Following the death of Morris Louis in 1962, over 200 paintings without titles were left to his estate to manage. Letters, sometimes singular and sometime in pairs, were chosen from the Hebrew alphabet to name untitled canvases from the series collectively known as ‘Veils,’ while letters from the Greek alphabet were used to title later ‘Unfurled’ paintings. Works from his final series of ‘Stripe’ paintings were given numbers. This decision and subsequent choices as to the naming of these canvases were made by his widow, Marcella Brenner Louis, in consultation with the art critic Clement Greenberg. These linguistic symbols, while ostensibly a neutral mechanism for assigning a title to each work, are not without their own distinct significations. Each presents a series of iconographic meanings that inevitably become associated with the paintings they represent. These resonate with aspects of Louis’s own identity as well as the culture in which he lived and worked.
The challenge faced by the estate of an artist is to speak discreetly on behalf of another. Inherently the task constitutes a kind of authorship, albeit one concealed under the guise of legal responsibility. This also serves as a particularly effective reminder that any image of artistic practice is really a collective palimpsest, one that is amended and added to over time, and in which the artist and their artwork forms only one element.
As a material, enamel paint was originally intended for use in hand-painted signage. However, in the period immediately prior to the development of Magna, the resin polymer that Louis employed in his mature work, enamels played a vital role in connoting an experimental attitude in abstract painting. Its use in the painting of American painters such as Jackson Pollock and Kenneth Noland was to signal a break with traditional fine art materials.