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. This is the first consideration of Louis’s work in the United States in 20 years. “Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited,” is on view from September 20, 2007, to January 6, 2008.
The exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and presents a concise overview of the artist’s career and its contribution to a critical turning point in American art. The presentation at the Hirshhorn, coordinated by senior curator Valerie Fletcher, brings “home” to Washington, D.C., this fresh appraisal of Louis’s noted abstract compositions. The exhibition features 28 canvases and includes examples from four significant bodies of the artist’s work.
The “Veils” (1954, 1958–1959) are noted for their complex washes of color in overlapping translucent hues that are often compared to natural phenomena such as light, air and water. The “Florals” (1959–1960) are so called because the 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 the small dining room of his suburban Washington, D.C., home.
The presentation at the Hirshhorn 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 the five paintings that are in the Hirshhorn’s 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’s collection by Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. Various public programs are offered in conjunction with “Morris Louis Now” and these related installations.
Louis’s radical approach to paint and canvas and his unyielding search for a wholly original vernacular continues to nourish and inspire artists. The scope of Louis’s influence on artists working today is examined by exhibition curator Jeffrey Grove, High Museum of Art, in a talk at the Hirshhorn in October and also in the premier issue of the Hirshhorn’s new quarterly magazine launching this fall.
About Morris Louis
Morris Louis Bernstein was born in Baltimore, Maryland, 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 on 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.
Hirshhorn Leads Efforts to Conserve Color Field Paintings
The Hirshhorn has an extensive and celebrated collection of Color Field Paintings. In order to preserve these paintings for future generations, the Hirshhorn has partnered with conservators and conservation scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Tate in London to develop safe and effective treatments for these important and fragile paintings. Tatiana Ausema, the lead conservator and coordinator for the three-year collaboration, first applied her research on cleaning techniques as a Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow (2004–2005). The results of her efforts to correct discolorations of unprimed cotton canvas are presented in a gallery adjacent to “Morris Louis Now.”
Exhibition Related Programs
Morris Louis Lecture: September 20, 7 p.m., Ring Auditorium
Diane Upright, the foremost authority on Louis, speaks about her insights into the artist and his work.
Friday Gallery Talk: September 21, 12:30 p.m., Meet at the Information Desk
High Museum exhibition curator Jeffrey Grove leads a gallery talk.
In Conversation: October 16, 12:00 p.m., Ring Auditorium
Jeffrey Grove talks with artists Chris Vassell and Monique van Genderen who draw inspiration from Morris Louis’ practices.
Artist at Work with Youth
The Hirshhorn’s popular children’s workshop series “Artist at Work” is led this fall by Linn Meyers and centers around Louis’ use of paint on unprimed canvas. Registration is required. Visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu for more information or to register.
Programs are free and open to the public.
“Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited” is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. This exhibition is supported by Marcella Louis Brenner and by Harriet and Elliott Goldstein. The presentation at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is made possible through the generous support of the Hirshhorn’s Board of Trustees and National Benefactors and donors to the Hirshhorn Exhibition Fund and Annual Circle.
About the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian’s museum of international modern and contemporary art, has some 11,500 paintings, sculptures, mixed media installations and works on paper in its collection. The Hirshhorn maintains an active and diverse exhibition program and offers an array of free public programs that explore the art of our time. The museum, located at Independence Avenue and Seventh Street, S.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25), and admission is free. Visit www.hirshhorn.si.edu for more information or to download Hirshhorn Podcasts on the collection and exhibitions as well as talks with artists and curators.