All You Need to Know About Color Field Painting

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Ready for a rollercoaster ride through the world of color field painting? Strap yourself in, it’s going to be a long and wild ride! This article will explore all you need to know about this art movement, its development throughout history, and its most prominent artists.

A New Art Movement

Imagine a collision of monumental proportions: popular culture, history, technology, politics and art coming together to form the mother of all movements! This involves fast-moving political and cultural change in America in the 1950s and 1960s, where the horrible carnage of World War II was still reverberating; it involves Abstract Expressionists handling paint in new ways; it involves the discovery of acrylic paint which doesn’t bleed or pool the way oil paint does. Mix all that up, and what do we get? An art movement called color field painting: huge, abstract blocks of mind-blowing color that can make you weep or laugh out loud—paintings with direct access to your sub-conscious mind and emotions.

Hans Hoffman, Summer, 1965, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. color field painting
Hans Hoffman, Summer, 1965, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Pure Abstraction

Color field painting is ideal for the art beginner. You don’t have to worry about “getting it.” You don’t need an art degree under your belt. All you need are your eyes and your emotions – it is purely about the sheer beauty of the canvas and the impact of the color on your senses.

This is pure abstraction: no myth, no religion, no symbols, no subject matter, no figures. Utterly modern and minimalist. With a color field painting, you are directly plugged in to the transcendental. When you stand before such a work you are enveloped, consumed, overwhelmed. The painting isn’t a window into a world, it is a world in itself.

“A painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”

Mark Rothko quoted by Dorothy Seiberling in Mark Rothko, “LIFE Magazine,” 16 November 1959, p. 82.
Mark Rothko, Orange and Tan, 1954, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. color field painting
Mark Rothko, Orange and Tan, 1954, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

New York

It really all began in the late 1940s. New York artists set out on an exploration to find a painting style that allowed them to express a sense of the sublime in a purely abstract sense. So these art pioneers came up with monolithic canvases of saturated color. It may appear simple or effortless, but it is far from that! There is nowhere to hide in the color field—no people, no flowers, no mountains, just pure pigment.

“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on […] and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions.”

Mark Rothko quoted by Jacob Baal-Teshuva in Mark Rothko, 1903–1970: Pictures as Drama, New York, 2003. p. 50.
Mark Rothko in his studio.
Mark Rothko in his studio. WikiArt.

Post-Painterly Abstraction

Color field painting as a term was coined in the mid-1950s by the American art critic Clement Greenberg. Later, in 1964, he mounted a major exhibition for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art called post-painterly abstraction. The exhibition was dominated by large-scale canvases with a minimum of surface details and saturated with vast expanses of flat colour. Greenberg claimed that this work represented the next inevitable step in the evolution of modern art.

“We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful… The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.”

Barnett Newman quoted by Landau, E. G. in Reading Abstract Expressionism, New Haven & London, 2005, p. 139.
Barnett Newman, Adam, 1951-52, Tate, London, UK. color field painting
Barnett Newman, Adam, 1951-52, Tate, London, UK.

Color Field Roots

Where did color field painting come from? Perhaps Claude Monet’s huge Water Lilies canvases come to mind. But think also of artists like Henri Matisse and Joan Miró, who were creating huge canvases of expressive color, containing loose figurative drawings or outlines. Richard Diebenkorn was blown away by Matisse’s paintings from 1914, which he first saw in America in 1966. Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series of paintings are believed to have been hugely influenced by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, and View of Notre-Dame.

Henri Matisse, French Window At Collioure, 1914, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France. color field painting
Henri Matisse, French Window At Collioure, 1914, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France.
Color Field, Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park 30, 1970 color field painting
Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park No. 30, 1970, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Clyfford Still

Now we know a little about color field art, let’s get on and take a look at some of its foremost artists. We’ll start with Clyfford Still. He is believed by many to be the first artist to arrive at the abstract style of color field painting, exhibiting first in 1947. His powerful compositions juxtapose jagged flashed of colour contrasting with a thick textured surface. Of his paintings, he said:

“They are life and death merging in fearful union.”

Clyfford Still quoted in a catalogue entry. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Clyfford Still, PH-129, 1949, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO, USA. color field painting
Clyfford Still, PH-129, 1949, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver, CO, USA.

Mark Rothko

Perhaps the most well-known of all the artists discussed here, Mark Rothko is famous for his giant rectangular canvases featuring huge blocks of pure hues, hovering over coloured backgrounds. Born in Russia as Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, he emigrated to America at age 10. Rothko did not officially align himself with the term color field painting, but, like his contemporaries, he believed color could tap into our innermost emotions, our biggest emotions. He recommended viewers to position themselves just 18 inches (ca. 46 cm) away from the canvas, so that they might experience a true sense of intimacy with it!

In 1958, in an address to a private university, he gave students his “art formula.” He said all great art must contain the following ingredients: a preoccupation with death, an acknowledgement of human sensuality, tension, a healthy dose of irony, wit and playfulness, the element of chance, and a tiny bit of hope, to make the tragedy of life bearable. Rothko killed himself in his studio in 1970.

Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black, 1957, Tate, London, UK. color field painting
Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black, 1957, Tate, London, UK.

Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman was a lesser-known painter who called himself a choreographer of space. His purely coloured works were banded with vertical or horizontal stripes, which he called “the zip.” He thought of the zip as a flash of cosmic light. Newman’s paintings were on a grand scale and with them he attempted to completely envelop the viewer in vibrant hues.

Barnett Newman, Canto VII, 1963-64, Tate, London, UK. color field painting
Barnett Newman, Canto VII, 1963-64, Tate, London, UK.

Helen Frankenthaler

From the 1960s we see color field painting moving on. One of the brightest later stars was Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler’s paintings made surface and color inseparable. Called “soak stain paintings,” her method was deceptively simple – she would soak an unprimed canvas with thin washes of color pigment, diluted with turpentine. As it dried, it created misty, cloudy fields of color. She continued to experiment with color and printing techniques throughout a career that lasted six decades.

Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, USA. color field painting
Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, USA.

Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland was known for his simplified abstract forms, including circles, chevrons, and stripes. These shapes were not intended to depict an object however – they were solely a means of exploring pure color. The colors may complement each other, or contrast sharply with each other, creating an image that seems to vibrate on the canvas.

Kenneth Noland, Drought, 1962, Tate, London, UK.color field painting
Kenneth Noland, Drought, 1962, Tate, London, UK.

Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas, an African American painter, only began to paint seriously after her retirement from teaching, when she was in her 60s. Despite her late start, her luminous, exuberant canvases soon placed her as a key figure in the color field painting pantheon. This success was achieved in spite of the prejudice faced by a black woman in 1960s America. It is thought that she was the first black woman to achieve a bachelor’s degree in art.

Alma Thomas, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA. color field painting
Alma Thomas, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA.

Morris Louis

Morris Louis Bernstein (he later dropped the surname), would pour viscous lines of multi-coloured paint directly onto canvases to create rainbow effects. Like Noland, he sometimes used a target shape to examine different hues and values of flat color. He pioneered the use of Magna paint, a new oil-based acrylic, and later moved on to the soak-stain painting style, first seen in the studio of Helen Frankenthaler.

Morris Louis, Alpha-Pi, 1960, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA. color field painting
Morris Louis, Alpha-Pi, 1960, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, NY, USA.

Jules Olitski

Like Rothko, Jules Olitski was born in Russia. His father was executed by the Soviet government and his remaining family moved to America when he was just a baby. In his art studies, he painted wearing a blindfold, to rid himself of bad habits and free up his painting style. Olitski would lay down vast blankets of paint on his canvases with an industrial spray gun. He said he wanted to create color that would hang in the air.

Jules Olitsky, Cleopatra Flesh, 1962, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA. color field painting
Jules Olitsky, Cleopatra Flesh, 1962, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

Richard Diebenkorn

Barack Obama chose to hang a Diebenkorn in the White House, and this artist is considered one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century. He began as an Abstract Expressionist, but he turned to figurative work mid-career. However, with his famous Ocean Park series, he returned to pure abstraction, working on his own unique color language which secured him worldwide acclaim.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park no. 79, 1975, Estate of Richard Diebenkorn, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA. color field painting
Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park no. 79, 1975, Estate of Richard Diebenkorn, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Ellsworth Kelly

Vivid color blocks are the essence of Ellsworth Kelly‘s work. His start in the art world was unusual; he worked on a specialist camouflage unit in the US Army, creating huge sculptural “fake” tanks and jeeps to fool enemy soldiers. After living in France for a while after the war, he moved back to the US and, for more than 30 years, he lived on the outskirts of New York with his partner, the photographer Jack Shear.

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue, Green, Red, 1963, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Ellsworth Kelly, Blue, Green, Red, 1963, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Sam Gilliam

Sam Gilliam was an innovator who transformed the world of color field painting. He abandoned the traditional canvas stretcher, instead draping his work across the gallery wall. The swirling, vibrant drapes seem to bleed colors onto the wall. The African American artist was influenced by the Jazz greats to produce free-flowing, improvisatory 3D canvases. These became known as “drape paintings.”

Sam Gilliam, Carousel State, 1968, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. color field painting
Sam Gilliam, Carousel State, 1968, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

The Future of Color Field Painting

The 1950s and 1960s were a golden era for the color field movement, but the experiment reverberated across the globe, and its influence continues. In the UK, artists like Robyn Denny, John Hoyland, and Richard Smith continued the pure abstraction movement with their own color-saturated, large-scale canvases. Now, international artists from across the globe continue to explore abstract color today.

Patrick Wilson, Garden Pleasure, 2019, Miles McEnery Gallery, New York, NY, USA.
Patrick Wilson, Garden Pleasure, 2019, Miles McEnery Gallery, New York, NY, USA.

As stated at the beginning, color field painting is for everyone. But seeing them in a book or on a postcard is not the same as being in the same space as one of these immense works. Now that galleries are re-opening, get yourself in front of a color field painting and immerse yourself. We promise you, it will be a truly mind-blowing experience!


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All You Need to Know About Color Field Painting was first posted on September 4, 2021 at 5:00 am.
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