Morris Louis Bernstein was born in Baltimore Maryland, 1912. At the age of 15, he won a scholarship to study at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts. In 1936, he moved to New York to enter the art scene, but had to work other jobs to scrape by. He became friends with Leonard Bocour, a small paint shop owner who donated excess paint to Louis. In 1939, after working at the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for one year, Louis exhibited Broken Bridge (Slide 3) at the New York World’s Fair. In 1947, Louis moved to Washington DC where he lived until death. A year later, Louis began experimenting with Magna paint, a resin acrylic manufactured by the same Leonard Bocour. Louis never used a different paint after 1948. In 1953, Louis was introduced to critic Clement Greenberg, who helped exhibit his paintings in more popular galleries, and wrote about him in his book: Emerging Talent.
Veils – 1954, 1958-1959
Veils marked the maturity of Morris Louis’s unique style in color-field painting. Louis started painting veils in 1954, stopped in 1955, and then resumed painting them in 1958. They are called veils because there are layers of colored Magna paint that are covered with a thin, translucent layer of black Magna. Kandel finds Louis’s work “gives the viewer a sense of a landscape,” by using lines and colors associated with “earth, light, and sky.” Donna McColm, however, thinks they are more than just a still landscape; the Veils create “complex movements [that] exist beneath the surface of the paintings” through the colors that seep through. This layers the painting, creating volume and dimension, and escaping the flatness of the canvas.
Ambi II – 1959
Part of the intermediate series of paintings between the Veils and the Unfurleds, the Ambi series seems to experiment with the pouring of not only deep colors, but also black. This intermediate is an experimental period where “Louis removed the veil, tilted his canvas, worked with multidirectional pouring and experimented with different degrees pigment opacity.” In this painting, you can see the raw colors layered on top of each other as well as incorporated darker colors at the bottom of the painting. Louis’s paintings are examples of abstraction because they offer themselves as “non-objective icons” (Kandel), and experiment with color rather than shape as a signifier.
The Unfurled series are Louis’s most identifiable works. The works are named as such because Louis rolled the canvas before pouring paint, and then unrolled them as the paint was setting. What is interesting about this style is that it leaves the middle section of the painting empty, a space that, in cubism, is supposed to be filled with the most color. The white space is “not empty but filled with tension” (Pierce). It is almost like an abyss, both chaotic and pure. Louis is reported to have never seen any of the Unfurleds at their final stage, as he stored them before they were dry.
Stripes – 1961-Louis’s Death (1962)
Stripes was Louis’s last series of artwork, as he passed away from lung cancer in 1962. Stripes are bands of pure color of the same intensity spanning the top to the bottom of extremely long, narrow canvases. While this design is the most simple and pure, Leonard Bocour, the Magna manufacturer, was dumbfounded at how Louis maintained the same intensity from the top to the bottom of the painting (because Louis poured the paint onto the canvas). Bocour inquired into how Louis managed this technique, but Louis refused, as he never kept any journals nor showed anyone his techniques.
There are unity and separation in the painting, where both the entire figure and the individual stripes make it so powerful. The order and color of the bands make it seem capable of movement. It truly is a “pure experience of the emotive power of color” (Peirce).
Kandel, Eric R. 2016. Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures. New York: Columbia University Press. https://doi.org/10.7312/kand17962.
Louis, Morris. 1970. Morris Louis. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
McColm, Donna. 2007. “Reapproaching The Medium: Morris Louis, Opticality And Disembodiment in American Painting During The 1950s and 1960s.” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 8 (1): 60–78. https://doi.org/10.1080/14434318.2007.11432780.
“Morris Louis.” In Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., 538-539. Vol. 9. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2004. Gale eBooks (accessed February 26, 2020). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX3404703990/GVRL?u=nclivedc&sid=GVRL&xid=52095de8.
Pierce, Robert. n.d. Morris Louis: The Life and Art of One of America’s Greatest Twentieth Century Abstract Artists. Robert Pierce Productions, Inc. Accessed February 26, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vAUKcnORuM.