Born in Baltimore with the name of Morris Bernstein, Morris Louis, working from Washington DC, became a major figure in the mid 20th-century contemporary art scene on the East Coast. He was also a distinguished teacher. Louis is known for his drip paintings, the pouring of thinned acrylic paint onto unprimed or partially primed canvases. His later paintings had irregular stripes of bright colour, often overlapping and merging. He deliberately disassociated himself from the painterly-ness of the loaded brush of the abstract expressionists and pursuing his methods of using thinned paint was, along with Helen Frankenthaller, one of the key figures in the movement called Color Field painting.
His parents were immigrants from Russia, and Morris Louis was the third of their four sons. He attended public school in Baltimore and then went on to Gwynns Falls Junior High School, and Baltimore City College. In a state competition that he entered at the age of fifteen, Louis won a four-year scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts. There he was a slightly better than average student, gaining a diploma in Fine Art in June 1932.
Between 1933 and 1936, Louis shared studios in a office building in Baltimore and held a variety of odd jobs to support himself including peeling potatoes in an Italian restaurant, folding clothes in a laundry, mowing lawns, and assisting a pharmacist. Between January and June of 1934, Louis, using the name Maurice Bernstein, was one of two assistants who worked under Sam Swerdloff on a Baltimore, Maryland mural, The History of the Written Word. The work was placed in the library of Hampstead Hill School.
In 1935 Louis was elected president of the Baltimore Artist’s Union, which was founded in 1934.
Sometime in 1937 Morris Louis moved to New York City. Until he found his own accommodation, he stayed with a friend, Chet LaMore, and in return for her hospitality, he painted her floor. He participated in the Mural Workshop of David Siqueiros, Mexican Social Realist, and students experimented with new techniques and materials.
Louis supported himself as a part-time window decorator and also received a small allowance from his family. He became friendly with the paint manufacturer, Leonard Bocour, who gave leftover paint to Louis and other artists.
In March 1937 he and a group of painters including Mervin Jules and Herman Maril, exhibited together at the A.C.A Gallery in New York. The next year, on October 27th, Louis was issued a new social security number under his new adopted name so that Morris Bernstein was now Morris Louis. He registered with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and became a part of the WPA Federal Arts Project, earning a stipend as a painter and also as a member of the Steering Committee of the Easel Project. In 1939 Louis exhibited Broken Bridge at the WPA Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair.
During this period Louis lived with a young woman who was an art teacher also employed by the WPA.
Between 1943 and 1947, Louis, who had not been drafted into the military, returned to Baltimore. He lived with his parents, relied on financial support from his brothers, and used the family basement as his studio. On July 4th, 1947, he married Marcella Siegal, and they moved to her two-room apartment in Silver Springs, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. They converted the bedroom into his studio and used the other room for living, eating and sleeping. In 1948 Louis exhibited a gouache in the “Maryland Artists, 16th Annual Exhibition” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He also began using Magna, an acrylic resin paint manufactured by Leonard Bocour. It became the only paint Louis used for the remainder of his career.
During the next years, he exhibited in the exhibitions of the Maryland Artists and beginning 1951, commuted to Baltimore three days a week to teach art classes. In 1952 Louis and his wife purchased a home in Washington DC and converted the dining room into the studio that he used for the remainder of his life.
Jacob Kainen, a Washington artist, helped Louis obtain a teaching position at the Washington Workshop Centre of the Arts, which was founded in 1945 by Leon and Ida Berkowitz. Louis taught two adult painting classes each week and became friends with abstract painter Kenneth Noland, also an instructor at the workshop. In 1953 Louis taught one semester at Howard University, and continued to teach private students in Baltimore and Washington in addition to his classes at the Washington Workshop.
Louis and Noland went to New York in April where Noland introduced Louis to Clement Greenberg, Charles Egan, Kline, Margret Marshall and Leon and Ida Berkowitz. They also visited Helen Frankenthaler’s studio and were particularly impressed by her Mountains and Sea poured stain painting. Louis had his first one-man show the following week, at the Workshop Art Centre Gallery. On January 5, 1954, Greenberg visited Louis and Noland to select work for the exhibition “Emerging Talent” that was organized for the Kootz Gallery in New York and opened on January 11th. Greenberg choose three of Louis’s paintings.
The next year in April, Greenberg visited Louis in Washington DC and was not impressed with his recent work. He encouraged him to go to New York more often to understand better the weakness of his paintings, which were similar to much work being exhibited at the time. In May, 1957 Louis was included in a New York group show at the Leo Castelli Gallery, and in November, with the help of Greenberg, had a one-man New York exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery.
Determined to follow a new direction, Morris Louis destroyed most of his paintings from 1955,1956 and 1957, and only one survived, Longitude. For the next few years, he maintained a relatively heavy exhibition schedule with venues including the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Osaka International Festival in Japan, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In March, 1959 Louis went to New York, likely to attend the opening of French and Company’s new Contemporary Department, for which Greenberg served as artistic advisor. Louis had been selected for their second exhibition and the opening exhibition was a show of paintings by Barnett Newman. Louis was already interested in Newman’s work. Leonard Bocour who introduced them to one another was surprised that they had not meet before, because Louis had spoken to him, about Newman, with admiration and apparent familiarity.
Louis’s exhibition opened at French and Company in the second week of April, with twenty-three Veil paintings by Louis, selected by Greenberg. A viewer, William Rubin, was so moved by the show that he brought the work to the attention of his brother, the great art dealer, Lawrence Rubin. In March 1960, Louis had his second one-man exhibition at French and Company, and again selections were made by Clement Greenberg. He also organized an exhibition of Louis’s work for the Bennington College in October and manifested his advocacy of Louis’s work in an essay “Louis and Noland”, which appeared in the May issue of Art International. In the January issue William Rubin also wrote favorably of Louis.
In May, 1960 Louis exhibited in Paris at the Galerie Neufville in which Lawrence Rubin was a partner, and in September Louis signed a contract with Rubin permitting the dealer to buy paintings and arrange exhibitions in Europe. Louis’s paintings were also exhibited in other European cities, including London at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Milan at the Galeria dell’Ariete and Rome at the Rome-New York Art Foundation. In April Louis received sixteen gallons of paint that Bocour had mixed especially for him and Noland. Bocour’s mix was 50% Acryloid F-10 and 50% turpentine eliminating the beeswax binder that previously was used to keep the pigment in suspension. The new consistency was more fluid and was more amenable to Louis’s requirements.
French and Company closed down its Contemporary Department, after the spring exhibition. Andre Emmerich became Louis’s dealer in the United States. By 1961 Louis’s improved financial position enabled him to take advantage of sculptor David Smith’s advice to keep large quantities of materials at hand. Louis went to New York 10 times that year, in conjunction with his first one-man show at the Andre Emmerich Gallery, and exhibited ten stripe paintings. Other exhibitions that year took place at Galeria Neufville in Paris, two group shows in London, and a group show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
In April 1962 Louis made his last visit to New York and went to a one-man exhibition of Kenneth Noland’s work at the Andre Emmerich Gallery. On July 1st he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and four days later had surgery to remove his left lung. Louis was operated on to remove his left lung. Further treatment left him to weak to continue painting.
He died at his home in Washington DC on September 7, 1962 and was buried in Adas Israel Cemetery in Washington D.C. A scheduled exhibition of his paintings opened at the Andre Emmerich gallery on October the 16th.
The Bernard Jacobson Gallery website
“Morris Louis”, Time Magazine, April 21, 1967
Compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California.
Biography from the Archives of AskART.