Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975

From the end of World War II through the 1970s, American culture hit one of those golden ages that dot the history of humanity every hundred years or so. The country's wealth led to a renaissance in science, literature, drama, film, painting, sculpture, architecture and design. Accomplishments from this period not only stand up to the ages, but they left a legacy so powerful that we're still running in its draft. Think of neo-modern, Eames reproductions and new Mustangs. In fact, what's truly contemporary now is invariably retro, and nearly everything refers to the past. But during that golden era itself, people never looked back, not even for a second.

The greatness of mid-century modern helps to explain why I like abstraction so much — it was the style of choice at the time — and why I get so upset when I see an important modernist building demolished or defaced.

These thoughts were going through my mind as I approached a preview of the Denver Art Museum's third special offering of the season, Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975, set to open on November 9. The exhibit, which examines classic American modern abstract paintings, is clearly one of the best shows presented in Denver in a generation.

Color as Field is a spectacular group display filled with a who's who of American art, and touring through it is like taking a vacation into a world where nothing matters except achieving a purely visual experience. This is that legendary art-about-art that conservative cultural commentators love to exhort for its meaninglessness, while others, like me, praise it just as stridently for its intoxicating beauty.

The title of the show is somewhat misleading because guest curator Karen Wilkin — working for the American Federation of the Arts, which organized this traveling exhibit — took an inclusive and thereby unorthodox view of the color-field movement during the 1950s, '60s and '70s. And she's been given scholarly cover for her ideas by Carl Belz, a former museum director, who has penned an excellent overview in the exhibit catalogue, picking out the subtle distinctions in post-war abstraction. Belz both follows and partially deconstructs critic Clement Greenberg's rationales for abstraction and his belief in the virtue of flatness as being the engine behind the trend.

To fully understand what Wilkin has done, it's important to recall that the doctrinaire understanding of the color-field movement is that it was inspired by Helen Frankenthaler's stained landscape abstractions but reached its mature expression in the severe compositions of the Washington School painters, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis. These artists and others were labeled post-painterly because of the utter flatness of the application of pigments in their works, which were often little more than stains on a bare, unprimed canvas. One of a number of interesting points Belz makes is the idea that in these sorts of paintings, the color substitutes for form.

Though Wilkin does include these essential aspects of color field in the show, she also reaches back to abstract expressionism and forward to geometric abstraction, arguing that all of it may be described as part of the color-field ethos. I think she's right, and what were once clear distinctions between different types of mid-century abstraction seem to melt away as they all become part of a single continuum.

In Denver, curator Gwen Chanzit oversaw the installation of Color as Field, which is located primarily in the Stanton Gallery, with a brief afterthought of a section on level three in the Hamilton Building. In the lobby of the Ponti tower, on the way to the Stanton, Chanzit has hung a signature Clyfford Still loaned by an anonymous collector. The painting is not part of the show, but it fits right in, and viewers should take a moment to contemplate it.

After that, exhibition-goers will immediately be drawn to the Stanton by an iconic Mark Rothko, hung so that it can be seen way before they enter Color as Field. "Number 18" illustrates Rothko's signature style of indistinct rectangles floating in space. In this case, they are carried out in white and orangey red, with a blue-gray vertical strip toward the top. Talk about starting with a bang. Chanzit knew what she was doing, using this spectacular and familiar Rothko to open the show.

But viewers are surrounded by other gorgeous works of art as well, including a stunning Adolph Gottlieb, "One, Two, Three," and one of those wonderful stripe paintings, "Sun Ball," by Gene Davis. On the other side of a divider is "Horizon Light," a small but early zip painting by Barnett Newman featuring a green stripe on a deep red field. Across from that is a pair of Frank Stellas, and adjacent are two huge and sublime Kenneth Nolands. The paint on the golden field that dominates Noland's "Space Jog" is so thin, it's as though the canvas were dyed.

So curator Wilkin has created a big tent in which abstract expressionists like Rothko and Gottlieb — who do very painterly work even if they use thin washes of color to do it — are part of the same story told by post-painterly artists such as Davis and Noland. And the way Chanzit has juxtaposed these pieces helps prove Wilkin's fairly radical theory.

The next formal gallery has a number of standouts, notably "Han-San Cadence," by Larry Poons, in which the artist actually did use fabric dye to establish the color field as flat against the picture plane as possible. He then used thick acrylic paint to carry out the scattered pattern of ovals that cover the canvas.

There is also a section here devoted to a trio of out-of-this-world Jules Olitski paintings, each of which is emblematic of the color-field idea in its purest expression.

This, of course, is the perfect setup for Color as Field's crescendo, a large room devoted to pioneer Helen Frankenthaler and her most stellar protegé, Morris Louis. From the color-field perspective, this is as good as it gets. If you can't understand the power of classic modern abstract painting after being in this room, you're hopeless.

The Frankenthaler selections include the significant "Seven Types of Ambiguity," which reveals how readily the artist was able to transform abstract expressionism into color-field abstraction. Though she's clearly used an action technique guided by instinct and accident, just as, say, Pollock did, the forms in her painting are vaporously thin and atmospheric. They are the dematerialized mirror image of Pollock's thick drips, pours and spatters of paint.

The Louis paintings include a group of his "Veil" works and one of his super-famous magna-on-canvas poured paintings, "Theta." Louis became widely known in the 1970s, and many a college dorm room was decorated with a poster emblazoned with a less-is-over-the-top painting by him. Too bad he couldn't enjoy his popularity, since he died in 1962, before it all began.

A few paintings from the exhibit are in a small space in the Hamilton, although this room plays better as a teaser for the show than as the final leg. And the room, which is just inside the entry, looks empty as you approach it. (This is the same problem this space revealed after it opened last fall. The irksome part is that it would be so easy to fix, by installing a work on the wall that faces the entry or by putting a sculpture in the middle of the space.) Finally, there are a few pieces around the corner that bleed into the museum's permanent collection. The show peters out here, but if viewers are looking for a better way to finish off a visit than with this anti-climactic ending, they should revisit Clyfford Still Unveiled, on level two of the Hamilton. Still's work relates beautifully to any discussion of abstraction built with color in lieu of forms.

Color as Field — together with the Still solo — makes the Denver Art Museum one of the best places in the country to see first-rate mid-century modern abstraction right now.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia