Color Field Painting, Who’s Your Daddy?

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All categories are suspicious. They are a way of taking the infinitely complex and rendering it simple. Therefore, they are inherently false; however, they help us organize our world. Musicians, painters, sculptors all dislike being categorized. They want to explore the limits of their imaginations and their materials. That means their purpose is to redefine categories and their borders. Robert Natkin (whose painting you see first) exemplified this struggle against categories. Earlier today I delivered a lecture on Natkin and his work, how he moved from abstract expressionist to color field minimalist, all categories he would have found uncomfortable. Just as Monet and friends received the title “Impressionist,” it was initially a pejorative term given to the group by a critic intending to belittle their efforts. Categories, like stereotypes, also offer a quality of description which, while over-general and inaccurate, still offer a model for ordering and simplifying experience. We evolve through our understanding of categories, our fine-tuning of categories. Monet’s painting (third painting example) preceded Natkin’s work by almost a century. He had discovered that dissolved edges between territories of color and close value (and complementary color) created a sense of luminosity. He had discovered that pixilated areas of paint created a sense of volumetric space and a quality of light that seemed to vibrate. Bonnard followed Monet (2nd painting example) as a “neo-impressionist” (also a “Nabis”) painter. Bonnard did not let his art historical designation direct his choices any more than Monet or Natkin did. Bonnard simply looked at the work of Monet and his peers and determined that he could further eliminate or reduce the idea of illusory space while effectively arranging his complementary color harmonies and luminous areas. His approach included presenting the idea of contrasting color harmonies on a flat field (the canvas) and simultaneously presenting these same colors and shapes to suggest a luminous narrative (still a nod to representation). Bonnard made Natkin possible. Natkin wanted an even surface with luminosity and no nod to narrative representation. He gave us a colored atmosphere (a color field), a vibrating luminosity (using Monet’s old recipe), and a use of colored contrasting shapes and textures. A soft dissolving space results. These qualities are an inheritance from Bonnard and Monet, but without nameable shapes. We are missing nouns and, as a result, we pay more attention to what’s left: the biomorphic shapes, the color and texture relationships. We can fall gently into the painting as if diving into a pool. Abstract painting isn’t difficult; just relax and dive.

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