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Morris Louis

Morris Louis Bernstein

Morris Louis
Photo credit: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Born: 28 November 1912; Baltimore, United States

Died: 07 September 1962; Washington, United States

Active Years: 1948 - 1962

Periods: Early Works, Mature Works

Field: painting

Nationality: American

Art Movement: Abstract Expressionism, Post-Painterly Abstraction

School or Group: Washington Color School

Genre: abstract

Considered one of the earliest exponents of Color Field painting, American painter Morris Louis was one of the Washington painters who formed what is known today as the Washington Color School.

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, period during which he met Arshile Gorky, David Alfaro Siqueiros, etc.

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, NYC paintmakers Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden. In 1952, Louis moved to Washington, D.C., where he was somewhat apart from the New York scene, working almost in isolation. During the 1950s he and a group of artists that included Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Tom Downing, Howard Mehring and Anne Truitt 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. All of these artists were concerned with the classic problems of pictorial space and the flatness of the picture plane. Particularly Louis and Noland drawn inspiration from a 1953 visit to the New York studio of painter Helen Frankenthaler (influence reflected in Louis' "Veil" series).

Between 1955 and 1957, he destroyed many of his own paintings, resuming work on the "Veil" series (completed in 1959, which were followed by "Florals and Columns" (1960), "Unfurleds" (1960–61) and the "Stripe paintings" (1961–62). 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. A memorial exhibition of his 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.

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