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b. 1912, Baltimore; d. 1962, Washington, D.C.
Morris Louis was born Morris Louis Bernstein on November 28, 1912, in Baltimore. From 1929 to 1933, he studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts on a scholarship, but left shortly before completing the program. He worked at various odd jobs to support himself while painting and in 1935 served as president of the Baltimore Artists’ Association. From 1936 to 1940, Louis lived in New York, where he worked in the easel division of the WPA Federal Art Project. During this period, he knew Arshile Gorky, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jack Tworkov. He also dropped his last name.
He returned to Baltimore in 1940 and taught privately. In 1948, he started to use Magna acrylic paints. In 1952, Louis moved to Washington, D.C. There, he taught at the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts and met fellow instructor Kenneth Noland, who became a close friend. Louis’s first solo show took place at the Workshop Center Art Gallery in 1953.
In 1953, he and Noland visited Helen Frankenthaler’s New York studio, where they saw and were greatly impressed by her stain painting Mountains and Sea (1952). Upon their return to Washington, Louis and Noland together experimented with various techniques of paint application. In 1954, Louis produced his mature Veil paintings, which were characterized by overlapping, superimposed layers of transparent color poured onto and stained into sized or unsized canvas. Louis’s first solo show in New York was held at the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1957. He destroyed many of the paintings in this show but resumed work on the Veils in 1958–59. These were followed by Florals and Columns (1960), Unfurleds (1960–61)—in which rivulets of more opaque, intense color flow from both sides of large white fields—and the Stripe paintings (1961–62). Louis died in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1962. A memorial exhibition of his work was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1963. Major Louis exhibitions were also organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1967 and the National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C., in 1976.