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Art Movement: Colour Field Painting

Helen Frankenthaler - Riverhead - 1963
Helen Frankenthaler, Riverhead, 1963. Courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and Gagosian

By Shira Wolfe

“The ultimate effect sought is one of an almost literal openness that embraces and absorbs colour in the act of being created by it.” – Clement Greenberg

What is Colour Field Painting?

Colour Field painting is a term initially coined by art critic Clement Greenberg, and used to describe the works by Abstract Expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. These artists composed their paintings with broad expanses of saturated colour. In his essay on Colour Field painting, Greenberg wrote:

“The ultimate effect sought is one of an almost literal openness that embraces and absorbs colour in the act of being created by it. [The coloured field] has to be uniform in hue, with only the subtlest variations of value if any at all, and spread over an absolutely, not merely relatively, large area. Size guarantees the purity as well as the intensity needed to suggest indeterminate space: more blue simply being bluer than less blue.”

Key period: 1950s – 1960s

Key regions: United States, Great Britain

Key words: saturated, contemplative colour, abstraction, flat space, large-scale canvases

Key artists: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Robyn Denny, John Hoyland, Richard Smith


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Kenneth Noland - Winter Sun - 1962
Kenneth Noland, Winter Sun, 1962. Courtesy Phaidon

The Key Ideas

Colour Field painting is often considered a subset within Abstract Expressionism. The Colour Field painters were similarly interested in the use of pure abstraction, flat space and large-scale canvases. What sets Colour Field painting apart is that Colour Field painters rejected the active gesture which was often characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, and instead favoured large expanses of contemplative colour.

Originally, the term was used in the 1950s to describe the work of three American abstract painters: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. Around 1960, a form of Colour Field painting emerged that was more purely abstract, with artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam leading the way. These artists moved away from the emotional, mythic or religious content and the personal and painterly application of the earlier movement. They focused on open compositions, limited painterly gestures, and drawing attention to the relationship between the canvas and the forms painted on it. Clement Greenberg organised an exhibition of 31 artists associated with this new development in 1964 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and titled it Post-Painterly Abstraction. This term is also frequently used to describe the work of this 1960s generation of Colour Field painters and those who followed them.

In Britain, Colour Field painting developed in the 1960s among artists like Robyn Denny, John Hoyland and Richard Smith.

Robyn Denny - Windward, Steam & Angel Dust - 1984-1987
Robyn Denny, Windward, Steam & Angel Dust, 1984-1987. Courtesy Laurent Delaye Gallery

“We are creating images whose reality is self-evident and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful… The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.” – Barnett Newman

Clyfford Still - PH-950 - 1950
Clyfford Still, PH-950, 1950. Courtesy the Clyfford Still Museum

The Main Protagonists

Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still embarked on their journeys to find a more delicate painting style capable of expressing the sublime and transcendence around the same time. For Rothko, his search resulted in his large, rectangular compositions of deeply emotive colour fields. Newman explored this in his purely coloured works with vertical or horizontal stripes, and for Still, it resulted in his irregular and textured compositions, juxtaposing colours and surfaces. Each of them gravitated more towards monolithic imagery, flat colour fields and unbroken surfaces. 

Alma Thomas - Splash Down Apollo 13
Alma Thomas, Splash Down Apollo 13, 1970. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

In the second wave of Colour Field painting, Helen Frankenthaler was one of the first artists who started using the stained painting technique, pouring her paint mixture directly onto the unprimed canvas and creating shapes through these stains. Morris Louis began soaking his canvases, and started completely eliminating brushes from his artistic practice by pouring lines of paint on his canvases to create rainbow effects. Both Louis and Kenneth Noland were influenced by Frankenthaler’s work and the two artists worked together on the technique of staining with thinned paints. Noland’s characteristic style presented pure, saturated colour as part of the canvas, often in the form of concentric rings. Sam Gilliam’s Colour Field painting found its form in canvases freed from their support, creating beautiful large draped structures in vibrant hues. Alma Thomas believed that abstract art had the power to transcend political and historical issues, and focused on the power and potential of colour through her use of different colour fields and staccato brushstrokes.

In Britain, Robyn Denny became known for his monumental hard-edge paintings in the ‘60s, and in the ‘80s, he produced a series of large austere monochromes in blue or red, with a central knot of paint. John Hoyland’s work was characterised by simple shapes, bold colours and a flat picture surface. Richard Smith, known for his semi-sculptural abstract works, also maintained an ongoing dialogue with Colour Field painting, working directly on loose canvas and then rotating and stapling it onto stretchers.

Examples of Colour Field Paintings

Mark Rothko colour field
Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968. Courtesy Tate

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1968)

This painting by Mark Rothko, with its glowing yellows and oranges, attests to the artist’s sophisticated understanding of colour and composition. It took Rothko hours to get his composition right, despite the seemingly simple outcome.

Barnett Newman - Dionysius - colour field
Barnett Newman, DionysiusBarnett Newman, Dionysius, 1949. Courtesy Estate of Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman, Dionysius (1949)

This is one of Newman’s earlier works, consisting of a serene field of green and blue colours with horizontal lines of yellow and orange cutting through the field of colour.

Helen Frankenthaler - Mountains and Sea - 1952
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952. Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea (1952)

Frankenthaler’s landmark work “Mountains and Sea” marked a departure from most Abstract Expressionist works. Frankenthaler worked directly on unprimed canvas, staining it with thin washes of colour and creating a combination of paint and raw canvas.

Morris Louis - Saraband - 1959
Morris Louis, Saraband, 1959. Courtesy Guggenheim

Morris Louis, Saraband (1959)

In 1953, Morris Louis visited the studio of Helen Frankenthaler and saw Mountains and Sea, her first signature soak-stain painting. Immediately inspired, Louis started working on a series of poured paintings which he referred to as Veils. To make Saraband, Louis poured paint from the top as well as from the sides of the canvas, creating these saturated bands of colours.

Sam Gilliam - Light Depth - 1969
Sam Gilliam, Light Depth, 1969. Courtesy Pace Gallery

Sam Gilliam, Light Depth (1969)

“Light Depth” is one of Gilliam’s most important Drape paintings. Abandoning the traditional stretcher, Gilliam draped his work with swirling, bleeding colours onto the wall.

Relevant sources to learn more

For more about Colour Field painting, see

Tate

MoMA

Phaidon

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