What is Color Field?
Color Field painting is a style of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. It was inspired by European modernism and closely related to Abstract Expressionism, while many of its notable early proponents were among the pioneering Abstract Expressionists. Color Field painting is characterized primarily by large fields of flat, solid color spread across or stained into the canvas; creating areas of unbroken surface and a flat picture plane. The movement places less emphasis on gesture, brushstrokes and action in favour of an overall consistency of form and process.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, Color field painters emerged in Great Britain, Canada, Washington, DC. and the West Coast of the United States using formats of stripes, targets, simple geometric patterns and references to landscape imagery and to nature.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s young artists began to break away stylistically from abstract expressionism; experimenting with new ways of making pictures; and new ways of handling paint and color. In the early 1960s several and various new movements in abstract painting were closely related to each other, and superficially were categorized together; although they turned out to be profoundly different in the long run. Some of the new styles and movements that appeared in the early 1960s as responses to abstract expressionism were called: Washington Color School, Hard-edge painting, Geometric abstraction, Minimalism and Color Field.
Gene Davis also was a painter known especially for paintings of vertical stripes of color, like Black Grey Beat, 1964, and he also was a member of the group of abstract painters in Washington DC during the 1960s known as the Washington Color School. The Washington painters were among the most prominent of the mid-century Color Field painters.
The artists associated with the Color Field movement during the 1960s were moving away from gesture and angst in favor of clear surfaces and gestalt. During the early to mid-1960s Color Field painting was the term used to describe the work of artists like Anne Truitt, Sam Francis, Sam Gilliam, Thomas Downing, Ellsworth Kelly, Paul Feeley, Friedel Dzubas, Jack Bush, Howard Mehring, Gene Davis, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Ray Parker, Al Held, Emerson Woelffer, David Simpson, and others whose works were formerly related to second generation abstract expressionism; and also to younger artists like Larry Poons, Ronald Davis, Larry Zox, John Hoyland, Walter Darby Bannard and Frank Stella. All were moving in a new direction away from the violence and anxiety of Action painting toward a new and seemingly calmer language of color.
Although the term Color Field is associated with Clement Greenberg, Greenberg actually preferred to use the term Post-Painterly Abstraction. In 1964, Clement Greenberg curated an influential exhibition that traveled the country called Post-painterly abstraction. The exhibition expanded the definition of color field painting. Color Field painting clearly pointed toward a new direction in American painting, away from abstract expressionism. In 2007 curator Karen Wilkin curated an exhibition called Color As Field:American Painting 1950-1975 that traveled to several museums throughout the United States. The exhibition showcased several artists representing two generations of Color Field painters.
In 1970 painter Jules Olitski said: I don't know what Color Field painting means. I think it was probably invented by some critic, which is okay, but I don't think the phrase means anything. Color Field painting? I mean, what is color? Painting has to do with a lot of things. Color is among the things it has to do with. It has to do with surface. It has to do with shape, It has to do with feelings which are more difficult to get at"