Artist and Musician Biographies


National Gallery of Art Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Harry Cooper discusses Morris Louis's his painting "Seal." on September 8, 2011.

Morris Louis Bernstein was born in 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland. He died in 1962. His father, Louis Bernstein, owned a small grocery store. Morris Louis went to public school in Baltimore and then to Baltimore City College. He left that college early for a scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts in 1929. He left the institute before graduation in 1933 to paint. He had a studio in Baltimore and supported himself by doing odd jobs.

In 1936, Morris began using Louis for his last name for professional purposes. He moved to New York City in 1936, where he met Jackson Pollock, Jack Tworkov, Arshile Gorky, and David Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist. It was in Siqueiros' workshop that Pollock and Louis experimented with automatic procedures and the use of Duco enamel. In 1939, his painting, "Broken Bridge", was exhibited at the New York World's Fair.

In 1940, Louis moved back to Baltimore where he taught privately and painted. He isolated himself and worked on personal experiments with paint. He was a loner and was withdrawn. He did get married, however, to Marcella Siegel, in 1947. The couple resided in the Washington, D.C. area for the rest of Louis' life.

Louis began to use acrylic paint manufactured by his friend Louis Bocour in 1948. Louis exhibited his work with the Maryland Artists Group at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He became an instructor at the Washington Workshop Center in 1952, where he met Kenneth Noland. They became good friends. Noland kept in contact with the New York art scene, which helped the somewhat provincial artistic circles of Washington, D. C., by relaying new ideas.

Louis was still experimenting in the early 1950s with color and spatial problems. He had his first solo exhibit in April 1953 at the Washington Workshop Center Art Gallery. Noland and Louis went to New York City that same month. The art they would see would affect the future of Louis's painting. They saw paintings by Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, but the experience of seeing Helen Frankenthaler's original staining technique of pouring thinned paints on unsized cotton duck fascinated him. This was a new kind of color and space in which foreground and background were eliminated. From this visit emerged what is now called the Washington Color School. Noland and Louis continued to work closely on new concepts. They showed their work together in New York City in 1954.

Clement Greenberg, the art critic who gave Post-painterly Abstraction its name, suggested that Louis send nine large canvases titled "Veils" to a New York art dealer. This series of paintings was made by loosely stapling raw canvas to vertical scaffolding and pouring thinned acrylic paint over the surface. The folds and drapes in the canvas played an important part in terms of the flow of paint. The colors were muted and transparent. Greenberg found them appealing because he felt there was complete integration of the paint and the canvas.

In fact, Morris Louis had invented a whole new kind of painting in his garage, which he used as a studio. He didn't use a paintbrush at all, but instead he poured paint onto the canvas. He used very thin transparent acrylic paint, which was mixed carefully so it would flow and spread out the way he wanted. To give him more control of the process, he developed a tool that consisted of a long pole with rags twisted onto one end. It looked a lot like a large Q-tip. With this tool, he would push the wet paint around the canvas and sometimes towards the edge. When the paint had dried he put the canvas on a stretcher.

Louis was very critical of his own work and destroyed many of his paintings. The group of paintings shown in his solo exhibit in 1957 in New York City were not in the stained style. The exhibit was not a success and Louis destroyed most of the unsold work. He started painting the "Veils" again and in 1959 showed them at French and Company, in New York. The new series of "Veils" had the paint applied either up or down the raw canvas with the colors overlapping one another. Other paintings in this series of works involved parallel or tapering bands of color.

In 1960, Louis began the second in a series of paintings called "Florals." He had previously experimented with this series from 1954 to 1957. He titled the first in the second "Floral" series Aleph, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and symbolized a new beginning. Louis let the paint flow from the center of the canvas, leaving the outer edges bare.

The "Unfurled" series of paintings were very large with diagonal streams of color running from the corners to form a V-shape at the bottom of the canvas. This left the center colorless. He did not overlap these colors, thus keeping them pure. These paintings were given names from the Greek alphabet. In this series, the pouring of the paint radiates toward the edge of the canvas. He moved from that to works in which the pouring of paint is restricted to the corners of enormous canvases, flowing diagonally downward, now painted only in pure colors.

Louis began a series of stripe paintings in the early 1960s. These paintings had bands of color of varied widths side by side near the edges of the canvas. In these paintings the pouring of paint begins at what is, when installed, the bottom of the painting. Each ribbon-like stripe of color appears to flow upward. The stripe paintings, although poured, required a very controlled process, and in fact eliminated conventional composition. Artists for centuries had composed by putting some paint on a canvas and then stepping back and studying it for a while and then adding something else and so on - thus "composing" the painting somewhat like a composer does with music.

With the stripe method, the painting is "designed" in a much more controlled manner, with far less ability to arrange or rearrange pictorial elements within the painting. This process has influenced artists ever since, and is a step in the "reductive" tradition, begun by Frankenthaler when she eliminated gesso from the painting process. This tendency toward reduction eventually leads to Minimal Art and then Conceptual Art, where, in its more radical forms, the art object is eliminated altogether.

Morris Louis died on September 1962, at the age of 49, in Washington. Louis was not well known during his lifetime. Major recognition of his contribution came only after his death. Today many of his paintings are recognized as masterpieces and are in the permanent collections of important museums around the world.

Page author: C.A.