A quarter-century after his death at age 49, Morris Louis -- Washington's most celebrated modern painter -- has still never had a major exhibition in a Washington museum.

There have been small shows -- one of paintings at the National Gallery of Art and another of drawings at the National Museum of American Art -- but nothing to compare with the retrospectives given more recent Washington abstract color painters Kenneth Noland and the late Gene Davis.

Today at last, 41 of Louis' greatest paintings -- all from his last eight years -- have gone on view at the Hirshhorn. Like liberated genies, the colors rise and billow, drift and retreat into muted overlays, brilliant stripes and rivulets of pure hue.

This is still no retrospective, but it is a splendid show of Louis at his finest, which means prime examples of the late major series -- the romantic "Veils" and audacious "Unfurleds," the luscious "Florals" and dazzling "Stripes." With the critical pendulum still swinging back and forth on the subject of "Greenbergian" esthetics -- bruising not only critic Clement Greenberg, but also the artists he championed along the way -- the time seems right for separating backlash myth from fact. And the fact is that Morris Louis was a great and innovative abstract painter, whose legacy is an altogether distinctive body of work.

There is fitting irony in another fact: This triumphal return of Louis' works to the city where they were made (and largely ignored) has been arranged by a museum in New York City, where Louis also had his first significant exposure and recognition. Organized by the Museum of Modern Art, this show had its premiere in New York last October.

"He would have liked that route," says Marcella Louis Brenner, the artist's widow. "Morris planned to be important -- no second-string stuff. His goals were New York and the Modern. He had no small ambitions.

"But," she adds, "I don't think he would have thought it should take 25 years!"

A Legacy Discovered Morris Louis, ne' Morris Louis Bernstein (1912-1962), third son of Russian immigrants, grew up in Baltimore, studied on scholarship at the Maryland Institute and, from 1936 to 1942, worked in New York with the WPA Easel project before giving up, going home, and finally following his future wife Marcella to Washington in 1947.

She had supported them both for 15 years as an elementary school teacher and principal when Louis died of lung cancer. All of the paintings in the show -- some more than 14 feet wide -- were poured, not brushed, onto swaths of unsized canvas in the 12-by-14-foot dining room-turned-studio of their modest white house on Legation Street NW.

When Louis died his career was just on the verge of taking off. He had four New York solo shows to his credit, but only 35 sales, all but one made during the last four years of his life. Of the 655 known paintings that survived him, nearly 600 were rolled up and stored in the basement of the house.

"It was the most beautiful waterproof basement you ever saw," recalls Brenner. "Morris kept adding layers to keep it dry."

I.S. (Lefty) Weissbrodt, a Washington attorney, quickly became central to Brenner's handling of the Louis legacy. He vividly describes the scene -- and the mind-boggling problems.

"There were rolls of paintings -- like rolls of carpets -- from floor to ceiling," he remembers. "So what does Marcella do? First thing, she decides we have to inventory the paintings, because most of them nobody had ever seen. Even Morris hadn't seen most of them outside the room where they were painted.

"So she arranges for a friend to bring in a camera, and they have a stepladder in the living room, and the paintings are unrolled and a number put on a card. Clem Greenberg is there, and they take a photo and roll it up. And it goes back to the basement again." They were subsequently sent to warehouses in New York and Washington.

"Clem had an interesting way of looking at them," says Brenner. "He liked to take a fresh look at each one as they were unrolled, so he would not stay in the living room as the things were brought in. He went in the kitchen, and would come around the door and look. He was excited, of course. He'd never seen most of them. It was some session, I can tell you."

But that was just the beginning.

"Now there's the problem of classifying them," says Weissbrodt. "As the lawyer who was going to file the tax returns, I had to value everything in the estate, and had some important decisions to make."

His decisions worked out well: The estate was valued at only $164,000, and unlike the cases of many other artists' estates at the time, there was no trouble from the IRS.

But there was trouble, arising from the fact that Louis had died without a will. Under District law, that left Louis' property -- basically, the art -- to be divided among the widow and the artist's parents, since there were no children.

"We had to solve the problem of my being able to handle the work alone, and not with the family," says Brenner. "I knew they'd be tempted to have a little show here or there. Then one day a friend offered to help get a show at the Hecht Co. -- a well-meaning person who knew nothing of the art world. I got chills, and thought, my God, this is what the family would do. That's when I knew I had to get control of the work."

With the help of Weissbrodt, a settlement was reached in which the family relinquished rights to the art in exchange for $50,000. The trouble came when prices began to escalate after a Louis memorial show at New York's Guggenheim in 1963. A family challenge ensued, resulting in a long and painful court battle that Brenner eventually won.

There were other matters that only Louis' champion, Greenberg, could handle, and he was asked to advise the estate, for what Weissbrodt calls "a very modest fee -- maybe $2,000 a year, until 1970. Marcella, in gratitude, also gave Greenberg five paintings."

"The question was," says Weissbrodt, "how do you stretch these works? The 'Unfurleds,' for example, had never been shown, except one at Bennington College, which Morris hadn't seen. Many of the paintings did not have stretcher marks. So somebody had to decide how much blank canvas there would be on top, on the bottom, at the sides -- where the canvas should be cut.

"And then there's the upside-down issue. Which way is up?" (That controversy continues: in the Hirshhorn show, curator John Elderfield hangs several early "Veils" in a direction Brenner and some owners contend is upside down.)

"And titles," says Weissbrodt. "Very few paintings were named by Morris. He wasn't interested in titles. There are fascinating stories as to how the paintings were named. How did the 'Veils' get Hebrew names -- and the 'Unfurleds' get Greek names?

"The answer is that Marcella decided it was not appropriate to use a meaningful word for a painting that Morris did not use, because people would then try to interpret the work in terms of names somebody else gave. So she said, use Greek and Hebrew letters, and constellations for the stripes. She didn't want to interfere in any way with his intention."

Weissbrodt and others credit Brenner with the fact that things have turned out so well for the Louis legacy.

"She is a very enlightened artist's widow," says Andre Emmerich, dealer for the estate. "Marcella has done everything right: the way she handles herself, the artist, the inheritance. She's sought the right advice and evaluated it properly."

"She has been brilliant," says Weissbrodt.

"Morris had already made the connections," says Brenner. "I simply maintained them. We were not starting from scratch, and I tend to trust people and have faith in them.

"The seeds had been sown. A great many others have dealers and sell an occasional painting, but few have a show at the Guggenheim: That's the difference. Morris achieved it all before he died. He had made those paintings, there they were.

"But as for being accepted truly, at the first level, it had not happened -- certainly not in his mind."

The Early Champions According to Brenner, the paintings' subsequent, circuitous pathway to success -- from the basement on Legation Street to a place of honor on the Hirshhorn's walls -- was cleared by a few extraordinary people who saw the work and chose to champion it.

"I have had the good fortune of remarkable people who have helped me," she says. "I don't know -- I suppose they responded to the flame that was there."

Unquestionably the most important among the ignited was Greenberg, to whom Louis was introduced by his younger, better-connected friend, painter Kenneth Noland, in 1953. "Ken did that great, good thing," says Brenner. "He brought Clem to see Morris' work."

Greenberg -- by then as influential as any art critic in America has ever been -- not only wrote about the work, but visited the reclusive Louis periodically, talked to him, corresponded with him and gave his paintings their first exposure in New York -- in an "Emerging Artists" show at Kootz Gallery in 1954.

He introduced Louis to Leo Castelli, who showed two Louis paintings in 1957, and to Martha Jackson, who gave Louis a solo show the same year, though neither dealer pursued Louis. In 1959 and 1960, however, Greenberg arranged two large and important exhibitions of more than 20 Louis "Veils" and "Stripes" at French & Co. Both shows were favorably reviewed, and from them the first important sales were made -- six of them to collector Patrick Lannan, whose foundation has loaned the earliest painting in the current show.

After French & Co. closed in 1960, Greenberg introduced Louis to Emmerich, who arranged a show in 1961, and was planning another at the time of the artist's death in September 1962.

Through Greenberg, Louis met others who championed his work, both before and after his death, among them William Rubin, now director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MOMA. Rubin, then a college professor and critic, not only wrote about Louis, but also persuaded his brother Lawrence Rubin, then a fledgling Paris dealer (now president of M. Knoedler & Co. in New York), to put Louis under contract, guaranteeing purchase of a certain number of paintings per year. Though more dealers than clients expressed interest in Louis, one American collector named Joe Hirshhorn came in and bought three paintings.

There was one legendary sale of a "Bronze Veil" that Louis made from his house in 1958 to a Philadelphia collector for $3,000 -- more than twice what he ever again received for a painting in his lifetime. But after that, the sales to Rubin and through Emmerich during his last two years brought Louis the first real money he ever made. Earlier, he had often been forced to sell paintings for the price of the materials. "He once offered me a painting for $12," says former student and family friend Cornelia Noland Reis, "but I didn't buy it. I didn't have $12."

But in those last two years -- after a bone-dry decade in Washington -- Louis must have been invigorated and heartened by the income: $8,620 in 1960 and $13,750 in 1961. Typically, he went out and bought himself a thousand yards of canvas and 16 gallons of Bocour's new formula Magna paint. Atypically, he also bought himself a second-hand Thunderbird -- his first car.

Sales -- or the lack of them -- were an important measure of success for Louis. But the Guggenheim's 1963 memorial exhibition was a clearer reflection of how much respect he had really garnered. Thus launched in New York, Louis' reputation hit new heights in Europe after his inclusion -- with Noland, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns -- in the 1964 Venice Biennale.

Since then, close to 500 paintings from the Louis basement have been sold, both to collectors and to more than 70 museums around the world, which now own 25 percent of his entire surviving output. The Phillips Collection was the first museum to acquire a Louis painting. "I was so pleased to find that out," says Brenner. "Isn't that nice?"

As Louis' place was firmly established in the context of '60s art -- in which he was seen as a bridge between late abstract expressionism and early minimalism -- every modern museum in the world found itself in need of at least one Louis (preferably three) to fill out its illustrated history.

Prices have risen accordingly, going as high as $500,000 in private sales and, at auction, $473,000 for an "Unfurled" titled "Sigma," included in the present Hirshhorn show.

Two generations of scholars have written about Louis, from Michael Fried, whose book on the artist was published in 1970, to Elderfield, whose lengthy catalogue essay for the current show was published with a grant from Brenner. The most remarkable and illuminating book, however, is the catalogue raisonne' by Diane Upright, published by Abrams in 1985. Much of it was based on files in Weissbrodt's office, which still serves as a Louis documentation center.

Her Own Life Brenner eschews the role of the art widow: "I've never confused myself with Morris," she says. "I knew nothing about art. I was a schoolteacher.

"I had my own life, and professional interest. I had a body of work to take care of, and knew that the day would come that would bring worldwide recognition. I just hoped I'd have the money to pay storage until then."

She had gotten her doctorate in education just three months before Louis died, and in the '60s became a professor of education at George Washington University, where in 1973 she founded the Museum Education Program, the first such graduate program in the country. The program has already conferred 269 degrees.

When she retired in 1983, colleagues, ex-students and friends established the Marcella Brenner Endowment for Museum Education to support the program and provide financial assistance to students. Now professor emeritus of education at GW, she is also a university trustee.

Brenner lives in the present, not in the past.

"I don't confuse myself with that deceased painter," she says. In fact, she has been married for 25 years to another man, a scientist; she and Louis had been married only 15 years when he died.

She and Morris had met in Baltimore, where they lived next door -- "on a street called Sunset Boulevard," recalls Marcella, who was married at the time. "There were duplexes side by side. The Bernsteins -- Morris' parents -- shared our back yard. We met in the garden in the back.

"He comes back from New York -- sad, dour, having been on the WPA up there, and having not been a glowing success -- and he is obliged to return to his family because he can no longer afford to stay in New York, which is pretty hard.

"I would come back from the mailbox at the corner, and he would be sitting on the porch alone, staring straight ahead of him, smoking," says Brenner. "We became friends -- all of us. He was very lonely, and very reluctantly let us befriend him."

By 1944 the friendship had deepened, and Brenner and her husband moved to Washington, where they planned to get a divorce, "so as not to upset the families too much," she explains. "It was a truly amicable divorce; he falls in love with his secretary, and I'm grateful to her."

Morris and Marcella married in 1947 and lived briefly in Silver Spring before moving to Legation Street.

"He wasn't warm with his family," she says. "They were sorry for him and exasperated with him. They didn't understand how a bright guy could continue this absurd behavior, especially with two brothers who were doctors and the other a pharmacist.

"It was very hard, and going to visit his family was no fun. Not only was he a shmirer -- a painter -- but then he married a woman who had {temporarily} left schoolteaching to do some big world stuff, like working for the Public Health Service. In those days, an artist either needed a real job or a spouse to support him."

She and Louis did not talk about art, she says, nor did she ask about his work or see it. By the time she returned from school in the afternoons, he was usually outside sitting on the steps or puttering in the garden -- the one avocation he enjoyed. "We talked mostly about my life and school," she says. "He could be very funny.

"I believed in him. I didn't think the art would find an audience in any immediate future, not because of what he was doing, but just because I knew what happened with artists.

"I think he felt for sure that this would happen, but not necessarily next week or next year. He had tremendous assurance that he was going to make it big, and in the next breath, tremendous doubt.

"We didn't talk about the lack of recognition," says Brenner, "but it hung over us like a cloud. I did not think that recognition was just around the corner -- he may have. I was utterly convinced that there would be worldwide recognition, but I didn't think I'd live to see it."

The Grape Arbor Surrounded by the sweet smell of chicken soup simmering on her stove, Brenner -- a vivacious woman now in her early seventies -- remembers that turpentine and acrylic paint fumes so permeated the Legation Street house that they often couldn't cook.

Few of Louis' paintings were ever hung in the house on Legation Street. "He said they got in his eyes," says Brenner. Two paintings that did hang there, however, still hang in her home today: the small, early, cubistic "Broken Bridge," which was shown with other WPA paintings at the 1939 World's Fair, and the very large and beautiful painting titled "Trellis," from 1953, painted in a combination of stain and impressionistic splattering techniques, one of the first Louis paintings shown in New York.

The astonishing thing about the painting is that you can recognize in it long, grape-laden vines swaying gracefully across the huge canvas. Chin in hand, Brenner looks out over her glasses to wait for a visitor's surprise that Louis, the abstract color painter, had made such descriptive works.

"We had a grape arbor in the yard," says Brenner. "I don't know if it's still there."

By the next afternoon she has driven by the old house to find her answer. "It's gone. Alas," she says.

The Artist's Existence New York artist Charles Schucker, 79, was Louis' best friend during the years at the Maryland Institute.

"I was fortunate, Morris wasn't," he says. "I was on the Federal Art Project in Chicago for five years, and all my materials were paid for. It was the history of the New York WPA project that they kept throwing people off of it -- including Morris.

"Like all of us, he had to exist. His family tried to help, but they couldn't do much.

"But Marcella made something possible that no one had made before: She had a real job, and from that time on, the great paintings were made possible. Without Marcella, I don't think he could have survived. What would he have lived on?

"The world owes those paintings as much to her as to him."