Color Field Painting
Started: Late 1940s
Ended: Mid 1960s
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Most Important Art
Concepts and Styles
|Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.|
Art Story: Mark Rothko Artist Page
|Clyfford Still was a leading first-generation Abstract Expressionist. His mature works are large-scale paintings with gaping chasms and stains of jagged color, often in dark earth tones.|
Art Story: Clyfford Still Artist Page
|Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract painter in mid-twentieth-century New York. Along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Frankenthaler is considered a pioneer in the practice of Color Field painting.|
Art Story: Helen Frankenthaler Artist Page
|Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color-field painting movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.|
Art Story: Kenneth Noland Artist Page
|Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and others, Louis pioneered the Color Field school of painting, using a technique of soaking heavy oil paints into unprimed canvases. Louis's paintings in part inspired his friend Clement Greenberg to dub the second-generation Abstract Expressionism artists Post-painterly abstraction.|
Art Story: Morris Louis Artist Page
|Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.|
Art Story: Barnett Newman Artist Page
|Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.|
Art Story: Frank Stella Artist Page
|Richard Diebenkorn was an American painter who helped pioneer the California-based movement of Abstract Expressionism, and later the Bay Area Figurative Movement. In all his work, Diebenkorn used the natural environment as his chief inspiration and applied soft, naturalistic color fields to the canvas.|
Art Story: Richard Diebenkorn Artist Page
|Ellsworth Kelly is an American Color Field and Hard edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late 1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.|
Art Story: Ellsworth Kelly Artist Page
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"We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful...The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history."
Color field painting is a tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, or action painting. It was pioneered in the late 1940s by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, who were all independently searching for a style of abstraction that might provide a modern, mythic art and express a yearning for transcendence and the infinite. To achieve this they abandoned all suggestions of figuration and instead exploited the expressive power of color by deploying it in large fields that might envelope the viewer when seen at close quarters. Their work inspired much Post-painterly abstraction, particularly that of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, though for later color field painters, matters of form tended to be more important that mythic content.
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There used to be some disagreement over which artist had first arrived at the style of Color Field abstraction. Most now believe that it was Clyfford Still who first did so - and at some remove from those in New York, such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who were also finding their way to the approach in the late 1940s. In this untitled work, as with all his later paintings, Still applied thick portions of color with a palette knife to achieve an effect that evokes a violent sundering in nature. Typically, Still's canvases were covered in rich earthy colors, from edge to edge.
Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
Rothko, Newman, and Still were all independently moving in the direction of color field abstraction in the late 1940s. Still is generally acknowledged as having achieved it first with a series of paintings he exhibited in 1947, but Newman was also important in making early theoretical contributions to the style. In the same year he organized an exhibition for Betty Parsons Gallery entitled The Ideographic Picture, which gathered together artists such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Hans Hofmann, and pointed to the development in recent American art of a "modern counterpart of the primitive art impulse." It was summed up in the concept of the ideograph, which he described - quoting a dictionary - as a "character, symbol or figure which suggests the idea of an object without expressing its name." Newman was searching for an abstract art that might do away with all figurative or quasi-figurative motifs. An abstract form could be a "living thing," he wrote in the exhibition's influential catalogue essay, "a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex." It would be more real and present than a form that was merely abstracted from nature or an object.
The fruitful directions that Newman, Rothko, and Still were traveling in meant that by the late 1940s Abstract Expressionism was starting to split into two divergent tendencies - color field painting and gesture painting. It was not until the 1950s, however, that this formal split was widely recognized by critics.
Concepts and Styles
Although Still, Rothko, and Newman all developed different understandings of the content of their work, Newman put forth the most well known interpretation in his essay 'The Sublime is Now' (1948). It drew on the eighteenth century aesthetics of Edmund Burke to put forward a notion that only the sublime was appropriate to a modern age gripped by the terror of war and the threat of the bomb. European art had always striven towards the beautiful, he argued, but it was now time to abandon that search.
Clement Greenberg was perhaps the first to identify and celebrate the emergence of color field painting. He did the most to explore it in his 1955 essay, 'American-Type Painting,' in which he argued that the style advanced a tendency in modern painting to apply color in large areas or 'fields.' He considered this particularly important since it returned to what he saw as one of the most important innovations of the Impressionists - the suppression of value contrasts (contrasts of light and dark hues), to describe depth and volume. Many Abstract Expressionists adopted an "all-over" approach to composition - approaching the canvas as a field, rather than as a window in which to depict figures - but none pushed this as far as the color field painters.
By the late 1950s, a new generation of color field painters was emerging. Inspired in part by the stained abstractions of Helen Frankenthaler, and by Greenberg's criticism, the new group included artists such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski. These artists were more formalist in their concerns than the Abstract Expressionists had been, often more unashamedly decorative, and certainly less darkly metaphysical. By pouring oil and acrylic paints onto unprimed canvas, artists such as Frankenthaler allowed their pigments to soak into the canvas rather than to rest on top of it (as was the case with Willem de Kooning, whose paints actually rise up into small mountainous heaps on the canvas). This technique gave their paintings a uniformity of color and a sense of even, flat consistency, as well as a feathery, ephemeral dreaminess.
As the 1960s commenced, artists who Clement Greenberg categorized as Post-painterly abstractionists were among the most prominent color field painters. Morris Louis was creating work that contained a degree of symmetry, rendered by pouring paint in broad bands across the surface of the canvas. Kenneth Noland was painting his bold geometric shapes - targets and chevrons, mostly - and beginning to experiment with shaped canvases. And painters such as Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held were also described as late color field painters, even though their work was also often associated with 'hard edge abstraction.'
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Color Field Painting
| Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975 |
By Karen Wilkin, Carl Belz
| Colourfield Painting: Minimal, Cool, Hard Edge, Serial and Post-Painterly Abstract Art of the Sixties to the Present |
By Stuart Morris
| The Shape of Color: Excursions in Color Field Art, 1950-2005 |
By Christian Eckart, Mark Cheetham, Sarah Rich, Raphael Rubinstein, Robert Hobbs, David Moos, Polly Apfelbaum, Mary Heilmann, Peter Halley, Matthew Teitelbaum
| Abstract Expressionism |
By Barbara Hess
| Abstract Expressionism |
By Katy Siegel, Lillian Davies, Pauline Pobocha
| Art and Culture |
By Clement Greenberg
| Color Fields |
Features Images and Publications from the Deutsche Guggenheim Exhibition "Color Fields"
| Color As Field: American Painting |
Slideshow of Color Field Paintings from the Smithsonian Exhibition "Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975"
| Post-Painterly Abstraction |
Features Catalogue for the Exhibition "Post-Painterly Abstraction"
| Washington Color School Project |
Includes Information and Resources on the Washington Color School
| Weightless Color, Floating Free |
By Roberta Smith
| 'Color Field' Artists Found a Different Way |
By Susan Stamberg
| Remixing Washington's Color-Field Vanguard |
By Michael O'Sullivan