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Friday, August 17, 2012

Color Field Painting

Vir Heroicus Sublimus, 1950-51, Barnett Newman,
a scale and simplicity previously unknown.
Abstract Expressionism took some getting use to. It still does. Some sixty years after it was born, this kind of painting still isn't accepted by probably nine out of ten Americans today. At its peak of popularity in the fifties, it was responsible for the widest gulf in history between American artists and the American public. It was a gap that had been growing since the turn of the century with every new step taken by artist beyond strictly representational, Grant Wood, American Gothicism. And it was a separation that would not begin to close until Modernism gave up its last gasp and died a natural death, starved for anything "new" with which to shock the art world and the rest of the world.

Bridge, 1964, Kenneth Noland
If the American public was aghast at the "paint slinging" assaulting the American art world in the 1950s, one might be surprised to learn that Abstract Expressionism ala De Kooning, Kline, Pollock, Rothko and others was not embraced wholeheartedly by quite a number of the Avant-garde painters in what we loosely call the New York School either. Artists such as Barnett Newman (top), Kenneth Noland (right), Ad Reinhardt (below), Ellsworth Kelly (bottom), and Frank Stella, among others, decided such loose, gestural, painterly brushwork was not exactly their cup of tea. This group is sometimes referred to as the second generation (though it's more of a labeling device than a reference to their birth dates). This "second generation" of abstractionists were anything but expressionistic. While they embraced the total freedom from illusion or representation in painting, they yearned for a much more intellectual, aesthetic, analytical approach to their work. However, their work did nothing to narrow the gulf between New York art and traditional art appreciators.

Suprematist Composition:
White on White, 1918
Kasimir Malevich
More accurately, this group of painters came to be known as hard-edge color field painters. Like the Abstractionists, they denied any other reality other than the surface of the canvas. Going beyond this, they glorified in two elements this freedom afforded them--pure color and pure, geometric design. They rediscovered the Russian painter Kasimir Malevich and his 1918 painting, White on White. And taking what would at first glance appear to be a dead end in terms of the painting development (which it was for thirty years), they struck off in a totally different direction than their expressionist counterparts, working on paintings of enormous scale, bearing tightly controlled, almost overwhelming, wall-size fields of stark, vibrant, pure, in-your-face color so powerful as to hurt ones eyes at close range. They explored Malevich's squares and rectangles, intermixing them with a few arcs, angles and other geometric minutiae in what amounted to a left-brained reaction to the right-brained excesses of their friends painting in lofts just across town.

Abstract Painting, Gray, 1950, Ad Reinhardt
--all background, no foreground, but a very colorful gray.

Meschers, 1951, Ellsworth Kelly, strips of stripes.

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