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Morris Louis Photo

Morris Louis

American Painter

Born: November 28, 1912 - Baltimore, Maryland
Died: September 7, 1962 - Washington D.C.
"As to the painting, I know that I'd have had a gallery long ago had it been in me to popularize my style. However, that is not the case, and so I have to play for big stakes in hopes that some highly reputable joint will handle the stuff some day."
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Morris Louis Signature
"The more I paint the more I'm aware of a difference in my approach and others. Am distrustful of over-simplifications but nonetheless think that there is nothing very new in any period of art: what is true is that it is only something new for the painter & that this thin edge is what matters."
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Morris Louis Signature
"I suspect it is possible to relate every bit of abs. exp. to other art in a breakdown. It comes out new and different when art history is submerged and making a painting is a simple experience not precisely like any the artist had before."
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Morris Louis Signature

Summary of Morris Louis

Morris Louis became one of the leading figures of Color Field painting, along with his contemporaries Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler. In his short yet prolific career, most of which he spent in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Louis continually experimented with method and medium, manipulating large canvases in creative ways to control the flow and stain of his acrylic paints. His mature style, characterized by layered veils and rivulets of poured acrylic paint on untreated canvases, makes his paintings some of the most iconic works of Color Field Painting.


  • In addition to using thinned acrylic paint to stain the weave of his canvas, as colleagues like Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski also did, Louis went so far as to manipulate the canvas itself, folding and bending it to shape the flow of the paint. This innovation allowed him to eliminate his own touch upon the canvas, while still giving him a way to emphasize his medium's inherent fluidity and saturated colors.
  • Louis's paintings of the 1950s established a vital link between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting. He rejected the gestural abstraction of action painters like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, while also placing more emphasis on tonal relations and free-flowing color.
  • Rather than live in New York City as many of his contemporaries did, Louis based his career in his native Maryland and nearby Washington, D.C. In this way he expanded the geographical boundaries of the contemporary art world in America and brought attention to an offshoot of Color Field Painting later termed the Washington Color School.

Biography of Morris Louis

Morris Louis Photo

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.

Important Art by Morris Louis

Progression of Art

Charred Journal: Firewritten V

Charred Journal: Firewritten V is executed in a traditional Abstract Expressionist style, and its gestural brushwork and all-over composition are influenced by Jackson Pollock's action painting. Although it measures only about two feet wide, this work manages to achieve a remarkable sense of dynamism within a relatively compact space. Its title alludes to the Nazi book burnings in which supposedly subversive literature was destroyed in the 1930s; its pale markings against a raw, dark background evoke a written language set against a threatening void. This canvas predates Louis's exposure to Helen Frankenthaler's stain paintings in 1954, after which he began his mature Color Field work.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - The Jewish Museum, New York


Breaking Hue

The Veil series is named for its thin overlapping "veils" of acrylic Magna paint. This canvas is one of Louis's earliest experimentations with applying thin, quick-drying washes of color to unprimed canvas. The title may evoke the sense of shifting color and light that we are encouraged to perceive in this painting. It is difficult to discern where one color ends and another begins, since, in an effect unique to Magna, the underlying layers are partially dissolved by the successive pours of color, creating a diffused, melting appearance. By permitting this new kind of paint to create unpredictable effects, Louis allowed chance to play a larger role in his art: the medium itself dictated the final result. This was a way of rethinking the artist's degree of control over his own work. Although Breaking Hue does not make any visual reference to the physical world, it is an object with a life of its own.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA


Dalet Kaf

Dalet Kaf is an example of Louis's later Veil paintings. In order to work within the small confines of his studio, Louis would staple canvas to the walls. Here, the sheer washes of paint cascade down the surface of the canvas, with the brighter colors muted by the "veils" of black that frame the composition. With this inventive method, Louis enlisted gravity as one of his artistic tools, allowing it to aid and shape the flow of the paint. By making his process visible, Louis emphasized the medium's inherent fluidity rather than his own authority over it. The paint itself, rather than representational content or the artist's inner psyche, has become the subject of this work.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas


Point of Tranquility

Point of Tranquility is an example of Louis's series of Florals, a later phase of his Veil paintings. In a technical innovation, Louis created each Floral by rotating the canvas as he poured the paint, rather than working from a single vantage point. The layers of acrylic then ran and dried in a form suggesting a flower, with the bleeding pigment creating a muddled, denser area at its core. The centralized arrangements of the Florals indicated another step in Louis's departure from earlier Abstract Expressionist practices, which utilized "all-over" compositions. Louis's process here also raises an important question: if he created the canvas from multiple approaches, rather than a fixed point, can its audience then choose to view it from different orientations as well? In other words, does it still have a proper "top" and "bottom"?

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection, Washington DC


Delta Theta

Delta Theta is a classic work from Louis's Unfurled series, which are among the most recognizable works of his oeuvre. For this painting, Louis folded the massive, mural-sized canvas (nearly 20 feet wide) before pouring the thinned acrylic down its surface. The color is concentrated in the two lower corners of the canvas, while the large central area of Delta Theta is left untreated and bare. By restricting his composition to the corners, rather than utilizing the center (as was traditional in Western painting) or painting an undifferentiated field across the canvas (as Pollock might have done), Louis took a new approach to pictorial space and how it could or should be filled. And, as the scholar Alexander Nemerov has noted, the monumental scale of Louis's works of the early 1960s evokes an entire era of American optimism and power, both in contemporary art and on the world stage.

Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas - The Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C



Partition is one of Louis's so-called Stripe series, all executed in the last months of his life. In these works, the artist was still interested in optical effects of color relationships; at the same time, he took the simplification of non-representational form to extremes. The Stripe canvases demonstrate Louis's increasingly stripped-down approach to composition and form. They are highly systematic and devoid of the painter's own expressive gesture, with their streams of paint running in tight parallel groupings of narrow bands of color. These late works, which emphasize the most basic geometry of all, straight lines, point the way towards the Minimalist school of the 1960s and 1970s.

Acrylic paint (Magna) on canvas - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Morris Louis Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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