Post-Painterly Abstraction Movement and Chronology

"A picture is a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more."

Synopsis

Post-painterly abstraction is a broad term that encompasses a variety of styles that evolved in reaction to the painterly, gestural approaches of some Abstract Expressionists. Coined by Clement Greenberg in 1964, it originally served as the title of an exhibition that included a large number of artists who were associated with various tendencies, including color field painting, hard-edge abstraction, and the Washington Color School.

Key Points

Greenberg believed that, during the early 1950s, Abstract Expressionism (or, as he preferred to call it, "Painterly Abstraction") had degenerated into a weak school, and, in the hands of less talented painters, its innovations had become nothing but empty devices. But he also believed that many artists were advancing in some of Abstract Expressionism's more fruitful directions - principally those allied to color field painting - and these were yielding to a range of new tendencies that he described as "post-painterly."
Greenberg characterized post-painterly abstraction as linear in design, bright in color, lacking in detail and incident, and open in composition (inclined to lead the eye beyond the limits of the canvas). Most importantly, however, it was anonymous in execution: this reflected the artists' desire to leave behind the grandiose drama and spirituality of Abstract Expressionism.
Some critics, including Clement Greenberg and Barbara Rose, remarked on the decorative character of some post-painterly abstraction. In the past, Harold Rosenberg had described failed Abstract Expressionist paintings as "apocalyptic wallpaper," suggesting that decorative qualities were to be avoided. The new tendency suggested a change in attitudes.
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Beginnings

In 1964, critic Clement Greenberg was recruited by the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA) to curate an exhibition devoted to young abstractionists. He was a natural choice to curate such a show, as by the late 1950s he had a prominent reputation as a defender of contemporary abstract art. Greenberg called the exhibition Post-Painterly Abstraction, although in the essay he wrote for the exhibition catalog he never actually referred to the style by name. Instead, he defined it by what it was not - "painterly abstraction," or the style of the Abstract Expressionists.

Greenberg selected several East coast-based artists whose work he was already familiar with, such as Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. As for the Bay Area artists, such as John Ferren and Sam Francis, debate continues as to who exactly selected them for the exhibition. While some credit James Elliott, a curator at the L.A. County Museum, the original exhibition catalog indicated that Greenberg was taken to see several works in California by Fred Martin of the San Francisco Art Association.

There was a total of 31 artists selected for Post-Painterly Abstraction, and each of them was represented by three paintings apiece, most of which were made between 1960 and 1964. All of the artists were either natives of the USA or Canada.

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Concepts and Styles

Greenberg borrowed from the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in devising the term post-painterly abstraction. Wolfflin had popularized the term "painterly" to describe characteristics of the Baroque, which separated it from classical, or Renaissance art. Greenberg believed that abstract painting had evolved amidst a trend towards "painterly" painting, but had swung back towards cleaner composition and sharper forms in the 1920s and 1930s, under the influence of Mondrian, Synthetic Cubism, and the Bauhaus. Abstract Expressionism marked another swing towards the painterly, and the inevitable reaction against it was away from it once again - though Greenberg emphasized that post-painterly abstraction was not a return to the past.

Although many artists associated with the tendency worked with clean lines and clearly defined forms (such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Al Held), others explored softer forms. Helen Frankenthaler, for example, became well known for soaking paint into untreated canvas, which created a visual effect of color opening up the canvas. Rather than working up the paint into a rich texture on the surface of the canvas, as many artists of the previous generation had done, she allowed paint to seep into the canvas itself, creating a vibrant and utterly flat visual plane. Other post-painterly artists, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, picked up on Frankenthaler's soaking technique to create a variety of color field paintings of their own unique design.

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Later Developments

In June 1965, an exhibition took place at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, D.C., called Washington Color Painters. Included in the show were many of the artists who had participated in Post-Painterly Abstraction in Los Angeles the previous year. They included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Gene Davis, and Thomas Downing. This exhibit marked the official beginning of what became known as the Washington Color School, which was in many respects a sub-movement of color field painting. The Washington painters created minimalist canvases composed of stripes, thin bands of alternating colors, and geometric shapes.

In November of 1966, in the pages of Artforum, critic Michael Fried published the essay, "Shape as Form: Frank Stella's New Paintings." In it he referred to the recent works of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski - all in addition to Stella's work - as a "new illusionism." The importance of this, according to Fried, was the difference between literal and depicted shape. The old standard of abstract painting, or the "old illusionism," was for the artist to take a basic square or rectangular canvas support and use that template to depict whatever they pleased. What artists like Stella and Noland had achieved, according to Fried, was the complete transformation of paintings' literal form. By using oddly-shaped, oblong, and asymmetrical canvases, they had made the form of the painting and the shape of the canvas synonymous things. Therefore this "new illusionism" marked the advent of the shaped canvas, as a singularly modern invention.



Original content written by Justin Wolf
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QUOTES

"The form of my painting is the content."
- Ellsworth Kelly

"A picture is a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more."
- Frank Stella

"A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image."
- Helen Frankenthaler

"The representation I'm interested in is of those things only the eye can touch."
- Kenneth Noland

"Well, in the climate of 1957, '58, Abstract Expressionism and painterly abstraction were dominating everything. All the art departments - college art departments - were grinding out little de Koonings and Pollocks and Klines and so on. So, in that climate, it seemed like Abstract Expressionism was academic, and there was no place to go. It had already been used up. And you had to go somewhere. So the very opposite place to go, obviously, was to get away from painterliness and be neat. And I like to say that. There's no more profound reason than that, but that's the way I was thinking then. 'Let's see if I can't do something that goes in the opposite direction from painterly abstraction.' So I just set out on - more a lark, I think. I just decided to do a stripe painting, just to be outrageous. Of course, three years later, Clement Greenberg curated this very famous historic show called Post-Painterly Abstraction, which I fitted into like a glove and he included three of my works in it. I was just one of a number of people that were beginning to feel that this was used up, this painterly abstraction was used up and we had to move somewhere else."
- Gene Davis

"It certainly has nothing to do with doctrine, with geometrical form for its own sake. These artists prefer trued and faired edges simply because these call less attention to themselves as drawing - and by doing that they also get out of the way of color."
- Clement Greenberg

"Another thing the artists in this show, with two or three exceptions, have in common is the high keying, as well as lucidity, of their color. They have a tendency, many of them, to stress contrasts of pure hue rather than contrasts of light and dark. For the sake of these, as well as in the interests of optical clarity, they shun thick paint and tactile effects. Some of them dilute their paint to an extreme and soak it into unsized and unprimed canvas (following Pollock's lead in his black and white paintings of 1951). In their reaction against the "handwriting" and "gestures" of Painterly Abstraction, these artists also favor a relatively anonymous execution."
- Clement Greenberg

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Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Hard-edge Painting
Hard-edge Painting
Hard-edge painting, emerging in the 1950s and '60s, departed from the gesture and scrawl of Abstract Expressionism to favor blocks of color with well-defined edges.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hard-edge Painting
Washington Color School
Washington Color School
The Washington Color School refers to a group of Color-field painters who exhibited together at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1965. Their work is marked by the presence of color areas and washes, geometric designs, and even surfaces.

Modern Art Information Washington Color School
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Barbara Rose
Barbara Rose
Barbara Rose is an American art historian. Her 1965 article "ABC Art" was an important early study of Minimalism.

Modern Art Information Barbara Rose
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg
Harold Rosenberg was a critic, art historian, and curator who published important works on modern art and culture. He was a leading exponent of Abstract Expressionism, and coined the term "Action Painting."
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Harold Rosenberg
Morris Louis
Morris Louis
Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Noland, 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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Morris Louis
Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Helen Frankenthaler
John Ferren
John Ferren
John Ferren was a twentieth-century American abstract painter. Growing up on the west coast, Ferren studied in Paris and befriended the likes of Picasso, Hofmann, Miro and Duchamp, fast becoming a beloved pupil on the European avant-garde. Ferren's work is characterized by curved abstract forms, plush color fields, and a penchant for biomorphism. Upon returning to the U.S. in the 1940s, Ferren became associated with the New York School Abstract Expressionist painters, and briefly was a member of The Club.

Modern Art Information John Ferren
Sam Francis
Sam Francis
Sam Francis was an American artist and a member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Influenced by the European Tachisme movement, and Zen Buddhism, Francis' paintings ranged from abstract color fields to large-scale "splatter" paintings. Looking back on his catalog of work, Francis was undoubtedly a master colorist in the tradition of Rothko and Still.

Modern Art Information Sam Francis
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Frank Stella
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Ellsworth Kelly
Al Held
Al Held
Al Held was an American painter and a leading figure in the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Held's paintings are considered to be in the style of 'Hard-Edge' and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' Held achieved both acclaim and criticism for his experiments with black and white imagery, or what he called "spatial conundrums."

Modern Art Information Al Held
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland
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.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kenneth Noland
Jules Olitski
Jules Olitski
Jules Olitski was a Russian-born American painter and key figure in the mid-century movements of color-field painting and Post-painterly abstraction. Olitski is most famous for his innovation of painting using multiple spray guns, applied to unprimed and unstretched canvases.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jules Olitski
Blue Balls VII
Blue Balls VII

Title: Blue Balls VII (1962)

Artist: Sam Francis

Artwork Description & Analysis: The work of Sam Francis contains many visual indicators reminiscent of the "action painting" or art informel schools of Abstract Expressionism. What made Francis a unique painter was his technique of tachisme, in which heavy blotches of free-flowing oil paints were allowed to drip down and, in the process, create an accidental design. In Blue Balls VII, which was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibit, Francis used far less paint than he was accustomed to. The end result showcases razor-thin lines of blue paint that cascade down from the more prominent blotches applied throughout the canvas.


Oil on canvas - Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Dance
Dance

Title: Dance (1962)

Artist: John Ferren

Artwork Description & Analysis: California native John Ferren (who was actually older than most of the first-generation AbEx artists) retained elements of what Greenberg called the "Tenth-Street touch." He described this as when "The stroke left by a loaded brush or knife frays out, when the stroke is long enough, into streaks, ripples, and specks of paint. These create variations of light and dark by means of which juxtaposed strokes can be graded into one another without abrupt contrasts." Greenberg criticized the "touch" as a safety net of sorts for those artists having trouble creating a unified image on an abstract plane. However, he praised Ferren's Dance and other similar works for applying the "Tenth-Street touch" and at the same time "boxing it within a large framing area" and managing "to get a new expressiveness from it."


Oil on canvas - Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, New York

Red Blue
Red Blue

Title: Red Blue (1963)

Artist: Ellsworth Kelly

Artwork Description & Analysis: Kelly's Red Blue recalls in many ways Barnett Newman's signature "zip" paintings, with the single dividing line cutting through an otherwise unified field of color. What set Kelly's painting apart was the way in which he applied the pigment. Kelly allowed his diluted oil paints to soak into the canvas, rendering the surface a clean and utterly flat picture plane. His red divider is also much wider than Newman's "zips," and applied to create a cleaner, simpler hard-edged line. Another key characteristic of Kelly's hard-edge, color field paintings was his tendency to only use two opposing colors.


Oil on canvas - Oklahoma City Museum of Art

The Key
The Key

Title: The Key (1963)

Artist: Howard Mehring

Artwork Description & Analysis: In Greenberg's essay for the Post-Painterly Abstraction catalog, he was careful to point out that the post-painterly artists were in fact rejecting the technique of action painting, but this rejection in no way constituted an attempt to return to neo-plasticism or synthetic Cubism. This assertion is difficult to believe upon looking at Mehring's The Key (which was part of the Post-Painterly exhibit), which visibly recalls Mondrian's geometric abstractions, at least in form if not in color. However, what set Mehring's painting apart was his use of perfect symmetry, both in depicted and literal shape (painterly form and canvas measurement, respectively), for which Mondrian was not known. In fact, all three of Mehring's paintings at the 1964 show measured 78"x78".


Magna on canvas - Gary Snyder Project Space, New York

Cycle
Cycle

Title: Cycle (1960)

Artist: Kenneth Noland

Artwork Description & Analysis: One of Noland's signature series of paintings was the Target paintings, which for him also doubled as his own brand of color field painting and geometric abstraction. In Cycle Noland created something particularly uncomplicated and, in fact, the near opposite of the color field style. Cycle's central target is entirely surrounded by bare canvas; a compositional decision also made by fellow painter Morris Louis. What Noland achieved with this painting was most likely what Greenberg had in mind when he wrote about the post-painterly rejection of the "doctrine" of Abstract Expressionism. By creating a strikingly simple geometric form and emphasizing more canvas than paint, Noland was definitely moving beyond the visual confines of freeform abstract painting.


Acrylic on canvas - The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Isis Ardor
Isis Ardor

Title: Isis Ardor (1962)

Artist: Jules Olitski

Artwork Description & Analysis: Greenberg wrote in the Post-Painterly catalog that many of the artists represented "have a tendency...to stress contrasts of pure hue rather than contrasts of light and dark...In their reaction against the 'handwriting' and the 'gestures' of Painterly Abstraction, these artists also favor a relatively anonymous execution." Olitski's Isis Ardor was one of the paintings included in the 1964 show and was certainly an ideal example of a painting that opposed flat planes of color. The contrasts Greenberg spoke of appear to be more of a visual tension in Olitski's painting. His three colors, interacting with small portions of bare canvas, sit so tenuously in the canvas that it almost appears as if they are struggling to resist one another, and with few exceptions they succeed.


Acrylic on canvas - Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.