Fields of Color

It is hard to find artists who put color above all else. So many other things can preoccupy their creativity and get in the way. But there was a time when color reigned supreme. Color Field artists like Gene Davis, Clyfford Still, Sam Gilliam, Hans Hofmann, Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko made hue of singular importance, but diverged significantly in the ways this focus was manifested. Many of their works are on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975" exhibit running through May 26, 2008.

Gene Davis adorned his canvases with thin, ruler-straight lines of color. He used bright, glossy acrylics and repeated the colors to establish a visual rhythm that comes off as jazzy and upbeat. Clyfford Still stands out for his use of thick impasto paint and ragged, choppy application. His organization of color is loose, not geometric or rigid at all, but there is a certain level of control indicated by the fact that the different colors on his palette rarely mix or tint one another. Mark Rothko rejected the notion that his work was abstract expressionist, let alone part of the color field movement. Yet his multiforms—vertical canvases with large rectangular blocks of contrasting, but complementary, colors—indicate that he was part of this movement, willing or not.

A whole generation of artists was lured by the promise of pure, saturated color. Their treatment of pigment was incredibly individualistic, but all of them understood and responded to one of the integral aspects of visual art—the primacy of color.

(Helen Frankenthaler, Flood, Whitney Museum of American Art © 2007 Helen Frankenthaler. Photograph Geoffrey Clements. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts)

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