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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Morris Louis: Looking Through the Eyes of Love


I recently spent a little time on a foray back into processing an archival collection (usually I am fully immersed in the Archives of American Art's oral histories).  Rather serendipitously  as soon as I dug into working on an addition to the Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, more additions to the collection came raining from the sky! Every week, it seemed, a courier would drop off another box.  In one of those downpours came a box of photographs and slides. These images will help to form a more complete story of Morris Louis – and his marriage to, and relationship with, Marcella Brenner (née Bernstein).

I think it's safe to assume that most archivists will immerse themselves in the collection (or collections) they are currently working on—reading, listening to, looking at everything they can to "get inside" that person or organization. I listened to a fascinating lecture, which is available on the Hirshhorn's website, given by Diane Upright on the opening day of the exhibition  Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisted  at the Hirshhorn September 21, 2007. Upright's lecture give me a lot of insight into Morris Louis, his career, and his paintings. But what has stayed with me the most from the lecture are the bits about the relationships between Morris and Marcella and Morris and his painting. I asked myself, how does our archival collection begin to reflect those relationships?

Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Marcella supported Morris and his art. She worked while he stayed in their 2 bedroom apartment and painted. Yes, he taught painting classes in Baltimore and privately, too. But he was not the primary breadwinner. Upright notes he drove Marcella  to work every day, then went home and painted. By the time she returned home in the evening he was done. No one saw Morris working. No one saw his studio. Not even Marcella.  There are no known photos of Morris working or of his studio—this documentation just doesn't exist. Furthermore, Morris' work was so large, and the space he was working in was so small, it is doubtful he saw an entire painting he was working on until it was stretched and hung for a gallery.

Let's jump forward. After Morris's death in 1962, Marcella asked the Bernstein family for full control of the estate and the family granted her this right. (Years later, after Morris had gained some notoriety, they would regret this decision and a lengthy court case would follow.)
unidentified photographer. 
Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

unidentified photographer. 
Morris Louis and Morris Louis Estate papers, 
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.




The images to the right were taken during the estate inventory in 1966 at the Santini Brothers warehouse where Louis' paintings were stored.  These images are the closest we come to seeing his work in a raw form. Here are the giant canvases in various forms of storage – rolled and unrolled, unstretched, and on the floor with men handling them. A very different scene than what we're used to—perfectly hung works on white walls in a gallery. (Don't get too close! No touching!)

We also get to see those people who were closest to Louis in life. Present is art critic Clement Greenberg, who gave many of the paintings titles at Morris' request. One of the other men in the room looks like Morris' brother whom he grew up with in Baltimore. And here we see Marcella supporting Morris even in death. She made Morris Louis--with help from Andre Emmerich, Clement Greenberg, and others. But without Marcella "in the picture" I doubt he would have risen to such high acclaim and importance in the art world.

Jennifer Snyder works with oral history interviews at the Archives American Art.

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

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