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Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975 Opens at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Jules Olitski, Cleopatra Flesh, 1962, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 104 x 90 inches, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of G. David Thompson, 1964 (262.1964), Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY, Art © Jules Olitski/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

NASHVILLE.- The Frist Center for the Visual Arts opens Color as Field: American Painting, 1950–1975, Friday, June 20, 2008. The first full-scale exhibition in many years to examine this period, Color as Field features 41 magnificent, 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, which included the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Color as Field: American Painting, 1950–1975 is organized by the American Federation of Arts. The exhibition is made possible, in part, by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius. The exhibition will be on view at the Frist Center through Sept. 21, 2008.

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 to explore the potential range of emotional associations triggered by pure color relationships. 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. In the wake of Post-Modernism, however, Color Field abstraction has been somewhat overlooked. 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. Color Field painters rejected the gestural, emotion-driven side of Abstract Expressionism; instead, they developed and expanded their ideas about “all-overness” (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—Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski. Although their approaches are notably diverse, they share a commitment to the primacy of color, the flat picture plane and spatial and emotional ambiguity.

After initially working in thinned-out oil paint, these artists quickly exploited the properties of newly developed acrylic medium. This change in technology permitted large expanses of color to be simultaneously intense and thin, allowing the Color Field painters to experiment with extremes of simplicity and clarity in their paint handling.

Frankenthaler led the way with her large, transparent stain paintings that were as direct as watercolors but as commanding as any major work on canvas. She established her own method of drawing and painting delicate washes on generously scaled, unprimed canvases. Louis and Noland soon responded to Frankenthaler’s innovations with their own exploration of color, symmetry and flatness. By the early 1960s, their friend Olitski had probed even more extreme effects in his luminous, sprayed hues. Over time these artists continued to invent fresh formats and create new challenges for themselves, while testing the limits of how much meaning could be wrested from the inspired placement of color.

The final section of the exhibition analyzes an early, seminal exhibition of Color Field painting, Post-Painterly Abstraction, organized in 1964 and looks further 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.

In 1964, the influential critic Clement Greenberg helped organize an exhibition of color-based abstract painting for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This important exhibition attests to the wide geographic and generational reach of Color Field painting by the early 1960s. The selection included artists from New York, Washington, D.C., the West Coast and Toronto. They ranged in age from contemporaries of the Abstract Expressionists, such as Jack Bush, born in 1909, to young newcomers such as Walter Darby Bannard, born in 1934, and Frank Stella, born in 1936.

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 Larry Poons, in New York; Sam Gilliam, in Washington, D.C.; and Ronald 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.

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