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Color Field Painting: Art History 101 Basics

1950 to Present

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© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko; used with permission of The Museum of Modern Art

Mark Rothko (American, b. Latvia, 1903-1970). No. 3/No. 13, 1949. Oil on canvas. 85 3/8 x 65 in. (216.5 x 164.8 cm). Bequest of Mrs. Mark Rothko through The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Color Field Painting is part of the Abstract Expressionist family of artists (a.k.a., the New York School). They are the quieter siblings, the introverts. The Action Painters (for example, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning) are the loud siblings, the extroverts. Color Field Painting was called "Post-Painterly Abstraction" by Clement Greenberg.

Color Field Painting and Action Painting have the following in common:

  • They treat the surface of a canvas or paper as a "field" of vision, without a central focus. (Traditional painting usually organizes the surface in terms of the middle or zones of subject matter.)
  • They emphasize the flatness of the surface.
  • They do not refer to objects in the natural world.
  • They reveal the artist's emotional state of mind - his or her "expression."

However, Color Field Painting is less about the process of making the work, which is at the heart of Action Painting. Color Field is about the tension created by overlapping and interacting areas of flat color. These areas of color can be amorphous or clearly geometric. This tension is the "action" or the content. It's more subtle and cerebral than Action Painting.

Often Color Field Paintings are huge canvases. If you stand close to the canvas, the colors seem to extend beyond your peripheral vision, like a lake or an ocean. These mega-size rectangles require letting your mind and eye leap right into the expanse of red, blue or green. Then you can almost feel the sensation of the colors themselves.

Color Field owes a great deal to Kandinsky in terms of philosophy, but does not necessarily express the same color associations. The best known Color Field Painters are Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Paul Jenkins, Sam Gilliam and Norman Lewis, among many others. These artists still use traditional paintbrushes and also the occasional air brush.

Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis invented Stain Painting (allowing the liquid paint to seep into the fibers of an unprimed canvas. Their work is a specific kind of Color Field Painting.

Hard-Edge Painting may be considered a "kissing cousin" to Color Field Painting, but it is not gestural painting. Therefore, Hard-Edge Painting does not qualify as "expressionist," and is not part of the Abstract Expressionist family. Some artists, such as Kenneth Noland, practiced both tendencies: Color Field and Hard-Edge.

How Long Has Color Field Painting Been a Movement?

Color Field Painting began around 1950, following the initial shock of the Action Painters. Helen Frankenthaler, as I write this, is still with us, so that means Color Field Painting is alive--and hopefully well, too.

What Are the Key Characteristic of Color Field Painting?

  • Bright, local colors are presented in specific shapes that can be amorphous or geometrical, but not too straight-edged.
  • The works emphasize the flatness of the canvas or paper, because that is what a painting is literally about.
  • The excitement comes from the tension set up between the colors and shapes. That is the subject of the work.
  • The integration of shapes through overlapping or interpenetrations blurs spacial distinctions, so that there is almost no sense of the image versus the background (what art historians call "figure and ground"). Sometimes the shapes seem to both emerge and submerge into the surrounding colors.
  • These works are usually very large, which encourages the viewer to experience the color as an enormous, engulfing expanse: a field of color.

Suggested Reading:

Anfam, David. Abstract Expressionism.
New York & London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Karmel, Pepe, et al. New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Collection.
New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2009.

Kleeblatt, Norman, et al. Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Sandler, Irving. Abstract Expressionism and the American Experience: A Reevaluation.
Lenox: Hard Press, 2009.

Sandler, Irving. The New York School: The Painters and Sculptors from the Fifties.
New York: Harper and Row, 1978 .

Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism.
New York: Praeger, 1970.

Wilkin, Karen and Carl Belz. Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975.
Washington, DC: American Federation of the Arts, 2007.

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