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Clement Greenberg put the District on the map. In a 1960 essay for Art International, he profiled the work of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, two D.C.–based artists who had not yet shown in any New York museum. This supremely influential critic didn’t just pinpoint Louis and Noland as essential “color painters,” he helped to produce them. In 1954, Greenberg introduced Louis to Helen Frankenthaler—a proto–color field painter—whose 1952 painting, “Mountains and Sea,” became a touchstone for Louis and other D.C. artists. Louis borrowed from her the process of staining raw, unprimed canvas with acrylic paint, a strategy that became one of the hallmarks of the Washington Color School. “Thin it, use it in the same way as dye,” Noland later told an interviewer, in 1977. “Thinness reveals color.”
Noland, for his part, had enrolled at Black Mountain College on the G.I. Bill after the war. There he studied geometric abstraction under Ilya Bolotowsky and Josef Albers, learning about composition, rhythm, and perception in the works of artists such as Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee. Noland brought these ideas with him to a post at Catholic University, where his students learned another signature lesson of Color School painting: hard-edged geometric abstraction.
Other D.C. artists (some of them Noland’s students) soon cottoned on. Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, and Paul Reed joined Louis and Noland in a pivotal 1965 show at the former Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington Color Painters. A second wave of painters introduced new ideas in space (Sam Gilliam) and form (Anne Truitt). Traces of the old school still persist in work produced by young painters today (Jason Gubbiotti). Thanks especially to the Corcoran Gallery of Art—now lost to the city—the D.C. style had real staying power. Here’s a timeline of signature museum shows by the six original artists of the Washington Color School.
Morris LouisBorn: 1912Died: 1962
Important exhibits:Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—1963Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington Color Painters—1965Los Angeles County Museum of Art—1967Whitney Museum of American Art—1970Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—1973National Gallery of Art—1976Museum of Modern Art—1986
Kenneth NolandBorn:1924Died: 2010
Important exhibits:Venice Biennale—1964Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington Color Painters—1965Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—1977Museum of Fine Arts, Houston—2004The Tate—2006Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—2010
Gene DavisDavis lent his signature stripes to a 414-foot-long stretch of street outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1972.Born: 1920Died: 1985
Important exhibits:Corcoran Gallery of Art—1964San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—1968Walker Art Center—1978Brooklyn Museum—1982Smithsonian American Art Museum—2016
Howard MehringA native Washingtonian, Mehring studied under Noland and also visited Frankenthaler’s studio, making him a Color School completist.Born: 1931Died: 1978
Important exhibits:Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Post-Painterly Abstraction—1964Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington Color Painters—1965Corcoran Gallery of Art—1977The Phillips Collection—1977
Thomas DowningDowning, who studied under Noland and shared a studio with Mehring, taught at the Corcoran, where Sam Gilliam numbered among his students.Born: 1928Died: 1985
Important exhibits:Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Post-Painterly Abstraction—1964Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington Color Painters—1965Corcoran Gallery of Art—1966La Jolla Museum of Art—1968The Phillips Collection—1985
Paul ReedThe last of the Washington Color Painters class continued to paint well into his 90s.Born: 1919Died: 2015
Important exhibits:Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington Color Painters—1965Corcoran Gallery of Art—1966
Around the tight nucleus of the six “Washington Color Painters” artists orbited many other artists affiliated with the Washington Color School. Some came later, like Sam Gilliam and Anne Truitt; one painter, Alma Thomas, came even earlier. Here’s a brief rundown of the artists who made up Washington Color School: Next Class.
Sam GilliamWhile the artist considers himself to be part of a second wave of Color School painters, his titanic success late in life may ultimately make him the most widely known Washington Color School artist of all.Born: 1933
Important exhibits:The Phillips Collection—1967Venice Biennale—1972Studio Museum in Harlem—1982Corcoran Gallery of Art—1983Kreeger Museum—1998Corcoran Gallery of Art—2005Frieze Masters—2015Venice Biennale—2017Seattle Art Museum—2017
Alma ThomasThomas came to Washington, D.C., as part of the Great Migration from the South (she was born in Georgia). After graduating from Howard University, Thomas studied painting under Kainen at American University after retiring from teaching art in 1960. Her formal career launched then, when she was nearly 70.Born: 1891Died: 1978
Willem de Looper
The artist’s paintings may be closer to Abstract Expressionism than Color Field painting, putting him on the outer orbit of the Washington Color School—but he nevertheless used stained canvas. De Looper worked for the Phillips Collection, where he rose from security guard to chief curator.Born: 1932Died: 2009
Jacob KainenAt least as well known as a teacher and curator as he was a painter, Kainen was socially close to painters from New York’s Abstract Expressionist scene, including Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, and Arshile Gorky.Born: 1909Died: 2001
Rockne KrebsThe artist, who was known as a pioneer in laser light installations, also earned special distinction for projecting images from a censored Robert Mapplethorpe show onto the Corcoran Gallery of Art after the museum canceled the exhibit.Born: 1938Died: 2011
Leon BerkowitzBerkowitz, who taught painting at the Corcoran for 20 years and founded the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts—a gallery that showed many Color School painters—rejected that label for his own work.Born: 1911Died: 1987
Anne TruittOne of few Color School sculptors (if not the only one), Truitt was also an eloquent diarist; her journals from across her life are published in three must-read collections, Daybook, Turn, and Prospect.Born: 1921Died: 2004
Mary Pinchot MeyerMeyer’s life was brief but colorful: Her husband, Cord Meyer, was a secret CIA operative whom Senator Joseph McCarthy publicly accused of being a Communist (which was at one time true). Mary Pinchot Meyer, who worked as an editor for The Atlantic Monthly, had an affair with President John F. Kennedy in the months before his assassination. Her paintings, by contrast, were austere.Born: 1920Died: 1964
James HillearyHilleary never considered himself part of the Washington Color School, but over the course of his career he explored all the salient ideas, from hard-edged geometric paintings of diagonal criss-crossing stripes to humming bands of abstract color and static.Born: 1924Died: 2014