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Morris LOUIS

United States of America 1912 – 1962

Beta nu

1960 Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint on unprimed canvas
Primary Insc: no inscriptions
Dimensions: 259.1 h x 701.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1972
Accession No: NGA 72.317
Image rights: © 1960 Morris Louis

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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 concluded early in 1961. The 'Unfurleds' were painted after the series of 'Veils' and a series of experimental groups — the 'Florals', 'Columns', 'Omegas' and 'Japanese Banners' — which were painted during the winter of 1959-60. 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', which are characterised by irregular rivulets of colour running diagonally down from each side of the canvas leaving a blank centre, fall into two types; those with four or five broad bands of colour independent of each other, and those with ten or more narrow bands which sometimes overlap. It is likely that the former type, of which Beta Nu is an example, were painted earlier.

The height of the paintings in the 'Unfurled' series is similar and was governed by the standard-sized bolts of canvas that Louis used. Much variation occurs in the width, however, as Louis 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 701.04 cm (276"), is one of the largest 'Unfurleds'.3

Like the 'Veils', the 'Unfurleds' were titled posthumously, and letters from the Greek alphabet were used to identify this series. This method had a precedent in two 'Unfurleds' 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 & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.302.

  1. Louis' appraisal of the 'Unfurleds' was reported by Clement Greenberg to Michael Fried; see Morris Louis, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970, p.32; and Headley, 'In Addition to the Veils', op. cit., cf. p.91.
  2. Kenworth Moffett, 'Morris Louis: Omegas and Unfurleds', Artforum, vol. 8, no. 9, May 1970, pp.44-7, cf. p.46, n.3.
  3. Beta Iota 1960, located at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is larger at 718.82 cm (283") and is perhaps the largest of the 'Unfurleds'.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra