Morris Louis - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Morris Louis
Morris Louis Bernstein was one of four sons born into a middle-class Jewish family in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1912. His parents, Louis and Cecelia (Luckman) Bernstein, were Russian immigrants. Louis attended public schools in Baltimore and developed an early interest in art. At the age of 15, despite his parents' wishes he decided not to pursue medical studies and instead accepted a scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts in 1927. During these early years as an artist, he was influenced by the paintings of Paul Cézanne and by visits to the Cone Collection of modern European art in Baltimore.
After graduating in 1932, Louis worked in Baltimore for several years, becoming President of the Baltimore Artists' Association. In 1936 he moved to New York. He studied with the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1936 through 1937 and earned money as a window decorator. In 1938 he began working for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. He was hired by the FAP's "easel division," for which he painted images of workers and other scenes of everyday life in a style influenced by Max Beckmann and other Expressionist artists.
In 1943 Louis returned to Baltimore and continued painting in a figurative, sometimes satirical, style. He married Marcella Siegel in 1947 and moved to the suburbs of Baltimore, 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 resin paint that became his preferred 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.
In 1952 Louis relocated to Washington, D.C., where he spent the rest of his life and career. He soon met the painter Kenneth Noland, who became his close friend and collaborator in the development of Color Field Painting, as well as the artists Franz Kline and David Smith. Through Noland, Louis met the influential critic Clement Greenberg, who became his greatest champion. Greenberg played a major part in Louis's development as a painter: in 1954 he took Louis to the Helen Frankenthaler's Manhattan studio to see her monumental work Mountains and Sea (1952). Frankenthaler's technique of staining the canvas with poured acrylic paint profoundly influenced both Louis and Noland, who returned to D.C. determined to incorporate these ideas into their own art.
Louis did not fully digest Frankenthaler's concept until approximately two years later when he began painting his first mature series, known as Veils (1957-60) because of their overlapping layers of color. (It should be noted that Louis himself rarely 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.) For these works Louis poured thinned Magna paint over large 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's paint moves freely without the interference of a brush or the artist's hand. The illusion of three-dimensional depth is eliminated; his color is not a mark made on the surface but instead becomes part of the surface itself. However, Louis soon reverted to his more conventional 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, developing several distinct categories of work. These include the "floral" veils, so named because of their flower-like clusters of forms (e.g. Point of Tranquility, 1959-60). Louis created these various types by manipulating the canvas. Although he never wrote down his method and he strictly prohibited anyone from watching him work in his converted dining-room studio, certain assumptions can be made from close study of the paintings. His process involved homemade wooden stretchers that could be adjusted in order to tighten or loosen the canvas, so that the poured paint would run along flat areas, broad depressions, or narrow channels in its surface.
Late Years and Death
By the end of the 1950s, Louis enjoyed substantial renown. He saw his art featured in his first one-man exhibition in Washington, D.C., in 1953 and in his first New York show, a group exhibition titled "Emerging Talent" at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery, in 1954. He then showed his work with prominent dealers in New York, including Andre Emmerich and Leo Castelli, as well as at galleries in London and Paris. Greenberg's 1960 article "Louis and Noland" in Art International helped to secure his critical reputation as a founder of Color Field Painting.
In the summer of 1960, Louis began a new series called Unfurleds. These remain his most readily identifiable, and perhaps most important, works. They are named after Louis's technique of folding the canvas before pouring the paint and then unrolling them as the paint soaked into the cloth. As large as 20 feet in width, they are his most monumental paintings. The most famous Unfurled paintings feature two rainbow patterns that flow from the edges of the massive canvases towards totally blank centers (such as Delta Theta, 1960). Although they seem like improvisations, Louis always planned and executed the works carefully, destroying any paintings that did not meet his standards.
Louis's final series of paintings, later called Stripes (1961), feature horizontal or vertical bands of fine lines running along long, narrow canvases. Unlike the free-flowing paint in previous series, the Stripes feature methodically plotted lines that do not touch one another. All gesture is eliminated, and the works are more closely related to the hard-edge paintings of Louis's contemporary Barnett Newman than to the work of Pollock. The highly simplified color combinations and regimented forms of these works prefigure the post-painterly abstraction of younger artists like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly.
In 1962 Louis was diagnosed with lung cancer caused by extensive inhalation of paint vapors. He died a few months later, at the age of 49, at his home in Washington, D.C. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York held a memorial exhibition of his art in 1963.
The Legacy of Morris Louis
Louis was extremely prolific, but his mature career was relatively short: the period between the inception of his first Veils series and his untimely death lasted just eight years. At the time of his death, only around 100 of his 600 extant works had ever been seen in public, so his influence beyond art circles was still limited. His position in the canon was bolstered by his inclusion in a 1965 show of the Washington Color School, and he continued to be hailed by Greenberg as a pioneer of Color Field Painting. Louis's importance waned during the 1970s when his champion Greenberg lost influence as a critic and the Color Field School fell out of fashion. However, his reputation has been revived since the 1980s with several major museum exhibitions, including a traveling major retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art in 1986. Today his work is viewed as an essential bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting, as well an influence on such later movements as Minimalism.