The American painter Morris Louis is considered to be one of the leading figures of the Washington Color School, a group of artists that also included Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, and Paul Reed, who were brought together for the 1965 exhibition Washington Color Painters at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, D.C.  These painters produced mostly abstract works, and were key figures in the larger color field movement prevalent during the 1960s.

Morris Louis was born Morris Louis Bernstein in Baltimore, Maryland in 1912; he dropped “Bernstein” from his name by legal deed in 1938.  He studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts in Baltimore from 1927 – 1932, and then worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), painting a mural for a public school in Baltimore.  Louis moved to New York City in 1936, where he attended David Alfaro Siqueiros’s workshops alongside other artists such as Jackson Pollock, as well as frequently visiting the Museum of Modern Art.  He remained in New York City for four years, returned to Baltimore in 1940, and then moved to Washington D.C. in 1952.

After settling in Washington D.C., Louis devoted his work to a response to his contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, among others.  His technique was permanently altered after seeing Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea in 1953, a large canvas on which she “stained” a thin layer of pigment directly onto an unprimed canvas.  Louis adopted this technique, and remained true to it for the rest of his career, producing a body of work that scholars have divided into four groups: Veils I (1954), Veils II (1958-1959), Unfurleds (1959-1961), and Stripes (1961-1962).  Louis used the “staining” technique in each of these groups, but employed it in different ways, producing four distinct series that reflect his growing and maturing understanding of his process and materials.


Louis received his first one-man show in New York at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1957, and in 1960 became officially represented by André Emmerich in the United States and Lawrence Rubin in Paris.  Louis died in 1962 at his home in Washington D.C. from lung cancer, a condition he most likely developed from breathing in paint vapors over a prolonged period of time.  He received his label as a “post-painterly” artist posthumously when Clement Greenberg included him in his 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction show at the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles. 

Louis was extremely prolific despite his relatively short career.  His work is included in several major public and private collections worldwide: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas; Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan; Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.;, The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York; Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio; Harvard University of Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, California; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina; Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

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