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Morris Louis was born Morris Louis Bernstein in Baltimore on November 28, 1912. 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 Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. During this period he knew Arshile Gorky, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jack Tworkov. He also dropped his last name. Louis returned to Baltimore in 1940 and taught privately. In 1948 he started to use magna acrylic paints.
In 1952 he 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 Louis 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, 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 subsequently destroyed many of the paintings in this show but resumed work on the Veils in 1958–59. These were followed by the Florals and Columns (1960), Unfurleds (1960–61)—in which rivulets of more opaque, intense color flow from both sides of large white fields—and Stripe paintings (1961–62). Louis died in Washington, D.C., in 1962. A memorial exhibition of his work was held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1963. Major Louis exhibitions were organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1967 and the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., on September 7, 1976.