About us
Washington Color School Collage

Washington Color School

Started: 1958

Ended: 1980

Washington Color School Timeline

Quotes

"I prefer to work flat on the floor with the canvas unsized and unstretched. Raw canvas seems more open to me. I am closer to the painting, more in contact with it."
Howard Mehring
"If you are concerned about whatever it is you want to do, you dream about it. You wake up in the morning and you've got a solution. You work it out. There is always tomorrow."
Sam Gilliam
"Whether I am teaching or making art, the process is fundamentally the same; I am creating."
Sam Gilliam
"Just work and let things go"
Sam Gilliam
"This was actually the idea of staining, to make the grain a part of the paint surface as well as the pigment. Color was, of course, the principal element that was used to construct with."
Sam Gilliam
"One of the more intelligent questions ever asked regarding my work was asked by a child. The question was 'Why do you paint circles instead of squares?' My answer at the moment was 'because circles are easier to paint. There are no corners to go into and then get out of.'"
Thomas Downing
"Man's highest aspirations come from nature. A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors."
Alma Thomas
"I became convinced that the way to make really good art was to do the outrageous, the unexpected - to be a renegade. That was my philosophy - to explore the seemingly impossible in art, to do things that were new for their own sake, whether they were good or bad."
Gene Davis
"Instead of simply glancing at the work, select a specific color - and take the time to see how it operates across the painting. - Enter the painting through the door of a single color, and then you can understand what my painting is all about."
Gene Davis
"What is important to me is not geometrical shape per se, or color per se, but to make a relationship between shape and color which feels to me like my experience. To make what feels to me like reality."
Anne Truitt

KEY ARTISTS

Kenneth NolandKenneth Noland
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Morris LouisMorris Louis
Quick View
Artist Page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Anne TruittAnne Truitt
Quick View
Further External Info
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Gene DavisGene Davis
Quick View
Further External Info
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sam GilliamSam Gilliam
Quick View
Further External Info
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"I do open paintings. I like lightness, airiness, and the way color pulsates. The presence of the painting is all that's important."

Kenneth Noland Signature

Synopsis

In the latter half of the 1950s, Washington D.C. saw a flourishing of abstract art that emphasized the form-making capabilities of pure color. Known as The Washington Color School, the loosely affiliated group of abstract painters knew each other through various teaching experiences. The moniker has an uncertain origin but likely originated with the title of a 1965 exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, "Washington Color Painters," curated by Gerald Nordland. The show exhibited the works of Kenneth Noland, Paul Reed, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, and Gene Davis. Additionally, Leon Berkowitz and Sam Gilliam along with V.V. Rankine, Alma Thomas, Hilda Thorpe and Anne Truitt were also associated with The School.

Using innovative techniques that expanded on Abstract Expressionist experiments with color and paint application, the Washington Color School created deceptively simple compositions that evoked dynamism and tension. Championed by the art critic Clement Greenberg as part of the larger trend of Post-Painterly Abstraction, the work of the group was seen as the culmination of modernist painting, with its emphasis on the two-dimensional surface of the picture plane and its lack of reference to any subject matter. The Washington Color School embraced the larger trend of Color Field painting, and some of its practitioners experimented with Hard Edge painting as well. In many ways, these D.C. artists anticipated the style of Minimalism and then evolved alongside it, and the teaching legacy of the Washington Color School left its mark on a generation of artists in Washington. While many saw these experiments as a way of moving out of and beyond Abstract Expressionism, others saw them as a formal dead end and divorced from the tumultuous atmosphere of the 1960s.

Key Ideas

The Washington Color School used color, and not drawing, to create and delineate simple geometric forms. They often spoke of wanting to put pure color on the canvas to create an immediate, all at once, visual experience for the viewer. This optical experience became more important than conveying subject matter.
Many of the artists associated with the Washington Color School used a soak stain technique whereby thinned acrylic paint saturates the raw canvas. Instead of sitting on top of the canvas, the color becomes one with the canvas. Without the physical layers of paint, this technique emphasizes the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane, which according to Clement Greenberg was one of the main goals of modernist painting.
As part of the larger trend of Color Field painting, The Washington Color School shunned the histrionic personas that had grown up around the Abstract Expressionist artists. Instead, the execution of their paintings were more anonymous, without the gestural presence of the artist. In downplaying the presence of the artist, the viewer's experience comes more to the fore. This switch in emphasis from the artist to the viewer was in line with other artistic experiments of the 1960s, including Happenings and Minimalism.

Beginnings

Washington Color School Image

Precedents

The Washington Color School evolved from the Abstract Expressionist experiments with color and all-over composition. Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, sometimes referred to as Color Field painters, created bold compositions with large expanses of color. Clyfford Still created canvases with jagged areas of impasto color applied with a palette knife, and Newman punctuated large fields of color with vertical lines he called "zips". Rothko's vertically formatted canvases juxtapose rectangular areas of color that seem to float on the canvas. While the Washington Color School developed the techniques used by the Abstract Expressionists and adopted the new technique of staining, the artists tended to eschew the emotional and dramatic rhetoric used by the older generation.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Washington Color School Overview Continues

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
[Accessed ]