Color Field Painting
Summary of Color Field Painting
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 than mythic content.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Color Field Painting emerged out of the attempts of several artists in the late 1940s to devise a modern, mythic art. Seeking to connect with the primordial emotions locked in ancient myths, rather than the symbols themselves, they sought a new style that would do away with any suggestion of illustration.
- The style was championed most enthusiastically by critic Clement Greenberg, who acclaimed the advances it achieved in the realm of form and composition. Bemoaning what he saw as the increasingly imitative, academic qualities of some action painters, he argued that Color Field Painting represented the way forward. His advocacy of the style proved highly influential.
- Color Field Painting marks a major development in abstract painting, since it was the first style to resolutely avoid the suggestion of a form or mass standing out against a background. Instead, figure and ground are one, and the space of the picture, conceived as a field, seems to spread out beyond the edges of the canvas.
Overview of Color Field Painting
Saying "A painter is a choreographer of space," Barnett Newman invented what he called the "zip," a band of vertical color. As a result, he added to the Color Field Painting movement a new way to experience space.
Important Art and Artists of Color Field Painting
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 examplary work 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.
Although Rothko never considered himself a Color Field painter, his signature approach - balancing large portions of washed colors - matches up to critics' understanding of the style. Rothko considered color to be a mere instrument that served a greater purpose. He believed his fields of color were spiritual planes that could tap into our most basic human emotions. For Rothko, color evoked emotion. Therefore each of Rothko's works was intended to evoke different meanings depending on the viewer. In the time No. 2, Green, Red and Blue was made, Rothko was still using lighter tones, but as more years passed and Rothko's mental health increasingly declined, his Color Fields were constituted by somber blacks, blues, and grays.
Helen Frankenthaler played a crucial role in the evolution of Color Field Painting. Some time in or around 1952, Clement Greenberg invited Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland to pay a visit to Frankenthaler's studio in order to witness her technique of staining untreated canvas with paint. This seminal moment marked a turning point for Abstract Expressionism, and soon this new group of artists were simplifying the painting process by applying large bands (or waves, circles, lines, etc.) of uniform color to the canvas, and Color Field Painting advanced further.
Useful Resources on Color Field Painting
- Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975Our PickBy Karen Wilkin, Carl Belz
- Colourfield Painting: Minimal, Cool, Hard Edge, Serial and Post-Painterly Abstract Art of the Sixties to the PresentBy Stuart Morris
- The Shape of Color: Excursions in Color Field Art, 1950-2005By Christian Eckart, Mark Cheetham, Sarah Rich, Raphael Rubinstein, Robert Hobbs, David Moos, Polly Apfelbaum, Mary Heilmann, Peter Halley, Matthew Teitelbaum
- Abstract ExpressionismBy Barbara Hess / Introduction to Color Field Painting within the Context of Abstract Expressionism
- Abstract ExpressionismBy Katy Siegel, Lillian Davies, Pauline Pobocha / Comprehensive Overview of the Abstract Expressionist Movement
- Art and CultureBy Clement Greenberg / Includes Clement Greenberg's Major Theoretical Essays, Including 'American-Type Painting' on the Color Field Artists
- Color FieldsFeatures Images and Publications from the Deutsche Guggenheim Exhibition "Color Fields"
- Color As Field: American PaintingOur PickSlideshow of Color Field paintings from the Smithsonian Exhibition "Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975"
- Post-Painterly AbstractionFeatures Catalogue for the Exhibition "Post-Painterly Abstraction"
- Washington Color School ProjectIncludes Information and Resources on the Washington Color School