Reflections of revolt: Color Field painters forever

The Baltimore Sun

In an era of profound upheaval, the Color Field painters of the 1960s - artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and others - remained oddly detached from the great issues of their day.

So writes curator Karen Wilkin in the brochure accompanying Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975, a lovely exhibition that opened last week at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

"For anyone who believes that political currency is a necessary component of works of art," Wilkins writes, "it may be surprising to realize that the Color Field painters were at work during the years marked by the burgeoning women's movement, nascent gay rights activism, an escalating civil rights movement, and growing resistance to the Vietnam War, among other notable events."

It's true that you can walk through this show and never see an image of a clenched fist, a burning bra or a peace symbol. But artists rarely choose to express their innermost thoughts about the times in which they live through such obvious devices.

Noland's glowing circles of light and color, Louis' radiant pours of pigment, which seem to blossom on the canvas like the petals of exotic flowers, and Frankenthaler's ethereal abstractions evoking landscapes from some half-remembered dream didn't preach revolution. They were the revolution.

Critic Clement Greenberg called the new style "Post-Painterly Abstraction," a reference to the Color Field painters' rejection of the emotion-laden, gestural abstraction of predecessors like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and others.

For the passionate, agitated mark-making and explosive brushwork of that first generation of Abstract-Expressionists, the Color Field painters substituted a cool, intellectual manipulation of color effects and sleek surfaces that almost seemed to deny the intervention of the artist's hand.

Greenberg talked about Color Field painting mostly in terms of the new formal qualities it brought to the fore: an ever greater emphasis on the flatness of the canvas, the virtuoso manipulation of pigments thinned nearly to the consistency of watercolors, and the emotional impact of large areas of vibrant hues, either singly or in combination.

But walking through this show, I couldn't help feeling that this purely formal analysis failed to take into account the deeper reasons these artists might have felt compelled to break with their predecessors. In art, as in life, changes in style, however incremental, almost always signal the emergence of new modes of thinking as well.

My guess is that the Color Field artists were perfectly aware of what was going on around them, and chose to respond by making paintings that were themselves acts of personal liberation and expressions of the ideal of freedom for its own sake.

Perhaps their achievement simply represented the extension of a recurrent American impulse, embedded in the collective psyche of a nation of immigrants: To start over, to push beyond the next frontier, to remake the self and thereby transform one's world.

That impulse was particularly acute in the tumultuous America of the 1960s, when the status quo was suddenly stripped of the social consensus that had supported it because so many people came to view it as intolerable for so many different reasons.

Abstract-Expressionism had dragged the country kicking and screaming out of the conformity and complacency of the first postwar decade. Color Field painting expressed the urgency of answering the question "What Next?" - of leaving the old America behind for something more in harmony with the country's ideals.

If the Color Field artists didn't paint peace symbols and clenched fists, it may have been because they somehow intuited - as artists often do - that through their dispassionate drips and pours of thin, liquid color and abstract forms that emulate a world of pure feeling, they already were imagining a more perfect union.

Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 runs through May 26 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets Northwest, Washington. Call 202-633-7970 or go to american art.si.edu. glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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