8 Famous Color Field Paintings that Define the Genre

Frank Stella - Point of Pines enamel on canvas. Frank Stella - Point of Pines enamel on canvas. Sold for $28,082,500 via Christie’s (May 2019).

As the 1940s came to a close, a number of artists were looking for something new. Among them, Mark RothkoBarnett Newman, and Clyfford Still were on the search for a new style of abstraction, one that would set them apart from their predecessors and rejected any emphasis on gesture or action. Instead, color was their emotive driver, which spawned a whole new and revolutionary abstraction that would come be known as Color Field painting.

“We are creating images whose reality is self-evident, and which are devoid of the props and crutches that evoke associations with outmoded images, both sublime and beautiful,”

Barnett Newman

Barnett Newman - Black Fire I

Barnett Newman – Black Fire I. Sold for $84,165,000 via Christie’s (May 2014).

Color Field painters are the quiet residents in the Abstract Expressionist neighbourhood, especially when compared to the loud Action Painters of the age like Jackson Pollock. And while they both shared an abstract approach, Color Field art in the post-war years was characterized by large expanses of solid color, spread across the canvas to create areas of unbroken color and a flat picture plane.

Termed as Post-Painterly Abstraction by the art critic and color field painting champion, Clement Greenberg, this new art movement placed less emphasis on gesture or action in a piece, in favor of consistency of form and process, with the aim of the viewer being enveloped in color, invoking a feeling of emotion. Any concept of figurative art was abandoned, as was anything tangible from everyday life; instead, the power of color in large fields was unleashed.

And while the early trio of Color Field pioneers focused on providing a modern, mythic art through immersion in color as part of a search for transcendence and the infinite, this fabled approach was short lived. Following in their pioneer’s footsteps, the likes of Morris LouisKenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski harnessed the spirit of non-figurative painting, but in their work, the idea of form proved more important than any mythical content. 

What did unite them was the basic tenet of the rebellious form of non-conformist art; they rejected ideas of traditional painting. Central to any Color Field painting was the idea that the canvas didn’t have a field of vision, or a central focus. Typically, they would also emphasize the flatness of the surface, reject objects in the natural world, and reveal the artist’s emotional state of mind through the expression of color.

Barnett Newman - White Fire I.

Barnett Newman – White Fire I. Sold for $3,859,500 via Christie’s (November 2002).

This approach was revolutionary, but as the 1960s progressed, the highly formalist trend of Colour Field painting would begin to eat itself. The group of artists fragmented into smaller abstract groups whose members pursued a reductionist agenda to purge art of superfluous rhetoric and allusion. Washington Color SchoolHard Edge PaintingLyrical Abstraction, and Minimalism all emerged for short-lived periods, and even those who didn’t follow the minimalist path were marginalized by new Postmodernism, like video and installation art.

As the century advanced, though, this formerly marginalized art form was embraced by critics and enthusiasts, with Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow even setting an auction record in the Post-War category when it sold for close to $87 million in 2012. Under appreciated in their time, today, the Color Field paintings that define the genre are as clear and crisp as the paint used to create them. And eight genre-defining paintings can be found, in chronological order, below.

Barnett Newman – Vir heroicus sublimis (Man Heroic & Sublime), 1950-51

“Old standards of beauty were irrelevant: the sublime was all that was appropriate – an experience of enormity which might lift modern humanity out of its torpor”

Barnett Newman

Not only a pioneer of the genre, Barnett Newman’s creation of a band of vertical color, which he called the ‘zip’, changed how his 95 by 213 inch Vir heroicus sublimis was viewed. It proved to be a catalyst for Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters, as it avoided conventional images of figure and ground. His large masterpiece was also intended to be viewed from a close vantage point, allowing the colors and zips to envelop viewers.

Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Man Heroic and Sublime).

Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Man Heroic and Sublime). Image courtesy of John Wisniewski via Flickr.

Newman arrived at his speciality after working as a teacher, writer, and critic, who during the 1930s, destroyed his early expressionist paintings. He died in 1970, but his work lives on, particularly at auction where Black Fire 1 sold for $84.2 million in 2014.

Helen Frankenthaler – Mountains and Sea, 1952

Helen Frankenthaler rarely gets the plaudits she deserves as one of the creators of Color Field paintings; the accolade is often attributed to Clyfford Still et al, but Frankenthaler played a crucial role in the genre’s evolution. The influence of Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell (whom she later married), was evident in her work Mountains and Sea, which pioneered the stain painting technique and led art critic Clement Greenberg to label her as the “next big thing” in American art.

Frankenthaler poured turpentine-thinned paint onto unprimed canvas for Mountains and Sea, producing a luminous color wash that merged with the canvas. Her style is notable in its emphasis on spontaneity. As Frankenthaler said, “a really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.” She received the National Medal of Arts in 2001.

Clyfford Still – D-No. 1, 1957

There has been some disagreement over which artist first developed Color Field abstraction in the late 1940s, but Clyfford Still’s paintings, devoid of obvious subject, matter embodied this new and abstract form. Some years later, his D-No. 1 showcased his evocative style through a fiery clash of yellow and black that was applied with a palette knife to create texture. 

Still’s work highlights the existential struggle of the human spirit against the forces of nature through bold, clashing colors, that have been likened to caves or vast abysses momentarily illuminated by crackling flares of light. Still’s paintings were hugely important for the establishment of Abstract Expressionism in a career that also saw him take in Impressionism and Surrealism in his early years. 

Morris Louis – Gamma Tau, 1960

Morris Louis – Gamma Tau magna on canvas.

Morris Louis – Gamma Tau magna on canvas. Sold for $2,169,000 via Sotheby’s (Nov 2007).

Following a trip to Helen Frankenthaler’s New York studio with Kenneth Noland in 1953, Louis was impressed by Frankenthaler’s stain paintings, particularly Mountains and Sea. Suitably inspired, he experimented with method and medium throughout his career, was known for controlling the flow and stain of his acrylic paints by folding, and for bending large canvases as part of his Unfurleds series, with the 102 x 166 inch Gamma Tau proving among his most defining.

This application of paint emphasized the fluidity and saturated colors of Louis’ art and allowed him to eliminate his own touch upon the canvas in his paintings from the 1950s, which helped to establish a link between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting.

Mark Rothko – Orange, Red, Yellow, 1961

Mark Rothko - Orange, Red, Yellow

Mark Rothko – Orange, Red, Yellow. Sold for $86,882,500 via Christie’s (May 2012).

Mark Rothko’s art can be characterized by a sense of space, and a vibrant and expressive use of searing block colors across large areas that can draw the viewer into the darkest depths of despair and anguish. He didn’t necessarily see himself a Color Field artist as he took Abstractionism, Surrealism and multi-forms in his stride. But whatever the style of painting, incendiary bright colors or deep dark tones brought an encapsulating expressionism to every Rothko artwork.

The color red proved popular at auction, as Orange, Red, Yellow sold for close to $87 million in 2012, setting a nominal value record at a public auction for a post-war painting. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he declared. “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions.”

Robyn Denny – Madras, 1961

The only British artist on the list, Robyn Denny’s Anglicised application of the American movement that was Abstract Expressionism helped to change the face of British art history in the 1960s and ’70s. Reacting against the tradition of British landscape painting, Denny was part of the Tachiste movement (a European variation on American Abstract Expressionism), which developed into Hard Edge Painting in 1960, as seen in Madras.

Robyn Denny – Madras.

Robyn Denny – Madras. Sold for £50,000 via Sotheby’s (June 2017).

Denny preferred for his works to be hung low on the wall so that viewers feel they might step into the picture. Madras features vertical bands within a frame which suggest architecture, gateways, and the human body. Madras achieved its estimate of £50,000 when it went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in 2017.

Kenneth Noland – East-West, 1963

Kenneth Noland – East-West.

Kenneth Noland – East-West. Sold for $750,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2019).

Known for his exacting symmetry, Kenneth Noland’s crisp art married colors to simple, geometric forms and focused on a variety of shapes, including targets, chevrons, stripes, while he also experimented with many other styles and different shaped canvases. Through East-West, he exercised his signature chevron style; it sold for $750,000 at Sotheby’s in 2019, a bargain compared to his Color Field contemporaries.

Noland’s method was to stain the canvas with color, removing the artist through brushstrokes. His later work covered the entirety of his canvases, making his lines and colors seem unending, prompting the critic Clement Greenberg to suggest Noland’s art was “capable of repeating the picture beyond its frame into infinity.” 

Frank Stella – The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1870-1970, 1970

Frank Stella was an established figure in modern abstraction by 1970. Characteristic of Color Field work, Stella’s spectrums were devoid of any representation or figurative forms. His bands of varying colors were intended to create a three-dimensional field of pure color, as achieved in The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1870-1970, commissioned by the museum for its 100th anniversary, and sold for an enviable $46,875 at Sotheby’s in 2010.

The piece delicately balanced alternating color bands to create a visual plane, but vivid colors weren’t his only medium. In the 1990s, Stella explored surrealist printmaking with The Fountain, as well as sculpture, while his Black Paintings series that featured parallel black stripes in smoothly applied house paint served as an important catalyst for Minimalist art of the 1960s.