Colour 1. Colour Field

 

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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