Bright stripes, circles and blobs fill the huge canvases of “Color as Field,” a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This inert survey of abstraction from 1950 to 1975, organized by the American Federation of Arts, lacks a fresh perspective on one of the most pivotal moments in the history of American art.
The 39 paint-soaked canvases by Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, Sam Francis and other well-collected artists of the era represent a transition between the energetic splatters of abstract expressionism and cool geometries of minimalism. They were created when modern art started splintering into various factions, from pop and op art to conceptualism and its rejection of painting altogether.
Rather than present the color-field paintings in relationship to those concurrent movements — comparing, for instance, Kenneth Noland’s circles to Jasper Johns’ targets — curator Karen Wilkin gets stuck in art historical dogma. She and the museum have missed the opportunity to stand back and critique the accepted version of postwar American abstraction from a more inclusive, contemporary viewpoint.
This show merely parrots the thinking of postwar art critics who were lampooned in Tom Wolfe’s 1975 book, “The Painted Word,” for promoting abstract art as impersonal illusionism. They encouraged artists to concentrate on the optical qualities of colors and shapes and not bother with representing subjects outside the canvas.
“Color as Field” doesn’t challenge this view by exploring related art movements or metaphorical implications, such as comparing the vibrant palette and freed-up grounds of these modern paintings to the technological breakthroughs and optimistic designs of the Space Age. Instead, it defers to ideas set forth by the autocratic critic Clement Greenberg, a champion of Jackson Pollock’s drips, who saw color-field works as distinctive from Mr. Pollock’s abstract expressionism in their flatter, bigger cascades of paint and absence of handmade touches.
However, the two movements weren’t as different as Mr. Greenberg and other critics made them out to be. In the part of the exhibit devoted to the origins of color field, paintings by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko evidence both blurry brush strokes and color-saturated fields.
Other pictures in this section evidence connections to European modernism, a relationship that also would make for a fascinating show. Adolph Gottlieb’s “Sentinel” translates the calligraphic impulses of Swiss-born Paul Klee into a larger scale. Robert Motherwell’s “Open 165,” with its green rectangle flanked by blue windows, recalls Henri Matisse’s nearly abstract depictions of rooms.
A similar theme is tackled in “Interior Landscape” by Miss Frankenthaler, a color-field pioneer who only recently has earned her rightful place in art history. In her luscious work, spreading shapes resemble blotchy stains. Instead of brushing or dribbling oils onto primed canvas, the artist soaked acrylic paint into raw fabric as if it were dye.
Washington artists Morris Louis and Mr. Noland copied Miss Frankenthaler’s technique to create veils, circles and lines of color. Disappointingly, the exhibit doesn’t feature her groundbreaking 1952 work, “Mountains and Sea,” which directly inspired them.
Several striking canvases veiled in pours of paint by Mr. Louis, the subject of last fall’s retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum, confirm his abilities as a color-field innovator. In comparison, Mr. Noland comes off as an aimless wanderer in his explorations of plaids, chevrons and stripes.
These works and others in the main part of the show rehash portions of the 1964 exhibition “Post Painterly Abstraction,” organized by Mr. Greenberg for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That exhibit featured works by 31 American and Canadian artists, including five Washington colorists, but intentionally left out pop art, which Mr. Greenberg deemed mere “novelty.”
Just 10 of these artists are represented in “Color as Field,” leaving out the more obscure, but no less interesting painters as well as “novelty” art. The exhibit introduces just two artists whose work was not part of the 1964 survey — New York-based Larry Poons (an acolyte of Mr. Greenberg’s) and Washington’s Sam Gilliam — but does not showcase bigger talents such as California artist Richard Diebenkorn, who meshed color fields with landscape.
By the end of the show, misty fields have hardened into sharp edges. Frank Stella is curiously represented by a 1969 painting of interlacing curves from his “Protractor” series rather than by his earlier monochromatic paintings, which pushed flat fields to their limits.
This more austere, minimalist art eventually eclipsed the sensuously stained abstractions and reduced them to pretty relics. In resuscitating the color-field paintings, the narrowly focused Smithsonian show only reinforces the limitations of the movement rather than proving its relevance beyond the canvases on display.
WHAT: “Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975”
WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G streets Northwest
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, through May 26
WEB SITE: americanart.si.edu
Advancing the field
Washington color school artist Howard Mehring (1931-1978) is less well known than his teacher Kenneth Noland, but his abstract paintings pack a more graphic punch. Mr. Mehring’s work is not part of the new exhibit “Color as Field” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but 13 of his canvases are on view at Osuna Art in Bethesda to provide a good overview of his different directions in the years before 1968, when he stopped painting.
In the lobby outside the gallery, the earliest works are unique among color-field paintings in that they are pieced together like quilts, assembled from glued-on canvas strips patterned with soaked-in dots of newly developed Magna acrylic paint. In reddish tones, this stippled effect resembles a skin rash breaking out over the pictures.
Contrasting colors reinforce the retinal buzz achieved through the combination of hazy daubs and hard-edged cutout shapes. “Barcelona” (1962), an assemblage of rectangles in complementary greens and red, is similar to one of the three paintings by Mr. Mehring selected by the influential critic Clement Greenberg for his 1964 color-field exhibit, “Post Painterly Abstraction,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Inside the gallery, later paintings of concentric shapes — cousins of Mr. Noland’s chevrons and Gene Davis’ stripes — heighten the color palette and optical effects. “Crystal Reverberance” (1965) centers on a dark, upside-down “T” that recedes while drawing the eye outward to golden strips at the edges of the canvas. In the more dynamic “Pulse II” (1967), lightning bolts of color charge across the picture to direct the view diagonally to opposite corners. Mr. Mehring compared his pulsating hues to a progression of musical notes and, in this show, his talent for rhythmic arrangements is palpable.
WHAT: “Howard Mehring”
WHERE: Osuna Art, 7200 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda
WHEN: Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Through April 5