Correction to This Article
An April 20 art review in the Weekend section incorrectly listed painter Donald McCarten as a participant in the 1965 exhibition "Washington Color Painters" at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. Although considered a member of the Washington Color School, McCarten did not have work in that show.
Remixing Washington's Color-Field Vanguard

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

"At the risk of sounding dumb," wrote a participant in a recent online chat with the Weekend staff, "can you explain what the Washington Color School stuff looks like?"

What prompted this reader's query was "ColorField.remix," an ongoing series of art exhibitions and public programs through July at numerous area venues. Celebrating that branch of mid-20th-century abstract expressionism known as color-field painting for its celebration of passages of pure -- and often not so pure -- color, the shows range from the historical to the contemporary. This being Washington, there is also a special emphasis on the movement's local manifestation, practiced by a core group of D.C. painters known as the Washington Color School and championed by prominent critic Clement Greenberg.

Tightly focused backward glances are being cast by the Kreeger Museum (which organized the program and is highlighting the stripe-based paintings of the late Gene Davis) and the Phillips Collection, among others. Several commercial galleries and nonprofit groups are taking more contemporary looks at the movement's legacy in the art of today, including the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran's "Experimental Media Series." The three-night program (Wednesday, May 30 and June 27) will feature edgy interpretations of color-field painting through multimedia, sound and performance pieces curated by artists Richard Chartier and Brandon Morse.

Synesthesia aside, the question of exactly what a painting by Davis might sound like leads me to think that the reader's question may not be so dumb after all.

A little confusion is understandable, says Derya Samadi, project coordinator for the "ColorField.remix" program. After all, she points out, "there is no comprehensive, in-depth study" of the Washington Color School. Oh, there are catalogues, Samadi says, such as the one for the landmark 1965 exhibition "Washington Color Painters" at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (which put Davis on the map, along with Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, Donald McCarten and Paul Reed), but no definitive, overarching text on the genre.

Another source of confusion is that some of the very artists who were ultimately labeled "color-field" or "Washington Color School" vigorously resisted membership in those clubs.

Take Leon Berkowitz (1911-87). His signature paintings of ethereal clouds of color are featured in a handsome retrospective at Edison Place Gallery (organized by the Washington Arts Museum), along with his harder-edged but no less spiritual early work. Despite the show's title, "Looking Into Color," and even though it includes portraits from 1953 of pals Downing and Louis, Berkowitz never felt comfortable being lumped into the Washington Color School. He preferred to acknowledge, as curator Renee Butler writes in the show's accompanying catalogue, "the greater influences of poetry, music and physics" to the formal emphasis on color for color's sake.

Despite a healthy slate of lectures and workshops, Samadi is quick to emphasize that the mission of "ColorField.remix" is not to provide didactic answers to questions like the one at the top of this article. Rather, she notes, it's about promoting exposure to the broadest possible framework defining color-field painting. It's a framework within which viewers can arrive at their own conclusions about what this stuff looks like -- and, what may be an even slipperier question, what all this color means.

As Berkowitz himself scrawled onto one of his drawings, a charcoal-on-brown-paper portrait sketch called "Ida" from 1970, "From grass to God is but a leap of green."

LOOKING INTO COLOR: THE PAINTINGS OF LEON BERKOWITZ Through June 28 at Edison Place Gallery, 701 Ninth St. NW, entrance on Eighth Street (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown). 202-872-3396. Open Tuesday-Friday noon to 4. Free.

Public programs associated with the exhibition include:

May 1 at 8 Panel discussion on Berkowitz with artists Michael Clark and Robin Rose, artist-writer-curator J.W. Mahoney and curator James Harithas.

For information on "ColorField.remix" exhibitions and programming, visit

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company