Feature Archive

"The Primacy of Color"
Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975
Currently at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tenn., June 20 - Sept. 21

Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today
Recently at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York
By K. Kimberly King
"Color is my day-long obsession, joy, and torment," confessed Claude Monet.

The Impressionist master's preoccupation receives radically different treatments in two recent exhibits, their lively websites, and their insightful, provocative catalogues: Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975, recently at the Smithsonian, and MoMA's Color Chart: Reinventing Color, 1950 to Today. Both mark the first full-scale examinations of these themes, zeroing in on what color expert Josef Albers termed "the most relative medium in art."

Color as Field's lushly hued 41 canvases "make one consider the possibility," notes independent curator Karen Wilkin, who organized the show and wrote its catalogue, that "you can be deeply moved and maybe in some way changed by visual experience." In contrast, MoMA displayed 90 paintings, drawings, videos, and installation art that embody the "desanctification of color," explains curator Ann Temkin. Both shows can be sampled, via MoMA's web feature and the Color as Field educators' resource produced by the American Federation of Arts. (See pages 20-39 for ten works from the show.)

Art historian Briony Fer sums up the wellspring of both examinations in the MoMA catalogue: "One of the few constants in the history of color is the conflicting opinion about how it works: at one pole color is meant to be subjective, intuitive, expressive, translating into a language of aesthetic feelings and emotions; at the other it is objective, scientific, systematic."

Drawn to the first, emotional pole, Color as Field's 19 painters created powerful, large expanses of radiant color to the exclusion of line, form, and representation. They might have been following Matisse's dictum: "Seek the strongest color effect possible... the content is of no importance." Impressionists, then even more, Fauvists, had highlighted that effect; fully abstract art could spotlight it totally.

Running counter to that approach, MoMA's sumptuously illustrated catalogue pegs the commercial color chart - arriving in the 1880s for household use - as the "point of departure" which smashed "long-held convictions regarding the spiritual aspects and scientific properties of particular colors," giving way to "a widespread attitude that took for granted the fact of color as a commercial product." Claims curator Temkin: "The color chart [then computers' endless color combinations] has largely supplanted the color wheel... Beauty is found in the everyday, rather than in the ideal."

Mid-20th century artists simultaneously followed both tracks. In the same year (1951) that Mark Rothko created his luminescent #18, which opens Color as Field, Ellsworth Kelly turned out his huge Colors for a Large Wall [image], announcing: "I am not interested in painting as it has been accepted for so long -- to hang on the walls of houses as pictures. To hell with pictures -- they should be the wall." In contrast, Rothko was "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."

Artistic process broke new terrain the following year when Helen Frankenthaler, then 24 and unknown, experimented with staining raw canvas with thinned, watery oils in "one-shot painting," so called because it offered no chance for revision. With Mountains and Sea's (1952) [image] seeming weightless abstraction and lush colors, she had founded Color Field painting, the first art movement pioneered by a woman. Notes curator Wilkin: "The... luminous hues... rapidly established her as a painter to be reckoned with."

Inspired by summer sketching in Nova Scotia, she returned to her New York studio to "get down the urgent message I felt somehow ready to express, in the large, free scale it demanded. The materials I used... to make Mountains and Sea were not part of a concentrated effort to discover a technique of soaking and staining into raw, unsized canvas. I didn't try staining per se. I was trying to get at something. I didn't know what it was until it was manifest. I did use [Jackson Pollock's] technique of putting the canvas on the floor."

She famously noted: "You could become a de Kooning disciple... but you could depart from Pollock." Morris Louis, who would become a leading Color Field artist, called Frankenthaler "a bridge between Pollock and what was possible."

That bridge linking Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painters, explains curator Wilkin, "was the conviction that the role of art was not to report on the visible, but to reveal the unknown." Color Field painters departed from earlier gestural, layered techniques in favor of "all-overness and the primacy of color." Through singular abstraction they made color radiant, huge, total. As Smithsonian curator Joanna Marsh puts it: "These artists wanted the viewer to be consumed by color."

Not all viewers approved. In a 1997 interview, Frankenthaler recalled that "Mountains and Sea was first looked at with anger. Some people saw it as a blown-up paint rag, something you wipe your brushes on." More lastingly, art critic Arthur Danto termed the work "as beautiful as painting gets."

Curator Wilkin declares that "Frankenthaler is recognized as one of the great painters of all time. There are no qualifications."

Later in her career, Frankenthaler observed: "The history of painting demonstrates that the application of paint can become the subject." How does subject emerge? "I depart from a concept and reach instead into the demands of the canvas before me. The painting, as it progresses through my mind and body, determines its own journey to completion. Painting is a constant process of renewal and discovery. You can't explain exactly how and why [it] works."

In a visit now legendary in art history annals, famed critic Clement Greenberg invited Washington-based artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis to New York to see Mountains and Sea. Though absent, Frankenthaler had given her blessing to the 1953 tour of her studio, an event that would reroute both men's artistic directions.

A year later, Louis began staining "Veil" paintings, moving on to "Florals," "Unfurleds," and, employing acrylics introduced in the 1950s, "Stripes" [image]. Color-based abstraction grew entwined with advances in fast-drying acrylics, a particular plus for Louis because he was forced to work in his dining room. The new medium helped him turn out more than 600 canvases in the five years before his death. His work was reaching critical acclaim just as lung cancer was prematurely ending his life. Art critic Robert Hughes praised his "instinct for light as the primal theme of painting... [drawing] shapes by manipulating the effects of gravity on liquid. This eliminated the traces of the expressive hand and gave his surfaces a sweet, frictionless clarity."

Clarity of design emerged in other Color Field explorations. Kenneth Noland first adapted the staining he'd seen into concentric circles. "I knew what a circle could do. The thing is to get that color down on the thinnest conceivable surface. In the best color painting, structure is nowhere evident." Former political reporter Gene Davis, proclaiming himself "too old to learn to draw," employed stripes for color effect. But "I never plan my color more than five stripes ahead... I paint by eye."

Works by, i.a., Jack Bush, Frank Stella, Larry Poons and shimmering canvases from Jules Olitski and Sam Gilliam complete both show and beautiful, biographically rich Color as Field catalogue. An important inclusion, two works by venerated teacher/artist Hans Hofmann, underline Clement Greenberg's nod to the German master's art lectures for grounding his own artistic education. Hofmann, who kept teaching until age 78, when he devoted himself exclusively to painting, comments in his 1948 Search for the Real: "...the whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color. Our entire being is nourished by it."

Artists seeking such edification possess, said Frankenthaler, "a wonderful gift, but... also an albatross. It makes one 'different.' That's why people may be slightly uncomfortable with artists [who have]... something out of the ordinary."

'Out of the ordinary' was the reaction to Marcel Duchamp's remarks at a 1961 MoMA symposium on "The Art of Assemblage:" "Since the tubes of paint used by an artist are manufactured and readymade products, we must conclude that all the paintings in the world are readymades." He invokes that spirit in an array of lozenge-shaped colors spilling across his last painting, Tu m' (1918).The nine foot-wide canvas designed for the library of his Société Anonyme co-founder Katherine Dreier begins the Color Chart website.

From Tu m's pointing hand to Dan Flavin's fluorescent lights to Jim Lambie's vinyl taping of a MoMA floor, 44 artists explore two versions of the phrase "ready-made color:" pigments bought off the shelf, rather than hand-mixed; and color assigned by chance, rather than according to traditional harmonies, or artists' taste. Frank Stella, the only artist with works in both shows, famously vowed "to keep the paint as good as it is in the can." A long-time user of alkyd wall paint (produced by Benjamin Moore, a supporter of the MoMA show), Stella is represented in Color Chart with Gran Cairo (1962) [image], from his concentric square series.

Similar colored stripes that pulsated across a MoMA floor are preserved on the website under the name of rock musician turned installation artist Jim Lambie. The Glaswegian uses colored vinyl tape in geometric patterns to create site-specific optical effects. He calls all 30-odd floors [image] he's installed Zobop! from graffito that struck him as musical, evocative of "doo-wop or be-bop".

He explains his method: "I select the color, the width of the line and outline a basic pattern of alternation. Beyond that, the work makes itself... You follow the edge of the room, which is basically controlling the piece."

Such riots of color came, not only with evolving artistic movements, but from changing technologies in the production of paint. Centuries ago, artists had to array their palettes by squirting paints from animal bladders sold in apothecaries. Renaissance patrons stipulated exact colors in contracts for commissioned work; harsh penalties befell cheaters using inferior paints. Until the 19th century, certain colors were de luxe, often hard to obtain and prepare for use.

As curator Temkin observes: "Only with the invention of oil paint, which could be mixed to produce new colors, did the gradual dissociation between a given color and its natural source begin. Nature was placed at an even greater remove when, in the mid-1800s, chemical companies began the synthetic production of paints." Thus could J.M.W. Turner create misty sky- and sea-scapes when yellow oil paints appeared commercially in the 1820s. At that time, companies such as Winsor and Newton - devoted to artists' materials - sprouted up, greatly aided by American painter John Rand's addition of the tin tube to package oil paint. Voila! painters could work en plein air; Impressionists scattered across fields, riverbanks, seashores, and dans la rue.

A century on, artists could choose from an unprecedented variety of premixed, prepackaged colors, eventually leading, writes Temkin, to "the color-chart sensibility that began to spread... in the middle of the 20th century... tied to a rhetoric that favored the democratization of the realm of fine art. Today it is taken for granted that an artist works with anything... [ranging from] a Pantone chart or a computer program,... chance operations, borrowed sources."

Whole libraries address aspects of color: its physics, chemistry, psychology and symbolism, and methods of mixing pigments for various media. Color theory principles first appear in Alberti's writings (c.1435), then in Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks (c.1490). In his 1704 Opticks, Isaac Newton details experiments with the effects of sunlight through a glass prism. From this he concluded that light is the source of color. Goethe regarded his immense 1810 study, Theory of Colors (Farbenlehre), not Faust, as his finest achievement. French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul influenced artists with his 1839 The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (1839), as did German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz three decades later in demonstrating that every color has three different qualities: hue (color quality), value (lightness or darkness) and intensity (saturation). American art instructor Albert Munsell's 1915 color atlas was a pioneering attempt to numerically describe colors. Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten and Josef Albers all taught color theory at the Bauhaus.

Albers, later chair of Yale's Art Department, began his well-known series Homage to the Square in 1950 -- eventually constructing more than one thousand over a quarter-century. By superimposing three or four squares over one another according to precise ratios, he explored the optical and perceptual qualities of color [image]. Carefully recording all data about pigments employed, he wanted to demonstrate ever-changing effects and relationships with different color combinations. He rejected scientific and theoretical interpretations, wishing instead to focus on color as a means of aesthetic revelation.

In counterpoint, Color Chart announces itself as "matter-of-fact color... without symbolic or expressive baggage... [It] is relentlessly indifferent to us. We don't say that a certain blue in a color chart is a melancholic or sad blue; it is just blue."

"In the 21st century," continues the MoMA catalogue, "new technologies will continue to transform artists' approach to color just as the first availability of synthetic paints did over a century ago. In the past two decades, Photoshop and Epson have joined, if not sidelined, Winsor and Newton, Crayola, and Color-aid as names immediately associated with color. These changes parallel a historical trajectory in which color has come to be identified less with nature than with culture. While the original referent for color was, of course, the natural world -- flora, minerals, sky, sea -- over time the ratio of natural to artificial color in our lives has steadily decreased."

From caves, color chart, color wheel, color field or complete accident, "all beautiful painting," states Helen Frankenthaler, "has a sense of necessity and urgency, as if it were imperative that the artist make this work... The quality of true beauty is not describable or definable. A true work of art grows on you, you need it. It communicates order and truth.

"It has a life force."

Related institutions:
          Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee
          Museum of Modern Art, New York
          Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Further information on artists mentioned in the article:
           Claude Monet      Josef Albers
           Henri Matisse      Mark Rothko
           Ellsworth Kelly      Helen Frankenthaler
           Jackson Pollock      Willem de Kooning
           Morris Louis      Kenneth Noland
           Gene Davis      Jack Bush
           Frank Stella      Lawrence Poons
           Jules Olitski      Sam Gilliam
           Hans Hofmann      Marcel Duchamp
           Dan Flavin      Jim Lambie
           J.M.W. Turner      Cherubino Alberti
           Leonardo da Vinci      Wassily Kandinsky
           Johannes Itten

"Color possesses me"

Paul Klee declared, in one of art history's most impassioned statements on the subject, I don't have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. Color and I are one. I am a painter.

Contemplating a well-ordered palette, Kandinsky rhapsodized: The eye... is charmed by the beauty... of the color. The spectator experiences a feeling of... pleasure, like a gourmet [with] a tasty morsel in his mouth... The psychological power of color becomes apparent, calling forth a vibration from the soul.

Numerous artists and writers have weighed in on the element Roy Lichtenstein called crucial in painting, but... very hard to talk about. There is almost nothing you can say [about color] that holds up as a generalization, because it depends on too many factors: size, modulation, the rest of the field, a certain consistency that color has with forms, and the statement you're trying to make.

Color is so much a matter of direct and immediate perception that any discussion of theory needs to be accompanied by experiments with the colors themselves.
-Walter Sargent

The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color.
- Hans Hofmann

There are no colors, strictly speaking, only coloring materials.
- Jean Dubuffet

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually.
- Josef Albers

The laws of color are unutterably beautiful, just because they are not accidental.
-Vincent Van Gogh

Some of us come on earth seeing - some of us come on earth seeing color.
- Louise Nevelson

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way - things I had no words for.
- Georgia O'Keeffe

Why do two colors, put one next to the other, sing? Can one really explain this? No.
- Pablo Picasso

When I paint green, it doesn't mean grass; when I paint blue, it doesn't mean sky.
- Henri Matisse

Give me mud and I will paint you the skin of Venus.
- Eugene Delacroix

Whenever I give a demonstration of color mixing, I ask my audience where they experience the main difficulty. The answer is invariably the same - 'mixing greens.'
- Michael Wilcox

I love red so much, I almost want to paint everything red.
- Alexander Calder

If one says 'red,' and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds.
- Josef Albers

I cannot pretend to feel impartial about colors. I rejoice with the brilliant ones and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.
- Winston Churchill

I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.
- Alice Walker

I have finally discovered the color of the atmosphere. It is violet.
- Claude Monet

Yellow is capable of charming God.
- Vincent Van Gogh

There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.
- Pablo Picasso

I've been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black.
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir

We were always intoxicated with color, with words that speak of color, and with the sun that makes colors live.
- André Derain

Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.
- Oscar Wilde

Seek the strongest color effect possible... the content is of no importance.
- Henri Matisse

The purest thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.
- John Ruskin


Past Articles

      Fame and the Founding Father, by Joseph Phelan
      "There is no final photograph", by K. Kimberly King

      How Edward Hopper Saw the Light, by Joseph Phelan
      Giving "New Worlds to the World": Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries, by K. Kimberly King
      London Views: Spring 2007 and Beyond, by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
      Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939, by K. Kimberly King
      Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque, by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
      What Jasper Johns "Can't Avoid Saying", by K. Kimberly King
      Holy Image/Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

      Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
      Stop, See, and Soar: "Société Anonyme", by K. Kimberly King
      Constable's Great Landscapes, by Joseph Phelan
      Editorial: Save Studio 60 (from needing to be saved), by John Malyon
      Far From Heaven: Anselm Kiefer at the Hirshorn, by Joseph Phelan
      Henri Rousseau: Self-Taught in Paris, by K. Kimberly King
      Klee, Hitler and America, by Joseph Phelan
      Anyone For Venice?, by Joseph Phelan
      The Legends of Leonardo, by Joseph Phelan
      Hey, "Dada"-Dude, Where's the Rest of Me?, by K. Kimberly King
      Cézanne in Provence, by Joseph Phelan
      Angels in America: Fra Angelico in New York, by Joseph Phelan

      Notes on New York (NoNY), by Joseph Phelan
      The Greatest Painting in Britain
      French Drawings and Their Passionate Collectors, by Joseph Phelan
      Missing the Picture: Desperate Housewives Do Art History, by Joseph Phelan
      The Salvador Dalí Show, by Joseph Phelan

      Boston Marathon, by Joseph Phelan
      Philadelphia is for Art Lovers, by Joseph Phelan
      Featured on the Web: Understanding Islamic Art and its Influence, by Joseph Phelan
      Independence Day: Sanford R. Gifford and the Hudson River School, by Joseph Phelan
      The "Look" of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      The Importance of Being Odd: Nerdrum's Challenge to Modernism, by Paul A. Cantor

      Advent Calendar 2003, narrated by Joseph Phelan
      If Paintings Could Talk: Paul Johnson's Art: A New History, by Joseph Phelan
      Mad Max [Max Beckmann], by Joseph Phelan
      Marsden Hartley: The Return of the Native, by Joseph Phelan
      Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, by Joseph Phelan
      Frederic Remington's Nocturnes, by Joseph Phelan
      Magnificenza! Titian and Michelangelo, Manet and Velazquez, by Joseph Phelan
      Masterful Leonardo and Graphic Dürer, by Joseph Phelan
      Favorite Online Art Museum Features, by Joseph Phelan
      Studies for Masterpieces, by John Malyon

      Portrait of the Artist as a Serial Killer, by Joseph Phelan
      Renoir's Travelling, Bonnard's "At Home, by Joseph Phelan
      The Philosopher as Hero: Raphael's The School of Athens, by Joseph Phelan
      The Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization
      Celebrating Heroes; Celebrating Benjamin West, by Joseph Phelan
      Chasing the Red Deer into the American Sublime (Education and the Art Museum, Part II), by Joseph Phelan
      Planning Your Summer Vacation, by Joseph Phelan
      Education and the Art Museum, Part I, by Joseph Phelan
      Unsung Griots of American Painting, by Joseph Phelan
      The British Museum COMPASS Project, interview by Joseph Phelan
      Robert Hughes, Time Magazine Art Critic: Biography and Writings

      Software review: Le Louvre: The Virtual Visit on DVD-ROM, by Joseph Phelan
      Tragedy and Triumph at Arles: Van Gogh and Gauguin, by Joseph Phelan
      Her Last Bow: Sister Wendy in America, by Joseph Phelan
      Love, Death and Resurrection: The Paintings of Stanley Spencer, by Joseph Phelan
      Who is Rodin's Thinker?, by Joseph Phelan
      Celebrations North and South, by Joseph Phelan
      Rubens and his Age, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Reproductions of Great Paintings
      The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Edouard Manet: Public Spaces, Private Dreams, by Joseph Phelan
      Henry Moore and the British Museum: The Great Conversation, by Joseph Phelan

      Notorious Portraits, Part II, by John Malyon
      Notorious Portraits, Part I, by John Malyon
      The Other Michelangelo, by Joseph Phelan
      The Art of Drawing, by Joseph Phelan
      Poussin and the Heroic Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Great Art Museums Online, by Joseph Phelan
      Venetian Painting and the Rise of Landscape, by Joseph Phelan
      Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art, by Joseph Phelan
      Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ, by Joseph Phelan
      Web site review: Christus Rex
      Web site review: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., by Joseph Phelan
      Online exhibit review: Inuit Art: The World Around Me, by John Malyon
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)
      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)

      Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
      Spotlight on The Louvre Museum
      Spotlight on Impressionism
      Spotlight on Optical Art
      Spotlight on Animals in Art
      Spotlight on Surrealism
      Spotlight on Sculpture
      Spotlight on Women in the Arts
      Spotlight on The Golden Age of Illustration
      Spotlight on Vincent van Gogh
      Spotlight on Great Art


Top 30 Artists
Art News
Art Museums Worldwide
About Us