When Louis began making his large Unfurled paintings in 1960, their dimensions often made it impossible for him to extend the canvasses fully in his small studio—the dining room of his Washington, D.C., home. Similarly, few galleries were large enough to accommodate them, and only two of the more than one hundred in this series were exhibited before the artist died in 1962. Although Louis painted on a vast scale, the brightly colored ribbons of paint cascading down the sides of this canvas invite a close look. Perhaps even more remarkable than the immense size of this work is the broad expanse of raw canvas Louis left exposed—an emphatic void framed by exuberant color.
Gallery label from 2009.
Beta Lambda belongs to Louis's Unfurled series, in which diagonal bands of paint at each picture's sides are widely separated by the expanse of bare canvas between them, a powerful emptiness. Each band contains multiple rivulets of color, which now progress evenly through the spectrum, now pop with contrast, like the blue at the right of Beta Lambda. The pared–down simplicity of Louis's work focused a concern in the painting of the time: a concentration on the art's essential elements—line, color, ground.
Chronologically, Louis came from the Abstract Expressionist generation, but he mostly worked at a geographical and psychological remove from the New York School, and although he was crucially influenced by a member of that circle—Helen Frankenthaler—she was rather younger than its pioneers. As a result, his work both reflects and departs from Abstract Expressionist ideas. Like Frankenthaler, Louis used unprimed canvas, which absorbs paint into its fabric, so that it retains a presence in the finished work. (Primed canvas, conversely, takes paint as a discrete layer resting on and hiding its surface.) Louis also invented brushless techniques of applying paint, leaning the canvas against the wall and pouring the liquid down the tilted plane. The method deflates the Abstract Expressionist stress on the artist's hand and psyche, making Beta Lambda a visual field to be appreciated for its own sake.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 246.