Skip to Main Content

The Washington D.C. Color School

David Gariff, senior lecturer, National Gallery of Art. By the end of the 1950s abstract expressionism had begun to wane. Color-field or hard-edge painters, depending on their approach, adopted the large scale and rich palette of painters like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko. Morris Louis poured paint onto huge unprimed canvases, as Pollock did, but in a different way and with different results. Urgent physical gestures gave way to something that looks more like an impersonal force of nature. Louis’s younger colleagues, including Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Sam Gilliam, Howard Mehring, Kenneth Noland, and Paul Reed, were equally inventive, whether staining unprimed canvas, masking with tape, or crumpling and cinching the canvas to create a space at once optical and physical. Most of these painters lived in Washington, DC, where their originality earned them the name Washington Color School. As part of the series Celebrating the East Building: 20th-Century Art, senior lecturer David Gariff examines a golden age in the history of modern art in Washington, DC. This lecture was presented on August 21, 2018, at the National Gallery of Art.