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Morris Louis

American Painter

Movement: Color Field Painting

Born: November 28, 1912 - Baltimore, Maryland

Died: September 7, 1962 - Washington D.C.

Morris Louis Timeline

Important Art by Morris Louis

The below artworks are the most important by Morris Louis - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Charred Journal: Firewritten V (1951)
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Charred Journal: Firewritten V (1951)

Artwork description & Analysis: Charred Journal: Firewritten V is executed in a traditional Abstract Expressionist style, and its gestural brushwork and all-over composition are influenced by Jackson Pollock's action painting. Although it measures only about two feet wide, this work manages to achieve a remarkable sense of dynamism within a relatively compact space. Its title alludes to the Nazi book burnings in which supposedly subversive literature was destroyed in the 1930s; its pale markings against a raw, dark background evoke a written language set against a threatening void. This canvas predates Louis's exposure to Helen Frankenthaler's stain paintings in 1954, after which he began his mature Color Field work.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - The Jewish Museum, New York

Breaking Hue (1954)
Artwork Images

Breaking Hue (1954)

Artwork description & Analysis: The Veil series is named for its thin overlapping "veils" of acrylic Magna paint. This canvas is one of Louis's earliest experimentations with applying thin, quick-drying washes of color to unprimed canvas. The title may evoke the sense of shifting color and light that we are encouraged to perceive in this painting. It is difficult to discern where one color ends and another begins, since, in an effect unique to Magna, the underlying layers are partially dissolved by the successive pours of color, creating a diffused, melting appearance. By permitting this new kind of paint to create unpredictable effects, Louis allowed chance to play a larger role in his art: the medium itself dictated the final result. This was a way of rethinking the artist's degree of control over his own work. Although Breaking Hue does not make any visual reference to the physical world, it is an object with a life of its own.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

Dalet Kaf (1959)
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Dalet Kaf (1959)

Artwork description & Analysis: Dalet Kaf is an example of Louis's later Veil paintings. In order to work within the small confines of his studio, Louis would staple canvas to the walls. Here, the sheer washes of paint cascade down the surface of the canvas, with the brighter colors muted by the "veils" of black that frame the composition. With this inventive method, Louis enlisted gravity as one of his artistic tools, allowing it to aid and shape the flow of the paint. By making his process visible, Louis emphasized the medium's inherent fluidity rather than his own authority over it. The paint itself, rather than representational content or the artist's inner psyche, has become the subject of this work.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas

Point of Tranquility (1959-60)
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Point of Tranquility (1959-60)

Artwork description & Analysis: Point of Tranquility is an example of Louis's series of Florals, a later phase of his Veil paintings. In a technical innovation, Louis created each Floral by rotating the canvas as he poured the paint, rather than working from a single vantage point. The layers of acrylic then ran and dried in a form suggesting a flower, with the bleeding pigment creating a muddled, denser area at its core. The centralized arrangements of the Florals indicated another step in Louis's departure from earlier Abstract Expressionist practices, which utilized "all-over" compositions. Louis's process here also raises an important question: if he created the canvas from multiple approaches, rather than a fixed point, can its audience then choose to view it from different orientations as well? In other words, does it still have a proper "top" and "bottom"?

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection, Washington, D.C.

Delta Theta (1961)
Artwork Images

Delta Theta (1961)

Artwork description & Analysis: Delta Theta is a classic work from Louis's Unfurled series, which are among the most recognizable works of his oeuvre. For this painting, Louis folded the massive, mural-sized canvas (nearly 20 feet wide) before pouring the thinned acrylic down its surface. The color is concentrated in the two lower corners of the canvas, while the large central area of Delta Theta is left untreated and bare. By restricting his composition to the corners, rather than utilizing the center (as was traditional in Western painting) or painting an undifferentiated field across the canvas (as Pollock might have done), Louis took a new approach to pictorial space and how it could or should be filled. And, as the scholar Alexander Nemerov has noted, the monumental scale of Louis's works of the early 1960s evokes an entire era of American optimism and power, both in contemporary art and on the world stage.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - The Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C

Partition (1962)
Artwork Images

Partition (1962)

Artwork description & Analysis: Partition is one of Louis's so-called Stripe series, all executed in the last months of his life. In these works, the artist was still interested in optical effects of color relationships; at the same time, he took the simplification of non-representational form to extremes. The Stripe canvases demonstrate Louis's increasingly stripped-down approach to composition and form. They are highly systematic and devoid of the painter's own expressive gesture, with their streams of paint running in tight parallel groupings of narrow bands of color. These late works, which emphasize the most basic geometry of all, straight lines, point the way towards the Minimalist school of the 1960s and 1970s.

Acrylic paint (Magna) on canvas - Tate Modern, London



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Morris Louis Photo

Related Art and Artists

Full Fathom Five (1947)
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Full Fathom Five (1947)

Artist: Jackson Pollock

Artwork description & Analysis: Full Fathom Five was among the first drip paintings Pollock completed. Its surface is clotted with an assortment of detritus, from cigarette butts to coins and a key. While the top-most layers were created by pouring lines of black and shiny silver house paint, a large part of the paint's crust was applied by brush and palette knife, creating an angular counterpoint to the weaving lines. "Like a seismograph," noted writer Werner Haftmann "the painting recorded the energies and states of the man who drew it." Since their first exhibition, critics have come to recognize that drip paintings such as this might also be read as major developments in the history of modern painting. With them, Pollock found a new abstract language for the unconscious, one which moved beyond the Freudian symbolism of the Surrealists. He broke up the rigid, shallow space of Cubist pictures, replacing it instead with a dense web of space, like an unfathomable galaxy of stars. He even updated Impressionism, creating pictures that seem to glitter with the effects of light, and yet which also suggest the pitch dark and anxious interior of the human mind.

Oil on canvas, with nails, buttons, tacks, key, coins, cigarettes, matches, etc. - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Mountains and Sea (1952)
Artwork Images

Mountains and Sea (1952)

Artist: Helen Frankenthaler

Artwork description & Analysis: This canvas is the artist's landmark piece in which she first pioneered her soak-stain process. Despite its large size (7 x 10 feet), it is a work of quiet intimacy. Painted on the artist's return from Nova Scotia, Mountains and Sea retains the artist's impressions of the Cape Breton environs; as she famously described, the region's landscapes "were in my arms as I did it ... I was trying to get at something - I didn't know what until it was manifest." Here, color takes on a new, primary role, with washes of pink, blue, and green defining the hills, rocks, and water, the forms of which are sketchily outlined in charcoal. Following their encounter with Mountains and Sea and other works by Frankenthaler produced by means of the soak-stain technique, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland promptly embraced the method and, together with Frankenthaler, launched the "next big thing" in American art: Color Field painting.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Beginnings (1958)
Artwork Images

Beginnings (1958)

Artist: Kenneth Noland

Artwork description & Analysis: This work, which places concentric circles on a perfectly square canvas, marks one of Noland's very first attempts at painting basic forms and archetypal patterns. Beginnings's circles are slightly irregular, an effect that may or may not have been intentional. Their varying colors complement or contrast with one another, creating a lively perceptual effect for the viewer. The final, jagged penumbra of black paint that frames these inner circles reinforces the improvisational feel of the whole work, pulling the viewer's attention beyond the nested circular forms and imbuing the whole with a burst of energy.

Magna on canvas - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

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