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morris louis painting

Colorfield Painting

What is it?

Colorfield painting is a type of abstract art that consists of broad areas of unmodulated or low-contrast color on a very shallow picture plane.

"We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."
--Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, 1943 in a letter to The New York Times

When and where did Colorfield painting develop?

After the end of World War II, American and transplanted European artists working in New York City were experimenting with many aspects of abstraction. Colorfield painting was built on theories like those expressed above by Gottlieb and Rothko and broadcast by the powerful--though intellectually opaque--art critic Clement Greenberg.

Morris Louis Stained-Canvas Painting (above right)
In 1952, Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928-), an important painter whose abstraction includes landscape-like images, moved Colorfield painting ahead when she introduced the idea of staining color into unprimed canvas. This innovation in painting provided an ideal of the truly flattened picture plane.

barnett newman painting
"We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images."
--Barnett Newman "The Sublime is Now", 1948

Who are the significant Colorfield painters?

Theoretician and artist Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and painters Clyfford Still (1904-1980) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970) were innovators in Colorfield painting . Morris Louis (1912-1962) and Kenneth Noland (b.1924), key players in the Washington Colorfield Group, took Frankenthaler's stained canvas idea and built their art upon it. In the late 1960's, using spray guns Jules Olitski (b.1922) made paintings entirely from mists of color.

Barnett Newman Painting (left)

How does Colorfield Painting relate to Post-Painterly Abstraction?

The ubiquitous Clement Greenberg coined the term "post-painterly abstraction" and applied it to Hard-Edged Abstraction and Colorfield Painting. The phrase loosely describes abstract art in which gesture and expressive brushwork play no role. Greenberg used this term as the title for an exhibition he curated at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1964.

Pompous tone aside, "post-painterly abstraction" incorrectly implies a sequential development in abstract art from gestural into non-gestural painting. In reality, the late 1940's and 1950's saw a fertile, churning sea of abstract art ideas and painting experiments from which various forms emerged and evolved throughout the second half of the 20th century.

See the influence of Colorfield painting in the work of 21st century abstract painters such as Todd Bellanca, Jim Napierala and Nancy Van Deren.
 Todd Bellanca abstract paintingJim Napierala abstract paintingNancy Van Deren abstract painting
Though Only for a Moment
Todd Bellanca
Crystal Bullet
Jim Napierala
Shoots and Oxbows
Nancy Van Deren

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