Morris LOUIS | Beta nu

Morris LOUIS
United States of America 1912 – 1962

Beta nu 1960 synthetic polymer paint on unprimed canvas
no inscriptions
259.1 (h) x 701.0 (w) cm Purchased 1972 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1972.317 © 1960 Morris Louis

  • estate of the artist;
  • from whom bought, through Andr√© Emmerich Gallery Inc., New York, by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, August 1972 (title transferred to the Australian National Gallery, July 1990)
  • Morris Louis
    • Honolulu Academy of Arts 30 Apr 1971 – 30 Apr 1971
    • National Gallery of Victoria 08 Jun 1971 – 31 Aug 1971
    • Auckland Art Gallery 12 Oct 1971 – 28 Nov 1971
    • Santa Barbara Museum of Art 08 Jan 1972 – 06 Feb 1972
  • Materials of Art: Painting
    • National Gallery of Australia 24 Nov 1984 – 12 May 1985
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • Michael Fried, Morris Louis, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1970, illus. pl. 138;
  • Morris Louis, Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts 1971, cat. 5, p.8, illus.;
  • Elwyn Lynn, ‘Louis in Australia’, Art International vol. 15 no. 9, November 1971, pp. 29–33, p. 49, illus.;
  • James Mollison and Laura Murray (eds), Australian National Gallery: An introduction, Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1982, pp. 66–67, illus. col;
  • Diane Upright, Morris Louis: The complete paintings, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1985, cat. 360, illus. p. 221;
  • Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American paintings and sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1992, pp. 302–303, illus. col.;
  • Anthony White, ‘Art metropolis: A new display of international art’ artonview no. 32, Summer 2002–2003, p. 20, illus. col.

Beta nu is one of a group of paintings known as Unfurleds, which Louis considered his most ambitious works.[1] He began painting the series in the summer of 1960, and finished early in 1961. The Unfurleds were painted after the series of Veils and before a series of experimental groups—the Florals, Columns, Omegas and Japanese banners—which were painted during the winter of 1959–1960. In the six to eight months that Louis worked on the Unfurled series, he produced over 120 paintings, of which he destroyed about forty because the blue colours were not fast.[2]

The Unfurleds, characterised by irregular rivulets of colour running diagonally from each side of the canvas leaving a blank centre, fall into two types: those with four or five broad bands of colour that are independent of each other, and those with ten or more narrow bands that sometimes overlap. It is likely that the former type, of which Beta nu is an example, were painted earlier.

The paintings in the Unfurled series are of a similar height, a measurement which was governed by the standard-sized bolts of canvas that Louis used. Much variation occurs in the width, however, as he attempted to discover how great the blank central area could be while still retaining the tension between the two extremities. Beta nu, with a width of 701.0 cm, is one of the largest Unfurleds.

Like the Veils, the Unfurleds were titled posthumously, with letters from the Greek alphabet used to identify the series. This method had a precedent in two Unfurleds, which were titled Alpha and Delta by Louis himself for the 1960 exhibition at Bennington College, Vermont. The title Beta nu combines the second and twelfth letters of the Greek alphabet.

Michael Lloyd and Michael Desmond, European and American paintings and sculptures 1870–1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery 1992, pp. 300–302, revised Steven Tonkin 2003

[1] Louis’ appraisal of the Unfurledswas reported by Clement Greenberg to Michael Fried, see Fried, Morris Louis, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1970, p. 32, and Upright, 1978, p. 91.

[2] Kenworth Moffett, ‘Morris Louis: Omegas and Unfurleds’, Artforum vol. 8 no. 9, May 1970, pp. 45, 46 note 3.

The National Gallery of Australia holds three paintings by Louis: one of the Veils series, Dalet zayin 1959; Nexus II 1960, which marks the transition between the Veils and Unfurleds series; and Beta nu 1960 from the Unfurleds series;as well as two drawings, Untitled c. 1949 and Untitled 1950–53.