Phi 1960 is a large rectangular abstract painting by the American artist Morris Louis. Most of the composition consists of an off-white-coloured cotton duck canvas that has been left exposed, on which are painted a series of ten thick diagonal bands in brightly coloured paint. The bands extend towards the centre in parallel groups of five lines from the bottom left and upper right corners of the composition, although they do not meet in the middle, terminating instead in rounded ends with some drips emerging from them. As a consequence of the lines’ failure to meet, a solid white column of untouched canvas runs down the centre of the painting and divides the work into two roughly equal parts. The colour sequence of the bands – purple, blue, green, yellow and blue, from top to bottom – is repeated on both sides of the canvas.
Created in 1960, Phi is part of Louis’s 1960–1 series of paintings entitled Unfurled that consists of almost one hundred and fifty works (see, for instance, Alpha-Phi 1961, Tate T01058). Phi was completed in Louis’s modest studio that occupied the dining room of his suburban family home in Washington D.C. Partly as a result of his cramped working conditions, but also in a deliberate attempt to distance himself from his abstract expressionist peers – particularly the gestural brushwork of painters such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline (see, for example, de Kooning’s Women Singing II 1966, Tate T01178) – Louis produced his large abstract paintings in an extremely systematic manner and without the use of paintbrushes. On a visit to the studio of the painter Helen Frankenthaler in 1953, Louis had been deeply impressed by Frankenthaler’s innovative ‘poured stain’ technique (in particular her painting Mountains and Sea 1952, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) and began adopting this method in his own works.
Phi was produced using a technique of paint pouring known as the ‘one shot’ method. This involved pouring the paint directly onto unprimed canvas, which immediately and irreversibly absorbed the pigment’s stain, such that the artist only had one chance or ‘shot’ to apply the paint correctly. As part of his practice of the ‘one shot’ technique, Louis laid pieces of unstretched canvas directly onto the floor of his studio and attached wooden stays to the cloth, which he would then use to influence the flow and direction of the poured paint.
Due to a marginally increased income that resulted from the sale of a small number of his paintings, in 1960 Louis began to use a lighter, more expensive and more porous variety of cotton duck canvas than he had previously. In addition, that year the Magna paint manufacturer Leonard Bocour created a new formula for acrylic designed specifically for Louis and his fellow painter Kenneth Noland to enhance their paint pouring techniques. The art historian Diane Upright has explained that ‘The consistency of the new formula resembled maple syrup and facilitated further thinning’ and that ‘Louis received his first batch of the new paint on 11 April 1960, one gallon each of twenty different colours’ (Upright 1985, accessed 6 February 2015). Louis never mixed Magna colours, preferring the pure hues as they appeared when poured straight from the can, the intensity of which can be seen in Phi.
The title for the series, Unfurled, is derived from a letter sent by Louis to the critic Clement Greenberg in July 1962, in which he referred to two paintings from the series – Alpha 1960 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo) and Delta 1960 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia) – as ‘the big unfurling ones’ (Upright 1985, accessed 6 February 2015). Both paintings had been included in an exhibition organised by Greenberg at Bennington College, Vermont, in 1960, along with a small columnar painting from Louis’s 1958–60 Veil series entitled Gamma 1959–60 (private collection). The Unfurled paintings departed in technique and style from Gamma, which is layered, compacted and funnel-like in its composition, with the Unfurled works appearing rather, as the critic Stuart Morgan has written, ‘as if flags are being caught by the wind or curtains being pulled’ (Stuart Morgan, ‘Morris Louis’, Frieze, no.9, March–April 1993, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/morris_louis, accessed 6 February 2015). Louis’s letter to Greenberg expressed his wish for his works to continue to make the transition to ‘the big unfurling ones such as used at Bennington’ (Upright 1985, accessed 6 February 2015), and as a result the title Unfurled was given to the series by Greenberg, who managed the running of the artist’s estate after his death in 1962.
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery, London 1981.
Diane Upright, ‘The Technique of Morris Louis’, in Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1985, pp.49–58, http://morrislouis.org/morrislouis/page/technique_of_morris_louis, accessed 6 February 2015, reproduced http://morrislouis.org/paintings/large/du314, accessed 6 February 2015.
Robert Pierce, Morris Louis: The Life and Art of One of America’s Greatest Twentieth Century Abstract Artists, 2002, http://morrislouis.org/morrislouis/page/documentary, accessed 6 February 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.