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Festival Chronicles Painting Movement's Origins in D.C.

If the balmy weather isn’t enough to make you feel that summer’s on the way, how about a little color? The Kreeger Museum, the Phillips Collection and more than two dozen other galleries have launched into spring with a “ColorField.remix” citywide program that’s chock full of vibrant color.

The event—conceived by the Kreeger Museum to celebrate a style known as color field painting, which emerged in the 1950s and 1960s following abstract expressionism— involves everything from exhibitions to student art projects to lectures. Its primary focus is on the art movement’s evolution here in the nation’s capital, where it began with a group of local painters known as the Washington Color School.

The group got its beginnings in 1965 at an exhibit held at the short-lived Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The painters featured at the time included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing and Paul Reed.

The school led to a style of painting that focuses on geometric shapes and large areas of solid color. Although often referred to as abstract, color field painting in actuality relies on uniformity and order.

The Kreeger Museum is featuring one of the movement’s biggest pioneers, Gene Davis, in an exhibit that focuses on the painter’s use of colorful vertical stripes. The display is the first in 20 years to focus solely on Davis, whom curators describe as “one of Washington, D.C.’s most influential and successful artists.”

His stripe paintings feature repetitive colors that might resemble the contemporary patterns found on linens from Crate and Barrel—if it weren’t for the artist’s bold, even audacious, color selections. Moreover, Davis’s stripes represent events, with the intervals in between reflecting space and time.

Davis’s work is also being commemorated at the Phillips Collection, where 20 paintings selected for “Lyrical Color: Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and the Washington Color School” offer the full range of geometric shapes favored by color field painters. Although relatively small in terms of the number of pieces on view, the exhibit is geared more toward highlighting the museum’s influence over 1960s painters than focusing on specific artists. Still, the pieces that Duncan Phillips purchased for his collection provide a good introduction to the varying techniques that emerged from the Washington Color School—from Noland’s watery rings to Downing’s symmetrical circles to Mehring’s colorful zigzags.

The Kreeger and Phillips exhibits are certainly centerpieces to the overall event, but not to the exclusion of other local galleries and museums that are also hosting their own smaller displays. The National Museum for Women in the Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel, Md., among many others, all have exhibits featuring color field painting.

For those who don’t have the time or energy to visit the vignettes of separate museums between now and July, you could very well get a taste of the event just by walking around downtown. In particular, the portion of 8th Street, NW, between D and E Streets will be painted in bold, stripe shades by students of the Corcoran College of Art + Design. Even Neiman Marcus in Chevy Chase is latching onto the event with store windows inspired by the color field movement.

The scale of “ColorField.remix” is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, busy museum-goers have the option to sample bits and pieces of the art movement at various events. On the flip side though, the geographical distance separating assorted components of the overall project might make it difficult to take it all in.

As a collective event though, this collaborative project does succeed in offering the full gamut of perspectives on the colors and symmetry of this somewhat lesser-known art movement whose roots came from our own backyard.

ColorField.remix through July More than 30 Washington-area museums and locations For more information, please visit www.colorfieldremix.com.

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999