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Color Field painting

As its name indicates, Color Field painting has two components—“color” and “field.” Rejecting illusions of depth and gestural brushwork, Color Field painters applied color in swaths that often span the entire canvas, suggesting that it is a detail of some larger field. Intent on eliminating any distinction between a subject and its background, Color Field painters treated the canvas as a single plane. This emphasis on the flatness of the painting mirrored the formalist imperative that painting respect its two-dimensional nature rather than create an illusion of three-dimensionality.

Various other names for Color Field painting were coined during the 1950s and 60s. The most notable was Post-Painterly Abstraction, the title of an influential 1964 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum curated by the critic Clement Greenberg. It encompassed what is now called Hard Edge painting. Another once-popular term was Systemic painting, the title of a 1966 exhibition curated by Lawrence Alloway at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which featured Color Field and Hard Edge painters who made systematic variations on a single geometric motif, such as a circle or chevron. Finally, there is Stain painting, which should be regarded as a subset of Color Field painting: artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis would stain their unprimed canvases by pouring paint rather than brushing it on, usually while working on the floor instead of on an easel or wall.

Just as Frankenthaler’s technique was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings, so, too, was Color Field painting an extension of Abstract Expressionism. Pollock, with his all-over compositions, was the first Color Field painter. The inspiration for the dramatic use of color in Color Field painting came from the work of the Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Since Color Field painting is invariably abstract, nature-based color has typically been abandoned in favor of more expressive hues. When examined at close range, the expansive canvases of the Color Field painters frequently seem to envelop the viewer in a luxuriant environment of color. A French variant of Color Field painting was known as Supports/Surfaces. The group comprised the artists André-Pierre Arnal, Vincent Bioulés, Louis Cane, Marc Devade, Daniel Dezeuze, NoËl Dolla, Toni Grand, Bernard Pagés, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, Patrick Saytour, André Valensi, and Claude Viallat. Between 1966 and 1974, they frequently showed together, issued manifestos, and published a magazine.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.