Published: June 17, 2008
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts opens “Color as Field: American Painting, 1950‱975” June 20. The first full-scale exhibition in many years to examine this period, “Color as Field” features 41 large-scale canvases that mark a highpoint in American abstraction. The Frist Center is the final venue †and the only Southeastern stop †on the exhibition’s traveling itinerary. The exhibition will be on view at the Frist Center through September 21.
Color field painting, which emerged in the United States in the 1950s, is characterized by pouring, staining or spraying thinned paint onto raw canvas to create vast chromatic expanses that are remarkable for their luminosity and gracefulness. With their ravishing hues, large scale and delicate washes, the works test the expressive limits of abstraction. These paintings exemplified in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski constitute one of the crowning achievements of American art.
Color field abstraction has, however, been somewhat overlooked in the wake of post-Modernism. “Color as Field” offers an opportunity to reevaluate this important aspect of American abstract painting.
The exhibition begins by tracing the origins of color field painting within postwar American abstraction when practitioners rejected the gestural, emotion-driven side of Abstract Expressionism. They developed, instead, their ideas about “alloverness” (decentralized compositions spread uniformly across a surface) and the primacy of color. By including works by Hans Hofmann, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and other Abstract Expressionists, this exhibition makes clear their pivotal roles as precursors to color field painting.
The next section in the exhibition features the pioneers and painters most closely associated with color field painting †Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland and Olitski. Although their approaches are notably diverse, they share a commitment to the primacy of color, the flat picture plan and spatial and emotional ambiguity.
The final section of the exhibition analyzes an early, seminal exhibition of color field painting, “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” organized in 1964 by the influential critic Clement Greenberg. This section looks at the broad reach of the color field movement itself. Included are works by Walter Darby Bannard, Jack Bush, Gene Davis, Ronald Davis, Friedel Dzubas, Sam Gilliam, Larry Poons and Frank Stella.
For all its breadth, however, “Post-Painterly Abstraction” was not entirely comprehensive. Many painters not represented in the 1964 exhibition were also exploring closely related ideas about color, most notably Poons in New York, Gilliam in Washington, D.C., and Davis in Los Angeles. The inclusion of their work in “Color as Field” adds greater depth to the range of ideas about color, materiality and process that engaged many painters of the 1960s and early 1970s. Collectively, these works show the individuality and originality of the practitioners of color-based abstraction, while also revealing the shared concerns and assumptions that connected, however loosely, this wide-ranging group of painters.
The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is at 919 Broadway. For information, 615-244-3340 or www.fristcenter.org .
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