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Morris Louis

Morris Louis. Photo courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Morris Louis Bernstein, known professionally as Morris Louis, was born on November 28, 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the leading figures of the Color Field movement and a founding member of the Washington Color School movement of the 1950s, Louis revolutionized painting with his seamless unification of figure and ground and unique method of paint application. 

Inspired by the enamel stains of Jackson Pollock and the thin washes of Helen Frankenthaler’s “Mountains and Sea” (1952), Louis created his “Veil” paintings by pouring Magna acrylic paint thinned with turpentine onto unprimed, unstretched canvases. Forgoing the use of any brush or palette knife, Louis dictated the trajectory of his paint pours with subtle manipulations of his canvas. In this way, he employed both highly refined technique and a limited element of chance, while also rendering in the picture a transparent record of the process used to create it. By soaking the synthetic paint directly into the raw canvas, Morris stained the fibers of the cotton itself, thus merging figure and support, and, to the delight of Modernist critic Clement Greenberg, emphasizing the flatness of the picture plane and the essential qualities of the medium. 

Installation view of Morris Louis: Veils at Mnuchin Gallery, September 10 - October 18, 2014. Photo by Tom Powel Imaging. 

Louis’s “Veil” paintings occupy a pivotal place in twentieth century art, providing a crucial link between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Eliminating the gestural brushwork and spiritual underpinnings of his Abstract Expressionist predecessors, Louis paved the way for the clean lines, cool conceptualism, and process-based practices of the generations to follow. 

Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate Modern, London; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek; and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.

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 vapors. The following year, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York mounted a memorial exhibition of his paintings. 

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“The more I paint the more I’m aware of a difference in my approach and others. Am distrustful or over-simplications but nonetheless think that there is nothing very new in any period of art: what is true that it is only something new for the painter & that this thin edge is what matters.”

- MORRIS LOUIS

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