Color Field Painting
Color Field painting is an art movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Artists whose works can be categorized as Color Field chose to focus predominantly on the use of color in their works almost to the exclusion of other visual elements. Color Field paintings of the twentieth century are mostly works on canvas, and some artists applied color in a formal, hard-edge manner, while others chose to apply color in a more organic, free-form manner. The focus on color as demonstrated by the Color Field artists continues to influence contemporary artists; however, contemporary artists often explore color across a wider variety of media.
Of the three main currents in art that emerged in the twentieth century, Expressionism, Abstraction, and Fantasy, Color Field painters were inspired by the developments in Expressionism and Abstraction . The focus of Expressionism was the artist’s feelings and emotional responses via their conceptual content, subject matter, and painterly technique; and the focus of Abstraction was a more conceptual approach to the partial or complete nonrepresentational depiction of subject matter depicted with more formally structured painterly techniques.
Color Field painting emerged in the 1940s, and painters such as Mark Rothko (1902–1970), Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), and Morris Louis (1912–1962) focused on expressing emotion through painting, while Clyfford Still (1904–1980), Barnett Newman (1905–1970), and Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923) applied a more formal, structured approach to their conceptual content and composition. The predominant focus that all Color Field painters shared was the use of color as the key conduit for conveying emotional or conceptual content.
Art critic Harold Rosenberg suggested that abstract painting represented a new function whereby the canvas became an “arena in which to act… What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event” [2, p. 22]. From Rosenberg’s perspective, “a painting is inseparable from the biography of the artist” [2, p. 23]. These views were countered at the time by art critic Clement Greenberg who preferred to focus on the formal qualities such as shape, color, and line rather than the act of painting. Greenberg applauded the works of Still, Newman, and Rothko with their primary focus on color and marveled that their paintings “exhale color with an enveloping effect that is enhanced by size” [3, p. 226].
The approach of the Color Field painters reflected the nineteenth-century impressionist painter’s tradition of using patches of color to capture a scene’s ambience and convey a sense of movement plus capture a fleeting moment in time. This approach came about when Charles Baudelaire suggested that painters should “evoke reality, not by detailing its forms, but by using a line or patch of tone to stimulate the spectator to recreate reality through the act of imagination” (Baudelaire 1863, cited in [4, p. 9]).
Color Field painters translated the impressionists small-scale color patches to much larger fields of color, encouraging their viewers to engage with their paintings on a more intimate but still static basis. Color was used to convey ambience as well as universal emotions such as joie de vivre, tension, tragedy, and tranquility. Rothko suggested that painting represented a “portal … into the vast recesses of the human psyche” and the role of color was to generate an emotional response: “I’m interested in eliciting basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on” (Rothko, cited in [5, p. 6]).
Using color as a form of communication or code, Color Field painters followed a long tradition. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) believed that color had the capacity to connect with the human condition: “I have tried to express the terrible passions of the human heart…” (Van Gogh, cited in (, p. 72)). In letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh indicated that he attached emotional meanings to various hues and he clearly preferred strong, saturated color . Similarly, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and the symbolists believed that color could “act like words; that it [color] held an exact counterpart for every sensation, every nuance of feeling” [8, p. 129]. Likewise, Edvard Munch (1863–1944) used color and darker tones to help convey universal emotions such as anxiety, fear, or sorrow in paintings like The Dance of Life (1899) and Death in the Sickroom (1895). Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) also believed that color as well as form had the capacity to communicate, and he assigned certain connotations to specific colors; yellow, for example, represented warmth .
Mark Rothko (1903–1970) aimed to engage the viewer on a deeper, more personal level and “relied on large fields of color to produce solemn and elevated works” that had the power to convey something about the human condition [8, p. 314]. Eschewing other visual elements, Rothko suggested: “We may start with color,” which became the primary focus of his works (Rothko, cited in [10, p. 65]).
Rothko said: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on” . The size of Rothko’s canvases, which often feature blocks of saturated color horizontally stacked, reveals his desire to create an intense experience for the viewer, and he suggested that the ideal viewing distance for his works was a close arm’s length distance from the canvas . Rothko noted, “I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to paint yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass… However, to paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command…” [8, p. 320]. Rothko’s paintings are a presence in themselves, so large and intensely colored that one is expected to feel their “spiritual vibration” [6, p. 72].
Barnett Newman (1905–1970) used the color palette of the De Stijl movement and the Bauhaus in a completely different way: “Why give in to these purists and formalists who have put a mortgage on red, yellow and blue, transforming these colors into an idea that destroys them as colors?” (Newman, cited in [10, p. 27]).
Newman commented that “The central issue of painting is the subject matter … my subject is anti-anecdotal” whereby a painting is more self-sufficient and independent with color and shape standing alone and prominent without reference to anything else .
Helen Frankenthaler’s (1928–2011) work became synonymous with a freer, more sensuous approach to Color Field painting . Frankenthaler’s works are large, and she applied color in a technique known as soak stain, wherein oil painted was diluted with turpentine so that the color soaked into the canvas creating halos of color.
The use of color by the New York-based Color Field painters influenced the US West Coast painters as well as artists further afield, some of whom used new materials and techniques.
Karl Benjamin (1925–2012), whose work featured in the exhibition Four Abstract Classicists (1959–1960), contributed to the US West Coast response to New York Abstract Expressionists. Benjamin’s work shared similarities with the Color Field painters, and his works feature a sense of movement and vibrant optimism characteristic of the cool aesthetic of California during the 1950s and early 1960s.
In the twenty-first century, artists have translated the idea of patches of color and the approach taken by Color Field painters into a variety of new and different formats and mediums, often incorporating light, automated movement, as well as the mechanics of human perception.
Rebecca Baumann (born 1983) has adopted the Color Field painters approach to color but added mechanized movement. In Automated Color Field (2011), the automated movement brings ever-changing random juxtaposition to Baumann patches of color. Baumann is interested in the way “color is both universal and subjective” with the capacity to “move people beyond cognitive and conscious thought” (Baumann, cited in ). Baumann acknowledges the changeable nature of human response, and her artworks feature “apparently random change(s) across the field, suggesting the flux in both our inner emotions and the outside world” (Baumann, cited in ).
Color Field Painting: The Influence on Design
Color Field Painting: The Impact on Immersive Color Installations
The Color Field painters have influenced many subsequent artists, who create works that focus on color with the aim of connecting with the viewer and encouraging a deeper level of engagement often on a more intimate, immersive basis as per the works of Verner Panton, Peter Jones, Olafur Eliasson, Gabriel Dawe, Matthew Johnson, and James Turrell. A common theme of these artists is exploration of the interface between color and human response in ways that leave the viewer enriched with a greater understanding about color.
Immersive works and projections are not viewed at arm’s distance but often envelope the viewer and elicit not only emotional response but trigger perceptual responses that form part of the work as a whole. While some of these works remain static, some works, such as those of Olafur Eliasson, involve a degree of radical subjectivity on the part of the viewer, thereby making their perceptive subjectivity a component of the work .
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