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Morris Louis (American, 1912–1962)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter. Born Morris Louis Bernstein, he changed his name by legal deed in 1938. He studied at Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts, Baltimore (1927–32), and assisted in painting a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural for a public school in Baltimore. From 1936 to 1940 he lived in New York, where he attended the workshops of David Alfaro Siqueiros and became acquainted with the use of commercial enamel paints. A number of his WPA murals and paintings of work and workers show the influence of Max Beckmann, for example Untitled (Two Workers) (1939; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.). In New York he frequently visited MOMA. He returned to Baltimore in 1940 and in 1952 moved to Washington, DC.

From the 1950s Louis devoted himself to developing a response to the avant-garde work of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and other artists of the New York School (see Abstract Expressionism), abandoning the late Cubist style of his previous work.

The direction of Louis’s work was changed by seeing Frankenthaler’s technique of ‘staining’ very thin pigment on to unprimed canvas in the painting Mountains and Sea (1953; artist’s col.; for illustration see Frankenthaler, helen) in April 1953. A dominant feature of his work at this time was his serial paintings, which have been divided into distinct groups: Veils (1954), Veils II (1958–9), Unfurleds (1959–61) and Stripes (1961–2). In the Veils, for example Untitled (1954; Palm Beach, FL, Lannan Found.) and Dalet Ayin (1958; Humlebæk, Louisiana Mus.), Louis achieved this notion of interpenetration of colours by virtually staining the canvas with thinned acrylic paint so that it was difficult to see where one colour ended and another began. This technique created a wash-like transparency so that the perception of depth was problematic. The next group of paintings was the Unfurleds, for example Delta Beta (1959–60; Boston, MA, Mus. F.A.), the majority of which were executed between June or July 1960 and some time early in 1961. In these paintings an open space of bare canvas in the centre is scored diagonally at the left and right edges with irregular stripes of colours that vanish into diminishing scales at the corner of the canvas. In the final series, the Stripes, for example Third Element (1961; New York MOMA), bunched straight vertical bands of colour, of varying thicknesses, float on a neutral ground like folds of cloth.

Louis was retrospectively named by Clement Greenberg as an exponent of Post-painterly abstraction in the exhibition of the same name held at the County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, in 1964. In the following year the painter was included as one of the Washington color painters in their exhibition (1965; Washington, DC, Gal. Mod. A.).

Christopher Brookeman
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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