“With Louis, fully autonomous abstract painting came into its own for really the first time, and did so in paintings of a quality that matches the level of their abstraction.” John Elderfield (from the introduction to the Art Council’s Exhibition of Louis’ work in 1974).
Born Morris Louis Bernstein to Russian-Jewish immigrants, he was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts from 1929 to 1933, moved to New York for six years to work on the Federal Art Project then returned to Baltimore in 1940. After seven years there he moved to Washington, first to the suburb of Silver Spring then in 1952 to the city itself.
Although keeping himself detached from the New York art scene it was a trip to the city in 1953 that led him to appropriate the technique he first saw used in the work of Helen Frankenthaler. She applied liquid paint onto unprimed canvas, it was then allowed to flow across and soak into the canvas, the result being a stain of paint as opposed to a layer of paint applied on the surface. Louis experimented on this basis creating paintings of extraordinary vibrancy. Many of the leading American abstract painters of the 1950s and 60s, Louis included, were exponents of Colour Field painting, where whole works consisted of large expanses of more or less unmodulated colour. Louis painted a number of pictures using this technique beginning with ‘Veils’ (1954). In ‘Where’ (1960) his style moved towards colours positioned in rainbow-like bands on a bare canvas.
By the end of the Fifties his reputation was confirmed. He had his first foreign exhibition in 1960 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. Sadly, however, he died of lung cancer just two years later. Louis was perhaps the greatest exponent of Colour Field painting. He was a notorious perfectionist with many paintings being destroyed that did not meet his exacting standards. His paintings remain widely exhibited.