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Like many documentarians, Rockville, Md.-based filmmaker Robert Pierce has sometimes addressed historical subjects that predate the invention of movies. He’s also made films, such as a biography of Lyndon Johnson, that required him to wade through an abundance of footage. Washington Color School painter Morris Louis, the subject of Pierce’s latest film, was born in 1912, after the invention of cinema, yet he might as well be Raphael, the subject of another Pierce documentary. Not a frame of footage exists of Louis’ 49-year life.
“Every film is different,” says Pierce, whose Morris Louis has its world premiere Thursday at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “You take what you can get.”
In the 40-minute documentary, Louis emerges as the antithesis of Jackson Pollock, the New York painter who became abstract expressionism’s first star as his Washington counterpart was still developing a distinctive style. Whereas Pollock flamboyantly spattered and dribbled, Louis methodically stained canvases with washes of thinned acrylic paint. Louis’ neater approach was reflected in the way he kept his small studio, the former dining room of his house on Legation Street NW. It was “spotless,” recalls the painter’s widow, Marcella Louis Brenner, in the film. “It could have been a laboratory.”
Pollock was actually filmed in the act of painting, but Louis’ studio was off-limits. “He was a very private person,” says Pierce. “No one ever filmed him. He was never seen working. No one ever sat and watched him paint. So there was a lot of speculation involved. There was skepticism, too, in terms of how he could do those 20-foot paintings in a 12-foot room.”
The film includes excerpts from ’60s audio interviews with Clement Greenberg, the New York critic who championed Louis’ work, and Leonard Bocour, whose company sold the new acrylic paints that were crucial to Louis’ style.
“These interviews really helped in rounding out the film,” Pierce notes. “They were very instrumental people in his career, and they’re no longer around, so I couldn’t go ask them now.”
The interview recordings came from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, which is also where Pierce found the bills from Chevy Chase Paint and Hardware for more than 1,000 gallons of the turpentine Louis used to dilute his paint. “Fortunately, Morris and Marcella kept everything,” the director notes. “It was just a matter of digging into the boxes. I also found the letter that he wrote to Leonard Bocour about having cancer. To me, that was a major find.”
Pierce, a Southern California native who originally came to Washington to work for Oscar-winning documentarian Charles Guggenheim, has been interested in Louis since meeting Brenner in the early ’80s. Morris Louis is actually the second film Pierce has made about the painter since he left Guggenheim’s shop to set up his own production company, 24 years ago. Pierce calls the first one, 1990’s Pictures to an Exhibition: Morris Louis, “a process film. It used the Morris Louis exhibition as a vehicle to document how a major international exhibit is assembled. We rode in the plane across the Atlantic with the courier who was responsible for the safety of the painting that the Whitney loaned. It was fascinating.”
Aside from one Maryland Institute College of Art classmate who remarks that Louis couldn’t draw, the film doesn’t offer a discouraging word about the painter, whose work some have dismissed as merely pretty or decorative. “That was not the purpose of this film,” says Pierce. “But as far as the people I talked to, I certainly didn’t find anyone who didn’t like Morris Louis’ art.” —Mark Jenkins
Pierce will screen and discuss Morris Louis at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 7th and Independence Avenue SW. For more information, call (202) 357-2700.