The American painter Morris Louis (Bernstein; 1912-1962) explored new realms of pictorial space with his series the “Veils”, the “Unfurleds”, and the “Stripes”. By exploiting the anonymous “stain” method, he formed a bridge between the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s and the Minimalists of the 1960s.
Morris Louis Bernstein was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1912. Unlike the more practical trades chosen by his three brothers, he applied for and won a four-year scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts at the early age of 15. Although described by his friends as a loner, Louis was active in the local art community. In 1934 he participated in the creation of a mural in Baltimore entitled The History of the Written Word for the federal Public Works of Art Project and, in 1935, was elected president of the Baltimore Artists’ Union.
The following year Louis moved to New York City where he contributed to David Alfaro Siqueiros’ workshops. These workshops, so important to the future Abstract Expressionists, promoted the experimental use of modern tools such as spray guns, air-brush, and synthetic paints to express subjective ideas. It was also while in New York, in 1938, that he legally changed his name to Morris Louis. Although there are few paintings from this period, what is extant suggests an influence from the Mexican muralists Siqueiros and Diego Rivera and the German Expressionist Max Beckmann, whose work he is reported to have admired in the Museum of Modern Art.
Louis returned to Baltimore in the early 1940s and in 1947 married Marcella Siegel. Participating in the Maryland Artists’ exhibitions in 1948, 1949, and 1950, he began to gather a small following of local artists who in 1951 convinced him to be their instructor. His work between 1947 and 1953 displays many divergent influences, from the Cubist forms of Picasso to Futurist lines representing movement. In the Tranquilities series Louis showed an admiration for the solid forms of Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic. Most accomplished from this period is the Charred Journal series which represents his earlier interest in the amorphous forms of Joan Miro and also acknowledges the gestural painting of Jackson Pollock, with dripped paint placed spontaneously on a streaked background.
In 1952, a pivotal year in his artistic career, Louis and his wife moved from the suburbs into Washington, DC, and Louis began to teach at the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts. It was here that he met and became fast friends with a colleague, Kenneth Noland. Noland, an artist who had studied in Paris and at Black Mountain College, was more conscious of the international art scene and broadened Louis’ awareness of contemporary artists. In April of 1953 the two artists traveled to New York City, where Noland introduced Louis to the influential critic Clement Greenberg, who henceforth would play a crucial role as supporter and guiding source of Louis’ career. Also of critical importance was Louis’ introduction to Helen Frankenthaler (by Greenberg) and his viewing of her painting Mountains and Sea (1952) in which she had explored the possibilities of staining thinned colors into bare canvas. Frankenthaler’s painting inspired Noland and Louis to monumental changes in their art.
Upon their return to Washington Noland and Louis worked closely together, often on the same canvas, in an attempt to eliminate old habits of painting – they called this joint venture “jam painting.” Louis’ work at this time reveals an interest in combining the gestural forms of the Abstract Expressionists with the newly discovered staining technique of Frankenthaler.
The outcome of these experiments was Louis’ first set of masterpieces – the Veils. In this group, apparently begun in early 1954, Louis reconciled the conflict between his new found feeling for color and the importance he had always associated with drawing. By pouring acrylic paint (magna) over a canvas he created a brilliant stained color. The brilliance of the acrylic colors was diluted by thinning the paint or by covering the stained image with a “veil” of diluted black paint. Within this stained field of color Louis placed nonrepresentational linear arrangements, created by folding and manipulating the canvas.
Between 1954 and 1957, after this first Veil series, Louis returned to more gestural paintings where color and line appear to attack the canvas in a manner opposed to the serene use of color associated with the Veils. Unhappy with his results, Louis destroyed nearly three hundred paintings from these years (leaving less than ten) and in 1957 returned to the technique established with the 1954 Veils. He completed five distinct series of Veils during 1958 and the first part of 1959. In each series Louis took his earlier interest in the staining of the canvas and developed it more consistently with his concern for line. Contrary to the 1954 Veils, most of these canvases are unprimed, causing the color to thoroughly saturate the canvas and create an illusion of inner space. Louis drew attention back to the reality of the canvas as an object by referring to the surface of the color field with a distinct linear pattern.
In the summer of 1960 Louis began his next great series of paintings, the Unfurleds. Here he continued to show a stronger interest in line by using individual stripes of color that run down the unprimed horizontal canvas from the upper right corner toward the bottom center, leaving a large inverted triangular expanse of white in the center. The viewer is called upon to see both the pure color on either end and the white triangle in the middle. The result is a remarkably coherent composition. In these canvases Louis took advantage of an improved magna with a smoother consistency, allowing him to use his paints directly from the can. The undiluted paint produced purer hues and took on a new luminance.
The final series created by Louis before his untimely death were the Stripes. Concentrating once again on the purity of color, Louis both poured and used a swab to move the paint down the canvas. Slightly overlapping stripes of colors, sometimes not at all, run vertically down the canvas, creating images of pure color, which in many ways prefigure the more static and controlled “hardedged” colors of Kenneth Noland and Ellsworth Kelly.
In July of 1962 Louis was diagnosed as having lung cancer, and as a result his left lung was removed. The following months he continued to plan for an exhibition in New York City, but he was unable to paint again. He died on September 7. By the time of his death in 1962, Louis had had several one-man shows in both Washington and New York and had also exhibited in London, Paris, Milan, and Rome. His place in the history of modern painting was well established. His paintings can be seen in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the Australian National Gallery in Canberra; and the Tate Gallery in London, as well as in many collections in the United States and throughout the world.