Morris Louis - The Early Paintings

October 11 - November 30, 2019
Palm Desert, CA


The online exclusive exhibition provides an oft unobserved insight into the career of Morris Louis as an artist, that of his early years. The works in the exhibition, located and available throughout the galleries of Heather James Fine Art, comprise his overlooked paintings of the 1930s and 1940s. This is partly due to the fact that his early paintings are exceptionally rare as he was known to have destroyed much of his work that pre-dated his most iconic color field paintings. The few remaining paintings exist because they were given to friends shortly after they were made. There are only about fifty of his pre-1954 works that survive, a small slice considering is prolificity.

If his early works are at all acknowledged it is only as a preface to his turn in 1954 to his stained, color field paintings and the influence of his friendship with Kenneth Noland. It is as if he sprung forth fully formed in his 40s, and the first twenty years of his art career did not matter. But, it would be a mistake not to examine these works to understand Louis as a painter, what makes a painter, and why does he paint.

Morris Louis was born in 1912 in Baltimore. Deciding early on to dedicate his life to art and breaking away from his family’s expectations, Louis attended the Maryland Insitute of Fine and Applied Arts (now Maryland Institute College of Art). He did odd jobs to support his painting and in 1935 became president of the Baltimore Artists’ Association. He moved to New York on 1936 where he lived until 1940.

During his time in New York, he worked in the easel division of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). As importantly, he attended the experimental workshops of David Siqueiros and regularly visited the Museum of Modern Art. It is here that we see these influences manifest in the early paintings. Still figurative, there is an experimentation to them and a determination to situate the figure in space. For example, Untitled, Head Study with Green Background showcases his approach to figuration, the impact of studying under muralist David Siquieros, and the influence of expressionists like Max Beckmann, whom he admired and saw at MoMA. Untitled, Bird Perched Near House, 1938, becomes a meeting point for a workaday sight that he transforms into something between an expressionist act and social realism.

Louis would return to Baltimore in 1940 where he taught art. Relatively isolated from the happenings in the art scene in New York, Louis would continue to paint, grappling with figuration and its relation to painting. In Boy with Finching Birds, c. 1940s, Louis continues depicting everyday scenes as he had done in the WPA, filtered through an expressionist lens. Equally so with Bowl of Bananas, 1946. Nevertheless, throughout the 1940s, Louis would move more and more towards abstraction.

Marrying Marcella Siegel in 1947, Louis would continue to teach art classes, picking up influences from Joan Miró. Around 1948, Louis would shift his medium from oil to the acrylic resin developed by his friend Leonard Bocour. Untitled (Water Hyacinths), c. 1949, shows this increasing use of acrylic which would become his hallmark medium, eventually utilizing it for its fluidity. These works demonstrate the artist’s grappling with representation against abstraction prior to moving into his famed stain paintings.

Louis and Siegel would move to Washington, D.C. in 1952 which would prove the pivotal point for Louis. It is there that he would begin his friendship with Noland and become one of the prominent members of the color field and Washington Color School. What then are we to make of the works prior to this? To ignore them would be to ignore an artist who has grappled with representation, finding his way to abstraction, and dealing with the canvas as both setting and object. We see him put to use his time with Siqueiros, first in the obvious Mexican Muralist style found in the paintings but eventually in the experimental use of paint that would become the hallmark of his career. So too do we see his first tackling of expressionism born from an admiration of Max Beckmann that would morph into the abstract expressionism of his stained canvases.