Paul Reed, whose vibrant geometric paintings were part of the exhibition that launched the Washington Color School, a style of abstract art that flourished in Washington in the 1960s, died Sept. 26 at his home in Phoenix. He was 96.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Jean Reed Roberts.
Mr. Reed was the last surviving member of the six artists featured in 1965 at the old Washington Gallery of Modern Art. As the exhibition moved to other art galleries and museums around the country, its title — “Washington Color School” — came to stand for a new movement of abstract painting.
The founders of the group were Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and the other artists included Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring and Gene Davis, who was a childhood friend of Mr. Reed’s. The Color School remains the only major painting style to originate in Washington.
Although the painters worked independently — Mr. Reed never met Louis, who died in 1962 — they were united by similarities in their styles and artistic goals. They were seen as an offshoot of the larger “color-field” movement of the 1950s that included Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.
The Washington artists, including Mr. Reed, often followed a strict geometric approach in their work, as they sought to move away from the “gestural” manner of abstract expressionist painting, in which the movement of the artist’s hand across the canvas was evident in every brushstroke or drip. To them, the unifying element was color.
“I wanted to make color the generating force,” Noland, who died in 2010, told The Washington Post in 1977.
Noland became known for his paintings of circles and chevrons, Louis and Davis for their colorful paintings of stripes. Mr. Reed favored sharp-edged patterns of circles, lines and angles, and there was often a cerebral quality to his work.
Using the newly available acrylic paint, often diluted with water, he allowed layers of pigment to overlap one another on the canvas, creating bold effects of contrast.
In his “Disc” series of paintings from 1965, a dense circle of color appears to pulsate in the center of the canvas like the sun in an eerily bright sky. The paintings resemble intensely colored flags.
He also painted stripes in interlocking grid patterns, resembling plaid, and later turned to irregularly shaped canvases that presented the illusion of three-dimensional objects.
As the Washington Color School became established, the works of Louis, Noland and Davis were snapped up by museums and private collectors. The other three members of the school were not so fortunate. By the 1970s, changing artistic tastes led some critics to dismiss the movement as cold and out of date.
Mr. Reed did not have a major exhibition for 25 years.
“It was always difficult,” he told The Post in 2011. “I have to sell. It’s curious. I’m just about poverty level. Here I am, this famous artist.”
His career began to revive with a retrospective exhibition in 1997 at American University, followed by other shows at museums and art galleries in New York and Santa Fe, N.M. His works are now in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and other museums.
Mr. Reed painted almost every day at the studio in his home in Arlington, Va. He subtly changed his style through the years, using photographic images for a kaleidoscopic effect and painting with thicker pigment and more whimsical visual patterns.
“Throughout the [1960s] he was one of the ‘school,’ ” Washington Post critic Benjamin Forgey wrote in 1997, “but he also maintained his own identity. Then and now, you would never mistake a Reed painting for someone else’s.”
Paul Allen Reed was born March 28, 1919, in Washington. His father was an electrician and his mother a clerk at the Washington Navy Yard.
Mr. Reed, who graduated from the District’s McKinley High School, was interested in art from an early age. After a semester at San Diego State University, he came back to Washington and worked as a graphic artist at the old Times-Herald newspaper, then studied at the Corcoran school.
During World War II, he was a civilian graphic designer for the Army Air Forces. A hearing disability prevented him from serving in the military.
He later worked for an advertising agency in New York before returning to Washington in 1952. His daughter said he designed the familiar logo of the American Automobile Association, with three A’s inside an oval.
He began painting in earnest in the 1950s and had his first solo shows at art galleries in Washington and New York in 1963. He became connected with the Washington Color School through his friendship with Davis, who died in 1985.
Mr. Reed was the art director at the Peace Corps from 1962 to 1970, then taught at the Corcoran from 1971 until the early 1980s. He moved from Arlington to Phoenix in March.
His wife of 73 years, Esther Kishter Reed, died in 2012. Two sons, Robert Reed and Thomas Reed, predeceased him. Survivors include a daughter, Jean Reed Roberts of Phoenix; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
During his decade at the Corcoran, Mr. Reed was a popular teacher who always emphasized the importance of learning from the past.
“All good painting comes from previous painting,” he told The Post in 1965. “If you can get beautiful color that produces pleasure, you are in the great tradition of painting.