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Washington Color School

Washington Color School Collage

Started: 1958

Ended: 1980

"I do open paintings. I like lightness, airiness, and the way color pulsates. The presence of the painting is all that's important."

Kenneth Noland Signature

Summary of Washington Color School

In the latter half of the 1950s, Washington D.C. saw a flourishing of abstract art that emphasized the form-making capabilities of pure color. Known as The Washington Color School, the loosely affiliated group of abstract painters knew each other through various teaching experiences. The moniker has an uncertain origin but likely originated with the title of a 1965 exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, "Washington Color Painters," curated by Gerald Nordland. The show exhibited the works of Kenneth Noland, Paul Reed, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, and Gene Davis. Additionally, Leon Berkowitz and Sam Gilliam along with V.V. Rankine, Alma Thomas, Hilda Thorpe and Anne Truitt were also associated with The School.

Using innovative techniques that expanded on Abstract Expressionist experiments with color and paint application, the Washington Color School created deceptively simple compositions that evoked dynamism and tension. Championed by the art critic Clement Greenberg as part of the larger trend of Post-Painterly Abstraction, the work of the group was seen as the culmination of modernist painting, with its emphasis on the two-dimensional surface of the picture plane and its lack of reference to any subject matter. The Washington Color School embraced the larger trend of Color Field painting, and some of its practitioners experimented with Hard Edge painting as well. In many ways, these D.C. artists anticipated the style of Minimalism and then evolved alongside it, and the teaching legacy of the Washington Color School left its mark on a generation of artists in Washington. While many saw these experiments as a way of moving out of and beyond Abstract Expressionism, others saw them as a formal dead end and divorced from the tumultuous atmosphere of the 1960s.

Key Ideas

The Washington Color School used color, and not drawing, to create and delineate simple geometric forms. They often spoke of wanting to put pure color on the canvas to create an immediate, all at once, visual experience for the viewer. This optical experience became more important than conveying subject matter.
Many of the artists associated with the Washington Color School used a soak stain technique whereby thinned acrylic paint saturates the raw canvas. Instead of sitting on top of the canvas, the color becomes one with the canvas. Without the physical layers of paint, this technique emphasizes the two-dimensional nature of the picture plane, which according to Clement Greenberg was one of the main goals of modernist painting.
As part of the larger trend of Color Field painting, The Washington Color School shunned the histrionic personas that had grown up around the Abstract Expressionist artists. Instead, the execution of their paintings were more anonymous, without the gestural presence of the artist. In downplaying the presence of the artist, the viewer's experience comes more to the fore. This switch in emphasis from the artist to the viewer was in line with other artistic experiments of the 1960s, including Happenings and Minimalism.
Washington Color School Image


The Washington Color School evolved from the Abstract Expressionist experiments with color and all-over composition. Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, sometimes referred to as Color Field painters, created bold compositions with large expanses of color. Clyfford Still created canvases with jagged areas of impasto color applied with a palette knife, and Newman punctuated large fields of color with vertical lines he called "zips". Rothko's vertically formatted canvases juxtapose rectangular areas of color that seem to float on the canvas. While the Washington Color School developed the techniques used by the Abstract Expressionists and adopted the new technique of staining, the artists tended to eschew the emotional and dramatic rhetoric used by the older generation.

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