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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Morris Louis

Morris Louis
How many of you have ever "played" with paint?  I don't mean during the course of actually doing a painting but just squeezed or poured some out on something and toyed with it. During my college years I use to take white "peel 'n stick" paper, lay it in the bottom of an old cake pan, squirt out some liquid paint of some kind...any kind...didn't matter, then tilt the pan in different directions, letting the paint "do its thing" so to speak, running in rivulets first one direction then another. Later I modified this by rolling marbles in paint, then pouring them out onto the paper in the bottom of the pan, and rolling them around. If you did it enough, you got a kind of Jackson Pollockish network and eventually a great deal of textural quality. Later, I did the same with golf balls. Often, having done this, I cut them up and created montages using the pieces. Okay, so that goes a little beyond merely playing with paint, but you get the idea.

Where, 1960, Morris Louis, among the first
artists to employ acrylic paints.
There was nothing new in all this. Helen Frankenthaler probably did it first. Then, in 1953, her friend, art critic, Clement Greenberg, brought by a couple of his friends from Washington, DC to see her work. And soon after, the whole art world was introduced to, (to reverse a selling phrase from Krylon), "runs, drips, and errors."  These two artists were Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Of the two, Louis was most profoundly influenced. He went back to the tiny apartment he shared with his wife and began creating, in their living room, several enormous canvases, initially, not too unlike Frankenthaler's though perhaps somewhat more active and dynamic. His diaphanous layers of thinned, poured, acrylic paint hardly looked like paintings at all. Even though abstract, there were illusions of hanging veils and furled cloth (below). And on top of that, he didn't have a bunch of brushes to clean when he was done.

Seal, 1959, Morris Louis, typical of his "Veil" series.
Morris Louis was born in 1912 in Baltimore, Maryland. His last name really wasn't Louis at all, but Bernstein. Louis was his middle name. He studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied arts and initially was primarily a Cubist painter. As Abstract Expressionism and the New York School began to take hold, he first moved in that direction before finally embracing color field painting and his own peculiar approach to it. The word "peculiar" is the key word here and one often applied to Morris. He was an outsider to the New York art scene, and he died in 1962 of lung cancer (prolonged exposure to paint fumes) before he had a chance to become famous so what we know about him is largely the result of knowing his work. And even though he was but 49 years old when he died, there are thousands of Morris Louis paintings, some in nearly every museum in the world; and on top of that, a surprising number in private collections. Most are what his friend Kenworth Moffett called "portable murals." His most recognizable work is from his later years in which he espoused a thicker paint, flowing in rivulets up, down, diagonally, or across his canvases.  While most artists are skilled in moving paint with brushes on their canvases, Louis tended to move the canvases themselves, expertly controlling the viscosity and intuitively judging the angle and flow of the paint. We have to assume all this of course, because Louis was peculiar in another sense as well.  He never allowed anyone to watch him paint...not even his wife.
Beta Kappa, 1961, Morris Louis

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