Associations In Art

‘With us the disguise must be complete. The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.’ [Mark Rothko]

– Ross. C. ed. (1990) Abstract Expressionism, Creators and Critics New York, United States: Abrams Publishers, p. 168

Characteristics of Abstract Expressionism

Abstract Expressionism evolved through the work of each individual artist. Generally speaking, each artist arrived at this free-wheeling style by the end of the 1940s and continued in the same manner to the end of his or her life. The style has remained alive well into the current century through its youngest practitioners.

Abstract Expressionism, MoMA

Unnamed – Rothko

The general characteristics of Abstract Expressionism are the following:

  • Unconventional application of paint, usually without a recognizable subject that tends toward amorphous shapes in brilliant colours.
  • Dripping, smearing, slathering, and flinging lots of paint on to the canvas (often on an unprimed canvas).
  • Sometimes gestural writing in a loosely calligraphic manner.
  • Carefully filling the picture plane with zones of colour that create tension between the shapes and hues (especially in the case of Colour Field artists).

“There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” – Pablo Picasso

Colour Field Painting

Colour Field painting is a style of abstract painting that emerged in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. It was inspired by European modernism and closely related to Abstract Expressionism, while many of its notable early proponents were among the pioneering Abstract Expressionists. Colour Field is characterized primarily by large fields of flat, solid colour spread across or stained into the canvas creating areas of unbroken surface and a flat picture plane. The movement places less emphasis on gesture, brush-strokes and action in favour of an overall consistency of form and process. ‘In colour field painting colour is freed from objective context and becomes the subject in itself.’

Hans Hofmann, 1959–1960, Abstract Expressionis...

A Colour Field work by Hans Hofmann

Colour Field painting is related to Post-painterly Abstraction, Suprematism, Abstract Expressionism, Hard-edge painting and Lyrical Abstraction. It initially referred to a particular type of abstract expressionism, especially the work of Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and several series of paintings by Joan Miró whose famous quote: “The object doesn’t have a colour – the painting does.” voices a great truth about Colour Field Painting.

An important distinction that made colour field painting different from abstract expression was the paint handling. The most basic fundamental defining technique of painting is application of paint and the colour field painters revolutionized the way paint could be effectively applied.

Colour Field painting sought to rid art of superfluous rhetoric. Greatly reduced formats were used with drawing essentially simplified to repetitive and regulated systems, basic references to nature, and a highly articulated and psychological use of colour. In general these artists eliminated overt recognizable imagery in favour of abstraction. Certain artists quoted references to past or present art, but in general colour field painting presents abstraction as an end in itself. In pursuing this direction of modern art, these artists wanted to present each painting as one unified, cohesive, monolithic image often within series’ of related types.

In distinction to the emotional energy and gestural surface marks and paint handling of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Colour Field painting initially appeared to be cool and austere. Colour field painters efface the individual mark in favour of large, flat, stained and soaked areas of colour, considered to be the essential nature of visual abstraction along with the actual shape of the canvas, which Frank Stella in particular achieved in unusual ways with combinations of curved and straight edges.

However, Colour Field painting has proven to be both sensual and deeply expressive albeit in a different way from gestural Abstract Expressionism. Denying connection to Abstract Expressionism or any other Art Movement artist Mark Rothko spoke clearly about his paintings in 1956:

“I am not an abstractionist. I am not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationships, then you miss the point!”