1. COLOUR: Colour Field


The middle of the 20th century.  East Coast of North America.



Colour Field painting is a form of abstract painting.


It is not mutually exclusive with Abstract Expressionism.  The Abstract Expressionists permitted themselves colours.  And some painters are categorized by critics as having presented elements of both in this painting or that.



As Abstract Expressionism is said to have liberated painting from figuration, Colour Field painting liberated colour from the context in which it is ordinarily set. 





Elegy for the Spanish Republic, 54, 1957-61, oil on canvas.

Robert Motherwell, 1915-1991, American.  MOMA, NY  





Colour is now the singular subject of the painting and artists used several kinds of bounded forms – stripes, geometric shapes, simplified naturalistic forms, flat bold areas of the canvas – to draw attention to colours and their interactions.  





Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950-51, oil on canvas. 

Barnett Newman, 1905-1970, American.  MOMA, NY




On the far wall, The Wild, 1950, a so-called ‘zip’. oil on canvas.

Barnett Newman, 1905-1970, American.  MOMA, NY







1950-W, 1950, oil on canvas. 

Clyfford Still, 1904-1980, American.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY







A critical difference between Abstract Expressionsim and Colour Field painting is the way in which paint is handled.  In the first, you can see the movement of the artist’s hand (or hand/body as in the case of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and others).



In Colour Field painting, what you see is a field of paint bounded sometimes artificially by the artist’s painted line(s); or by the edge of the canvas. 


Figure and ground are one and the field seems not to stop at the edge of the canvas.






Orange Mood, 1966, acrylic on canvas. 

Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011, American.  ?Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY 

Helen Frankenthaler developed a technique of pouring diluted paint onto unprimed canvas on the ground to effect mysterious and lovely collusion between the colours. 

She is credited with influencing Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland who visited her studio with the influential critic Clement Greenberg in 1953. 


“I think of my pictures as explosive landscapes, worlds, and distances, held on a flat surface,” she said once.






Achilles, 1952, oil and acrylic resin on canvas.

Barnett Newman, 1905-1970, American.  National Gallery of Art, Washington DC






The commercialization of acrylic paint aided the spread of Colour Field painting. 


Acrylic resin was first developed in Germany at the turn of the 20th century.  It was introduced for commercial, utilitarian use in the United States in the 1950s.  Its use was picked up by artists shortly after that. 

Acrylic has the advantage of being fast drying. 

Also, it ends where it ends on the canvas and does not have the kind of ridge or pooling which oil tends to have. 

It has an even luster over the area treated so that there are no shiny or dull patches.


It is this even-luster which contributes to the definition of Colour Field painting as abstract painting using colour without much variation in tone (no dark/light; no deep/shallow; no variations of the kind which light on an object or scene brings). 



A view of a room of the Solomon R. Guggenheim displaying works from the 1960s early in 2020





Artists stained canvas with acrylic in a way difficult to do with oil.  Such staining or  painting can result in a soft-edged, soft effect as with watercolour.  Layering acrylic can, on the other hand, give the impression of a forceful, sharp-edged oil painting.



Whether painters shown here were or were not officially classified as Colour Field painters, they were all influenced by this development.



Saraband, 1959, acrylic resin on canvas. 

Morris Louis, 1912-1962, American.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY






Winter Bitch, 1959, acrylic on canvas. 

Ed Clark,1926-2019, American.  ?MOMA, NY.


A self-defined Abstract Expressionist of the second generation, Ed Clark’s luminous work reached MOMA not long before he died.  One of his techniques was to push paint across the canvas with a broom.






Gamma Delta, magna on canvas, 1959-60. 

Morris Louis, 1912-1962, American.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY. 

The  work of Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler piqued his interest.  For nine years the artist experimented with staining canvases.  Here he stained the canvas by diluting and pouring synthetic paints onto the surface.  He let the colours spread and bleed.






Door to the River, 1960, oil on linen.

Willem de Kooning, 1904-1997,American born the Netherlands.  Whitney Museum of Art, NY







Painting A, 1961-62, oil on canvas. 

Toshinobu Onosato, 1912-1986, Japanese. Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY






Gran Cairo, 1962, enamel on canvas.

Frank Stella, American born 1936.  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art






Canal, 1963, acrylic on canvas. 

Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011, American.  Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, NY






Friendship, 1963, gold leaf and oil on canvas. 

Agnes Martin, 1912-2004, American born Canada, 1912-2004.  MOMA, NY






The Fourth of the Three, 1963, acrylic on composition board. 

Richard Anuskiewicz, American born 1930.  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art.

  A student of Josef Albers.





Trans Shift, 1964, acrylic on canvas.

  Kenneth Noland, 1924-2010, American.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY 


An artist based in Washington, DC, he experimented with soaking thinned acrylic paint in unprimed canvas.  In this work, he plays with space that is bounded and that which is not.








Untitled (Two Works), 1965, enamel on Masonite.  Dave Hammons, American born 1943. 

Private collection exhibited at the Baltimore Museum in 2019 

One of series of images using the colours of the flags of newly independent African countries.







The Calm, 1966, oil on canvas. 

Leo Valledor, 1936-1989, American.  Philadelphia Art Museum






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Pink Alert, and detail, 1966, acrylic on canvas. 

Jules Olitski, 1922-2007, American born the Soviet Union. Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC







Passport, 1967, colour screenprint on plastic disks. 

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008, American.  Philadelphia Art Museum







New Day, 1967, acrylic on canvas. 

Kenneth Noland, 1924-2010, Whitney Museum of (North) American Art 

The artist said:  “The thing is to get that colour down on the thinnest conceivable surface, a surface sliced into the air by a razor.  It’s all colour and surface, that’s all.” 

On raw canvas, he used traditional brushes as well as sponges and rollers to create the continuous lines of colour.  The colour sinks into the raw canvas weave and the surface glitters somewhat.






Ahmet Hello, 1967, oil on linen. 

Edna Andrade, 1917-2008, American.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia







Homage to the Square “Wait”, 1967, oil on composition board. 

Josef Albers, 1888-1967, German.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY 

This is one of a thousand paintings in the series ‘Hommage to the Square’.  Using one of four set layouts, Albers would apply each colour – here a range of reds – with a knife and straight from the tube from the center out.

  Across the series, the viewer is affected for how s/he sees the hues and how s/he sees space and form.  The squares seem to move forwards and backwards.







Carousel, 1968, acrylic on canvas. 

Sam Gilliam, American born 1933.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. 

The artist, associate with the Washington (DC) Color School, dripped, smeared, stained and splashed paint onto raw canvas.  He then pressed and folded the fabric before hanging it.






Spectrum V, 1969, oil on canvas.  Ellsworth Kelly, 1923-2015, American.  MOMA, NY






Jigsaw, 1969, acrylic on canvas.

Miriam Schapiro, 1923-2015, American. ?Whitney Museum of  (North) American Art







M37, oil on canvas. 1969

Wojciech Fangor, 1922-2015.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY. 

Visiting Washington DC, the artist came upon Color Field painters with ideas similar to his own.  He favoured oil paint on primed canvas.

  Long drying times allowed him to blur the edge of his shapes, adding thinned paint over the thick oil pigment.  This resulted in a textureless  surface radiating colour.







Travelling with Robert Hughes, 1969-70, acrylic on canvas. 

Frank Bowling, British born Guyana,  1934. The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection exhibited at the Baltimore Museum in 2019.


The artist was born in Bartica, Guyana before moving to England and then New York.  He argued for the widest aesthetic including both representation and abstraction.  He himself drew from Colour Field ideas:  he poured waves of acrylic paint over stencils of continents before removing them to apply more paint.








Lysander-1, 1970, acrylic on canvas. 

Jules Olitski, 1922-2007,  American born the Soviet Union.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY







Septehedron, 1974, acrylic on shaped canvas. 

Alvin Loving, 135-2005, American.  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art 

The forms within this image appear to recede or advance depending which one the viewer is looking at.  Likewise there is an ambiguity between the known flatness of the painting and a suggestion of space in the painting.







Whirlirama, 1970, acrylic on canvas. 

Sam Gilliam, American born 1933.  Baltimore Museum of Art







Large Space Dream, 1970, acrylic on canvas. 

Joseph Amarotico, 1931-1985, American.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia






Blue Edge, 1971, acrylic on canvas. 

Sam Gilliam, American born 1933.  Baltimore Museum of Art. 

In 1968, Sam Gilliam began experimenting with paint.  He separated paint from liquid, added Day Glo and aluminium powders.  He painted on folded, unstretched canvas which he draped to enfold viewers in colour.







Red Green Black Power, 1971, acrylic on canvas.

William H. Campbell, 1915-2012, American.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia







Eastern Star, 1971, acrylic on canvas in artist’s frame.

William T. Williams, American born 1942.  A private collection exhibited at the Baltimore Museum in 2019







Gene Davis, 1971, acrylic on canvas. 

Gene Davis, 1920-1985, American.  Solomon R. Guggenheim, NY 

Narrow strips of colour applied freehand.  The colours merge when you are at a distance from the painting.







Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1972, acrylic on canvas.  Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, American. 

Private collection on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in 2019 

Despite her technique, Alma Thomas, based in Washington DC,  is considered an integral member of the Colour Field ‘movement’.  She used short, uneven brushstrokes on primed canvas to achieve these effects.  She observed and recorded the effect of light on nature.  








April Contemplating May, 1972, acrylic on canvas. 

Kay WalkingStick, American, Cherokee Nation, born 1932.  Whitney Museum of (North) American Art







Earth Signs, 1973, acrylic on canvas. 

Edward Clarke, 1926-2019, American.  Private collection on display at the Baltimore Museum in 2018







Poured Orange Blue, mid-1970s, acrylic on canvas.

Murray Dressner, 1934-2012.  Woodmere Museum of Art, Philadelphia.


The artist, a Philadelphia painter, mixed his own paint.  He combined pigment with latex media.  This he poured onto canvases laid on the floor.








This all said, a prime exponent of Abstract Expressionism and a very great colourist, Mark Rothko, refused to be associated with the label Colour Field.

In 1956, he said:   


“I am not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. …


“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on —……….


“And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!” 


I am with the sense of these words: 




Green and Maroon, 1953, oil on canvas. 

Mark Rothko, American born Russia now Latvia.  The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC



We do not see colour in the way that Colour Field artists represent colours:




Detail of Green and Maroon, 1953, oil on canvas. 

Mark Rothko,1903-1970, American born Russia now Latvia.  The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC



floating over the void and falling off the edge of the world, as it were, in disembodied form.


We would not see anything without colour.  What we see is colour embodied:  beginning here and ending there; and defining everything we see, touch, ingest.  



Orange and Red on Red, 1957, oil on canvas.

Mark Rothko,1903-1970, American born Russia now Latvia.  The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC





The Rothko room at the Philips Collection is small.  It is saturated with the colour of his paintings of which there is one on each wall. People linger there quite a while.



Playing with this in-the-world-embodiment may be an intellectually stimulating venture.  But it tends to evacuate the world of its luscious content and deprive us of the sensation of being alive to witness it.  




No 5/No. 22, 1950 (1949 on the reverse), oil on canvas.

Mark Rothko,1903-1970, American born Russia now Latvia.  MOMA, NY



Unlike Mark Rothko’s colour panels (‘multiforms’), often there is nothing there there in Colour Field work beyond the eye-catching colours.





No 5/No. 22, 1950 (1949 on the reverse), oil on canvas.

Mark Rothko,1903-1970, American born Russia now Latvia.  MOMA, NY



Which is not to say that the Colour Field artists did not do yeoman work in breaking the vice grip of the Abstract Expressionists on the workings of the American art world.





Detail of No 5/No. 22, 1950 (1949 on the reverse), oil on canvas.

Mark Rothko,1903-1970, American born Russia now Latvia.  MOMA, NY



A healthy number of women and African Americans took to the experimentation of Colour Fields and moved on to work where there is, perhaps, a solid there.









12 thoughts on “1. COLOUR: Colour Field

  1. I may be painting with too broad a brush but I sometimes wonder why certain paintings that have been liberated from figuration have been given a title, or need one. ( As much fun as the titles may be.)

  2. There is a school of thought which says that all abstraction arises from figuration and is linked to some form which can be named. I am not sure if this is the case with Colour Field because the artists appear to be fleeing figuration as were the Abstract Expressionists.

    Jackson Pollock, as an example, is on record as having said that sometimes there was less figuration in his paintings and sometimes more and that he knew this would befuddle the critics.

    Sometimes, I think it is about making the painting palatable to an audience and to buyers.

    Sometimes because a title presented itself during or after the painting was completed, perhaps.


  3. At face value it seems to be a contradiction in certain cases. But I wouldn’t presume to judge anyone’s creative efforts, or burden an artist with my views. Thank you for a superb presentation.

  4. Thank you for reading and for your comment.

    I think that it takes a detailed review of an artist’s trajectory to know the sources and meanings of their titles.

    I was quite affected by the fact that Norman Lewis,an artist who painted both figuratively and in the Abstract Expressionist mode, did not have names for many of his paintings. I was affected because this appears to have been related to the fact that this artist was not (widely) critically or commercially as successful as his peers primarily, I have no doubt, because he was an African American. Even though he was an Abstract Expressionist at the first hour.

    He did not need to name his individual works and nobody else was calling for this, either.

    But maybe I am wrong. Sarah

  5. I discovered your ( this ) post because I was seeking anyone’s input about Barnett Newman. I was curious about him mainly ( aside from his actual work ) due to a misquoted quip that, as I heard it, was misattributed to Ellsworth Kelly. It went like this: “Critics are to artists what ornithologists are to birds”. Pretty good. But the actual quote belongs to Barnett Newman : ” Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to birds.” That could also be a misquote. You can’t trust hearsay. All that may be old news to you; maybe not. But they both seem pretty rich and worth passing along to an art lover. Personally, for what it’s worth, I prefer the first one.
    Next, I will be investigating Norman Lewis and reading more of your work here too.
    Oh, and yes, I know that racism and the considerations of class, connections, and money in the art world have crushed many worthy creative souls. ( Maybe the trick is not to care about recognition and reward. That would really be “Art for Art’s sake.” A true artist can be as untitled as a painting and still be “royalty”. )
    Alright- I’m getting carried away so…
    Many thanks Sarah.

    1. Thanks for your further comment!

      I have seen one of Barnett Newman’s works at the National Gallery in Washington, DC and then a few more at MOMA, NY. For reasons not clear to me, I have never seen an exhibition of his work and have no even half-way coherent view of it.

      Critics are really a difficult case. I can see that they have a role in pursuing and clarifying what an artist does. But in short order this transfers to a form of influence over the artist which is difficult to take. It is Clement Greenberg, after all, who ‘made’ the Abstract Expressionists what they became and it is the malign aspect of his influence which ended up permitting the persecution of the greatest of the Abstract Expressionist apostates: Philip Guston. He fled NY to live in Woodstock, NY. He never returned to NY all because he wasnted to abandon the principles of Abstract Expressionism and return to ‘telling stories’.

      Today more than ever, with the work of prized artists going for so much money, artists seem to be playing a nefarious role.

      Class, gender and race are the bane of our lives and those of artists, as you say. Class is, of course, a tricky one, because whence did Jackson Pollock come?

      I think the trick is three-fold: artists need to be consistent spokespeople and presenters of their own work no matter if this takes time and secondly, they have to not care about recognition. And thirdly, they need to manage the reward system as thoughtfully as they can. One example is, I suppose, the African-American conceptual artist, David Hammons. He has always controlled his own agenda. He is represented by nobody but himself. He sells his own work at prices that he sets. His work has frequently been incendiary in subject matter and it goes for a lot of money. Started out poor.

      Another example – and I have a blog about him – is the Romanian-American, Viorel Farcas who lives in Philadelphia.

      He is a sculptor (bronze). (During the pandemic, he has made sculpture in wood, also). He sculpts. He does not sell his work. He shows it to people who are interested. He hopes to house them all for public viewing one day. He says that he is most interested in what people think of their work and little interested in proposing ‘meaning’ or anything like that. He simply sculpts and his work is of the first water.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Sarah

      1. I don’t want to become tedious or wear out my welcome here by hogging your comments section. So at this point I just wish to say that from what I have seen so far, as time allows, your posts are vital to my education and appreciation of the visual arts, and deepen my understanding of the role of the black artist (and others ) in the cultural landscape, (Sounds so trite. Forgive me) as well as being beautifully presented.
        I want to tell you that seeing the paintings of Philip Guston for the first time, and now the sculptures of Jack Whitten as you have presented them in your piece here are two experiences that I will never forget. I was floored.

      2. Please don’t worry about taking up comment space!

        Just to say thank you for your appreciative commentary. And two other points.

        I am not a professional in any part of the art universe and so everything is merely the opinion of one layperson who has long frequented musuems and who believes that artists – of all kinds – often have insights of the greatest value to the living of our lives. And that in art and artisanship is the flourishing of our spiritual lives and the renovation of our cultural of our civilizations!

        Also, you may find these well-researched blog sites of some years standing now by people who are passionate about art which interests them of interest to you.

        I hope you continue your own work and look forward to following your blog. Sarah

      3. Thanks Sarah.
        I’m new to WordPress and truth to tell not very proud of my first efforts. If you view my first post please read the last section first ( titled: Pre-emptive comments ) in which I attempt to demonstrate that artists and writers may create images or ideas that they do not themselves endorse. Picasso has noted that his disturbing images are a form of exorcism and I hope that you will view the post with the same leniency. Otherwise you may hate me.

  6. Just to let you know, I tore down my post but will try again with images that are less likely to make me appear as a mere peddler of soft porn. But isn’t a great deal of the subject matter of the art by the great masters also calculated to appeal to our baser tendencies? I’m not excusing or denying those elements in myself, but don’t wish to broadcast them if I feel that they will preclude anyone from pursuing an investigation of my more serious and worthy efforts.

    1. I see that you have torn down your blog………

      I think that artists make art for many reasons but that good art bears being made, no matter the subject matter.

      That said, I do think that artists need to recall that they are operating in a known moral order and that in that order, they should consider if some of their work should be held private because we have not yet come to a time of full equality. And may never reach that point.

      There is an imbalance of power in our world and to add to that imbalance seems very dubious to me.

      Best wishes………Sarah

      1. Well, I’m not sure if the blog added to the imbalance ( if it did it was unintended ) but I am sure that the imagery was in bad taste and quite juvenile. It was an experiment that failed and is best removed from view.
        I was afraid that I had lost whatever favorable opinion I might have established with you.
        Please take a look at the new blog. I hope that it will help to rub off the stain on my creative reputation and self respect.
        Thank you for reply. And thanks for your lovely posts.
        – Philip

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