Notes on Color Field Painting

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Notes on Color Field Painting

Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion

In 1964, Clement Greenberg was invited by the Los Angeles County Museum to organize an exhibition featuring a group of vital, mostly young artists who had issued a challenge to the entrenched norms of gestural Abstract Expressionism. Greenberg collaborated with the L.A. County's curator James Elliott on a wide ranging selection that included Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, Walter Darby Bannard, Jack Bush, Gene Davis, Friedel Dzubas, Sam Francis, and their colleagues, all of whom were building their paintings with broad areas of unmodulated color, reveling in the expressive possibilities of what Greenberg called "openness and clarity."

As a nod to the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin's celebrated distinctions between the "linear" and the "painterly" Greenberg titled the show "Post-Painterly Abstraction." Wolfflin had used the terms to distinguish between the lucidly organized "linear" pictures of Renaissance Florence and the turbulent images of "painterly" Venice, but he had also posited a continuing alternation between these extremes--from the linear Renaissance to the painterly Baroque to linear Neo-Classicism and so on. As the title of the L.A. County show suggests, Greenberg applied Wolfflin's polarities to more recent art. In 1962, for example, he wrote, "If the label 'Abstract Expressionism' means anything, it means painterliness: loose, rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct; large and conspicuous rhythms; broken color; uneven saturations or densities of paint, exhibited brush, knife, or finger marks--in short, a constellation of qualities like those defined by Wolfflin when he extracted his notion of Malerische [painterly] from Baroque art."

Yet, just as the painterly and the linear coexisted in Renaissance Italy in Venice and Florence, painterly painting was not universal even among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. If the "Venetian" Malerische was exemplified by Willem de Kooning's gestural evocations of existential instability, its "Florentine" opposite was embodied, variously, by Jackson Pollock's flickering skeins, Mark Rothko's hovering rectangles, and Barnett Newman's sheets of color. Far from demonstrating that painterliness was the defining characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, these artists suggested new ideas about what abstract pictures could be.

The painterly and non-painterly Abstract Expressionists were united by their belief in the necessity of abstractness--their certainty that art sprang from the unconscious, that an "authentic" painting was infused with its author's personality, and that the history of a painting's evolution was part of its meaning. But for the painterly Abstract Expressionists, gesture declared individuality and carried emotion; layering was a visible indication of the painting's previous and future states, a sign of the existential instability of the moment. For the anti-Malerische Abstract Expressionists, overt gesture was largely expendable. Expansiveness, clarity, all-overness were more crucial than evidence of past and future change. All-overness announced that the painting was both a self-sufficient entity and a fragment of a larger continuum, which suggested endless possibility. If painterly abstraction evoked the agonized indecisions of the present, anti-Malerische abstraction yearned for the infinite, even the eternal. Such paintings not only dramatically enlarge the meaning of the label Abstract Expressionism, but they also prefigure ideas explored by the next generation: the loosely associated group, now known as "Color Field" painters, who were included in "Post-Painterly Abstraction."

"Post-painterly abstractions" are strikingly reticent, both physically and psychologically, despite being based on the belief that a painting could address the viewer's entire emotional and intellectual being through the eye, as music did through the ear. …

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