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Washington Color School Collage

Washington Color School

Started: 1958
Ended: 1980
Washington Color School Timeline
"I do open paintings. I like lightness, airiness, and the way color pulsates. The presence of the painting is all that's important."
1 of 11
Kenneth Noland Signature
"I prefer to work flat on the floor with the canvas unsized and unstretched. Raw canvas seems more open to me. I am closer to the painting, more in contact with it."
2 of 11
Howard Mehring
"If you are concerned about whatever it is you want to do, you dream about it. You wake up in the morning and you've got a solution. You work it out. There is always tomorrow."
3 of 11
Sam Gilliam
"Whether I am teaching or making art, the process is fundamentally the same; I am creating."
4 of 11
Sam Gilliam
"Just work and let things go"
5 of 11
Sam Gilliam
"This was actually the idea of staining, to make the grain a part of the paint surface as well as the pigment. Color was, of course, the principal element that was used to construct with."
6 of 11
Sam Gilliam
"One of the more intelligent questions ever asked regarding my work was asked by a child. The question was 'Why do you paint circles instead of squares?' My answer at the moment was 'because circles are easier to paint. There are no corners to go into and then get out of.'"
7 of 11
Thomas Downing
"Man's highest aspirations come from nature. A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors."
8 of 11
Alma Thomas
"I became convinced that the way to make really good art was to do the outrageous, the unexpected - to be a renegade. That was my philosophy - to explore the seemingly impossible in art, to do things that were new for their own sake, whether they were good or bad."
9 of 11
Gene Davis
"Instead of simply glancing at the work, select a specific color - and take the time to see how it operates across the painting. - Enter the painting through the door of a single color, and then you can understand what my painting is all about."
10 of 11
Gene Davis
"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."
11 of 11
Anne Truitt 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 & Accomplishments

  • 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.

Overview of Washington Color School

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.

Key Artists

  • Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color-field painting movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.
  • Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, and others, Louis pioneered the Color Field school of painting, using a technique of soaking heavy oil paints into unprimed canvases. Louis's paintings in part inspired his friend Clement Greenberg to dub the second-generation Abstract Expressionism artists Post-painterly abstraction.
  • Anne Truitt is best known for her large scale wooden sculptures that connect to Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and to deeply personal experience.

Do Not Miss

  • A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
  • A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, Color Field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
  • Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.

Important Art and Artists of Washington Color School

Beginning (1958)

Artist: Kenneth Noland

Aptly named, this work marks the beginning of Noland's Washington Color School style. Its basic geometric form explores the lively effects of contrasting and complementary colors, depicted in concentric circles, centered on a square canvas. Noland eschewed representation and pictorial depth in favor of focusing on the relationships of the colors. Noland compared his painting to music, saying, "painting without subject matter as music without words." The slight irregularity of the circles and the outer ragged halo of black paint give the work a kind of spontaneous energy, while the circular form draws the viewer's eye back toward the hypnotic center.

Beginning exemplifies the artist's desire to create what he called "one shot" compositions. Noland's technique of staining the canvas meant that his paintings were extremely difficult to revise; what he put on the canvas had to stand as it was without second-guessing. Noland's "one shot" painting sought to overcome, in his estimation, the overworked compositions of the Abstract Expressionists. The Abstract Expressionists claimed that spontaneity was a cornerstone of their processes, but often their canvases were carefully built up over a period of time, sometimes years. Noland felt his paintings were truly spontaneous. As Greenberg wrote of Noland's circles, "His color counts by its clarity and its energy; it is not there neutrally, to be carried by the design and drawing; it does the carrying itself." The concentric circle on a square canvas became an iconic feature of Noland's work. In later works like Birth (1961), he reduced the number of colors, eliminated the penumbra effect, and regularized the concentric circles with hard edges, evolving his reductive approach.

Faces (1959)

Artist: Morris Louis

This large canvas exemplifies Louis's Veil (1958-1960) series of paintings, each depicting a similar shape, rendered in translucent 'veils' or layers of magna paint diluted with turpentine. Rather than emphasizing a geometric shape like Noland, Louis creates a more organic form, not nested, but enfolded, while exploring color and transparency. As art historian Karen Wilkin explains, Louis and other Color Field painters believed "that a painting, no matter how apparently restrained, could address the viewer's whole being - emotions, intellect, and all - through the eye, just as music did through the ear."

Creating works like Faces in a very small studio, Louis began by stapling the 20-foot canvas to the wall, then pouring and manipulating streams of paint down the surface. Rather than the artist's brushstroke, the fluidity of the material, drawn by gravity to flow down the pictorial surface, is emphasized. The soak stain approach resulted in the colors melding with the weave of the raw canvas to create a diaphanous, layered effect. Through a veil of darker surface color, remnants of vibrant orange and green create a sense of movement. Relinquishing artistic control over the unpredictable results, Louis let the medium take on its own organic process to create the final result, as the paint itself became the subject. With this emphasis on the paint's own properties, Louis subverts the presence of the artist seen on the canvas, eschewing the unique gesture associated with Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Of the Veil series, Greenberg wrote, "The effect conveys a sense not only of color as somehow disembodied, and therefore more purely optical, but also of color as a thing that opens and expands the picture plane," and the art critic Michael Fried wrote, "the surfaces themselves...[spread]... with tremendous authority across the veil configurations as if in compliance with impersonal forces." These forces were to find analogous feelings within the viewer.

Insurrection (1962)

Artist: Anne Truitt

This minimal and static object generates a dynamic energy that belies its simplicity. This large vertical sculpture, including the base, is divided asymmetrically into two shades of red, cleanly delineated from one another. As a result, the asymmetricality creates a kind of optical movement, with the dividing line both receding and projecting depending on one's perspective, and the two reds vie for foreground and background positions. Truit said, "Painted into color, this wooden structure is rendered virtually immaterial. The color is thus set free into space." Trained as a psychologist, she felt color had a psychological vibration, which could be clarified in an artwork, becoming an event, felt as a visual sensation.

Truitt, more than her colleagues in Washington D.C., felt more emotional resonances with the Abstract Expressionists' goals. Residing in Washington, D.C., Truitt's artistic breakthrough in the early 1960s was influenced by the work of Barnett Newman, particularly by his subtle color modulations in the blue double paneled work, Onement VI (1953). As she said of the gallery encounter with Newman's work, "I looked at them, and from that point on I was home free. I had never realized you could do it in art. Have enough space. Enough color."

While her work largely anticipated Minimalist sculpture of the later 1960s, she is more often than not, associated with the Minimalists. She herself insisted, however, "I have never allowed myself, in my own hearing, to be called a minimalist. Because minimal art is characterized by nonreferentiality. And that's not what I am characterized by. [My work] is totally referential. I've struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form."

Useful Resources on Washington Color School

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Washington Color School Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 12 Nov 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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