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Abstract Art and Radical Color

Given the prevalence of abstract art and the use of large areas (or “fields” of color) in contemporary painting, we may not think of color fields as a particularly radical form of abstract art.

However in 1955, when American art critic Clement Greenberg described Barnett Newman’s manner of applying paint not in terms of contours or gestural brushstrokes but as “fields” of color, he believed (what became known as) Color Field Painting could help the United States contribute to global advancements in art as it had already in literature and music. Greenberg’s championing of this type of painting, which was also characterized by little to no modulation in tone and color, and created in an immersive (large) scale, stemmed from his belief that an in-depth examination of color as form was pushing the medium of painting forward, purifying itself towards its “viable essence.”

Color Field Painting is now understood as a tendency within the post-World War II American movement, Abstract Expressionism. Though never a formal movement or school, “AbEx” grouped together artists—including Jackson PollockWillem de KooningMark Rothko, and Clyfford Still, amongst others—with interest in spontaneity, monumental size, the individual psyche, and universal expressions of feeling. Historically, AbEx has been broken into two tendencies: Gestural Abstraction (or Action Painting), which emphasized the energy of the painter’s mark, and Color Field Painting. Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning are the most well-known Action Painters; Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman are arguably the best-known artists considered Color Field painters.

For some Color Field painters, the reduction of compositional elements to flat fields of color and the elimination of any recognizable forms was a vehicle for expressing a sublime, even spiritual, aesthetic experience through abstraction. As Rothko famously noted: “I am interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom...People who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them."

As well, such a focus on color opened the doors past narrative or subject matter and into more abstract realms of the human experience. According to Greenberg, Rothko’s work showed a “persistent biased toward warmth,” while Newman’s work seemed imbued with an “activated, pregnant emptiness.”

Among what was considered the second generation of Abstract Expressionist artists, color fields were established by staining or pouring, such as in the work of Helen FrankenthalerMorris Louis or Jules Olitski in the later 1950s. This enabled paint to interact with the canvas in a manner nearly freed of the artist’s hand and made it dependent, instead, on gravity. Often referred to as Post-Painterly Abstraction, this process-oriented manner of painting introduced a greater dimension of chance and transformed the relationship of paint to canvas. In later years Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella pursued a more geometric look than the loose and organic forms of Frankenthaler for example, creating harder-edged compositions with chevrons, concentric circles, or angular shapes. Other artists, moved by the experiments of early 20th-century abstractionists such as Kasimir Malevich, distilled their investigation to the monochrome (Robert Ryman and Yves Klein, among others). In the 1970s, artists such as Larry PoonsAlma Thomas and Frank Bowling would combine a focus on more vivid color tones with more distinct gestural elements to create a rhythmic surface.


- Ellen Tani, Researcher on The Art Genome Project

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