Color field painting is a less known artistic movement that developed as an evolution of abstract expressionism. The protagonist of this style is color, in its most pure meaning. Every artist declined this concept in a personal way, originating piece of art that aim at raising feeling and emotions connected with the use of specific colors.

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Richard Smith, Painting, 1958_©Richard Smith Foundation_https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/smith-painting-t01588

Origins of the movement

We must seek the origins of the color field painting movement into the development of abstract expressionism in the United States originated from European modernism. The turning point for this artistic evolution was the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, during which abstract art was for the very first time displayed for an American audience. As it often happens in front of radical innovations, not everybody could appreciate the unconventional artistic representation; nevertheless, some artists began to inspire themselves to their European colleagues, until the development of abstract expressionism. After the Second World War, the USA artistic panorama started to attract international attention since the USA abstraction style began spreading outside the American borders. 

The name “color field painter” was for the first time used by Clement Greenberg in the early 1950s to refer to Mark Rothko, one of the most famous representatives of the movement. Greenberg noticed that “abstract expressionism” was related to a considerably broad group of artists, with different styles and tendencies. He suggested then the new name for identifying a group of artists in contraposition with another artistic style, previously identified as action painters

Development of the Movement

Despite being classified with two different artistic styles, color field painters and action painters had some common points of view. First, the work surface is perceived as a field of vision, thus without a central focus or a space hierarchy; then, the representations do not refer to something existing; lastly, there is intense research to create a perfectly flat surface of color. The mainstays of this style are the color itself and the tension created by juxtaposing different colors and shapes, sometimes perfectly geometrical, some other times amorphous. Another recurring feature in the artworks of color field painters is the use of canvas or paper of considerable dimensions, to give the viewer the impression of actually being immersed inside the colorful and seamless surface.

The color field artists had a total disinterest in the value of signs, shapes, and materiality, whilst developing a profound concern for the purity of colors. Two different approaches to this representative desire exist: those -like Mark Rothko- with the tendency to use two or three different colors and exploit the tension created by the transition from one to another, and those in instead -like Yves Klein- that focused on the monochromatic study of colors.

The Representatives of the movement

Starting from the 1950s, the definition of colour field painting was for the first time referred to the work of three artists in particular: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. Around one decade later, a more abstract interpretation of the movement developed, erasing any possible link with the real world, even with the gesture of painting, the focus of abstract expressionism in general. The artists of this second variant of the style were Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, and others.

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Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969_©Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/DACS 2021_https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rothko-untitled-t04149

Mark Rothko was an American painter, originally from Russia. When he was a child, he moved to Portland with his family. He spent his youth in New York, and his first artworks represented cityscapes and urban sceneries. The best-known period of his production is between 1949 and 1970: he used to paint rectangular or irregular regions of color, believing that color is a simple instrument intended to provoke human emotions. Thus, the ultimate purpose of his paintings was to trigger a specific feeling in the viewer. At the beginning of his career, he usually employed light and bright tonalities of colors, whereas, as his mental health worsened, the paintings became gloomier and darker.

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Clyfford Still, 1953, 1953_©City and County of Denver_https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/still-1953-t01498

Clyfford Still was like Rothko from America; he is popularly considered the first to have approached the color field style, despite being less famous. He started his artistic transition before other contemporary artists, between 1938 and 1942. His representations evoke through the juxtaposition of colors the conflict between man and nature on a monumental scale. Differently from Rothko and Newman, in his works, there is no regularity, and the impression is that a surface has been wrapped to reveal a different color underneath.

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Helen Frankenthalter, Vessel, 1961_ ©Helen Frankenthaler / All Rights Reserved, DACS 2021_https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/frankenthaler-vessel-l04286

Helen Frankenthaler is one of the most influential artists of the mid-1950s beginning to exhibit her works around the 1950s and keeping on until she died in 2011. Frankenthaler was part of the exhibition called “Post-Painterly Abstraction” organized by Greenberg in 1964 to introduce new emergent artists recognized as color field painters. She invented the soak-stain technique: she used to pour thinned-down paint onto the canvas, creating color washes that seem to be part of the canvas itself, erasing and 3-dimensionality to her works. Later in her artistic career, she was also interested in new forms of expression rather than painting, like woodcuts.

Conclusion 

Every artist has a mode of representation, different from others for the techniques, style, and emotions it originates. Thus, even inside a less-known movement as the one of color field painting, it is possible to find different approaches to a similar concept. That is the beauty of art.

References

The Art Story. n.d. Color Field Painting – Important Paintings. [online] Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/movement/color-field-painting/artworks/#nav  [Accessed 20 October 2021].

Tate. n.d. Colour field painting – Art Term | Tate. [online] Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/colour-field-painting  [Accessed 20 October 2021].

Gersh-Nesic, B., 2019. Color Field Painting 1950 to Present. [online] ThoughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/color-field-painting-art-history-183314  [Accessed 20 October 2021].

Stamberg, S., 2008. NPR Cookie Consent and Choices. [online] Npr.org. Available at: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=87871332&t=1634758585631  [Accessed 20 October 2021].

Taggart, E., 2020. Learn the History of Color Field Painting and the Artists That Pioneered It. [online] My Modern Met. Available at: https://mymodernmet.com/color-field-painting/  [Accessed 20 October 2021].

Web.archive.org. 2011. Themes in American Art: Abstraction. [online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20110608093226/http://www.nga.gov/education/american/abstract.shtm  [Accessed 20 October 2021].

Author

Francesca Colombo is a Master Architecture student in Italy. She considers architecture as a tool to face social problems and create better cities, accepting and celebrating people’s diversity. She dreams of living and working in a European capital.

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