Colour Field Painting
Abstract Expressionism Art Movement: History, Characteristics.

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Colour Field Painting (c.1948-68)


The term "Colour Field painting" refers to a particular style of American Abstract Expressionism, associated with the New York School of modern art. Pioneered by Clyfford Still (1904-80), Barnett Newman (1905-70) and Mark Rothko (1903-70), this abstract art was characterised by large fields of flat, solid colour, which enveloped the spectator when seen at close quarters. It deliberately avoided portraying forms standing out against a background. Instead, form and background and ground are one, and the picture - seen as a field, rather than a window, draws the eye beyond the edges of the canvas. The style was designed above all to have an emotional impact on the viewer. During the late 1950s, a second generation of American expressionists, including the abstract painters Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), Morris Louis (1912-62), Kenneth Noland (b.1924) and Jules Olitski (1922-2007), developed a more impersonal, more formalist style of Colour Field, devoid of all emotional and spiritual elements. This approach was one of several reinterpretations of Abstract Expressionism, which were given the name Post Painterly Abstraction, by the art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94), and showcased in a 1964 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This led to a revival of Colour Field painting in Britain, exemplified in works by Robyn Denny (b.1930), John Hoyland (b.1934), Richard Smith (b.1931) and others.


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Colour field painting came about as a result of different independent attempts by Still, Rothko and Newman, during the late 1940s, to create an eternal form of art which might transcend the ethical collapse triggered by the chaos and carnage of World War II: a type of painting that would speak for itself. Rejecting all forms of representational art or figuration, they also avoided the gestural abstract expressionist idiom of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, even though the latter's "action-painting" can be seen as a pioneering attempt to create an "all-over" field of colour, recalling Monet's huge water lily canvases.

The emergence of Colour Field effectively divided Abstract Expressionist painting into two styles - (1) gestural and full of contrast and action; (2) smooth, flat, and relatively incident-free with large fields of rich colour. Exponents of the latter style, like Still, Rothko and Newman, devoted more attention to formal elements in their painting - such as line, shape, colour - than secondary elements such as context or narrative, and this emphasis on formalism was strongly supported by the highly influential art critic Clement Greenberg, whose support guaranteed the style widespread attention, and approval. For US collections which include examples of colour field painting by American artists, see: Art Museums in America.


Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow
and Blue? (1966)
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
By Barnett Newman.

White Center (Yellow, Pink and
Lavender on Rose) (1950)
Private Collection. By the painter
Mark Rothko, who created some of
the greatest 20th century paintings
in the Colour Field style.

First Generation Colour Field Painters

Mark Rothko, who never actually acknowledged the label "Colour Field Painter", specialized in large-scale canvases, resonating with emotive colour applied in the form of blocks of colour hovering over coloured backgrounds. A good example is his Magenta, Black, Green on Orange. Commenting on the effect of his pictures, he once said: "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." Rothko achieved major success during the mid-1950s, being tipped by Fortune magazine in 1954 as a "promising investment". See also: Mark Rothko's Paintings (1938-70).

Clyfford Still, raised in the wide open spaces of North Dakota and Washington state, is traditionally acknowledged as the first Colour Field painter, because of a number of works which he exhibited in 1947. These works are noted for their juxtaposition of different colours and jagged flashes of colour, along with their sharp textural contrasts of smoothness versus impasto. This textural style proved more popular than Newman's smooth surface finish, and Still's reputation soared during the 1950s.

Robert Motherwell (1915-91) produced some works combining fields of painterly surfaces with gestural shapes (eg. Elegy to The Spanish Republic) - a mixture of both man trends in Abstract Expressionism. But later paintings, like his Open Series of the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, embodies Colour Field only.

Barnett Newman was a later starter. In 1947, he curated an exhibition for the Betty Parsons Gallery entitled The Ideographic Picture, which showcased paintings by Mark Rothko, Still, and Hans Hofmann. The exhibition name derives from "ideograph", a term usually applied to markings in prehistoric cave painting which suggest the idea of an object. Newman was searching for an art form which was more eternal than something taken from nature, which might date or deteriorate. The following year he wrote a seminal explanation of Colour Field entitled "The Sublime is Now" (1948). He stated that, in a time of ethical uncertainty, artists had to reach out for absolute beauty (the sublime) rather than relative beauty. His works are typically marked by flat areas of colour, divided by thin vertical lines (he called them "zips") - see them as flashes of cosmic light or infinity. Although in public Newman adhered to the idea that his works were non-naturalistic and strictly non-narrative, he later gave them names, implying the existence of some illustrative or narrative content - as in his dark picture (1949) which he named Abraham. His father who had passed away in 1947 was also called Abraham. Unfortunately Newman's spare, minmalist style proved much less popular than the more expressive idiom of Pollock, De Kooning and even Rothko. It wasn't until the mid-1960s that he achieved recognition as a major artist.

Jackson Pollock also created numerous non-gestural works, notably his semi-figurative black stain paintings of 1951, and his full colour stain paintings of 1952. By this stage he was already America's most famous artist.

Second Generation Colour Field Painters

During the late 1950s, deeply influenced by the colour stain works of Helen Frankenthaler, a new group of artists - notably Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski - began to adopt an even more formalist approach. Although their predecessors in Colour Field, like Newman and Rothko, had always given priority to consistency of form and process, rather than gesture, brushwork and general incident, the new generation sought to eliminate all subjective traces from their work, including any trace of brushstrokes.

In 1964, Clement dubbed this new formalism "Post Painterly Abstraction", and curated a special exhibition of 30 exponents of the new style, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Devoid of metaphysical concerns, and unconcerned about the dominant decorative quality of their work, these new artists produced a new super-smooth type of painting with no unevenness of texture or form. In addition to those listed above, other second generation Colour Field painters included: Al Held (b.1928), Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923) and Frank Stella (b.1936) - all 3 better known as exponents of Hard Edge Painting - Joan Mitchell (1926-92), Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93), Gene Davis (1920-85), among others.

Decline and Fall

During the 1960s, this highly formalist trend of Colour Field painting (which Greenberg nicknamed Post-Painterly Abstraction) fragmented into smaller groups such as Washington Colour School, Hard-edge painting, Lyrical Abstraction, and Minimal Painting. Most of these groups and tendencies continued to pursue a reductionist agenda, in order to purge art of superfluous rhetoric and allusion, while incorporating a carefully planned, psychological use of color. Above all, the 1960s generation of Colour Field painters audaciously presented their abstraction as an end in itself. This was doomed to fail. And so it did. During the late 1960s/early 1970s this venture led abstract expressionists up a blind alley, called Minimalism, which took them nowhere. (Actually, it took them as far as Post-Minimalism and its ugly child Process Art, which did literally decompose and evaporate!) As for those Colour Field painters who avoided minimalism, they were marginalized by new genres of Postmodernist art, such as Video and Installation art, as well as more intricate varieties of Conceptual art, as evidenced by the list of Turner Prize-winners. (See Contemporary Art.)

Meanwhile in Europe...

A similar type of fragmentation was occurring in Europe: the main abstract expressionist movement Art Informel, broke up into numerous different styles and tendencies, such as Tachisme, Art Non Figuratif, Abstraction Lyrique, and others.

Colour Field paintings can be seen in the best art museums in America.

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