Morris Louis. Floral V, detail, 1959-60, Private collection, Denver; courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Helen Frankenthaler, Off White Square, 1973, Acrylic on canvas, 79-1/2 x 235", Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York; Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London; Leslie Feely Fine Art, New York, © 2007 Helen Frankenthaler.

Origins of Color Field Painting and American Post-War Abstraction

Helen Frankenthaler, Flood, 1967, Synthetic polymer on canvas, 124 x 140", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art (68.12), © 2007 Helen Frankenthaler. Photograph Geoffrey Clements.

Sam Francis, Blue Balls, 1960, Oil on canvas, 90-5/8 x 79-1/8", Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc.

Jules Olitski, Cleopatra Flesh, 1962, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 104 x 90", The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of G. David Thompson, 1964, (262.1964), © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY, © Jules Olitski/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Adolph Gottlieb, Sentinel, 1951, Oil on linen, 60 x 48", Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, New York, © Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photograph Jordan Tinker.

Jules Olitski, Tin Lizzie Green, 1964, Alkyd and oil/wax crayon on canvas, 130 x 82", Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; purchased with the aid of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts (1977.617), © 2007 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, © Jules Olitski/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.


Smithsonian American Art Museum
Eighth and F Streets N.W.
Color as Field,
American Painting, 1950-75
February 29-May 26, 2008

More than half a century has passed since Helen Frankenthaler first began staining thin, luminous paint into raw canvas, translating the implications of Jackson Pollock’s all-over poured paintings into a personal language.

Frankenthaler’s way of simultaneously painting and drawing with delicate washes on unprimed canvas — famously described by Morris Louis as “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible” — pointed the way to a new kind of American abstraction based on expanses of radiant, uninflected hues.

Color field painting, as this approach came to be known, includes some the most powerful and beautiful pictures in the history of recent art; yet in the wake of Post-Modernism — with its cynicism, irony, and political agendas — color field abstraction — with its whole-hearted quest for visual impact and wordless eloquence — has been somewhat overlooked. Color as Field will offer an opportunity to reevaluate this important aspect of American abstract painting.

This exhibition traces the origins of color field painting in American post-war abstraction of the 1950s, as a rejection of the gestural, layered, hyper-emotional approach typical of Willem de Kooning and his followers and, at the same time, as a development and expansion of ideas about all-overness and the primacy of color posited by the work of other members of the Abstract Expressionist generation, such as Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.

Because of their pivotal roles as precursors, in the 1950s and later as de facto participants in the movement, Gottlieb, Hofmann, Motherwell, and Rothko are included in the exhibition. The focus will be on the artists first associated with color field ideas: Frankenthaler, Louis, and Kenneth Noland. The work of Jules Olitski, another key member of the initial group of painters who developed this uniquely American approach to abstraction, will also be included in depth, along with that of younger painters who shared similar conceptions of what a painting could be, including Larry Poons and Frank Stella.

The potency of these ideas will be investigated through the work of a wider range of color field painters, including Darby Bannard, Jack Bush, Gene Davis, Ronald Davis, Friedel Dzubas, and Sam Gilliam (many of whom worked outside of the New York area), who all discovered room for personal expression in the idea of structuring a painting with essentially unmodulated expanses of color.

The exhibition is compised 40 canvases. Guest Curator Karen Wilkin, an independent curator and critic specializing in twentieth-century modernism, is the author of monographs on Anthony Caro, Stuart Davis, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Giorgio Morandi, Kenneth Noland, and David Smith and has organized exhibitions of the work of these artists, among others, internationally.

The fully illustrated catalogue published by the AFA in association with Yale University Press will include essays by Ms. Wilkin and Carl Belz, Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, who has organized a number of important exhibitions of artists associated with the color field movement.  Their essays will explore the complex connections among these artists and their abstract expressionist ancestors, with emphasis on the repercussions of certain encounters, the influence of proximity and friendships, and the evidence of cross-fertilization in the evolution of their work.

The pivotal role played by Clement Greenberg, as champion of the movement and as valued studio visitor for most of the artists associated with color field notions, will be discussed in detail. The 1960s writings of Michael Fried, also a valued studio visitor, who articulated the desiderata of color field painting in terms of radical opticality, will also be taken into account.

The work of the artists associated with color field ideas will also be discussed in relation to that of their contemporaries, the Minimalists and the Pop artists, with whom, it appears they shared certain formal ideas, despite the obvious differences in their conceptual bases. Some of the misunderstandings about color field painting that have accumulated since the period examined by the exhibition, along with the distortions of intent recently attributed to the artists associated with the movement will also be addressed.

Color field painting, which emerged in the United States in the 1950s, is characterized by pouring, staining, or spraying thinned paint onto raw canvas, creating vast chromatic expanses. Exemplified in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, and Frank Stella, these paintings constitute one of the crowning achievements of postwar American abstract art.

Surprisingly, there has not been a major exhibition or book to date that has examined the color field artists as a group or color field painting — its sources, meaning, and impact. Color as Field, encompassing approximately forty-one large-scale canvases, will present a remarkable opportunity for viewers to fully comprehend the aims of these artists, view their finest works in close relation to each other, and experience the beauty and visual magnetism of their pictorial handling of space and color.

Color field painting initially referred to a particular type of abstract expressionism, especially the work of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb. Art critic Clement Greenberg perceived Color field painting as related to but different from Action painting

During the early to mid-1960s Color field painting was the term used to describe artists like Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler, whose works were related to second generation abstract expressionism, and to younger artists like Larry Zox and Frank Stella — both moving in a new direction.

In 1964 Clement Greenberg curated an influential exhibition that traveled the country called Post-painterly abstraction. The exhibition expanded the definition of color field painting. In the late 1960s Richard Diebenkorn began his Ocean Park series; created during the final 25 years of his career and that are important examples of color field painting.

Color field painting clearly pointed toward a new direction in American painting, away from abstract expressionism. Color field painting is related to Post-painterly abstraction, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, Hard-edge painting and Lyrical Abstraction.

Color field painting sought to rid art of superflous rhetoric. Artists like Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Zox, and others often used greatly reduced references to nature, and they painted with a highly articulated and psychological use of color. In general these artists eliminated recognizable imagery.

Certain artists quoted references to past or present art, but in general color field painting presents abstraction as an end in itself. In pursuing this direction of modern art, artists wanted to present each painting as one unified, cohesive, monolithic image.

In distinction to the emotional energy and gestural surface marks of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Color field painting initially appeared to be cool and austere, effacing the individual mark in favor of large, flat areas of color, which these artists considered to be the essential nature of visual abstraction, along with the actual shape of the canvas, which Frank Stella in particular achieved in unusual ways with combinations of curved and straight edges. However

Color field painting has proven to be both sensual and deeply expressive albeit in a different way from gestural Abstract expressionism.

The color field painters are sometimes referred to as the second generation (more a labelling device than a reference to birth dates).

This "second generation" of abstractionists were anything but expressionistic. While they embraced freedom from illusion or representation in painting, they yearned for a much more intellectual, aesthetic, analytical approach to their work.

More accurately, this group of painters came to be known as hard-edge color field painters. Like the Abstractionists, they denied any other reality other than the surface of the canvas.

Going beyond this, they glorified in two elements this freedom afforded them--pure colour, and pure, geometric design. They rediscovered the Russian painter, Kasimir Malevich, and his 1913 painting, White on White. And taking what would, at first glance, appear to be a dead end in terms of the painting development, they struck off in a totally different direction than their expressionist counterparts, working on paintings of enormous scale, bearing tightly controlled, almost overwhelming, wall-size fields of stark, vibrant, pure, in-your-face color so powerful as to hurt ones eyes at close range. They explored Malevich's squares and rectangles, intermixing them with arcs, angles and other geometric minutiae.

Larry Poons, Han-San Cadence, 1963, Acrylic and fabric dye on canvas, 72 x 144 inches, Des Moines Art Center; purchased with funds from the Coffin Fine Arts Trust; Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Art Center (1970.19), © Larry Poons/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photograph Michael Tropea.

Robert Motherwell, Chi Ama, Crede, 1962, Oil on canvas, 82 x 141", The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; purchased by The Phillips Collection through funds donated by The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips, The Chisholm Foundation, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald Brown, 1998, © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Photograph Steven Sloman.

Kenneth Noland, Earthen Bound, 1960, Acrylic on canvas, 103-1/2 x 103-1/2", Collection of the artist, © Ken Noland/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.