Matisse that he consider giving Louis a one man show. Matisse agreed to look at his work, and some time during the winter of 1954 Louis sent nine large, unstretched paintings to New York. All had been made since Greenberg’s visit, by staining waves of the acrylic paint, Magna, into sized, but otherwise untreated, canvas. When, together with Helen Frankenthaler, Greenberg unrolled them, he was astonished to find himself for the first time in the presence of the mature Louis.

Because similar transitions have taken place in the careers of several—though by no means all—important modernist painters, certain aspects of Louis’s breakthrough have a significance that is more than personal. I will cite four.

1. Louis was past forty when it took place. This indicates that modernist painting may exact a far longer term of apprenticeship than traditional painting ever did.

2. The paintings that constitute his breakthrough represent a radical departure from his previous work, especially work executed before his visit to New York, as regards both technique and general appearance. This means that if his development up to 1954 is thought of as a period of apprenticeship, the relation which his mature pictures bear to his apprentice work is without precedent in traditional painting. Pictures like Intrigue and Iris do not represent a culmination or fruition of specific tendencies visible in his previous work. On the contrary, they amount to a repudiation of or revulsion against that work and its underlying assumptions. They are, of course, the fruition of his lifelong commitment to painting. But the discontinuity between Louis’s mature work and what has survived of his previous painting inclines one to say that the commitment, or anyway the depth of it, did not find its way into his work until the breakthrough itself.

3. Indeed, it can be said that what Louis broke through to was not just a new kind of painting, but his own artistic identity as well. Greenberg has described Louis’s response to Pollock and Frankenthaler in the following way:

Abandoning Cubism with a completeness for which there was no precedent in either influence, he began to feel, think, and conceive almost exclusively in terms of open color. The revelation he received became an Impressionist revelation, and before he so much as caught a glimpse of anything by Still, Newman, or Rothko, he had aligned his art with theirs. His revulsion against Cubism was a revulsion against the sculptural. Cubism meant shapes, and shapes meant armatures of light and dark. Color meant areas and zones, and the interpenetration of these, which could be achieved better by variations of hue than by variations of value. Recognitions like these liberated Louis’s originality along with his hitherto dormant gift for color.5 (Italics are mine.)

It ought, I think, to strike one as strange to speak of recognitions liberating a painter’s originality or gifts. Much of the strangeness resides in the implication that prior to the recognitions in question neither his originality nor his gift for color was evident at all. But the discontinuity between pictures like Intrigue and Iris and Louis’s previous work suggests that something like this was in fact the case. Louis’s breakthrough consisted, one might say, not in covering ground, but in discovering where he really was—a discovery that gave him access at last to his own powers, originality, vision, experience, integrity. In pictures like Intrigue and Iris Louis broke through to these—that is, he was able to make them count pictorially—for the first time.

4. The relation of Louis’s mature paintings to those of Pollock and Frankenthaler on the one hand, and to the work of subsequent modernists such as Noland and Jules Olitski on the other, makes it tempting to describe Louis’s breakthrough as one in which painting itself broke through to its future. Louis said of Frankenthaler, “She was a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.”6 This remark is wonderfully suggestive. For one thing, it implies that Pollock’s achievement demanded to be taken into account by any painter who, like Louis, wanted to make paintings capable of eliciting the kind of conviction Pollock’s paintings elicited—that the very possibility of making convincing art had come to seem, in large measure, a function of what Pollock had done. At the same time, Louis’s remark implies that it was far from clear exactly how Pollock’s work ought to be used in order to realize this possibility. Louis had been interested in Pollock, chiefly on the basis of reproductions, before visiting New York, and the Charred Journal pictures of 1951 can be said to have been influenced by him. But Pollock remains exactly that, an influence, in these paintings; as a result the paintings themselves, although assured, remain of minor importance. Whatever else the right use of Pollock was to mean, it had at least to signify a relation to his work which did not allow him to remain an influence, that is, one which could not be described in terms of anything that could be called their respective styles. And it was Frankenthaler who gave Louis his first solid clue as to how this relation might be achieved.

AS GREENBERG HAS REMARKED, one of the consequences of Louis’s exposure to the work of Frankenthaler and Pollock was the liberation of his gift for color. The question which now arises for me is: What was it in Pollock’s work, revealed through Frankenthaler, which effected this liberation; what possibility, hitherto unrecognized, was now opened? I am going to claim that the crux of Louis’s relation to Pollock concerns the role, function and status of drawing in their respective work; and that in general issues and considerations associated with drawing are central to Louis’s achievement. This is not to maintain that his accomplishments as a colorist have been overrated. Louis ranks among the supreme masters of color in modern art: if this is not yet orthodox opinion, it will be soon enough. It is, however, to insist that his mastery of color is to be understood in relation to certain enormously complex issues raised for the first time, it now seems, in Pollock’s paintings of 1947–50—above all by the refusal of his dripped, all over line to be experienced as bounding shapes or figures, whether abstract or representational.7

Line, in these paintings, is no longer contour, no longer the edge of anything. It has been purged of its figurative character. This is tantamount to the claim that, in these paintings, traditional drawing is revoked, or dissolved, at any rate drastically undermined. Not that in Pollock’s work of this period there is nothing to be called drawing. But after Pollock the determination of what, in a given instance, constitutes drawing is a problem without a general answer. We no longer know beforehand what drawing is; though we may find ourselves recognizing something as drawing, often to our surprise.8 It should also be remarked that in Pollock’s 1947–50 pictures the dripped, all over line is not experienced as though it were some kind of tangible object in its own right—the way, for example, individual lines in Kandinsky’s paintings often seem like segments of wire suspended in space. On the contrary, the illusion established in these paintings is not of tangibility but of its opposite: the dripped line, in fact the paintings in their entirety, are accessible, one feels, to eyesight alone, not to touch. It is the opticality of the 1947–50 paintings, founded on the negation not only of traditional tactile illusionism but of traditional drawing as well, that lies at the heart of Louis’s relation to Pollock.

Even during these years, however, Pollock seems to have chafed at the need to expunge figuration from his work, and on several occasions made paintings which can, I think, be described as attempts to combine figuration and opticality—more precisely, to achieve a kind of figuration whose limits, although distinct, are not perceived as illusively tangible, as contour or edge. Only one of these paintings, the magnificent Out of the Web, was wholly successful; and by 1951 Pollock returned to traditional drawing with a vengeance, in a series of paintings executed in black Duco thinned with turpentine on raw canvas. In comparison with the type of painting then dominant in New York—the style associated above all with de Kooning—Pollock’s 1951 pictures are devoid of a whole range of tactile connotations. But this has mostly to do with their general openness and extraordinary facture—the paint is, in effect, soaked or stained into the canvas—rather than with the character of the figuration itself, whose drawnness ineluctably alludes to the world of tangible things. This is true despite the fact that a stained edge or line is, in a sense, neither hard nor sharp. (Such an edge, in Greenberg’s words, is not a cutting edge.) It is perhaps worth noting that in a few pictures made at this time the limits of the configuration assumed by the thinned enamel defy being read as drawn—that is, as having been circumscribed by a cursive, draftsmanlike gesture—with the result that the paintings are experienced in exclusively visual terms. Pollock seems, however, not to have recognized the uniqueness of these works; in any case, he never followed them up.

In Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea—the painting which so struck Louis in New York—Pollock’s stain technique is adapted to the making of a kind of abstract landscape. Areas of color allude more or less frankly to the world of objects, and appear to be juxtaposed to one another, however loosely, in something like the space of that world. Frankenthaler’s characteristic reliance on an essentially drawing gesture, more cursive and less emphatic than Pollock’s, is evident throughout the painting. In places she goes so far as to bound or subdivide areas of color with thin, wiry lines; and in general the perimeters of these areas strike one as drawn and therefore as tangible. It is precisely in its exploitation of stained color—whatever the character of the figuration in it—that Mountains and Sea is the bridge between Pollock and Louis which the latter knew it to have been. What is less clear is how this bridging relation ought to be described. It might be claimed, for example, that what Frankenthaler revealed to Louis were the possibilities for color opened up by staining. But this, although not exactly wrong, fails, I believe, to account for the fundamental differences between Frankenthaler and Louis, as well as for the depth of his relation to Pollock. I want to suggest instead that what Louis may be said to have found in Mountains and Sea were certain new, and hitherto unsuspected, possibilities for figuration—specifically, for combining figuration and opticality in a new synthesis of seemingly unlimited potential—which the staining of different colors (rather than just black, as in Pollock) opened up; and that it was the realization of these possibilities that liberated Louis’s gift for color. Merely staining thinned pigment of various hues into raw canvas, as in Trellis, was not enough to do this. It was only when Louis discovered in the staining of such pigments the means to a kind of figuration capable of sustaining a wide gamut of internal articulations all of which are experienced as accessible to eyesight alone that his breakthrough was at last under way.

Roughly, Louis discovered that if successive waves of thinned pigment, each a different color, were stained into a length of canvas, what was produced was a single, visually continuous configuration within which the individual configurations left by each wave in turn—or, perhaps more accurately, the limits of these configurations were still visible.9 That is, by laying down wave on top of wave of liquid pigment Louis literally put color into color—more precisely, color-configuration into color-configuration—so that, within the stained portion of any veil painting, the perception of a change in color, almost no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, indicates a transition between configurations. One might say, in fact, that the perception of such a change is the perception of figuration. This is true even when, as often happens, one cannot make out the shape, or even the original color, of the configurations involved. The changes range from minute fluctuations in hue fragile enough to be quenched by artificial illumination, to abrupt, linear, sometimes almost crystalline transitions both of hue and, within limits, of value. Even at their most salient, however, the limits of individual color-configurations are not experienced as though they were the edge of some kind of tangible thing; rather, one’s eye is gripped and moved by an extraordinarily compelling continuity across them which divests them of tactile significance.

At least three factors establish this continuity. The first and perhaps most important is the unbrokenness of color itself—of thinned pigment belonging to other color-configurations—across the limits in question. This appears to have been something which, throughout the veil paintings both of 1954 and of 1958–59, Louis explicitly wanted: he characteristically stained certain colors, generally the brighter ones, into the canvas first, in plume- or flame-like configurations, and then flooded (though in some cases he seems to have scrubbed or brushed with rags) a thin, often relatively dark and slightly granular wave of thinned pigment over them. One can usually see the crests of the original configurations immediately above the last, unifying wave of color, where the first bright washes bellied before beginning their descent toward the bottom of the canvas. Second, the characteristic facture produced by staining reinforces the experienced continuity of the color. As early as 1960 Greenberg wrote:

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 dyed cloth; the threadedness and wovenness are in the color.10

Because the colors in a given painting are, in Greenberg’s words, “identified with the raw cotton surface,” the continuity of the actual fabric across the surface of the picture—or rather, that portion of it impregnated with paint—literally is one with that of the color itself. Third, the limits of the individual color configurations themselves—remarked, so far as possible, in their own right—do not strike one as drawn. In this respect they are like the dripped, all over line in Pollock’s paintings of 1947–50, or the perimeters of the stain configurations in the few sheerly optical 1951 pictures mentioned earlier. But Pollock himself never abandoned gesture: one can, for example, describe his enterprise during the years 1947–50, at least in part, as an attempt to liberate gesture itself from the constraints, functions, and gratifications of traditional drawing. Louis’s veil paintings, in contrast, present themselves as not having been made by gestures of any kind. Among other things, this seems to have meant. that the risk of simply falling back into traditional drawing, and thereby into a vocabulary essentially tactile in its connotations—a risk whose imminence is felt throughout Pollock’s masterpieces of the late 1940s—was not one that Louis had to face. The opticality of his post-breakthrough paintings was, one might say, much less precarious, much more firmly established than that of Pollock’s all-over, drip paintings. Not that this saved Louis from losing his way: he seems to have spent most of the years 1955–57 making paintings whose figurative mode was close to that of Abstract Expressionism, and all of which, except for a very few pictures not in his possession at the time, he subsequently destroyed. But losing his way, if I may call it that, entailed as drastic and general a reorientation of his art as breaking through did in the first place; and the paintings produced during this period seem, on the strength of the few that still exist, not to have been in any significant respect continuous with the 1954 veils. This proved to be an advantage when, in 1958, Louis decided that his work of the past several years was inferior to his 1954 paintings. The very discontinuity between the two made it possible for Louis simply to go back to painting veils as though he had never left off.

IT IS NOT MERELY LOUIS’S BREAKTHROUGH, or the veil paintings generally, that ought to be seen in terms that relate intimately to drawing; issues and considerations of this kind are central to his work until his death.11 For example, the 1960 paintings known as florals can be seen, and I believe ought to be seen, as an attempt to make individual color-configurations perspicuous as discrete entities, as specific shapes. In this respect they break with the figurative mode of the veil paintings, in which the limits of individual configurations are not, or not usually, seen as belonging to those configurations apprehended in their entirety as discrete wholes. At the same time, the fact that individual configurations are not literally isolated from one another on an expanse of bare canvas evinces Louis’s reluctance to give up what was after all the medium of his initial breakthrough— namely, the superimposition of color-configurations. Nevertheless the differences between the veils and florals are striking.

To begin with, the color-configurations in a given floral tend to lie wholly within the painting, rather than flow into the framing edge, as in the veils. More precisely, some configurations in any floral are anchored firmly to the bottom of the support; but the great majority are self enclosed, free-floating and at some distance from the nearest part of the framing edge. Second, although the individual color configurations overlap one another, as in the veils, they do so in such a way as to make it clear where any single configuration begins or leaves off—for example, by crossing at different angles. Third, the colors themselves are more intense, more nearly opaque, than in the veils; and they contrast more among themselves. Even in those paintings in which Louis laid down a final, ostensibly unifying wash of color across all or most of the individual configurations, their original hues make themselves felt from underneath it as though by main force.

Louis’s move from the veils to the florals—though to call it a “move” does not do justice to the uncertainty, and for that matter the time, that each of his transitions cost him—amounted to an attempt to match traditional drawing’s ability to describe or specify individual shapes or figures, without departing in certain fundamental respects from the stain medium as established in the veils. That is, the originality of the veils consisted above all in the remarkably rich and varied internal articulation of what is experienced as a single, comprehensive configuration; whereas the emphasis in the florals is on the individual configurations themselves, in their profusion, in their discreteness. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the florals run into difficulties which the veils do not. For example, the fact that in a given veil the successive waves of thinned pigment are not seen as establishing either a plane or a series of planes is crucial to its success; but there is a strong tendency in the florals for the individual color-configurations to be seen as basically flat or planar, and therefore tangible—as though they represent real objects juxtaposed almost Cubistically in something like traditional space. This disturbing sense of the illusive tangibility of individual color configurations is reinforced if, as in some cases, one comes to see them as drawn. Moreover, even in the veils Louis seems to have been worried most by the transition from stained to bare canvas, and to have tried in various ways to keep the limits of the stained area from seeming hard or sculptural. This was probably the main reason behind his practice of often framing the veils as close to the painted area as he could reasonably get: the less bare canvas that remained between the stained portion and the framing edge, the less likely it became that the former would be seen as a kind of silhouette. In the florals the problem is compounded by the much larger amount of contact there is between the bare canvas and the individual configurations, as well as by the size of the tracts of canvas that often lie between parts of the framing edge and the nearest configurations. That some of the florals overcome these difficulties triumphantly is a measure of Louis’s genius for improvisation.

The great series of paintings known as unfurleds, which Louis himself regarded as his most ambitious statement, were painted during the late spring and summer of 1961, again after what seem to have been months of uncertainty and experiment. They mark a new phase in his continuing involvement with drawing. In these pictures parallel but irregular rivulets of intense, rather opaque color are arranged in banks on both sides of large canvases. The rivulets are a new kind of figuration in Louis’s work. Neither line nor shape, they have the self-sufficiency of the first and the substantiality of the second. Not only do they not strike one as drawn, one cannot even read around, or along, their perimeters. It is as though they have none—or, more accurately, as though even at their broadest they are all perimeter, all limit. That one is driven to formulations of this sort is due largely to their color, whose intensity and constancy across any single rivulet prevents one from distinguishing, in the act of perception, between perimeter and interior. Instead, the eye incorporates each rivulet whole.

But Louis’s involvement with drawing in the unfurleds concerns more than just the rivulets of color. It has to do as well with the vast expanse of canvas into which they are stained, and whose original blankness (the blankness, one feels, of an enormous page) they simultaneously destroy and make pictorially meaningful. Specifically, it is as though drawing’s primitive character as mark, as something decisive, irreversible, even cataclysmic that happens on, and to, the blank page or canvas—something that, thereafter, is manifest both in its own right, as a unique entity, and in its ineluctable consequences for the perfect blankness and apparent flatness of the original sheet—is, in these paintings, made perspicuous as never before. “The first mark on a surface,” Greenberg has observed, “destroys its virtual flatness.”12 In the unfurleds Louis made major art out of what might be called the firstness of marking as such—a firstness prior to gesture, prior to individuation as a particular type of mark (e.g., a line), and prior as well to any task (e.g., the circumscription of particular shapes). One’s experience of the unfurleds can be vertiginous. The banked rivulets—and here again their intense, biting color is crucial—open up the picture-plane more radically than ever, as though seeing the first marking we are for the first time shown the void. The dazzling blankness of the untouched canvas at once repulses and engulfs the eye, like an infinite abyss, the abyss that opens up behind the least mark that we make on a flat surface, or would open up if innumerable conventions both of art and of practical life did not restrict the consequences of our act within narrow bounds.

In his stripe paintings, which Louis moved to after the unfurleds, and on which he worked until just before his death, the relation to drawing shifted once more. Instead of banked rivulets, vertical, perfectly straight paths or stripes of color, often of somewhat different thicknesses, are grouped in bunches or stacks at least some distance from the sides of the picture. Except in rare cases, which appear to have been accidental in origin, adjacent stripes touch down their entire lengths. Unlike the rivulets, the stripes are the focus, almost the subject, of these paintings. They do not open the picture-plane so much as cauterize it, and one is not, as in the unfurleds, precipitated beyond them so much as transfixed by them: the precipitousness which, in the unfurleds, looms in the relation between the rivulets of color and the blank canvas is, in the stripe paintings, actually embodied in the stripes themselves. Like the rivulets, though perhaps even more emphatically, the stripes are not seen as circumscribed by a cursive gesture, as bounded by an outline or contour. In this sense, a vital one, they are not drawn. But whereas in the unfurleds the rivulets seem the manifestation of natural forces—one sees them as simply having flowed across or broken through from behind the blank canvas—one experiences the stripes as in some important sense intentional, that is, as issuing from a distinctively human, and not merely natural, action. They are like images, or anyway embodiments, of human will or impulse—specifically, the will or impulse to draw, to make one’s mark, to take possession, in particular ways, of a plane surface. In this sense they can be seen as drawn: not, however, as the fruit of a drawing gesture—the sheer velocity of their path across the canvas precludes that—but as the instantaneous, unmediated realization of the will to draw, the drawing impulse. Once again the extent to which this is the work of color cannot be overstated. For example, the contrasts both of hue and of value among the stripes in a given painting (as opposed to the relative sameness of value among the rivulets, and sometimes even the grouping of a family of colors in a single bank, in the best unfurleds) are instrumental to our experiencing them in terms of intentionality. Similarly, what I have called their velocity is largely a function both of intensity of hue and of the relations among hues. Most important, the physical contiguity of the stripes, on which everything that I have said about them depends, would be not just technically unattainable but literally inconceivable if it were not for the fact that they are different colors.

Louis’s involvement with drawing underwent one further development. Just over a month before he died Louis gave James Lebron the precise dimensions to which the eight stripe paintings posthumously exhibited at the Emmerich Gallery in October, 1962, were to be stretched. The format of five of these was the normal one: the stripes vertical, the canvas itself a vertical rectangle. But in three paintings—No End, Equator, and Hot Half—Louis chose to have the stripes run diagonally across the canvas and the canvas itself stretched as a square.13 Louis’s decision to depart from his previous norm in these respects had several consequences. To begin with, the division of the canvas by the diagonal stripes (in No End and Equator grouped in two stacks) compels an awareness of these pictures as composed. Throughout the stripe paintings, of course, Louis determined the placement of the stripes and the dimensions of the canvas with great exactness. But this exactness is not felt as such in the paintings themselves; whereas the fact that in the three late diagonal paintings the canvas is actually divided into several pieces makes one acutely aware that the slightest change would alter everything. Moreover, the relations that obtain among the different pieces within each painting are essentially drawing relations: the areas of bare canvas are seen as shapes, and each picture is experienced as constituting a compound, almost plastic entity. The stripes themselves are more like lines of color than in any other stripe paintings, and allude to a plasticity foreign to the stripe paintings generally. These stripes, one feels, are beams of color or colored light, somehow frozen or congealed into weightless, highly tensile elements that span the canvas like a kind of bridge. It is as though the square shape of the canvas came first, and only later was divided and composed, as well as made securely rigid, by the diagonal stripes.

There is no sense in which these final paintings strike one as late works, in which they seem to mark a close. On the contrary, they are the first paintings in Louis’s career in which the stained and unstained areas of the canvas are related to one another as shapes, and in which the exact shape of the support is felt to be a matter of central importance. The openness of these developments, especially the latter, to the concerns at work in the most important painting of the past several years makes his death at that moment all the more monstrous.

Michael Fried


1. In this essay I have made use of information provided by Mrs. Abner Brenner, Clement Greenberg, Kenneth Noland, and the painter’s brother, Dr. Aaron Bernstein. Moreover, during the past few years I have had the opportunity of looking at a large number of paintings by Louis, many of them unstretched, in Greenberg’s company. This was, if not an education in itself, at any rate the makings of one. At an early point in my thinking about Louis I had several conversations with Kermit Champa, to whose observations, particularly about Louis’s stripe paintings, I am indebted. I also want to thank Stanley Cavell, specifically, for a number of suggestions incorporated in the present essay. Finally, I would not have been able to work out the ideas put forward here without the unique opportunity provided by a Junior Fellowship in the Harvard Society of Fellows.

2. The paintings referred to are those shown at the Martha Jackson Gallery in November, 1957.

3. This was said in conversation. On a visit to Washington in April, 1955 Greenberg urged Louis to come to New York more often on exactly these grounds. See also his essay “Louis and Noland,” Art International, IV, 5, 1960.

4. It was at this point, according to Noland, that Louis stopped using a brush, apparently for good. Noland also claims that Louis was extraordinarily inventive technically. Certainly, it is often hard to imagine how he went about obtaining particular effects, the stripe paintings being perhaps the most frustrating in this regard. Noland has suggested that Louis may have dripped a thin ribbon of paint, about the consistency of maple syrup, down the center of the intended stripe, and then have spread the ribbon to the desired width with a putty knife. This may he correct, but the internal evidence provided by the paintings themselves is, I believe, not decisive.

5. “Louis and Noland,” op. cit.

6. Quoted by Gerald Nordland in the catalog to The Washington Color Painters, New York, 1965, p.12.

7. For a somewhat more detailed discussion of Pollock see my Three American Painters, Cambridge, 1965. The section on Pollock was reprinted in Artforum, vol. 4, no. 1, September 1965, pp. 14-17.

8. Greenberg’s remarks on Jules Olitski’s spray paintings in the catalog to the 1966 Venice Biennale are surprising in this way. “In the first sprayed paintings,” Greenberg writes, “linear drawing is displaced completely from the inside of the picture to its outside, that is to its inclosing shape, the shape of the stretched piece of canvas. Olitski’s art begins to call attention at this point, as no art before it has, to how very much this shape is a matter of linear drawing and, as such, an integral determinant of the picture’s effect rather than an imposed and external limit.”

9. Because Louis painted in complete privacy we have no eyewitness account of how he worked. But it seems clear that the veils were made by pouring thinned acrylic paint (he seems to have used both turpentine and acrylic resin as thinners at different times) directly onto a length of canvas partly stapled to a kind of scaffolding or stretcher. The paint ran from top to bottom as the paintings are hung in this exhibition, and by tilting the support and manipulating the canvas itself Louis seems to have been able to control the flow of pigment across the latter’s surface. The darkish cusps that one often finds at the bottom of these pictures are the result of unabsorbed paint having collected there in shallow pools after having flooded down the rest of the canvas. Many of the veils made during 1958-59 are larger than the room Louis used for a studio; the vertical divisions which in some pictures punctuate the spreading color appear to be the result of Louis’s having had to fold the canvas in order to work on it in sections.

10. “Louis and Noland,” op. cit.

11. One might say that throughout Louis’s career as a major painter it was the need to achieve specific kinds of figuration, to resolve specific figurative situations, that made him a great colorist — at any rate, that demanded that he be one.

12. “Modernist Painting,” The New Art: A Critical Anthology, p. 107.

13. In a letter to Andre Emmerich dated August 6, 1962, Louis gave the dimensions to which the eight paintings would be stretched to the quarter-inch. It is hard to know how much, if anything, to make of the fact that in this letter Louis mentioned that three of the paintings would be square, but not that in them the stripes would run diagonally. In a previous letter to Emmerich (August 1) Louis describes hiring several boys to roll and unroll his pictures in order for him to choose the ones he wanted for his show; by this time he himself was too weak to do this. It may have been at this moment that Louis decided on the format of No End, Equator, and Hot Hall.