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 Pollock
, Willem de Kooning
, Mark 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.”