June 25, 1965 — Art lovers converge at the Washington Gallery of Art west of Dupont Circle. In suits and ties and dressy summer sheaths, they dance to a four-piece band and pose for photos in front of rivulets of paint, whirling dots, T-squares, chevrons and vibrating stripes. The museum’s director and curator, Gerald Nordland, has hung works by six artists and identified them as “the Washington Color Painters.” Something dazzling and maybe important is happening.
May 22, 1969 — A black-tie crowd buzzes in the grand ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. Hundreds sip wine, surrounded by stripe paintings in the signature style of Gene Davis — 50 copies of his 6-by-6-foot “Popsicle” rendered by a crew of Corcoran students guided by artist Michael Clark. It’s the Give-Away, a happening launched by critic Doug Davis and artist Ed McGowin to dispense all of the art by random drawing. The two describe their event as an homage to the “Color School,” as an overdue send-off that liberates Washington art to come.
Between these two moments, six artists became frozen in art history as the “Washington Color School.” A half-century later, the label evokes nostalgia, a degree of pride and some impatience. It calls for a reckoning of what the term meant then and what it means now.
Take “Washington.” True, all six spent formative studio time here — yet by 1965, Morris Louis had died of lung cancer and Kenneth Noland had departed for Vermont. An exhibition outside Washington the year before had placed five of them in an L.A. County Museum show called “Post-Painterly Abstraction.” Influential critic Clement Greenberg had chosen 31 artists, among them Louis, Noland, Gene Davis, Tom Downing, Howard Mehring and Sam Gilliam. For the 1965 show here, however, Nordland, the Washington curator, omitted the younger Gilliam and added the more established Paul Reed.
“Color” certainly factors. Noland called it “the generating force.” Each of these painters embraced color for its own sake — embodied, optical, flat or velvety, saturated or transparent. The discovery of fast-drying acrylic resin paint gave them immediate, intense color right out of a tube. Ultimately these D.C. artists took on a larger, national identity, positioned within a newly labeled genre called “color field.”
But “School”? Nordland had credited all with the “lone-wolf aspect” of their work. Yet the six did share two breakthrough concepts — soaking plastic paint into raw cotton canvas and using hard-edged, geometric forms such as stripes, circles, dots and chevrons to carry high-keyed color. Although they knew one another’s work — and some formed friendships — they worked, for the most part, solo. There is no proof they ever found themselves in the same room.
All six had practiced “throwing paint” in the early 1950s, before they rejected that impastoed, angst-ridden sensibility. But they took their time breaking free, slowly realizing they didn’t need or want to project emotion. Artists elsewhere also reacted against the grip of “action painting.” Some turned to popular imagery (pop), others to stripped-down geometric forms (minimalism) and all seemed intent on ridding content of self-absorption. D.C.’s colorists were part of that radical art historic shift, and they came to tolerate the “school” handle. But eventually the term’s overuse and its application to hosts of local imitators fed the fear that Washington artists might never be as original or influential again.
When divorced father Clement Greenberg came to Washington to see his son, he also visited studios. He seemed to romanticize Washington as a haven for uncorrupted genius. “You can keep in steady contact with the New York art scene,” he said, “without being subjected as constantly to its pressures to conform.” Yet he wanted conformity in his own concept of flat abstraction and often gave aesthetic advice to Noland, Mehring, Louis and Davis.
Greenberg’s most important influence? He had a key to the Manhattan studio of his lover, abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler. In April 1953 he took Noland, Louis and a few others there. Frankenthaler was out, but they saw her latest works, including “Mountains and Sea,” now at the National Gallery of Art. She had achieved a stain effect by painting raw cotton canvases with turpentine-thinned oil. This later proved useful when Noland, Louis and peers adopted the new acrylic paints.
By 1959, Greenberg had conferred major status on Noland and Louis by selecting them for New York gallery shows and touting them in international art magazines. This rankled those getting less attention, but they kept to their regimens, and each earned some measure of success. Mehring received early good press and New York gallery representation with his geometric work and watery, dappled fields. Yet by his death at 47 in 1978, he was reclusive and was no longer making art. Downing (1928-1985) taught at the Corcoran School and encouraged other artists such as Gilliam. Davis taught at the Corcoran and in his studio, showed every year in New York and earned recognition without leaving the home town where he died at 64 in 1985.
Only Reed, 96, survives. A beloved Corcoran School teacher, he recently moved to Arizona and, with failing eyesight, has been learning to play guitar. He enjoys strong late-in-life visibility thanks to his New York gallery D. Wigmore Fine Art. The National Museum of American Art and other museums own and often show works by all six, and commercial galleries and auction houses continue to provide a market. Recent sighting: Thomas Downing’s fool-the-eye plank painting, the only “Color School” work in the Whitney Museum’s inaugural show.
Washington’s color painters helped pioneer the shift of imagery from messy abstraction to rigid geometry. They did this by adopting matrices to carry the vibrant color. But they also helped break the boundary between painting and sculpture. With large-scale works (Louis, Davis) and shaped canvases (Noland, Downing, Reed), they liberated the framed rectangle and opened the way for art labeled environmental, installation and intervention. In 1972, Davis painted “Franklin’s Footpath,” for a moment perhaps the largest painting in the world. With the help of volunteers, he lined with stripes a paved street leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Of course, much of what they did reflected notions already in the air. Davis, with his edge-to-edge vertical stripes, played with surprising juxtapositions and found drama in seriality, as did Andy Warhol with his multiple Jackies and Marilyns. Noland adopted the target for flat and painterly circles, while Frank Stella laid out hard-edge concentric squares. Downing, enamored of centering, painted dots in dial formation, rows and diagonals much like the optical fields of Damien Hirst.
Thus, D.C. painters played a part in moving works of art from depicting things to being things, quite stunning things, in themselves.
Unlikely. Cyber-sharing seems to undermine the relevance of where an artist works. That wasn’t so at mid-century, of course, when Davis claimed that “geography is destiny.” Paul Richard, longtime art critic at The Washington Post, speculated that artists might be influenced subliminally by the grids and circles of Pierre L’Enfant’s city plan (Noland, in fact, drove a D.C. cab), while sculptor Anne Truitt credited the District’s height restrictions with an infusion of Parisian sunlight.
Fifty years after the Washington Gallery of Art imposed an identity on this city’s painters and 57 years after Davis painted his first stripe, it seems right to reconsider that homegrown alliance of painters who, despite their diverse intentions and fortunes, still provide glorious things to see. On June 25, “Washington Color Painters Reconsidered” opened 50 years to the day after the original, at Loretta Howard Gallery in New York, a tribute to the six and two other Washington masters — Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas. Recent gallery shows in D.C. and elsewhere confirm that contemporary artists, national and international, still pursue that fascination with geometry.
Cohen is a freelance writer.
Washington Color Painters Through July 31 at the Loretta Howard Gallery, 525-531 W. 26th St., New York. 212- 695-0164. www.lorettahoward.com.