PRINT May 1970

Morris Louis: Unfurleds and Omegas

THE MAGNIFICENT “UNFURLEDS” OF Morris Louis, begun in the summer of 1960, were considered by the artist himself as his greatest achievement. The most monumental of his works, the unfurleds have a freshness and authority of format. which has made them perfect frontispieces to more than one show of contemporary American painting. This has been doubly appropriate since they are an exemplary link between the dramatic handling of Abstract Expressionism and the new emphasis on color as the vehicle of personal sensibility.

At the time of their first appearance, they startled eyes trained in the Western easel tradition almost as much as had Pollock’s huge all-over paintings. Like those, the unfurleds marked a moment when a radically new feeling extended our tradition. They are brilliant testimony to the fact that modernism has brought along with its losses and narrowings striking gains and expansions of vision.

From the inception of easel painting the importance of descriptive content and hierarchical meanings dictated a special emphasis on the center of the picture. More than the mural, with its sequential articulation, the easel picture tends toward- a centrality of focus, even when this remains only a point of reference for divergence. Degas challenged this in his centrifugal arrangements of the seventies, but in general the Impressionists continued to insist on centered perspective. So, too, the Cubists with their focused densities maintained the hegemony of the center.

It was Barnett Newman who turned explicitly to this issue in a series of works beginning in the late forties. A centered band makes the picture rather than being located in it, and this, together with its verticality and irregular profile, evokes a presence that one might call “confrontational.” The band seems to block the viewer’s entrance into the picture and at the same time permits an opening of the picture laterally by rendering the literal edges less perspicuous. An important convention of Western painting, centrality, is here isolated and made to bear the whole burden of design. Later, Kenneth Noland “found” the center in his circle pictures; he discovered that the post-Cubist picture could be organized outward from the center rendering the whole weightless and neutralizing the shape of the framing edge.

In his unfurleds Louis accepted in negative what Newman had affirmed as positive and thus opened his picture in an entirely unprecedented way. No painting before Louis’s unfurleds had so emptied the center and none had required an almost visual refocusing by moving two competing areas of the most intense pictorial incident to the very margins of the picture.

The following seeks to examine the unfurleds on the basis of a recent exhibition at the Andre Emmerich Gallery. In addition, new light on their genesis is provided by four of Louis’s pictures now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. These works, from the “Omega series,” date from the winter of 1959–60, the period immediately preceding the unfurleds.

In the late fifties, following the example of Noland, but also in response to the logic of his own development, Morris Louis turned to bright, intense and thus flatter color. For Louis this had to be combined with the “self-created” figurations achieved by staining thinned acrylic resin into the folded channels of absorbent cotton duck. From the first, staining had meant to Louis not only new possibilities for color but also a new language of shapes—the result of the liquid gravitational flow of the staining process itself. Furthermore, the picture became more sheerly optical by dying color into the canvas so that no difference of texture was perceptible between painted and unpainted canvas.1 And this opticality was not compromised by wrist, and therefore sculptural, drawing.2

The ambition to unite vivid, opaque color with such configurations entailed certain restrictions. The former precluded overlapping and layering, which had been the structure of the veils, while the latter excluded a covering of the surface with contiguous color areas. Also it was necessary to avoid any over-calculated feeling of design which would militate against the free-flowing, “accidental” character of his rivulets of color. On the other hand, hard, opaque color brings with it harder edges which in turn call attention to the two-dimensional design. The problem then was one of layout and composition. What Louis was after was an open, surface design which would perforce make the areas of canvas play a more positive role in the total configuration than had hitherto been the case.

The veils had been centered and the florals unfolded outward from the middle, often floating free of the bottom edge. Both the veils and the florals showed layered and shadowy center areas with more intense color only at the periphery. This feature was especially important to Louis, for he saw in it the possibility for an even more open and expanding kind of picture. The unfurleds, the final resolution of his problem, were essentially an elimination of the toned center area —leaving it bare while retaining the intense color only at the margins bf the picture.

But before reaching the unfurleds, Louis went through a period of experimentation. In a series of pictures done in late 1959 and early 1960, he sought in a variety of ways to place two symmetrical groups of roughly parallel elements in such a way that the center remained open. This series is characterized by a constant changing of the orientation of his configurations. New compositional ideas suggested themselves to Louis by virtue of his procedure of working on his pictures on the floor and thus from all sides at once.

Among these works are the four “Omega” canvases on view at the Whitney Museum. Multiple and parallel fingers of color shoot in from the sides of these tall, vertical pictures. The fingers reach out to each other but only occasionally touch or overlap. The whole has a sense of termination as the fingers at the top and bottom tend to be of the same color and bend inward toward the center. The eye is forced to move upward and downward, back and forth, as color and color sequences answer each other on opposite sides of the white spine in the center. Sometimes the whole surface swells and warps outward for many of the fingers are slightly curved and create a vestigial perspective.

It is interesting to note that unlike the unfurleds, the Omega series shows a similarity of value scale within each picture and there is much use of the unifying brown. Louis had not yet found a format that would permit multiple value changes or—what is the same thing in this case—different hues at full intensity. Also, since the horizontal elements echo the top and bottom edges and since these elements move inward towards the center, these pictures are less open than the unfurleds. This is especially true when the fingers meet and cross. The best painting in the show, Omega I, is the picture that is probably the earliest in the series. Here the fingers are pulled back from the center and not marshaled in such a regularized way. By freeing the picture at the top and bottom and lightening the colors toward the white of the canvas; Louis achieved here a more open and varied coloristic effect.

Omega IV, the painting which displays the most intense color, is also the one with the darkest value. The picture is somewhat difficult to read due to an intense optical flicker created by the irregularities of figuration and the sharper light and dark contrasts. Moreover, this effect is concentrated by the emphatic tying together of the color areas at the top and bottom. Here one can discern the influence of Clyfford Still’s draftsmanship with its eccentric optical vibrations. Louis had become interested in Still’s pictures in the fall of 1959. But whereas in Still’s own hands this sort of drawing often shatters disruptively his expanses of color, with Louis the effect tends to merge with the opticality of the color areas. In the unfurleds Louis was able to combine this opticality with a more open format and more intense color.

At this same time, Louis sought another kind of openness by running his color in parallel streams diagonally across the picture (e.g. Tau, 1960). The diagonal is inherently open, especially when not aligned with the actual diagonal coordinates of the rectangle (as Noland was also to demonstrate in his chevron series). In Ro, Alpha Ro, and Alpha Epsilon Louis, perhaps under the influence of Newman, folded his canvas in such a- way as to create a vertical band of white canvas cutting through the trajectory of the dramatic diagonal flows. The effect is like that of stenciling or woodcut in that there is a figure-ground mergence without the ground actually becoming either co-equal or exclusive of the figure reading. But as magnificent as these canvases are, they inject an element of calculation into the design which is at odds with the free flowing of the branched streams.

The unfurleds were the culmination of Louis’s search for a format through which intense color and his stained forms could speak with a new eloquence. It was the kind of resolution that permits an artist to paint with a freedom and confidence that the struggles and anguish of creation usually preclude. In a period of six to eight months, Louis painted over 120 unfurleds.3

Symmetrical and frontal, an unfurled seems to promise a centrality that is then denied. The layout is a reversal of Louis’s own looming centered veils of the 1950s. There, the flat, centered shape could take on an almost sculptural massiveness by virtue of the “drawing” of its edges. In the unfurleds, the center funnel shape—either convex or concave in relation to the canvas—remains a perceptible and even rigid shape and can be cut out with a marked particularity while the sides warp into perspective. What in the veils was a positive shape becomes a delimited emptiness while the ground, the negative corners, are now charged with optical density.

The streams emerge just below the upper corners (only rarely bisecting them), pouring and undulating downward and inward, implying extension at the sides and bottom, while the middle area mushrooms upward and outward. This dynamic format accounts for the astonishing openness of the unfurleds. But this openness at every side is at the same time a delimited whole. Firstly, the areas complement and complete each other. The center area is large and monochromatic. The sides are smaller, divided, and multicolored. Taken together, they exist equally on a ground that belongs to the center and as whole shapes in themselves. Secondly, they respond dynamically to each other. The color streams compress the center area at the bottom causing it to expand and be released at the top. Finally, the whole is not a straightforward figure-ground reversal but a fusing together of the two. The edges of the central expanse belong emphatically to the sides rather than to itself. Thus, it is not an emphatic positive shape but it is not exactly negative ground either.

If the proportions are correct there is a certain parity and equilibrium between the three areas which bind them into a dramatic unity.

While the structure is that of a locked whole with no areas of privilege, and while the dimensions of the support of these pictures are crucial features of them, they do not draw the actual shape of the support into the picture the way that many Nolands have tended to do. An unfurled is a judicious “framing” of an implied larger area and it is the dimensions and proportions of the support rather than its shape that is important.4 There is a diagonal verticality which is set in tension with the horizontal format. This tension must be maintained for the picture to succeed.

Louis’s new kind of drawing and figuration finds its real fulfillment in the unfurleds.5 The rivulets of uniform color in the lunettes act neither as the contour of a figure nor as shading (the traditional functions of drawing) but nevertheless retain the optical vibrancy and rhythmical movement of an undulating edge. This gives the unfurleds a marked graphic character—a graphic character that depends on variations of flow, bite and bleed of the stain. Uneven modulations of the stripes and the resultant uneven areas of raw canvas left between them reinforce the effect of many colors at full intensity and thus markedly different value. Contour and value changes heighten color intensity and together create an electric effect.6 The format forces upon the viewer the necessity of seeing these areas as a whole despite the multiple value changes. Individual colors are less crucial than a sustained optical dazzle. Thus yellow or black plus a full range of hue at full intensity are all permitted. On the other hand Louis did not use white, for this would have undermined his effort to make the canvas itself tell as radiant white.

The cutting sharpness of these erratic ribbons of color is essential to these pictures—even more than a color harmony. Less compelling are those unfurleds made up of fat stains which seem to spread and fuzz atmospherically. So, too, an area can be less alive when many dark colors render the reading too exclusively dependent on value differences. Yellow especially is a crucial color for this type of painting because its value is closest to that of the canvas itself. It can, along with orange, charge almost any such area. On the other hand, when yellow appears as the innermost stream it fails to cut out but rather activates the center area. Here, Louis would often set off a yellow on one side against a darker color on the opposite side creating a tenuous dynamic symmetry that is both disturbing and exhilarating. A similar effect occurs when the two sides are made of markedly opposed color scales related only by a single hue, or a single complementary relation, or even by figuration alone with no analogy of color.

On occasion, the bleeding and overlapping of colors result in effects of tonality and depth, but these can be saved from illusionism by a sharp cutting line in the innermost band. This is true in Gamma Sigma recently shown at the Emmerich Gallery, where the whole takes on both a tropical density and a tension between relaxation and tautness. The same device can bring up soft and unarticulated flows as in the wonderful Gamma Ksi.

The unfurleds fall into two types: those, probably done earlier, consisting of four or five broad tongues of color which are independent of each other; and those of ten or more narrow rivulets which sometimes flow together. It seems to me that in general the latter are of higher quality, and are more consistently successful, although there are masterpieces in the former group as well.

In the first type, Louis sacrifices optical vibration for particularity of hue and color harmony. The spatial and optical bend or warp that occurs in the corners of the more complicated unfurleds is often absent in the simpler ones and the whole tends to be flatter. The color stains sometimes reach at a sharper angle for the center of the bottom edge. When these works fail, it is usually due to proportions tending too much toward the square. (An example is Gamma Delta in the Whitney Museum.) Alternatively, they can seem too long, and fall into two very distinct but beautiful sides which only occasionally come together. Louis was often intent on expanding his unfurleds laterally and thereby heightening their feeling of open extension—testing how much raw canvas could be galvanized as a field.

Kandinsky once wrote of the beauty of an empty canvas with its virgin whiteness and blank potentiality. An empty canvas also has the ambiguous character of being both infinite space and utter flatness. But these features are arbitrary and inert properties of a physical object waiting to become a picture—waiting to be informed by the human will. Louis so informed empty canvas: infinity takes on a fullness and a sweeping grandeur; flatness a resistant tautness. And the white (at least when not soiled by exposure) has a dazzling purity and brilliance. The bands of color in Louis’s unfurleds do all those things simultaneously and thus transform potentiality into art, matter into spirit, before our very eyes.

Kenworth Moffett



1. Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland”, Art International, vol. 4, No. 5, May, 1960, pp. 26–29.

2. Michael Fried, “The Achievement of Morris Louis,” Artforum, February 1967.

3. He was forced to destroy 40 of these because the blues were not fast. I am indebted to Clement Greenberg for this and other factual information contained in this article.

4. The height of the unfurled was conditioned by the standard sized bolts of canvas that Louis used. When stretched they are all roughly 102 inches high. The width then was the variable dimension.

5. The peculiar nature of Louis’ figuration was first discussed by Michael Fired. See note 2.

6. While the unfurled represent a resolution, the stripe paintings, begun in 1961, war something new. Here Louis no longer sought to combine intense color with his stain figurations but subordinated the latter to the Roemer. The straight lines imposed a feeling of calculation. This was necessary due to Louis’ new ambition to abut the colors so as to make paintings in which almost everything depend on chromatic relationships.