Post-Painterly Abstraction - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Post-Painterly Abstraction
In 1964, critic Clement Greenberg was recruited by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to curate an exhibition devoted to young abstractionists. He was a natural choice to curate such a show, as by the late 1950s he had a prominent reputation as a defender of contemporary abstract art. Greenberg called the exhibition Post-Painterly Abstraction, although in the essay he wrote for the exhibition catalog he never actually referred to the style by name. Instead, he defined it by what it was not - "painterly abstraction," or the style of the Abstract Expressionists.
Greenberg selected several East coast-based artists whose work he was already familiar with, such as Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. As for the Bay Area artists, such as John Ferren and Sam Francis, debate continues as to who exactly selected them for the exhibition. While some credit James Elliott, a curator at the L.A. County Museum, the original exhibition catalog indicated that Greenberg was taken to see several works in California by Fred Martin of the San Francisco Art Association.
There was a total of 31 artists selected for Post-Painterly Abstraction, and each of them was represented by three paintings apiece, most of which were made between 1960 and 1964. All of the artists were either natives of the USA or Canada.
Post-Painterly Abstraction: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Greenberg borrowed from the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in devising the term post-painterly abstraction. Wolfflin had popularized the term "painterly" to describe characteristics of the Baroque, which separated it from classical, or Renaissance art. Greenberg believed that abstract painting had evolved amidst a trend towards "painterly" painting, but had swung back towards cleaner composition and sharper forms in the 1920s and 1930s, under the influence of Mondrian, Synthetic Cubism, and the Bauhaus. Abstract Expressionism marked another swing towards the painterly, and the inevitable reaction against it was away from it once again - though Greenberg emphasized that post-painterly abstraction was not a return to the past.
Although many artists associated with the tendency worked with clean lines and clearly defined forms (such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Al Held), others explored softer forms. Helen Frankenthaler, for example, became well known for soaking paint into untreated canvas, which created a visual effect of color opening up the canvas. Rather than working up the paint into a rich texture on the surface of the canvas, as many artists of the previous generation had done, she allowed paint to seep into the canvas itself, creating a vibrant and utterly flat visual plane. Other post-painterly artists, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski, picked up on Frankenthaler's soaking technique to create a variety of color field paintings of their own unique design.
Later Developments - After Post-Painterly Abstraction
In June 1965, an exhibition took place at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington, D.C., called Washington Color Painters. Included in the show were many of the artists who had participated in Post-Painterly Abstraction in Los Angeles the previous year. They included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Gene Davis, and Thomas Downing. This exhibit marked the official beginning of what became known as the Washington Color School, which was in many respects a sub-movement of color field painting. The Washington painters created minimalist canvases composed of stripes, thin bands of alternating colors, and geometric shapes.
In November of 1966, in the pages of Artforum, critic Michael Fried published the essay, "Shape as Form: Frank Stella's New Paintings." In it he referred to the recent works of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski - all in addition to Stella's work - as a "new illusionism." The importance of this, according to Fried, was the difference between literal and depicted shape. The old standard of abstract painting, or the "old illusionism," was for the artist to take a basic square or rectangular canvas support and use that template to depict whatever they pleased. What artists like Stella and Noland had achieved, according to Fried, was the complete transformation of paintings' literal form. By using oddly-shaped, oblong, and asymmetrical canvases, they had made the form of the painting and the shape of the canvas synonymous things. Therefore this "new illusionism" marked the advent of the shaped canvas, as a singularly modern invention.