Morris Louis (born Morris Louis Bernstein, 28 November 1912 – 7 September 1962) was an American painter. During the 1950s he became one of the earliest exponents of Color Field painting. Living in Washington, D.C. Louis, along with Kenneth Noland and other Washington painters formed an art movement that is known today as the Washington Color School.
Kenneth Noland, Bridge, 1964
A visual-art movement of the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, the Washington Color School was originally a group of painters who showed works in the "Washington Color Painters" exhibit at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, DC from June 25-September 5, 1965.
The exhibition subsequently traveled to several other venues in the United States, including the Walker Art Center. The exhibition's organizer was Gerald "Gerry" Nordland and the painters included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Thomas "Tom" Downing, and Paul Reed.
The Washington Color School artists painted largely abstract works, and were central to the larger color field movement. Though not generally considered abstract expressionists, in so far as much of their work is more orderly than—and not apparently motivated by the philosophy behind—abstract expressionism, there are parallels between the Washington Color School and the abstract expressionists largely to their north in New York City.
Minimally, the use of stripes, washes, and fields of single colors of paint on canvas were common to most artists in both groups.
After their initial, benchmark exhibition, Davis, Mehring, Downing, and Reed exhibited at various times at Jefferson Place Gallery, which was originally directed by Alice Denney and later owned and directed by Nesta Dorrance. Other artists associated with the group include Sam Gilliam, Anne Truitt, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Leon Berkowitz, Jacob Kainen Alma Thomas, and James Hilleary among others.
The group is sometimes thought to have expanded as it achieved a dominant presence in the Washington DC visual art community through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Along with the original Washington Color School painters, a second generation also exhibited at Jefferson Place Gallery. The movement remained influential even as some of its members dispersed elsewhere.
Hilda Thorpe (Hilda Shapiro Thorpe) was a color field painter who made over sized paintings and paper sculpture and who taught a generation of metro Washington, D.C. artists. Other Washington Color School female artists include Anne Truitt whose work relates to the 'minimalist-purity' side of three dimensional painterly objects and painters Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Alma Thomas.
Other artists include Sam Gilliam's suspended paintings (by contrast they are almost baroque in sensibility,) Rockne Kreb's transparent sculptures, light & laser works, Ed McGowin's vacuum formed pieces which he was ending and moving towards a more personal art (tableau,) Bill Christenberry's neon works which lead him to deal more directly with his roots, Bob Stackhouse, Tom Green all fall under this art movement.
During Spring and Summer 2007, arts institutions in Washington, DC staged a city-wide celebration of Color Field painting, including exhibitions at galleries and museums of works by members of the Washington Color School.
In 2011, a group of Washington art collectors began the Washington Color School Project, to gather and publish information about the history of the Color Painters and abstract art in Washington.
From 1929 to 1933, he studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts (now Maryland Institute College of Art) on a scholarship, but left shortly before completing the program. Louis worked at various odd jobs to support himself while painting and in 1935 was president of the Baltimore Artists’ Association.
From 1936 to 1940, he lived in New York and worked in the easel division of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. During this period, he knew Arshile Gorky, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jack Tworkov. He also dropped his last name.
He returned to his native Baltimore in 1940 and taught privately. In 1948, he pioneered the use of Magna paint - a newly developed oil based acrylic paint made for him by his friends, New York City paintmakers Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden.
In 1952, Louis moved to Washington, D.C.. Living in Washington, D.C., he was somewhat apart from the New York scene and he was working almost in isolation.
During the 1950s he and a group of artists that included Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Tom Downing, Howard Mehring Anne Truitt and Hilda Thorpe among others were central to the development of Color Field painting.
The basic point about Louis's work and that of other Color Field painters, sometimes known as the Washington Color School in contrast to most of the other new approaches of the late 1950s and early 1960s, is that they greatly simplified the idea of what constitutes the look of a finished painting.
They continued in a tradition of painting exemplified by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Ad Reinhardt. Eliminating gestural, compositional drawing in favor of large areas of raw canvas, solid planes of thinned and fluid paint, utilizing an expressive and psychological use of flat, and intense color and allover, repetitive composition. One of Louis's most importa
nt series of Color Field paintings were his Unfurleds.
All of the Color Field artists were concerned with the classic problems of pictorial space and the flatness of the picture plane.
In 1953, Louis and Noland visited Helen Frankenthaler’s New York studio, where they saw and were greatly impressed by her stain paintings especially Mountains and Sea (1952).
Upon their return to Washington, Louis and Noland together experimented with various techniques of paint application. Louis characteristically applied extremely diluted, thinned paint to an unprimed, unstretched canvas, allowing it to flow over the inclined surface in effects sometimes suggestive of translucent color veils.
The importance of Frankenthaler's example in Louis's development of this technique has been noted. Louis reported that he thought of Frankenthaler as the bridge between Jackson Pollock and the possible. However, even more so than Frankenthaler, Louis eliminated the brush gesture, although his flat, thin pigment is at times modulated in billowing and subtle tones.
In 1954, Louis produced his mature Veil Paintings, which were characterized by overlapping, superimposed layers of transparent color poured onto and stained into sized or unsized canvas.
The Veil Paintings consist of waves of brilliant, curving color-shapes submerged in translucent washes through which separate colors emerge principally at the edges. Although subdued, the resulting color is immensely rich. In another series, the artist used long parallel bands and stripes of pure color arranged side by side in rainbow effects.
The thinned acrylic paint was allowed to stain the canvas, making the pigment at one with the canvas as opposed to ‘on top’. This conformed to Greenburg’s conception of ‘Modernism’ as it
Louis destroyed many of his paintings between 1955 and 1957. He resumed work on the Veils in 1958–59. These were followed by Florals and Columns (1960), Unfurleds (1960–61)—in which rivulets of more opaque, intense color flow from both sides of large white fields of raw canvas—and finally the Stripe paintings (1961–62).
Between summer 1960 and January/February 1961, he created about 150 Unfurleds, generally on mural-size canvases.
A memorial exhibition of Louis' work was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963. Major Louis exhibitions were also organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1967 and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in 1976.
In 1986 there was an important retrospective exhibition of his works at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. During 2007-2008 an important retrospective was held by museums in San Diego, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Atlanta at the High Museum, and in Washington, DC. at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
He married Marcella Siegel in 1947
Morris Louis was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1962 and soon after, died at his home in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1962. The cause of his illness was attributed to prolonged exposure to paint vapours. The Estate of Morris Louis is represented exclusively by Diane Upright, a former professor of fine art at Harvard University.