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Color Field Painting Sara Calland

Color field painting was a movement born out of abstract expressionism in the
United States in the 1940s after World War II. All of the foremost Color Field artists
were either American born or transplanted Europeans (1); and this was all happening
around the first time in history that the United States, namely New York City, was ever
considered the center of the art world. Abstract expressionism, though still commonly
practiced in all its forms today, began its initial decline out of the public eye around
the1960s when replaced by pop, op, and other transitory vogues (2).
Many things separated color field artists from their abstract expressionist
contemporaries, but primarily it was the absence of the emotional gesture and painterly
surface from their works. Color field artists yearned for the ultimate clarity in
expression, which, ironically, they believed could only be achieved through the
employment of abstraction in its most basic form. They valued large areas of flat color as
the essential nature of abstraction, and the works possess an impersonal and intellectual
aesthetic. Despite the use of such simple means, the color-field approach could bring out
different perceptions of mood, feeling and tone, depending on the skill and personality of
the artist (2).
The leading artists in this movement usually evolved from different forms of
abstraction until they finally reached the goal of color field painting, which was basically
the ultimate universality of the message. Many gradually grew more and more abstract
and minimalist as their styles matured. These artists include Mark Rothko, Barnett
Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Clyfford Still, and others. Rothko,
Newman, and fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb are considered by many to be the fathers of
the color field movement because of a brief manifesto which they wrote and which was
published in the New York Times on J une 7
, 1943:
1. To us art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be
explored only by those willing to take the risks.
2. This world of imagination is fancy-free and violently opposed to
common sense.
3. It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way
not his way.
4. We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the
large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to
reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy
illusion and reveal truth.
5. It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter
what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of
There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.
We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid
which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with
primitive and archaic art.

Color field painting as a movement is largely based on the artistic ideals of Mark
Rothko. It was just a few years after writing the manifesto that Rothko reached his
signature style which he was loyal to until his suicide in 1970. Rothko painted two to
four symmetrical rectangular blocks of color in a vertical format and at a very large scale.
He explains, The reason I paint [large paintings . . .] is precisely because I want to be
very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your
experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass.
However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isnt something you command! (3).
Large scale paintings and the use of an all-over composition were aesthetics all color
field artists adopted with the intention of overwhelming the observer with the work.
Mark Rothkos paintings did not bear individual titles; they were merely
numbered and dated, and sometimes called by the colors they bore by dealers whom dealt
his work. Titles were something Rothko considered an obstacle between the painting and
the observer. He once said, The progression of a painters work [. . .] will be toward
clarity; toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and
between the idea and the observer [. . .] to achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be
understood. (3). Obstacles were things such as any sort of imagery, objective or non-
objective, which might be misinterpreted, visible mark making, or anything else which
would obscure or perhaps replace the original idea and intent of the artist.
Despite Rothkos, and all other color field artists heavy dependence on pure
color in their compositions, the mere visual beauty of the color relationships were
secondary to the meaning behind the work, whatever it may be. Rothko once said he was
not at all interested in being a great colorist, he was interested in: expressing basic
human emotions tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people
break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate
those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the
same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved
only by their color relationship, then you miss the point. (4). Color field artists relied on
the use of flat fields of color not to decorate a wall, but as an instrument to communicate
emotion as universally as possible.
Barnett Newman, co-author of the manifesto, utilized similar aesthetic techniques
in conveying emotion. Evolving from a surrealist mode, Newman began painting large
paintings with areas of color separated by thin vertical lines, or zips as he called them.
Unlike Rothko, however, Newman would sometimes apply his abstract style to
illustrative themes to evoke emotions from the observer. He also believed in clearing the
picture plane of obstacles, and said We are creating images whose reality is self-evident
and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded
images. (5). An example of this is his series from 1958 - 1966, The Stations of the
Cross, Lema Sabachthani, where he did a series of monochromatic color field paintings,
each one representing a different station. His goal was not to illustrate the actual events
which took place, but rather to communicate the pure emotion and allow the observers to
experience it for themselves. He said of his exhibition, This is the Passion. The outcry
of J esus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer.
Despite the fact that the art world as a whole was still dominated by men, color
field painting was one of the first art movements where a woman was credited as being
an integral leader. Helen Frankenthaler helped launch the movement by developing a
technique called soak stain painting. Soak stain painting involved heavily diluting the
paint and then applying it to an unprepared canvas and letting it soak through, and the
effects were much like watercolors. This caused the paint to be integral with the surface,
rather than superimposed on it, creating the ultimate flat picture plane (7). The absence
of the textured surface removed yet another obstacle between idea and observer.
Frankenthaler very much appreciated clarity and directness of vision, once saying, A
really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image. For my own
work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can read in itwell, she
did this and then she did that, and then she did thatthere is something in it that has not
got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very
often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist
motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it
looks as if it were born in a minute. (8). She wasnt alone; Helen Frankenthalers style
influenced several artists in the movement, including Morris Louis.
Upon visiting her studio in Manhattan, Louis began experimenting with his own
derivational techniques of paint application. He sought to eliminate the painterly surface
altogether by eliminating the brushstroke. He did so by applying extremely diluted paint
to an unprimed, unstretched canvas, and allowing it to flow over the inclined surface.
The result of his technique was billowing, tonal waves of color (9). However, not all
color field artists thought this lack of surface texture was necessary to communicate their
Take, for instance, Clyfford Still, who is held among the most significant color
field artists, and who stands out among them for several reasons. Stills overall aesthetic
and visual impact was definitely along the same lines as his peers, using large areas of
somewhat flat color to communicate his message; but his technique was completely
different. Still used irregular, jagged forms, and his stroke was very gestural. Stills
paintings are suggestive of layers of paint being torn away to reveal those underneath (7).
He also used a thick impasto which caused his paint to be raised and created a variety of
shade across the surface. The basic idea is still there, the aesthetic of color field painting
isnt necessarily about how one gets there as long as the idea is clear and uninhibited by
visual crutches.
In conclusion, color field painting was a movement based on intellectual goals. It
was about the universal message, and the clarity in its delivery. Color field artists didnt
get caught up in symbolism or decorative notions; they just wanted the observer to truly
experience the work and nothing else. Color field artists created art in its most pure and
unhindered form possible.