Morris Louis

(Baltimore, Maryland, 1912 - 1962, Washington, D.C., United States)



Acrylic on canvas

91 1/2 x 142 5/8 in. (232.4 x 362.2 cm)

Collection of the Akron Art Museum

Gift of the Mary S. and Louis S. Myers Family Collection


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Washington, D.C.-based artist Morris Louis saw Helen Frankenthaler’s evocative use of stain painting firsthand on a spring 1953 visit to New York. In response, Louis began exploring how diluted acrylic paint could flow onto unprimed canvas, developing his signature style and achieving recognition as a leader of the Washington Color School, a loosely affiliated group of abstract painters. Beginning with poured veils of bright hues, Louis unified the composition with a wash of somber black, giving the painting the sense of an internal luminosity. Art critic Clement Greenberg noted, “the effect conveys a sense not only of color as somehow disembodied, and therefore more purely optical, but also of color as a thing that opens and expands the picture plane…”

Morris Louis Untitled, 1958 Collection of the Akron Art Museum One April weekend in 1953, Morris Louis traveled from his Washington, D.C., home to New York, where he saw paintings that radically changed his own art. Born Morris Louis Bernstein, he had been a practicing painter since graduating from the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts in 1932.1 After twenty years, aside from a brief stint working on an art project sponsored by the federal Works Progress Administration, Louis had yet to make a living as an artist. He began as a figurative painter, but around 1951 he became interested in abstraction. On his visit to New York in 1953 Louis experienced in person the openness, energy, and expansive scale of abstract works by Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Most important was a visit to the studio of Helen Frankenthaler (see pp. 162-63), where he learned about her technique of pouring paint onto unprimed canvas and manipulating it as it was absorbed into the fabric. Shortly thereafter, Louis used this stain technique to arrive at his first unique style and vocabulary of forms. Dubbed the "Veils" by curator William Rubin, these large canvases from 1954 and 1958–59 finally launched him toward national recognition.2 In the Veils, Louis strove to make shape derive from color, which meant abandoning line and edge for a subtler relationship between the figure (a flow of paint) and ground (in Louis's case the unprimed white cotton of the canvas). He produced delicate bands of translucent yet brilliant color which were then "veiled," or covered over, with layers of diluted black paint. New technology—Magna acrylic paint—made this possible. Composed exclusively of pigment and Acryloid F-10, an exceedingly transparent acrylic resin, Magna gave "a quality of light reflection and refraction . . . that provides a luminosity and a sense of depth unattainable in any other medium.”3 Untitled has been categorized as one of the "split" Veils, which consist of separate sections.4 The artist would have begun this painting by loosely tacking canvas over an 8 x 12-foot work stretcher leaning against the wall. Louis prepared the paint . . . by thinning Magna first with acrylic medium and then with large quantities of turpentine. This produced a diluted paint that poured easily. He poured it from the top edge or along the braces and directed it to the bottom of the canvas. . . . He probably achieved internal variations in the tapering or swelling of the color planes by manipulating the angle of the stretcher and by varying the surface tautness. . . . Louis almost always began the veils with bright colors. In 1958 and early 1959, he used dark washes to unify the surface, which then glows with the warmth of the underlying layers.5 When the canvas was dry, he would decide on and mark its edges and roll it up for storage. The canvases were permanently attached to wooden stretchers only when they were sent out for exhibition. Unlike Jackson Pollock's all-over, horizonless compositions, Untitled relates to the natural world in its emphasis on the orderliness of gravity. The clear downward flow of the separate streams of paint form a single pool along the canvas's bottom edge. This dense pool contrasts with the almost immaterial lightness of the painting's color. At first glance the dominant hue is brownish-gray; a closer look reveals the multitude of colors underneath. With no evidence of a brush or direct contact with the artist's hand, color seems to float on top of the canvas yet also appears to be part of it. That effect, coupled with the canvas's monumental scale, evokes nature's power and inevitability, its grandeur and subtlety, and its sense of mystery. - Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001 1. The information in this entry is drawn from Upright's catalogue raisonné on the artist. 2. Upright, 37. 3. Russell O. Woody, Painting with Synthetic Media (New York: Reinhold, 1965), 29; quoted in Upright, 50. 4. Upright, 55. 5. Ibid. 6. According to Elderfield, 41, some of the black washes in the Veils were applied with a swab. Elderfield, John. Morris Louis. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986. Upright, Diane. Morris Louis: The Complete Paintings, A Catalogue Raisonné. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985.
Abstract Expressionism
Organic shapes