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Paul Reed, one of the painters most closely associated with an art movement that showered D.C. in glory, died on Saturday in Phoenix. He was 96.
Reed was the last artist standing among the six or seven painters who brought the so-called Washington Color School to prominence in the 1960s. More a loose confederation than an exclusive fraternity, Reed and his peers—legendary painters such as Gene Davis and Morris Louis—elevated the District with their experimental approaches to pigment and application.
His major contribution to the Color School era may have been his “Disc” series, an arc he began in 1965. The formulaic paintings, marked by a central circle and different diagonal bands of color, served as a format for working out new dynamics with acrylic paints and canvas treatments. These works and other paintings by Reed can be found in major collections across the nation, including the National Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In 1965, Reed was one of the artists included in “Washington Color Painters,” an exhibit at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art that cemented the city’s reputation at the forefront of post-war art.
“I have a saying: Pollock dripped,” he told me in 2011 for a profile in the Washington Post. “[Helen] Frankenthaler poured. Morris Louis poured. Howard Mehring sprinkled. I blot.”
Reed was born in 1919 in Washington, D.C., where he attended McKinley High School. He studied art at San Diego State College in San Diego and also at the Corcoran School of Art, where he later taught for more than a decade. As a young man, Reed worked as a graphic designer in Atlanta, New York, and D.C. (including a stint at the now-defunct Washington Times-Herald) before making this city his permanent home in 1952.
Like other Washington School Painters, Reed favored using raw canvases; he achieved the familiar stained look that was D.C.’s signature style in the 1960s by applying water-based acrylics to canvas without using a gesso primer. As a painter, he worked methodically. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he progressed through a series of series: With each new iteration of color experiments, he added an additional side to his shaped canvases, proceeding from four sides to five-, six-, and seven-sided paintings.
Reed continued to work in D.C. even as the Washington Color School’s fame eclipsed, exploring other formats in the 1980s and 1990s but focusing, late in life, on efforts that resembled the blots and dapples from earlier in his career. A series of recent shows in and around D.C. highlighted his career and achievements, from the “Washington Color and Light” survey at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2011 to solo exhibitions at the Workhouse Art Center in Lorton, Va., and at the Georgetown University Library the same year.
Reed’s paintings are represented broadly across D.C. museums. His works belong to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Phillips Collection, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. One Reed painting from the significant Color School holdings of the Corcoran Gallery of Art was absorbed by the National Gallery in February, alongside paintings by Davis, Mehring, Thomas Downing, and Kenneth Noland.
Per a statement from his Manhattan gallery, D. Wigmore Fine Art, Reed died in Phoenix after suffering a brief illness. He was predeceased by his wife, Esther, and both his sons, Robert Reed and Thomas Reed. He is survived by his daughter, Jean Reed Roberts.
Painting gift of Robert Reed; photo courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum