THE WASHINGTON COLOR SCHOOL
An important center of art activity in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s was the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, established in 1961. The museum’s director Gerald Nordland curated the exhibition The Washington Color Painters, held from June through September of 1965. The exhibition defined the leading color painters of D.C. as Paul Reed (b.1919), Morris Louis (1912-1962), Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), Gene Davis (1920-1985), Thomas Downing (1928-1985), and Howard Mehring (1931-1978). Each artist shared in common the use of acrylic paints, first Magna diluted with solvents and later water-based acrylics, to explore the properties and working methods of staining or soaking paint into unprimed cotton duck canvas. Their subject was color and it was handled in both geometric and all-over compositions, softened by the effect of flowing paint stained into the canvas. This staining technique became the trademark of the Washington Color School.
Another figure in the Washington Color School story was Clement Greenberg who taught at American University in the early 1950s and had family in Washington, D.C. He had met Kenneth Noland at Black Mountain College in 1950, but did not yet know the five other artists that formed the Washington Color School. Clement Greenberg is credited with opening the door to staining in D.C. by connecting Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis to Helen Frankenthaler. Their visit to Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953, accompanied by Leon and Ida Berkowitz, showed Noland and Louis a new way to think about color. For Noland and Louis, Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler’s examples led to a period of intense experimentation to acquire their own methods and techniques for pouring pigment. By the late 1950s this resulted in acrylic paint on unprimed canvas being the preferred medium of the entire Washington Color School.
Kenneth Noland also acted as an important disseminator of contemporary art developments between the New York and Washington art worlds. Noland was the perfect catalyst for ideas about color and structure as his two instructors at Black Mountain College were Josef Albers, who codified the laws of color in simple geometric forms, and Ilya Bolotowsky, a disciple of Piet Mondrian. Bolotowsky taught Noland the principles of rigorous geometric arrangement and how to relate and balance color. Noland fresh from Black Mountain College instruction (1946 to 1948) moved to Washington, D.C. in 1949 to both teach and study at the Institute of Contemporary Art, founded in 1947 by the poet Robert Richman based on Sir Herbert Read’s Education Through Art. In the summer of 1950, Noland returned to Black Mountain College as he prepared for a new teaching position to begin in 1951 at the Catholic University of Washington. There his pupils in 1954-1955 included Thomas Downing and Howard Mehring. From 1952 to 1956, Noland also taught evening classes at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, founded by Leon and Ida Berkowitz. There he met fellow instructor Morris Louis. The two artists got along well and shared a studio from 1953 to 1955. To connect Washington artists with each other and with New York artists, Noland organized solo exhibitions at Catholic University of New York artists such as David Smith in 1952 and Cy Twombly in 1953, as well as Washington artists like Gene Davis in 1953. Noland also took D.C. artists to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio, including his student Howard Mehring in 1955. That visit helped Mehring toward a new approach to all-over color with staining. As Mehring and Thomas Downing maintained a studio together from 1955 to 1958, ideas and approaches gained by Mehring were passed on to Downing.
Some connections between the Washington Color Painters were longstanding as they were connected by locale. Two of the Washington Color School painters, Gene Davis and Paul Reed, knew each other from high school and both studied art informally with the Washington abstract artist Jacob Kainen at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. Gene Davis met Kenneth Noland in 1950 at the Institute of Contemporary Art and in 1953 connected with Morris Louis at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. Reed got to know Howard Mehring and Thomas Downing through their exhibitions at Jefferson Place Gallery in 1960 and 1961. Through Reed’s friendship with Mehring, Downing, and Davis, he gained information about their experiments with form and color while sharing his own ideas and discoveries.
The relationships among the Washington Color Painters and their connections to the New York art scene resulted in a unique kind of Color Field painting. Unlike New York’s Color Field art, Washington’s version was geometry-based. The flow of color and intervals of blank raw canvas softened the geometric-based structures of their compositions and kept them from becoming hard-edged. To get beyond the all-over compositions associated with Pollock, the Washington artists developed centralized compositions full of flowing movement.
In their development of geometric Color Field painting, some of the Washington Color Painters also participated in the shaped canvas movement of the 1960s. Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland created some shaped canvases but never fully explored complex shapes. Thomas Downing and Paul Reed both committed to the possibilities presented by shaped canvases. Our exhibition focuses on Paul Reed’s shaped canvases which began in 1963 and have not yet been the subject of an exhibition, although they comprise the most complex shapes created by the Washington Color Painters. To support Paul Reed’s shaped canvas exhibition we have selected examples of shaped canvases by the three other artists of the Washington Color School – Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing, and Gene Davis.
PAUL REED AND THE SHAPED CANVAS
Paul Reed (b. 1919) grew up in Washington, D.C. His journey as an artist began in 1936 at San Diego State College and then at the Corcoran School of Art in 1938. From 1942 to 1950, Reed worked in New York as an illustrator and graphic designer. In 1950 he returned to Washington, D.C., where he continued to work in graphic design while receiving some painting instruction from Jacob Kainen. In the early 1950s, Paul Reed worked in oil on Masonite, using an improvised dripping technique and experimenting with the grid. Reed first worked with Magna in 1954 after Gene Davis shared some of his supply and by 1958 Reed was working in the newly available water-based acrylics. Like Mehring and Downing, Reed started his art with small preliminary studies and worked up to large-scale acrylic on canvas paintings. Having spent considerable time in graphic design, Paul Reed found that some of his practices from that experience could be applied to creating his paintings. He made use of thumbnail studies and collage techniques for the study of color combinations as preparations for his paintings. Reed’s use of these practices continues today. Like Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, Reed executed his paintings working on the floor.
In 1962 Paul Reed found his personal style. He abandoned the grid-based compositions done in 1961 and followed Louis and Noland in experimenting with the staining process, pouring diluted acrylic on unprimed, sized canvas. These paintings, based on drawings, have an all-over woven-together look created by the repetition of flat, curvilinear shapes in which two or three alternating colors are densely used for a contrasting composition that fills the canvas. The paintings soon became asymmetrical with large fields of bare canvas.
The asymmetrical woven canvases were exhibited in Paul Reed’s first solo exhibition at the Adams-Morgan Gallery in January-February of 1963, along with new paintings oriented on the center of the canvas. In the centered paintings, begun in late 1962, Reed moved away from the all-over coverage of the whole surface of a painting that characterized Abstract Expressionism. The centered composition pieces had multiple colors and were loose in form through the effect of poured paint. Over the course of 1963, the shapes in Reed’s centered compositions became more defined in their edges, suggesting organic forms organized by an underlying geometric structure. Art critic Barbara Rose described one of these works in her article “Primacy of Color” in Art International (May 1964) as “checks of color unfurling in Arp-like shapes.” As the open-centered paintings evolved into studies of centrifugal motion, Reed created his first shaped canvas series, the Satellite paintings of 1963. These works were made up of a central large canvas with a smaller companion painting hovering alongside it. The Satellite paintings were exhibited at the East Hampton Gallery, New York in November of 1963 in a solo exhibition of thirteen paintings and then several were shown in Reed’s solo exhibition at Jefferson Place Gallery in January of 1964.
The main canvas in the Satellite paintings had a spinning, flower-like center that referenced the concept of organic growth, as well as release through a gap in the central composition. This concept was further emphasized by a smaller companion painting with a single shape related in form and color to the larger painting’s central image as if a chunk had spun off with the force of the rotation. On the verso of each Satellite painting, Reed provided hanging instructions for how the smaller painting should be related to the central painting – how far from it and how high or low relative to it.
By 1964 Reed’s open centered forms had become simple petal-like organic shapes of one saturated color, often with four small dots of a contrasting color, presented against a strong colored field. One corner of the painting forming a triangle was painted an additional color to break the symmetry of the composition. These paintings explored color in several ways – geometric forms, organic structures, in the centered composition, in the field, and in the corner elements. The exploration of circular movement ended with the bold simplification of the central imagery into a single circle of color in the Disk Series of 1965. This was Reed’s largest series at nearly 100 paintings ranging in size from 20 x 28 inches to 6 x 8 feet. The Disk paintings had a single central circle on a field of color with two diagonal corners of contrasting or complementary colors. Two Disk paintings were included within the eight selected from Reed’s 1962 to 1965 paintings by Gerald Nordland for The Washington Color Painters exhibition at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The Disk paintings were then featured in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s solo exhibition of Reed’s work in January-February 1966, as well as in the East Hampton Gallery exhibition The Expanding Image of Paul Reed in August 1966.
Starting in late 1965, Reed created paintings exploring the relationship between the inner structure of a painting defined by color and its connection to the size and shape of the canvas selected. Titled the Upstart series, these vertical paintings had stripes applied with a roller in V-like patterns on raw canvas. The overlap of the lines of color as they zigzagged across the canvas from edge to edge allowed for Reed’s unique use of transparency as the lines folded back onto each other while remaining distinct, creating secondary colors at the bends. Attracted to the transparency and overlapping of colors, Reed started working on more hard-edged color contained by a grid, sometimes examining a “plaid” effect, in three consecutive series: Interchange and Inside Out in 1966, followed by Coherence in 1967. These paintings concentrated on horizontal or vertical bands of color achieved through controlled, light staining with contrasting colors and overlays. The overlays of transparent color, as delicate and light as a veil, were achieved through the deft use of a painter’s roller and a palette selected to create a unified field.
After creating the Interchange, Inside Out, and Coherence series, Reed began his second series of shaped canvases as he expanded on the relationship between the overall form and the color within. His first two shaped canvas series, Emerging and In-and-Out use the grid and transparency only, slightly distorting the rectangle canvas of his earlier 1966 series into parallelogram forms. Reed’s interest in shaped canvases came at a time when the most forward-thinking artists in New York were also considering how to get beyond the traditional limits of paintings in a frame in order to create works that were sculptural- floating and sometimes even projecting outward from the wall. For artists in the 1960s, the architecturally structured profile of shaped canvases was an attempt to detach the painting from the plane of the wall in order to make it a sculptural object beyond its representation of illusionary space. As an object, the frontal nature of the shaped canvas allows it to continue functioning in a pictorial way while its irregular form adds impact. The largest number of artists working with abstract paintings as sculptural objects was in New York. Frank Stella and Sven Lukin began to make shaped canvases in the early 1960s. Ellsworth Kelly made painted aluminum shaped works in 1963. By 1964 Will Insley, Charles Hinman, Larry Bell, Neil Williams, Larry Zox, Darby Bannard, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Robert Murray were all creating shaped canvas works. Attention was brought to this development by the Guggenheim Museum’s exhibition The Shaped Canvas, organized by Lawrence Alloway and held from December of 1964 through January of 1965. This was followed by an exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in January of 1965 titled Shape and Structure, organized by Frank Stella, Henry Geldzahler, and Barbara Rose. More museum and gallery exhibitions focused on the shaped canvas continued through the 1960s and artists with styles as diverse as Color Field, Op, Pop, and Minimalism produced shaped canvases.
Paul Reed’s solo exhibition in New York at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in November of 1967 featured paintings from 1965 to 1967. The exhibition included the first shaped canvases of 1966 which were flat, simple shapes based on slight shifts of the grid. In them, Reed divided the canvas into units of color separated by intervals of raw canvas. Complexity of depth was achieved through the use of transparent colors overlaid on top of each other. Two shaped canvas series of 1967, Emerging and Topeka in our exhibition, are representative of Reed’s shaped geometric canvases developed from the grid. Liking the complexity of the five-sided shape of Topeka, Reed became interested in adding an additional side for each series, further increasing the complexity of both the shape and color relations. The Topeka series was followed by the seven-sided Hackensack series and then the eight-sided Zig-Fields series, also created in 1967. The multi-sided shapes created a greater feeling of volumetric form and the illusion of depth. Hackensack suggests for the first time a three-dimensional illusion through the arrangement of seven outer edges and the three-stage movement of its inner folds. Zig-Fields was the most complex of the shaped canvases shown in the 1967 Bertha Schaefer exhibition. In making shaped canvases, Reed was stimulated by the restraints of geometric painting in that the color possibilities were dependent on the overall form. With each new shape, Reed applied color lessons learned from prior series then expanded on them. Looking at the series Emerging, Topeka, Hackensack, and Zig-Fields, one sees how Reed used increasingly complex forms to master intricate color challenges.
In considering the dynamic relationship between inner structure and outer shape, Paul Reed created his most radical shaped canvases in 1968 and 1969. These works went back to focusing on the center of the work rather than the edges. The first two series were titled Safid (a river in Afghanistan) and Marmara (a sea in Turkey). These shapes with centered depth referenced looking through the geometric arches of Islamic architecture to sources of water. Later series from 1968-1969 were titled Barcelona, Margem, Step, Pass, and Thule. In these sculptural abstract forms, Reed used color to indicate planes and create sculptural depth with a succession of matte and fluorescent paints. Marmara, 1968 has an open center with each edge sculpted in a distinct color. In some Marmara paintings, Reed reinstated a dimension of painterliness in the center of the work through added texture by incorporating powdered fine gravel mixed with splashed pigment. The Barcelona series of 1968-69 uses the brightness of colors and unusual planes suggestive of the space age to enhance the illusion of volume, which is heightened by an actual opening to the wall within the shape. The same device of an actual opening at the center was also used in the Margem series of 1968. The 1968 Step series of two projections of rectangles allowed Reed to play with color progressions from light to dark in two directions- from top to bottom and side to side. Next was the Pass series of 1968-69, which had an illusion of projection, as well as both matte surfaces and metallic sheen, to change the perception of its structure. Reed mapped out these complicated forms that imply three-dimensions on grid paper to determine their volume and estimate the viewer’s interpretation of depth. Working with grid paper also simplified the scaling up of these complex shapes into large-scale paintings.
OTHER WASHINGTON ARTISTS AND THE SHAPED CANVAS
Paul Reed’s friend Thomas Downing was the other Washington Color Painter who fully investigated the possibilities of the shaped canvas. Downing directed his work toward developing different structural solutions which concentrated on the spatial definitions of color. Much like Reed, Downing investigated color through series. In his 1962 paintings, his canvases are filled with dots of three different sizes in four to five related colors. Next he worked in dial-like compositions with a centered focus. Gradually from 1962 to 1966, the field on which the dots were presented began to become more important to Downing as the background color determined the color of the dots. Using circle dimensions based on the size of paint cans in his studio, the largest dots contrast with the background. Most often Downing painted fields of dark blue, green, or red, or left the white of the raw canvas, on which he painted large dots in ones, twos, threes, or fives. He tried asymmetric, centered, and grid patterns from 1964 to 1966 in the field paintings using intuitive color choices so the large dots pop against the background color.
Downing’s experiments in color and composition in his square-format paintings of 1964-1966 led to the production of related shaped canvases. Downing’s first shaped canvases were made in 1965-1966 with grids of circles contained within parallelograms. These works in the dot motif take into account the importance of the raw canvas as an active component. The color motifs of the dots were developed in gradations of a major tone of blue, red or green. The color of each dot was chosen in association with subtle shades of its neighboring colors. Two examples of the gridded dot shaped canvases appear in the gallery exhibition. Both are untitled and date from 1965 and 1966.
Downing created a series of complex shaped canvases in 1966 with eight narrow, parallel colored stripes with a single bend. They were shown at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from December 1966 to January 1967. The exhibition catalogue demonstrated that the paintings could be hung in multiple orientations on the wall. These works were then exhibited at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York in 1967 and in the Corcoran’s 30th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Painting in February- April of 1967. Troll, 1967 in our exhibition is a more complex version from this period with two chevrons rather than one. In 1967, Downing created a series of shaped canvases titled Planks where the bands of color connected at an angle to give the appearance of separate canvases projecting from the wall. These new Plank structures were composed of three, five, or seven units. The Plank shaped canvases were exhibited in Washington, D.C. at the Henri Gallery in December 1967 and at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York in May 1968.
Downing achieved his greatest effect of perspective illusion in another unique shaped canvas series Fold of 1968. The Fold shaped paintings, such as Fold One in our exhibition, project and fold to make the viewer uncertain of what the actual spatial dimensions are of what he is looking at. These works were first exhibited at the A.M. Sachs Gallery in New York in October-November 1968 and in the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum exhibition Highlights of the 1968-69 Art Season in June-September 1969.
Gene Davis was the earliest member of the Washington Color School to consider an irregular canvas shape, but he did not pursue it fully. He ordered a lumber yard to cut his Masonite panels into any shape other than rectangles or squares in 1952. He then applied texture to the paintings with gravel, adding depth and a sculptural feel to the works. In 1962 Davis created three works he titled Wall Stripes where each stripe was its own canvas, in a way making these works into shaped canvases like Reed’s early Satellite paintings, which call attention to the relationship of the painting to the wall. One of these paintings Wall Stripes No.3, 1962 is reproduced in our catalogue, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Committed to his exploration of color through stripes, Davis did not feel compelled to explore the shaped canvas further.
While Paul Reed focused on color and transparency in his grids of 1966-1967, Kenneth Noland used the stripe to examine the optics of color in a series of diamond-shaped paintings executed between 1964 and 1967. The Diamond series explored wide stripes in chevron patterns painted to be hung as a diamond rather than a square. These were Noland’s only shaped canvases in the 1960s. At first Noland painted the Diamond series off-center to create a tension between the bare canvas and bands of stained color. In this series, Noland also experimented with the optical effects of hot or cool colors. As the Diamond series progressed, less and less bare canvas was left as Noland used more and wider bands of color to create continuous movement with the hot colors or to halt movement with the use of cool colors. Variations in Noland’s Diamond series were provided by the direction of the canvas, the shapes- be they fat or skinny, the colors- hot or cool, and the number and width of the stripes. Noland also investigated sharply reducing the amount of bare canvas by broadening his striped chevrons, allowing his stained color to be very saturated and luminous, and deftly distributing hot and cool tones to create the movement desired. An example of Noland’s Diamond series- Drive, 1965, courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum, can be found in our catalogue. In 1973 Noland revisited the diamond shape in his Plaid series as seen in Pairs, 1974. Noland returned to shapes in 1977 with a series of canvases of cut rectangles and irregular polygons as a continuation of his exploration of the stripe and the field.
The dominance of the shaped canvas in the 1960s was a natural outgrowth of earlier developments in 20th century art. Increased understanding of how the eye and mind work together to create vision, as well as the use of photography in composing art and the distortions of scale that came with it, contributed to the shifting of artists’ interests towards abstract thinking and new ideas of perspective. Both challenge the viewer’s expectations by altering the way we experience an artwork, shifting one’s perspective from looking “into” a work in the traditional way to the work entering the viewer’s space. The pioneering abstract artists of the 1930s and 1940s also worked with perception as they aimed for both structure and spatial depth in their paintings. Artists like Ilya Bolotowsky achieved this in traditional materials while others like Charles Green Shaw, Burgoyne Diller, Charles Biederman, and Gertrude Greene added a third dimension with wood reliefs. The expansion into new materials and a focus on achieving multiple dimensions in an artwork set in motion the progression that would lead to the shaped canvas and later build-outs, video projections, and installation art.
In honoring Paul Reed’s investigations of the shaped canvas in the 1960s, we have provided some perspective on Reed’s career and on the Washington Color Painters’ achievements as a group. By bringing attention to this group beyond their well-known use of poured acrylic on unprimed canvas, we hope to demonstrate how they contributed to the understanding of color and vision within the national art scene.
Paul Reed and the Shaped Canvas in the 1960s is on at D. Wigmore Fine Art, NYC, until the 16th of November. The above text is the exhibition’s catalogue essay – it is courtesy of D. Wigmore Fine Art, as are all the images.