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Modern Artist: Morris Louis
Morris Louis was a prolific painter whose work provides a link between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. His mature style is among the most recognizable of the Color Field painters and is characterized by layered rainbows of acrylic paint poured down huge blank canvases.

Key Ideas / Information
  • Though he was heavily influenced by Jackson Pollock, Louis' technique of pouring paint freely down the canvas was a major departure from the "gesture" paintings associated with Abstract Expressionism. He developed this style after seeing the "stain" paintings of Helen Frankenthaler in 1952.
  • Louis used thinned acrylic paint to stain the weave of the canvas, rather than paint on its surface. This completed the rejection of the illusion of three-dimensional space which was a central concern of Abstract Expressionism.
  • Unlike most Abstract Expressionists, Louis lived and worked in Washington, D.C., and was a member of the movement later termed "Washington Color School." Louis was a close friend of other local painters, especially fellow Color Field pioneer Kenneth Noland.

Abstract Expressionism is so closely associated with Manhattan that its core members are often referred to as the New York School. Unlike his contemporaries, Morris Louis spent almost his entire life in Maryland, where he was born and raised, and in Washington, D.C., where he lived and worked for the last ten years of his life. Born Morris Louis Bernstein into a middle-class Jewish family in 1912, he decided against becoming a doctor as his parents wished, and instead accepted a scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Fine Arts in 1927.

Early Training
After graduating in 1932, Louis worked in Baltimore for several years, becoming President of the Baltimore Artists' Association, before moving to New York in 1936. Here, he dropped his last name, studied with the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and like many artists during the Depression, worked for the Federal Arts Projects; though he worked in their easel division, he later abandoned the use of easels in his process.

In 1943, Louis returned to Baltimore and continued figure painting. He married in 1947 and moved to the suburbs where he taught art classes and painted increasingly abstract works inspired by Joan Miró. In the late 1940s he began using Magna, a type of acrylic paint, which became his exclusive medium for the rest of his career. By 1950, Louis was painting in an abstract expressionist style heavily influenced by Jackson Pollock; his work was beginning to attain recognition among his peers and was shown at several galleries.

Mature Period
In 1952 Louis relocated to Washington, D.C., where he would spend the rest of his life and career. He soon met Kenneth Noland, who would become his close friend and collaborator in the development of Color Field painting. Through Noland, Louis met the influential critic Clement Greenberg, who became his greatest champion. Greenberg played a major part in Louis' development as a painter: in 1954 he took Louis to the Manhattan studio of Helen Frankenthaler to see her monumental work Mountains and Sea. Her technique of pouring paint and staining the canvas profoundly influenced both Louis and Noland, who returned to D.C. determined to incorporate these ideas into their own styles.

Louis did not fully digest Frankenthaler's concept until 1954, when he began painting the first series of his mature style, known as "Veils" because of their overlapping layers of color (Breaking Hues, 1954). Using thinned Magna, Louis poured the paint over huge unstretched and unprimed canvases, allowing the pigment to take its own course, and to soak directly into the canvas. This technique was a radical departure from the "gesture" that defined abstract expressionism; Louis' paint moves freely without the interference of a brush. The illusion of three-dimensional depth is completely eliminated; his color is not a mark made on the surface, but instead becomes part of the surface.
However, Louis soon reverted to his more traditional style. When he began painting Veils again in 1957, he burned all but ten of several hundred works from the previous three years. This kind of revision and destruction was typical of his relentless experimentation and perfectionism.

Louis continued to explore the Veil concept until 1960, and developed several distinct types. These include the "floral" veils, so named because of their flower patterns (i.e. Point of Tranquility, 1959-60). Louis created these types by manipulating the canvas and the process. Exactly how he did this remains a mystery: he never wrote down his method, and strictly prohibited anyone from watching him work in his converted dining-room studio. All that is known is that he used homemade stretchers to manipulate the canvas before pouring the paint over the surface.

Late Period and Death
By the end of the 1950s Louis enjoyed substantial renown. He showed with prominent dealers in New York including Andre Emmerich and Leo Castelli, and in galleries in London and Paris as well. Clement Greenberg's 1960 article Louis and Noland helped secure his critical reputation as a founder of Color Field painting.

In the summer of 1960, Louis began a new series called Unfurleds that are now his most readily identifiable, and perhaps most important works. They are so named because Louis folded the canvas before pouring the paint, and then unrolled them as the paintsoaked into the canvas. At up to 20 feet in width, they are his largest paintings and are wider than the studio where he created them. The most famous feature two rainbow patterns that flow from the edges of the massive canvas toward a totally blank center (Delta Theta, 1960). Though they seem like improvisation, they are in fact very systematic and Louis planned and executed the works carefully, destroying any which did not meet his standards.

Louis' final series of paintings is termed Stripes. It should be noted that Louis almost never titled his series or his individual paintings, and with just few exceptions, the Greek or Hebrew letters and numbers assigned to his works were given posthumously by his estate. Stripes feature horizontal or vertical lines on extremely long and narrow canvases. Unlike the free flowing paint in previous series, Stripes feature much more systematic, planned lines. Gesture is eliminated, and the works are more closely related to Barnett Newman than Jackson Pollock. The highly simplified color and regimented forms of these works prefigure the Post-painterly abstraction of artists like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelley.

In 1962, Louis was diagnosed with lung cancer caused by prolonged inhalation of paint vapors. He died shortly afterward at his home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 49.

Louis was extremely prolific, but his mature career was relatively short; the period between the inception of his first Veil series and his untimely death lasted just eight years. At the time of his death, only around 100 of the 600 extant works had ever been seen in public so his influence was still limited. His position in the canon was bolstered by inclusion in a 1965 show of the Washington Color School, and he continued to be hailed by Clement Greenberg as a pioneer of Color Field. Louis' importance waned during the 1970s as his champion Greenberg lost influence as a critic and painting fell out of fashion. However, his reputation has been revived since the 1980s with several major museum exhibitions, including a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1986. Today, his work is viewed as an essential bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting; and, because he eliminated gesture and illusion, his style is also viewed as an influence on movements such as Minimalism.

Below are Morris Louis's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.

Joan Miró
Arshile Gorky
Jackson Pollock
Helen Frankenthaler
Kenneth Noland
Clement Greenberg
Jack Tworkov
Abstract Expressionism
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Washington Color School
Morris Louis
Years Worked: 1932 - 1962
Frank Stella
Ellsworth Kelly
Kenneth Noland
Clement Greenberg
Color Field Painting
Post-Painterly Abstraction

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See additional works by this artist
Museum of Modern Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Whitney Museum

Morris Louis: Michael Fried

Morris Louis: John Elderfield, Morris Louis

Color as Field: American Painting
1950-1975 (American Federation of the Arts)

Louis and Noland Article
By Clement Greenberg
The Collected Essays and Criticism

Morris Louis reconsidered by Karen Wilkin
On "Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.
The New Criterion
February 2007