"The crucial revelation he got from Pollock and Frankenthaler had to do with facture as much as anything else. The more closely color could be identified with its ground, the freer would it be from the interference of tactile associations; the way to achieve this closer identification was by adapting water-color technique to oil and using thin paint on an absorbent surface. Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment almost everywhere thin enough, no matter how many different veils of it are superimposed, for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric underneath. But “underneath” is the wrong word. The fabric, being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like a dyed cloth: the threadedness and wovenness are in the color... 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..."
- Clement Greenberg
A leading figure in Washington Color Field painting, Morris Louis was an early champion of stain painting—a technique he and Kenneth Noland learned from Helen Frankenthaler on a studio visit arranged by Clement Greenberg. Using this technique Louis created a distinctive body of work that often glows with a quiet lyricism.
Born in 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland, Louis showed an early artistic talent that earned him a scholarship to the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Art (now the Maryland Institute College of Art). After graduating in 1932, he worked a series of odd jobs, including a stint as assistant to Public Works of Art Project artist Sam Swerdloff. In 1936 Louis moved to New York City, where he met fellow painters including Arshille Gorky and David Alfaro Siqueiros. He joined Siqueiros’s studio for a time before becoming a Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist. The arduous WPA schedule eventually prompted Louis to leave both the program and the city, and he returned to Baltimore in 1943.
Despite showing several times in the Baltimore Museum’s annual exhibition of local artists, Louis saw his career falter during the 1950s, and he supported himself largely by teaching. In 1952 he began experimenting with the recently invented paint medium Magna, applying it directly from tube to canvas, but in 1953, following the revelatory trip to Frankenthaler’s studio, he devoted himself exclusively to the production of large-scale Magna stain paintings. Over the next near decade Louis turned out an immense body of work, including the three series for which he is best known: the “Veils,” “Stripes,” and “Unfurleds.” In 1962 Louis was diagnosed with advanced-stage lung cancer, and he died the same year.
Though Louis achieved true renown only posthumously, today he is recognized as an essential contributor to both the Washington Color School and Color Field painting. His work has been collected by major institutions worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Tate Gallery, London; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.