Washington Color School - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Washington Color School
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.
Kenneth Noland, as a teacher and artist, became the center of what was to become the Washington Color School. After serving in World War II, Noland took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at Black Mountain College, the storied avant-garde school, where he studied with Josef Albers and Ilya Bolotowsky and was introduced to the paintings of Piet Mondrian. After a year in Paris, Noland began teaching at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington, D.C. In 1950, he returned to Black Mountain College for the summer session where he met Clement Greenberg, the outspoken critic who championed Abstract Expressionism, who was also to play a prominent role in shaping and promoting the Washington Color School.
After his return to D.C., Noland continued teaching at Catholic University, where his students included Thomas Downing and Howard Mehring, and at the Washington Workshop Center for the Art, where he met and befriended Morris Louis in 1952. The two became close colleagues, and their subsequent collaborative efforts and explorations of the new "soak stain" technique advanced the development of the Washington Color School style.
Helen Frankenthaler and The “Soak Stain”
The criticism of Clement Greenberg and the work of Helen Frankenthaler were primary influences in the development of the Washington Color School. In 1953 Noland and Louis visited Greenberg in New York City, and he took them to Frankenthaler's studio, where they saw her newly finished Mountains and Sea (1952), a painting that launched her career when it was exhibited. Greenberg felt that Frankenthaler's work pushed beyond Abstract Expressionism in new and productive ways.
Frankenthaler uniquely transformed Jackson Pollock's method of pouring paint onto the canvas while it was on the floor. Her "soak stain" technique involved pouring oil paint thinned with turpentine directly onto the unprepared canvas. The color would then be absorbed, merging with the canvas, creating a luminous effect, like a halo or penumbra. With this process, Frankenthaler managed to make oil paint look like water color. Louis and Noland enthusiastically adopted the technique, and, returning home, they began to experiment, working together on the same painting, thinning paint to watercolor consistency and applying it to raw canvas. As Noland said of the process "Thin it, use it in the same way as dye. Thinness reveals color."
First Works: Veils and Circles
Unfortunately, none of the collaborative works that Noland and Louis created in their early experimentation with the soak stain technique remain, yet they each began to explore and apply related techniques at the time. Louis created a number of paintings that were described as "veils," or sometimes "florals." like Iris (1954). By 1956 Noland was creating "proto-circles," like Globe (1956), showing an irregular circle, reminiscent of an organic form. In these early works, Noland and Louis experiment with creating form with color and without delineations; that is to say, the forms created by the soft color abut one another without being outlined or otherwise differentiated.
Hard Edge Painting
In the 1950s, the works of both Louis and Noland evolved toward more definition, using regularized shapes, or hard edge simple geometric forms, with clean straight lines. Noland's proto-circles became simplified concentric circles like Beginning (1958). Louis's paintings were never as hard-edged as Noland's, but beginning around the year 1960, his poured color areas became more like delineated stripes with their edges less blurred, as in Where (1960).
Extensively connected to the New York City artistic community, the artists of the Washington group were familiar with Frank Stella's innovative Black Paintings (1959), canvases with parallel black stripes separated by thin exposures of bare canvas. Subsequently in the 1960s, the movement toward regularization and hard edge geometric shape gained impetus among the Washington School painters, as seen in works like Noland's Shoot (1964), Gene Davis' Hot Beat (1964) and Paul Reed's #1D (1965).
Post-Painterly Abstraction - 1964
In 1964 Greenberg curated an exhibition, Post-Painterly Abstraction at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which helped publicly launch the Washington Color School. Greenberg included paintings by Noland, Louis, Howard Mehring, Gene Davis, and Thomas Downing, along with painters associated with other movements like hard-edge abstraction and Color Field painting. Greenberg felt a painting's formal and non-subjective qualities were most important and sufficient to appreciate the work. In his accompanying catalogue, he did not so much define Post-Painterly Abstraction as posit that it was not the "painterly abstraction" of the Abstract Expressionists that had emphasized the gesture and the use of thick oil paints. As a result of Greenberg's exhibition and critical writing, Washington Color School Painting was seen as one of the primary trends in the new wave of abstraction.
Washington Color School: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
The Shaped Canvas
In the 1960s, a number of New York artists, including Frank Stella, were exploring the shaped canvas to emphasize the painting as an object inhabiting space. Among the Washington Color School, Thomas Downing, Paul Reed, Gene Davis, and Kenneth Noland all created a variety of works employing a shaped canvas. Davis experimented with the idea as early as 1952 when he had a lumberyard cut his Masonite panels into other shapes, but the compositions of those canvases had more in common with Abstract Expressionist surfaces, being built up with gravel to create texture and sculptural depth. In 1962, he was to return to the idea of a shaped canvas in works like Wall Stripes No. 3 (1962), in which seven differently colored stripe canvases were arranged horizontally on a wall, one on top of the other with a fixed distance between each.
The artist who most consistently focused on the shaped canvas was Paul Reed, as he built upon his earlier Satellite (1963) series that incorporated the wall into the pictorial space. Described by the art critic Barbara Rose as "checks of color unfurling in Arp-like shapes," the Satellite series consisted of a spinning organic shape on a large canvas with a "satellite," a smaller canvas with a related form and color precisely placed near it. Subsequently Reed began to explore further shaped canvases in series like Emerging, Topeka, Hackensack, and Zig-Fields, all painted in 1967. Other series were to follow, as he used more radical shapes, as shown in his Barcelona series (1968-1969)
Also, in 1965-1966 Thomas Downing employed his dot motifs in parallelograms and subsequently made works like Troll (1967), a complex shape that depicts two chevrons in a bended shape. Kenneth Noland first began using a diamond shaped canvas in 1964, as he turned his square canvas at a diagonal, perhaps influenced by Piet Mondrian's use of the diamond shaped canvas in the 1920s. In the 1970s Noland again took up the form, only using more complex shaped canvases, as shown in his Vault (1977), a painting that becomes a sculptural object.
Several Washington Color School artists explored the potentialities of color within sculpture. Experimenting in a variety of media, Helen Thorpe used gauze, balsa wood, glass, clay and metal, and included found objects in her pieces. Her most well-known works were her sculptures using handmade paper, like Edged Blue (1963). In the later 1960s, Paul Reed explored welded steel sculptures like Step (1966) that drew upon the clean line, geometric complexity, and modularity of his paintings.
Anne Truitt, however, was the only major sculptor associated with the school. Her artistic breakthrough in the early 1960s was influenced by the works of Color Field painters like Barnett Newman, as she saw the primacy of color could allow her new possibilities of expression. She said, "What is important to me is not geometrical shape per se, or color per se, but to make a relationship between shape and color which feels to me like my experience. To make what feels to me like reality." Living in Washington, D.C., her works were often shown at Pyramid Gallery, though she remained a more peripheral member of the group, in part out of her own individualistic approach. Despite Helen Frankenthaler's recognized role in the shaping of the Washington Color School, Truitt still had to negotiate the gender assumptions of the group, as Noland and Greenberg, in advancing her first solo exhibition in 1963, referred to her as "the gentle wife of James Truitt" and encouraged her to conceal her gender by dropping her first name. Her sculpture emphasized basic geometric forms, often a vertical rectangle made of wood, and a reductive color palette, as seen in works like Insurrection (1962).
Draped Paintings and Installations
In 1965, Sam Gilliam, a second generation Washington Color School painter who had studied with Thomas Downing, decided to set the canvas free of its frame. Soak staining twenty-foot long pieces of canvas, then twisting, folding, and shaping them before suspending them, he created works like Relative (1968) in which a vibrantly color soaked canvas hangs from a wall at four points, creating triangular shapes at the point of suspension and vertical lines of movement. Inventing this technique, he fundamentally redefined the relationship of the painting to space.
Installation work among the Washington Color School was primarily done by Gene Davis, as his stripe paintings were painted on streets and the steps of notable buildings. Davis painted 414 feet of the street leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's in his Franklin's Footpath (1972). Later, in 1987, 8th Street NW in Washington D.C. was painted in color stripes in honor of Davis and the installation was recreated in Washington D.C. again in 2007.
Davis also created other installations employing different media, like his Sun Sonata (1983), a solar panel of color striped neon tubes installed outside Muscarelle Museum of Art in Virginia. Both his light installations and his stripe paintings in public spaces enlarged the scope of the Washington Color School art by making it part of cultural consciousness.
Later Developments - After Washington Color School
The Washington Color School's geometric, flat paintings and the sculpture of Anne Truitt influenced the development of Minimalism. As art historian James Meyer noted, Truitt's work also anticipated the work of Roni Horn and Félix González-Torres in the post-1990s. During the 1980s Neo Geo movement ironically reinterpreted the Washington Color School's geometrical compositions. Noland and other painters associated with the group influenced subsequent generations of abstract artists in the Washington, D.C. area, both by the presence of their work and their teaching. Contemporary artist, Mark Dagley acknowledges being "heavily influenced" by Noland, whom he called "one of the last great colorists of the 20th century." In 2000, curator Rita Bartolo said that Hilda Thorpe had "probably taught half of the artists working in the city right now."
Some of the Washington Color School artists fell into obscurity in the 1980s but have since been rediscovered. In 2007, a citywide event celebrating Color Field painting was held in Washington, D.C., and subsequently, the Washington Color School Project was created to promote the work of the group in 2011. Several of Alma Thomas's works were prominently displayed in the White House during the Barack Obama administration. Sam Gilliam's work has also risen to contemporary prominence and was featured at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
Gene Davis's work has had a long lasting artistic and cultural impact, as shown in the installation of his Sun Sonata (1983). Installed in 2008 on the William and Mary campus as the first "light painting" on campus, the university created an event where students would take silhouette shots in front of it. Contemporary artists Dan Cole and Polly Apfelbaum paired up for an exhibition For Love of Gene Davis in 2014 in Philadelphia, in which both explored their debts to Davis; Apfelbaum in her installation and Cole in his videos.