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Art Movements in Art History - Colourfield Painting

Art Movements > Abstract Expressionism > Colourfield Painting

Colourfield Painting*

The colourfield painters (Still, Rothko, and Newman), in treating the surface of the canvas as
unified field, had expressive aims similar to those of the gestural painters. Rather than
Using line, however, the colourfield painters explored the expressive possibilities of colour.
According to Sandler:

"The colourfield painters tackled formal problems that were more difficult than those
that confronted the gesture painters for they diverged more radically from the familiar
structural basis of Western art: the modulation of light and dark values to produce an
illusion of mass in space."

In order for colour to communicate with the required intensity, the colourfielders found
it necessary to paint on a very large scale. The question was how formlessness could be
avoided, considering that, as Sandler puts it, they had to apply [colours] in large expanses
that saturate the eye, had to eliminate figuration and symbolism, had to simplify drawing
and gesture, and had to suppress the contrast of light and dark values that dull colors.

The solution, according to Sandler, was "to adjust color areas to create a unified field,
each zone of which would be of equal chromatic intensity".

Like the gestural painters, however, the colourfield painters primarily stressed the
importance of content. Consider, for instance, the following statement by Gottlieb, Rothko
and Newman from a joint letter published in the New York Times in June 1943:

"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 academicism. 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."

Of all the colourfield painters, Newman most consistently stated his thoughts about
content. For Newman, art had to negotiate the realm of the sublime, without resorting to
notions of "mere beauty". In order for tragic and sublime art to be created, form had to be
destroyed. Newman believed that colour could reveal transcendental or metaphysical
experience, without the artist having to resort to symbolic or figurative imagery.

Rothko supported Newman's theories regarding the spirituality of abstract painting,
and suggested that painting had to be like drama: it must deal with tragic, universal themes
and eliminate trivia and detail. In order for the drama to be effective, canvasses had to be
massive and simple:

"We favour 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."

The intentions of the colourfield painters were, therefore, of a more visionary and less
spontaneous nature than those of the gestural painters.

Despite some formal debts to the art of Mondrian, the colourfielders were antagonistic
towards Mondrian's codified and utopian conception of the absolute. Rejecting the notion of
a system imposed from without, the colourfielders stressed the personal, intuitive nature of
their art. Although their vision was grand, it was also tragic; for it incorporated the fallibility
and mortality of the individual.

 

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* Drawn from notes compiled by L van Robbroeck for the University of South Africa

 




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