Experimental Paintings

In July of 1963, the Estate of Morris Louis discovered that sixty-three canvases painted by Louis that he had directed to be destroyed some months prior to his death had not been destroyed. The estate acquired these canvases from the person then in possession of them. Examination of the canvases disclosed that forty-six had tacky surfaces on which the paint had not dried, or color smears resulting from folding while the paint was still wet, or other damages. In keeping with the artist’s intentions, these canvases were destroyed by the estate. The remaining seventeen canvases, which had dry surfaces and were free of color smears or other damage, were preserved for study purposes and have never been exhibited nor reproduced prior to the publication of the catalogue raisonné. They are included in the appendix to the catalogue raisonné and on this website so as not to be confused with Louis’s acknowledged corpus. They have been assigned their own set of numbers, which are preceded by an “X” to designate “experimental.”


The seventeen preserved canvases offer scholars interested in Louis’s working methods a rare opportunity to observe some experimental aspects of his art. It is obvious that his mature art did not lend itself to the practice of using small-scale drawings to explore new compositional, stylistic, or technical ideas. Rather, it called for full-scale treatment and the actual pouring and staining of paint onto canvas. Clearly, some experimental efforts resulted in failures that he wished to destroy. (For that matter, even finished paintings that he had once deemed worthy of exhibition were later perceived by him to be failures that should be destroyed. Such was the case with most of his work from 1955–57, some 350 examples of which he destroyed after he saw some of them exhibited in 1957.) He doubtlessly continued the process of editing-by-destruction throughout his career. The seventeen canvases preserved by the Louis Estate in 1963 remain the only evidence of this inherent part of his working procedure.


In 1983, these seventeen canvases were given to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to be preserved for study purposes.