Morris Lewis, Point of Tranquility, 1959-60, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.

Morris Louis's Eight-Year, 600-Canvas Burst of Color Field Energy

Morris Louis, Number 99, 1959-60, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art, Contemporary Collection.

Morris Louis, “Dalet Kaf”, 1959, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum purchase made possible by a grant from the Burnett Foundation.

Morris Louis, ”Delta Kappa”, 1960, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, given in memory of Mary Seeger and John William O’Boyle by their children and grandchildren.

Morris Louis, Trellis, 1953, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Private collection.

Morris Louis, Hot Half, 1962, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Private collection


Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue
at Seventh Street SW
Morris Louis Now:
An American Master Revisited

September 20, 2007-January 6, 2008

In a startling burst of creativity from 1954 to 1962, Morris Louis produced more than 600 canvases that represented an important new direction in painting. His method of “staining” unprimed canvas with thinned acrylic paints was an innovation that continues to inspire contemporary artists.

The Hirshhorn presentation, coordinated by senior curator Valerie Fletcher, brings a fresh appraisal of Louis’ abstract compositions. Featuring 28 canvases, the exhibition presents an overview of the artist’s career and contribution to a critical turning point in American art.

Morris Louis Now was organized by High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

The exhibition includes examples from four bodies of the artist’s work.

The Veils (1954, 1958-1959) are noted for complex washes of color in overlapping translucent hues, often compared to natural phenomena such as light, air and water.

The Florals (1959-1960) whow flows of intense color appear to grow outward from a dense center.

The Unfurleds (1960-1961) have streams of opaque pigment that flow inward from the sides over a surface of primal white canvas.

The Stripes (1961-1962) feature tightly grouped sequential bands of pure color having a rainbow-like effect. The large scale of Louis’ canvases belies the fact that he created them in a small dining room in his suburban Washington, D.C., home.

The exhibition is accompanied by two related gallery installations. One gallery, adjacent to the exhibition, offers insights into the Hirshhorn’s groundbreaking conservation techniques developed to preserve and restore poured-paint canvases by various artists. Visitors to the Hirshhorn can experience the richness of Louis’s canvases with the added perspective of how the innovation of his methods has lead to similarly innovative approaches to caring for these vibrant, delicate works of art.

The exhibition includes three of five paintings in the Hirshhorn collection: Point of Tranquility (1959–1960), Where (1960) and Delta Theta (1961), a work given to the Hirshhorn by the artist’s widow, Marcella Louis Brenner.

A gallery on the third floor features Color Field paintings from the Hirshhorn collection by Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. Public programs are offered in conjunction with Morris Louis Now and these related installations.

Morris Louis Bernstein was born in Baltimore, Md., in 1912. He studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts from 1928 to1933. Although he lived in New York City from 1936 to 1940, Louis was never fully a part of the New York art scene. He dropped his last name around this time, and from 1940 onward he worked alone in Maryland and Washington, D.C.

During a trip to New York City with fellow artist Kenneth Noland in 1953, Louis saw paintings by Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock and was introduced to Helen Frankenthaler, whose experiments in using poured paint to stain raw canvas provided the point of departure for his own mature paintings. In Louis’s words, Frankenthaler created “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” After this experience he began his first series of “Veil” paintings in 1954, continuing on to compositions known as “Florals,” “Variations,” Unfurleds” and “Lines.” His works were just beginning to attract national and critical attention when he died shortly before his 50th birthday in 1962.

Within a few years, other artists in Washington, New York and elsewhere adopted his staining technique to create diverse styles now known as Color Field painting.

Morris Louis, Canopus, detail, 1962, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Private collection.

Morris Louis, Delta Theta, 1961, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Gift of Marcella Louis Brenner.

Morris Louis, Seal, 1959, Acrylic resin (Magna) on canvas, Estate of Morris Louis.