SynopsisMorris Louis was a prolific painter whose work provides a link between 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
ChildhoodAbstract 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 TrainingAfter 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 PeriodIn 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 , 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 DeathBy 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.
LegacyLouis 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.
Washington Color School
Years Worked: 1932 - 1962
WHERE TO SEE WORKS:
Museum of Modern Artwww.MoMA.org
Metropolitan Museum of Artwww.METmuseum.org
BiographiesMorris Louis: Michael Fried
PaintingsMorris 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
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock Page
|Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the 20th century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Pollock, Still and Hofmann.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg Page
|Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Joan Miró Page
|Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and was a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
ArtStory: Arshile Gorky Page
|Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract painter in mid-20th-century New York. Along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Frankenthaler is considered a pioneer in the practice of color-field painting.
ArtStory: Helen Frankenthaler Page
|Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color Field movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.
ArtStory: Kenneth Noland Page
|Jack Tworkov was a Polish-born American painter. Part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionism, he worked in a variety of styles including geometric arrangements, gestural sweeps, and the thin "flame-like" marks that became emblematic of his work.
|Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
ArtStory: Post-Painterly Abstraction Page
|The Washington Color School refers to a group of Color-field painters who exhibited together at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1965. Their work is marked by the presence of color areas and washes, geometric designs, and even surfaces.
|Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
ArtStory: Frank Stella Page
|Ellsworth Kelly is an American color-field and hard-edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late-1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.
ArtStory: Ellsworth Kelly Page
|A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
ArtStory: Color Field Painting Page