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Color Crazed

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9-olitski-cleopatra-flesh.jpg

The show that opens today at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975,” is to say the least, colorful.

The galleries literally breathe color. Large expanses of it are spread playfully and aggressively in geometric shapes, or seemingly splashed randomly across enormous canvases that are all hung together as if they are, forgive me, color-coordinated?

Here are paintings infused with the cool colors of winter and spring, followed by the brilliant warm colors of summer and fall. The visitor wandering amidst the milieu is struck by its simple beauty, but can't help wonder, what does it all mean?

The show’s catalog gives us some help: "What sets the best Color Field paintings apart is the extraordinary economy of means with which they manage not only to engage our feelings but also to ravish the eye. . ."

“Paint application in Color Field abstractions," the catalog explains, "can seem, depending on our sympathies, either inexplicably magical or almost mechanical.”

I’m going with magical. The 40 paintings by such major figures as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, on display through May 26, as viewed on a cold, dreary day (with deadlines looming) combined to offer a genuine lift in spirit.

Color Field artists were essentially a dotted line over from abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. The color painters, spurred on by the development of acrylic paints, were washing or staining their untreated canvases with an all-over expansiveness of color, to create paintings of radiant hues.

This is the first retrospective of the Color Field artists and many of the paintings are from private collections, and therefore, rarely seen in public.

If March shows up like a lion tomorrow, the paintings in this show are guaranteed to cheer you.

(Jules Olitski, Cleopatra Flesh, 1962, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; gift of G. David Thompson, 1964, copyright The Museum of Modern Art/ Licensed by SCALA/Art resource, NY, copyright Jules Olitski/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

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About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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