Color Field Painting - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Color Field Painting
Rothko, Newman, and Still were all independently moving in the direction of color field abstraction in the late 1940s. Still is generally acknowledged as having achieved it first with a series of paintings he exhibited in 1947, but Newman was also important in making early theoretical contributions to the style. In the same year he organized an exhibition for Betty Parsons Gallery entitled The Ideographic Picture, which gathered together artists such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Hans Hofmann, and pointed to the development in recent American art of a "modern counterpart of the primitive art impulse." It was summed up in the concept of the ideograph, which he described - quoting a dictionary - as a "character, symbol or figure which suggests the idea of an object without expressing its name." Newman was searching for an abstract art that might do away with all figurative or quasi-figurative motifs. An abstract form could be a "living thing," he wrote in the exhibition's influential catalogue essay, "a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex." It would be more real and present than a form that was merely abstracted from nature or an object.
The fruitful directions that Newman, Rothko, and Still were traveling in meant that by the late 1940s Abstract Expressionism was starting to split into two divergent tendencies - Color Field Painting and gesture painting. It was not until the 1950s, however, that this formal split was widely recognized by critics.
Color Field Painting: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Although Still, Rothko, and Newman all developed different understandings of the content of their work, Newman put forth the most well known interpretation in his essay 'The Sublime is Now' (1948). It drew on the 18th century aesthetics of Edmund Burke to put forward a notion that only the sublime was appropriate to a modern age gripped by the terror of war and the threat of the bomb. European art had always striven towards the beautiful, he argued, but it was now time to abandon that search.
Clement Greenberg was perhaps the first to identify and celebrate the emergence of Color Field Painting. He did the most to explore it in his 1955 essay, 'American-Type Painting,' in which he argued that the style advanced a tendency in modern painting to apply color in large areas or 'fields.' He considered this particularly important since it returned to what he saw as one of the most important innovations of the Impressionists - the suppression of value contrasts (contrasts of light and dark hues), to describe depth and volume. Many Abstract Expressionists adopted an "all-over" approach to composition - approaching the canvas as a field, rather than as a window in which to depict figures - but none pushed this as far as the color field painters.
Later Developments - After Color Field Painting
By the late 1950s, a new generation of color field painters was emerging. Inspired in part by the stained abstractions of Helen Frankenthaler, and by Greenberg's criticism, the new group included artists such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski. These artists were more formalist in their concerns than the Abstract Expressionists had been, often more unashamedly decorative, and certainly less darkly metaphysical. By pouring oil and acrylic paints onto unprimed canvas, artists such as Frankenthaler allowed their pigments to soak into the canvas rather than to rest on top of it (as was the case with Willem de Kooning, whose paints actually rise up into small mountainous heaps on the canvas). This technique gave their paintings a uniformity of color and a sense of even, flat consistency, as well as a feathery, ephemeral dreaminess.
As the 1960s commenced, artists who Clement Greenberg categorized as Post-painterly abstractionists were among the most prominent color field painters. Morris Louis was creating work that contained a degree of symmetry, rendered by pouring paint in broad bands across the surface of the canvas. Kenneth Noland was painting his bold geometric shapes - targets and chevrons, mostly - and beginning to experiment with shaped canvases. And painters such as Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held were also described as late color field painters, even though their work was also often associated with 'hard edge abstraction.'