Washington Color School

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The Washington Color School was a movement starting in Washington DC, built of six core abstract expressionist artists during the 1950s–1970s. They emerged during a time when society, the arts, and people were changing quickly. The inner circle of this new visual art movement consisted of Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, and Paul Reed.

The Washington Color School, a visual art movement, describes a form of image making concerned primarily with color field painting, a form of non-objective or non-representational art that explored ways to use large solid areas of paint. The Washington Color School originally consisted of a group of painters who showed works in an exhibit called the "Washington Color Painters" at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art in Washington from June 25 to September 5, 1965. The exhibition's organizer was Gerald "Gerry" Nordland and the painters who exhibited were Gene Davis, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, Thomas "Tom" Downing, and Paul Reed. This exhibition, which subsequently traveled to several other venues in the United States, including the Walker Art Center, solidified Washington's place in the national movement and defined what is considered the city's signature art movement, according to art historians and journalists alike.[1]

The Washington Color School artists painted largely non-representational works, and were central to the larger color field movement.[according to whom?] Though not generally considered abstract expressionists due to the orderliness of their works and differing motivating philosophies, many parallels can be drawn between the Washington Color School and the abstract expressionists. Minimally, the use of stripes, washes, and fields of single colors of paint on canvas were common to most artists in both groups. A common technique used in the Washington Color School was "soak staining" or just "staining", in which the artist would pour a thinned painting medium onto canvas and let it sit over time. The result would be a stain in the canvas with no visible traces of conventional application, such as brush strokes.[2]

After their initial benchmark exhibition, Davis, Mehring, and Reed were joined by Timothy Corkery, Willem de Looper, and Jacob Kainen at The Seventeenth Area Exhibition of Artists of Washington and the Adjacent Area at The Corcoran Gallery of Art from November 12 to December 19, 1965. The Eighteenth Area Exhibition at The Corcoran from November 18 to December 31, 1967 again featured artists including de Looper, Corkery, Downing, Gilliam and Kainen.

Many of these artists exhibited at the Jefferson Place Gallery, originally directed by Alice Denney and later owned and directed by Nesta Dorrance/Sept 21,1969 Washington Post Dorrance/) Other artists associated with the group include: Sam Francis, Anne Truitt, Mary Pinchot Meyer, Leon Berkowitz,[3] Jacob Kainen,[4] Alma Thomas, James Hilleary,[5] and others. The group is sometimes thought to have expanded as it achieved a dominant presence in the Washington, D.C. visual art community through the 1960s into the 1970s. Along with the original Washington Color School painters, a second generation also exhibited at Jefferson Place Gallery.(6/69 “Four Minds With It” Wash Star; Benjamin) those artists remained influential even as some of its members dispersed elsewhere. Other works that reflect the Washington Color School include Sam Gilliam's suspended paintings (whose style can be described by some as Baroque), Timothy Corkery's sharp Arrows and contrasting diffuse architectural doorways. Rockne Krebs' transparent sculptures, light and laser works, Ed McGowin's vacuum-formed pieces which he was ending and moving towards a more personal art (tableau), Bill Christenberry's neon works, which led him to deal more directly with his roots, and the work of Bob Stackhouse and Tom Green.

Though the six artists who exhibited in the seminal Washington Color School show were all men, women have had an equal presence in the movement. Hilda Thorpe (Hilda Shapiro Thorpe), for example, a color field painter who made oversized paintings and paper sculptures, taught a generation of artists in the Washington, D.C. area. Other Washington Color School female artists include Anne Truitt (whose work relates to the 'minimalist-purity' side of three-dimensional painterly objects and painters), Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Alma Thomas.

During spring and summer 2007, arts institutions in Washington, D.C. staged a citywide celebration of color field painting, including exhibitions at galleries and museums of works by members of the Washington Color School.[6] In 2011, a group of Washington art collectors began the Washington Color School Project, to gather and publish information about the history of the color painters and abstract art in Washington.[7] Though some of them were not born in Washington, they exhibited together representing Washington as a new hub for the visual arts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cohen, Jean Lawlor (June 26, 2015). "When the Washington Color School earned its stripes on the national stage". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 30, 2019.
  2. ^ "The Most Typical Abstract Art Techniques". IdeelArt. Archived from the original on March 30, 2018. Retrieved March 30, 2018.
  3. ^ Cohen, Jean Lawlor. "About the Washington Color School". washington.org. Archived from the original on July 29, 2012.
  4. ^ Smith, Roberta (March 23, 2001). "Obituary: Jacob Kainen, 91, Painter and Print Curator". The New York Times. Retrieved August 30, 2019.
  5. ^ Langer, Emily (April 22, 2014). "James Hilleary, noted Washington artist, dies at 90". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 30, 2019.
  6. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (January 17, 2007). "The Washington Color School Is Ready to Bloom". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 30, 2019.
  7. ^ "Washington Color School Project". Retrieved January 24, 2016.


  • Gene Davis Catalog
  • J. D. Serwer. 1987. Gene Davis, A Memorial Exhibition. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. ISBN 0-87474-854-2
  • Introduction & Text by Roy Slade, "The Corcoran & Washington Art" Copyright 1976 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: 2000 copies printed by Garamond Press, Baltimore, MD LCCC# 76-42098
  • Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Interview with Gerald Nordland Conducted by Susan Larsen, Chicago, Illinois May 25–26, 2004 http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/nordla04.htm
  • Washington Art, catalog of exhibitions at State University College at Potsdam, NY & State University of New York at Albany, 1971 [no copyright or LCCC # listed], Introduction by Renato G. Danese, printed by Regal Art Press, Troy NY.
  • The Vincent Melzac Collection, Foreword by Walter Hopps, Introduction by Ellen Gross Landau, Retrospective Notes on the Washington Color School by Barbara Rose, Copyright 1971 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: printed by Garamond/Pridemark Press, Baltimore, MD LCCC#75-153646