Washington Color School

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A loosely associated group of Washington, D.C., artists who initiated important developments in chromatic abstraction, particularly during the late 1950s and 1960s. They moved away from abstract expressionism's' gestural and subjective approaches to concentrate on color's optical properties and its role in organizing pictorial experience. Their large works, generally executed in acrylic paint on raw canvas, contributed to the color field and hard-edge tendencies in 1960s painting and deeply affected subsequent artistic developments in the capital. The high regard among Washington painters for chromatic subtlety and fine craftsmanship owes a debt to the nature of the modern art collection Duncan Phillips showed in his public gallery there. A 1965 exhibition “The Washington Color Painters,” mounted at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, crystallized the group's identity.

Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland rank as principal figures. The best-known of other participants in the defining 1965 show, painter and printmaker Gene Davis (1920–85) specialized in broadly horizontal compositions of vertical stripes. Born in Washington, Gene Bernard Davis studied for a year at the University of Maryland before transferring in 1939 to Wilson Teachers College (now part of the University of the District of Columbia). After leaving in 1941, he was employed as a journalist and writer until 1968. Following a stint in Jacksonville, Florida, he worked in New York until 1945, when he returned to Washington. Self-taught in art except for a high school drawing class, he took up painting seriously around 1950. For several years he experimented with varied approaches, indebted particularly to abstract expressionism and to the work of Paul Klee before he noted the early work of Jasper Johns and Frank Stella. Around 1958 he began to work out his standard formula, limited to hard-edge, unmodulated, contiguous bands of a single width within each painting. He believed that this elementary method of dividing the canvas allowed the viewer to disregard structure in order to concentrate on color and interval. Often as much as twenty feet wide, his paintings reverberate with intuitively arranged, rippling chromatic rhythms. He died in Washington.

Thomas Downing (1928–85) painted geometric forms, usually circles, distributed across each canvas in regular, two-dimensional patterns. Born in Suffolk, Virginia, he graduated in 1948 from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland. For the next two years he studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. From late 1950 until the summer of 1951, he traveled in Europe and worked in Paris. Following military service, in 1953 he settled in Washington, where he briefly studied with Noland. Around 1960 he adopted the circle as his principal motif. Unlike Noland, who strove at that time to negate suggestions of depth, Downing encouraged a flickering spatial dimension. Probably reflecting familiarity with Josef Albers's chromatic experiments, his circles of varied size and hue force the illusion that the disks float at slightly different depths. In some cases, his optical trickery suggests the diversions of op art. Downing moved to New York in 1971, lived briefly in Houston in 1975, and then settled permanently on Cape Cod, in Provincetown.


Subjects: Art.

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