MORRIS LOUIS, Washington Color School Abstraction/Color Field Painting, Pt2

Morris Louis Bernstein was one of the earliest exponents of what became known as Color Field painting in the 1950s.  While he was living in Washington D.C. he, along with Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Tom Downing, Howard Mehring Anne Truitt and Hilda Thorpe and others, formed an art movement that is known today as the Washington Color School. Ultimately Morris would become one of the leading figures of Color Field painting along with his peers Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler and Jules Olitski.

Morris studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts (now Maryland Institute College of Art) but left before completing the program.  After a few years of painting and working at odd-jobs in Baltimore, he moved to New York and worked for the WPA, acquainting himself with Arshile Gorky, David Alfaro Sisquieros and Jack Twerkov.  In this period of residency in New York, Morris also dropped his last name and referred to himself as Morris Louis. At this period Morris was painting in a figurative, expressionistic style influenced by Max Beckmann and other expressionist artists.

Louis returned to Baltimore in 1943 and continued to work figuratively but increasingly abstract.  In the late ’40s he began using Magna, a type of acrylic resin paint that became his preferred medium for the rest of his career.   By 1950, he was painting in an abstract expressionist style, heavily influenced by Jackson Pollack and was beginning to receive recognition from both his peers and galleries.

Louis’ return to Washington D.C. in 1952 began a formative period of maturation for him as an artist.  His new friendships with the painter Kenneth Noland, Franz Kline and David Smith along with the critic Clement Greenberg all played significant roles in his development as a painter.  In 1954 Kenneth Noland took Morris to Helen Frankenthaler’s manhattan studio, where Morris learned of Frankethaler’s technique of staining the canvas with acrylic paint, which proved to be of great influence to Morris in creating his paintings yet to come. Morris began pouring thinned Magna paint over large unstretched and unprimed canvases, allowing the pigment to soak into the canvas, taking its own course.

“This technique was a radical departure from the “gesture” that defined Abstract Expressionism; Louis’s paint moves freely without the interference of a brush or the artist’s hand. The illusion of three-dimensional depth is eliminated; his color is not a mark made on the surface but instead becomes part of the surface itself. However, Louis soon reverted to his more conventional style. When he began painting Veils again in 1957, he burned all but ten of several hundred works from the previous three years. This kind of revision and destruction was typical of his relentless experimentation and perfectionism.” -Morris Louis:American Painter, The Art Story,

In June of 1954, Clement Greenberg suggested that Louis send nine paintings to Pierre Matisse in New York. In a letter dated June 6, 1954, Louis wrote a letter to Greenberg concerning the paintings:

“Just finished rolling & wrapping ptgs to go to Matisse. It was the usual struggle with my normal doubts re the stuff continually rising & then concluding that they were, after all, ptgs I’d done & I’d have to let it stand at that this time. I realize I’d gone overboard on the later stuff, none of which you’d seen. By your arrangement with me you’ll get to see them & I want that above all. And this will be the best way to let you know what I’m doing.

There are 9 ptgs in the roll which R’way Express is supposed to come get tomorrow. All are about the same large size but in my mind 2 of them are different than the continuity of simple pattern & slow motion of the majority. These 2 are the rougher ones with lots of black & white areas. Maybe these are lousy enough to interest me now & make me want to explore this further. The others I feel I’ve about done all I feel like doing about that episode. For a moment I looked at “Trellis” & a couple of others you’d seen before. Just couldn’t bring myself to include them & with all the doubts I ever had about anything I’ve ever chosen alone I submit this group.”

Matisse was not responsive to Louis’ paintings.  They were taken to Greenberg’s apartment where they remained for a number of years.

By the end of the 1950’s Louis was receiving much recognition for his art, showing with Andre Emmerich and Leo Castelli in New York as well as galleries on London and Paris.  Clement Greenberg’s 1960 article “Lous and Noland” in Art international placed him at the center of Color Field painting.

Louis became most identified with his 1960 series called Unfurleds, in which he used a new technique of pouring his paint onto folded canvases and unfolding them as the paint soaked into the cloth.  Louis’ final series, Stripes, foreshadowed the hard-edge paintings and post-painterly abstraction that younger artists like Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly would create.  The 1961 series Stripes featured paintings with horizontal or vertical bands methodically plotted onto canvas with no trace of gesture.

Morris Louis’ life and art was cut short by a diagnosis of lung cancer in 1962, caused by extensive inhalation of paint vapors.  He died a few months after his diagnosis, at the age of 49.


  • Louis, Morris, The National Gallery of Art,
  • Morris Louis:American Painter, The Art Story,
  • Morris Lous, The Phillips Collection,
  • Morris Louis, The Arts Council,
  • Morris Louis, Widewalls,
  • Morris Louis, Wikipedia,

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