1912 - 1962

Born Morris Louis Bernstein, Morris Louis changed his name by legal deed in 1938.  He studied at Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts, Baltimore (1927-32), and assisted in painting a Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural for a public school in Baltimore.  From 1936 to 1940 he lived in New York, where he attended the workshops of David Alfaro Siqueiros and became acquainted with the use of commercial enamel paints.  A number of his WPA murals and paintings of work and workers show the influence of Max Beckmann, for example Untitled (Two Workers) (1939).  He returned to Baltimore in 1940 and in 1952 moved to Washington, DC.

From the 1950s Louis devoted himself to developing a response to the avant-garde work of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler and other artists of the New York School, abandoning the late Cubist style of his previous work.

The direction of Louis’s work was changed by seeing Frankenthaler’s technique of ‘staining’ very thin pigment on to unprimed canvas in the painting Mountains and Sea in April 1953.  A dominant feature of his work at this time was his serial paintings, which have been divided into distinct groups: Veils (1954), Veils II (1958-9), Unfurleds (1959-61) and Stripes (1961-2).  In the Veils, for example Untitled (1954) and Dalet Ayin (1958), Louis achieved this notion of interpenetration of colors by virtually staining the canvas with thinned acrylic paint so that it was difficult to see where one colour ended and another began.  This technique created a wash-like transparency so that the perception of depth was problematic.  

The next group of paintings was the Unfurleds, for example Delta Beta (1959-60), the majority of which were executed between June or July 1960 and some time early in 1961.  In these paintings, an open space of bare canvas in the centre is scored diagonally at the left and right edges with irregular stripes of colours that vanish into diminishing scales at the corner of the canvas.  In the final series, the Stripes, for example Third Element (1961), bunched straight vertical bands of colour, of varying thicknesses, float on a neutral ground like folds of cloth.

Oxford University Press