Paul Reed has an easy rule of thumb for distinguishing the important painters of his day.
“I have a saying: Pollock dripped,” he explains. “[Helen] Frankenthaler poured. Morris Louis poured. Howard Mehring sprinkled. I blot.”
Reed, who is 92, references his own technique in the present tense because it has changed little in the six decades he has worked as a painter. Still painting to this day — and the subject of recent solo shows at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton and the Georgetown University Library — Reed is the last of the Washington Color School, an influential band of painters who captured the art-world flag from New York for a period in the 1950s and ’60s.
He has a theory about the Color School, which got its name after a 1965 exhibit at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art that showed his work alongside paintings by Louis, Mehring, Tom Downing, Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. Those six painters, all like-minded abstractionists, are the Washington artists most visibly identified with the Color Field movement. Reed likens the group to the Impressionists, whose plein-air painting was made possible by the invention of the collapsible tin paint tube in 1841. That invention ushered a sea change in the way art was made.
“You had a change in materials, and they went outside to paint, the plein-air painters,” Reed says. “So you change the process, got out of the studio, and change the material. What did the Washington people do? Acrylic color: new material. Unprimed canvas: changed the process.”
It was that innovation — applying paint directly, skipping the gesso buffer layer, creating a stain on the canvas — that launched Washington’s scene to the forefront of the art world, if for a brief time. Incidentally, the stain was a technique that Reed and others credit to Frankenthaler, a New Yorker. But it was Washington-oriented artists such as Louis, Noland and Reed who made it stick.
Where Morris and Mehring poured and sprinkled, Reed has stuck to hard, geometric edges. He describes the “disc” series that he painted during the ’60s — examples of which are in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian American Art Museum — as “a matrix for exploiting color, a format.” In those paintings, the formula was always the same: a rectilinear field onto which he painted a circle in the center and two triangles that hugged the corners.
In the ’70s, he adopted another strict geometric motif for his “Gilport” series: two trapezoids that mirror one another, a blank space separating them like a vertical axis. Over the last decade, he’s flipped the axis horizontally, and the trapezoids have transformed into a grouping of flat bars — “rafts” that look like the Bank of America logo.
In his studio, which takes up most of his home, Reed has hung a reproduction of Marcel Duchamp’s 1915–23 “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” a piece known more commonly as the Large Glass. “I put it there to see if I can’t do something free of these enormous influences. He’s using two-point perspective on the Chocolate Grinder” — a part of the Large Glass — “and I’m using two-point perspective on the rafts,” Reed says. “Of course, with Duchamp, he invented everything. You can’t get away from Duchamp. Forget it.”
Just one hard-edged painting from 1969 represents Reed’s work in the Corcoran’s “Washington Color and Light” retrospective, which features all six Washington Color School painters alongside Sam Gilliam, Anne Truitt and a few other second-wave artists connected with the Color School. Corcoran curator Sarah Newman says that Reed ran in a different direction than the rest. “A lot of artists made the transition from the stained aesthetic to a more hard-edged technique, and he seems to have done the reverse,” she says.
It shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. The Washington Color School was primarily an exhibit, not an artist co-op. Reed says he never even met Louis, who died in 1962 from lung cancer caused by exposure to the Magna paints he poured. And he only ran into the target painter Noland a few times in New York. But Reed and Davis, who favored hard-edged stripes, attended the same junior high in Northeast.
Reed’s home in Arlington might be the closest thing the Washington Color School still has to a physical campus, after the Oklahoma City Museum of Art purchased the entire Washington Gallery of Modern Art collection in a 1968 fire sale for a paltry $110,000. Downing, whom Reed describes as a “real Virginia gentleman” who “lived nine lives,” lived some part of them in Reed’s house. Mehring crashed there too, Reed says, during hard times.
At the height of the Washington Color School’s popularity, Washington and New York art elites inhabited the same circles. Reed recalls meeting the abstract painter Robert Motherwell at an opening. Motherwell was married to Frankenthaler but was accompanied by Lisa Fonssagrives, the world’s first supermodel, who was married to iconic photographer Irving Penn. “He moved in great feminine circles,” Reed says.
But financial success eluded the artists. The Jefferson Place Gallery that supported so much of the Color School’s work closed in 1975. The ’80s were a bitter period for Washington art dealers, but the pressures on Reed did not change much for the worse. “It was always difficult. I have to sell. It’s curious. I’m just about poverty level. Here I am this famous artist,” Reed says.
He doesn’t say whether the spotlight would have shined on Washington longer had a collector base emerged to support its painters. It’s not for him to say. It’s for Washington to struggle with the collapse of its stature after the Washington Color School bubble.
“Artists live on the air. They don’t have bills to pay. Nothing, none of that. They just live,” he says. “They’re just these nice people who do shows and somehow survive.”
Capps is a freelance writer.