After a visit to New York in April 1953, where they saw the recent paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, Washington-based friends Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland began to similarly stain raw canvases with diluted pigment, rather than apply it with a brush. Experimenting with different painting techniques and media, compositional formats and canvas sizes in the nine remaining years before his untimely death (from lung cancer), Louis produced an astonishingly large body of work. These paintings are divided into three basic series: the Veils (1954-60), the Unfurleds (summer 1960-January/February 1961), and the Stripes (January/February 1961-summer 1962).
Alpha-Pi is one of about 150 Unfurleds he created, generally on mural-size canvases (this one measures over 8 feet by 14 feet). In all of them, irregular rivulets of different colors flow diagonally down toward the lower center of the canvas, but never quite meet; the center of the unprimed canvas remains blank. Heavily diluted, the poured colors soak into the canvas, becoming one with the surface, and maintain the flatness of the modern picture plane. Color retains its optical purity (since it is not used to describe or define something else) and there is no sense of narrative, image, or perspectival space as in traditional painting. Eschewing illusionistic references, the artist forces the viewer to focus solely on the painting's formal elements-color, size, and shape and the vibrant, light-filled space they inhabit.
Inscription: Estate signature (on reverse): M. Louis 391
[Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York, until 1967; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970," October 18, 1969–February 1, 1970, no. 244.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 118).
Lillian Freedgood. An Enduring Image: American Painting from 1665. New York, 1970, ill. p. 364.
Edward Lucie–Smith. Art Today: From Abstract Expressionism to Surrealism. London, 1977, p. 337, colorpl. 259.
Diane Upright. Morris Louis, the Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné. New York, 1985, p. 225, no. 417.
Robert Hughes. The Shock of the New: The Hundred–Year History of Modern Art–Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall. New York, 1996, p. 156, colorpl. 100.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 531, ill. (color), colorpl. 474.