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Post-Painterly Abstraction Collage

Post-Painterly Abstraction

Started: Early 1950s
Ended: Mid 1970s
Post-Painterly Abstraction Timeline
"A picture is a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more."
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Donald Judd Signature
"The form of my painting is the content."
2 of 7
Ellsworth Kelly Signature
"A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image."
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Helen Frankenthaler Signature
"The representation I'm interested in is of those things only the eye can touch."
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Kenneth Noland Signature
"Well, in the climate of 1957, '58, Abstract Expressionism and painterly abstraction were dominating everything. All the art departments - college art departments - were grinding out little de Koonings and Pollocks and Klines and so on. So, in that climate, it seemed like Abstract Expressionism was academic, and there was no place to go. It had already been used up. And you had to go somewhere. So the very opposite place to go, obviously, was to get away from painterliness and be neat. And I like to say that. There's no more profound reason than that, but that's the way I was thinking then. 'Let's see if I can't do something that goes in the opposite direction from painterly abstraction.' So I just set out on - more a lark, I think. I just decided to do a stripe painting, just to be outrageous. Of course, three years later, Clement Greenberg curated this very famous historic show called Post-Painterly Abstraction, which I fitted into like a glove and he included three of my works in it. I was just one of a number of people that were beginning to feel that this was used up, this painterly abstraction was used up and we had to move somewhere else."
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Gene Davis
"It certainly has nothing to do with doctrine, with geometrical form for its own sake. These artists prefer trued and faired edges simply because these call less attention to themselves as drawing - and by doing that they also get out of the way of color."
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Clement Greenberg
"Another thing the artists in this show, with two or three exceptions, have in common is the high keying, as well as lucidity, of their color. They have a tendency, many of them, to stress contrasts of pure hue rather than contrasts of light and dark. For the sake of these, as well as in the interests of optical clarity, they shun thick paint and tactile effects. Some of them dilute their paint to an extreme and soak it into unsized and unprimed canvas (following Pollock's lead in his black and white paintings of 1951). In their reaction against the "handwriting" and "gestures" of Painterly Abstraction, these artists also favor a relatively anonymous execution."
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Clement Greenberg

Summary of Post-Painterly Abstraction

Post-painterly abstraction is a broad term that encompasses a variety of styles that evolved in reaction to the painterly, gestural approaches of some Abstract Expressionists. Coined by Clement Greenberg in 1964, it originally served as the title of an exhibition that included a large number of artists who were associated with various tendencies, including color field painting, hard-edge abstraction, and the Washington Color School.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Greenberg believed that, during the early 1950s, Abstract Expressionism (or, as he preferred to call it, "Painterly Abstraction") had degenerated into a weak school, and, in the hands of less talented painters, its innovations had become nothing but empty devices. But he also believed that many artists were advancing in some of Abstract Expressionism's more fruitful directions - principally those allied to color field painting - and these were yielding to a range of new tendencies that he described as "post-painterly."
  • Greenberg characterized post-painterly abstraction as linear in design, bright in color, lacking in detail and incident, and open in composition (inclined to lead the eye beyond the limits of the canvas). Most importantly, however, it was anonymous in execution: this reflected the artists' desire to leave behind the grandiose drama and spirituality of Abstract Expressionism.
  • Some critics, including Clement Greenberg and Barbara Rose, remarked on the decorative character of some post-painterly abstraction. In the past, Harold Rosenberg had described failed Abstract Expressionist paintings as "apocalyptic wallpaper," suggesting that decorative qualities were to be avoided. The new tendency suggested a change in attitudes.

Overview of Post-Painterly Abstraction

Post-Painterly Abstraction Image

In 1964, critic Clement Greenberg was recruited by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to curate an exhibition devoted to young abstractionists. He was a natural choice to curate such a show, as by the late 1950s he had a prominent reputation as a defender of contemporary abstract art. Greenberg called the exhibition Post-Painterly Abstraction, although in the essay he wrote for the exhibition catalog he never actually referred to the style by name. Instead, he defined it by what it was not - "painterly abstraction," or the style of the Abstract Expressionists.

Key Artists

  • Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract painter in mid-twentieth-century New York. Along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Frankenthaler is considered a pioneer in the practice of Color Field painting.
  • Ellsworth Kelly is an American Color Field and Hard edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late 1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Jules Olitski was a Russian-born American painter and key figure in the mid-century movements of Color Field painting and Post-painterly abstraction. Olitski is most famous for his innovation of painting using multiple spray guns, applied to unprimed and unstretched canvases.
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  • 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.
  • Action Painting was a term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg to refer to the gestural and somewhat existential mode of Abstract Expressionism, often characterized by drips, flung paint, and rapid, spontaneous strokes by the artist. In this view the painting is a record of the artist's activities over time.
  • 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.

Important Art and Artists of Post-Painterly Abstraction

Blue Balls VII (1962)

Artist: Sam Francis

The work of Sam Francis contains many visual indicators reminiscent of the "action painting" or art informel schools of Abstract Expressionism. What made Francis a unique painter was his technique of tachisme, in which heavy blotches of free-flowing oil paints were allowed to drip down and, in the process, create an accidental design. In Blue Balls VII, which was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibit, Francis used far less paint than he was accustomed to. The end result showcases razor-thin lines of blue paint that cascade down from the more prominent blotches applied throughout the canvas.

Dance (1962)

Artist: John Ferren

California native John Ferren (who was actually older than most of the first-generation AbEx artists) retained elements of what Greenberg called the "Tenth-Street touch." He described this as when "The stroke left by a loaded brush or knife frays out, when the stroke is long enough, into streaks, ripples, and specks of paint. These create variations of light and dark by means of which juxtaposed strokes can be graded into one another without abrupt contrasts." Greenberg criticized the "touch" as a safety net of sorts for those artists having trouble creating a unified image on an abstract plane. However, he praised Ferren's Dance and other similar works for applying the "Tenth-Street touch" and at the same time "boxing it within a large framing area" and managing "to get a new expressiveness from it."

Red Blue (1963)

Artist: Ellsworth Kelly

Kelly's Red Blue recalls in many ways Barnett Newman's signature "zip" paintings, with the single dividing line cutting through an otherwise unified field of color. What set Kelly's painting apart was the way in which he applied the pigment. Kelly allowed his diluted oil paints to soak into the canvas, rendering the surface a clean and utterly flat picture plane. His red divider is also much wider than Newman's "zips," and applied to create a cleaner, simpler hard-edged line. Another key characteristic of Kelly's hard-edge, Color Field paintings was his tendency to only use two opposing colors.

Useful Resources on Post-Painterly Abstraction

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Post-Painterly Abstraction Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 22 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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