Biographies of Prominent Washington Color School Artists
Below you will find brief biographies of six prominent Washington Color School artists: Alma Thomas, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Anne Truitt, Sam Gilliam, and Gene Davis. While these are certainly not the only Washington Color School artists, they represent a variety of the movement's diverse artistic figures. We hope that this page will act as an introductory guide to a few of the movement's key players, including explanations of how each artist influenced the school, as well as the art world at large. Below each biography, a selection of the artist's works (retrieved with permission) can be found, with links to their original attribution source.
A note on sources: As an aid to accessing further resources on the Washington Color School, we've included an instructional video on where to access supplementary online information. The cited references on each biography, as well as the included annotated bibliography, also act as further bibliographic resources for each artist. We invite you to explore these as well!
As we could not provide a biography on every artist considered part of the Washington Color School, we've also included a box containing a list of additional individuals associated with the movement.
Morris Louis was born in 1913 in the Baltimore area to a large Jewish family. After graduating from the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts, he became the president of the Baltimore Artists' Association in 1932 (The Art Story Contributors, 2018). Then, after living in New York City for 10 years, he returned to Baltimore after World War II and subsequently became a dominating figure in the color field painting movement (Soltes, 2002). The Washington Color School became an offshoot of color field painting, and Louis' pervasive artistic home base of Maryland and the DC area soon led him to become one of the most prominent painters in the school.
In his short yet prolific career, most of which he spent in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Louis continually experimented with method and medium, manipulating large canvases in creative ways to control the flow and stain of his acrylic paints. (The Art Story Contributors, 2018)
Louis further bolstered the Washington Color School by becoming close with Kenneth Noland - another prominent Washington Color Painter. He also formed a good friendship with art critic Clement Greenberg, "as sounding board, commentator, and exhibit organizer, would have a profound influence on Louis' career" (Soltes, 2002), and also become one his fiercest champions.
Louis' first solo exhibition opened in 1953 in the Washington Workshop Art Center Gallery (Phillips). While Louis' style of Color Field painting began to go out of style in the 1970s, several important retrospectives (including one at MOMA in 1986), has kept his reputation alive. Today, "his work is viewed as an essential bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting, as well as influence on such later movements as minimalism" (The Art Story Contributors, 2018). Louis passed away in 1962.
The Art Story Contributors. (2018). Morris Louis biography, art, and analysis of works. Retrieved from http://www.theartstory.org/artist-louis-morris.htm
The Phillips Collection. (n.d.) Louis - Bio. Retrieved from http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/louis-bio.htm
Soltes, O. (2002). Fixing the world: Jewish American painters in the twentieth century. Hanover: Brandeis University Press.
Kenneth Noland was born in 1924 in Asheville, North Carolina. He described his father as a 'Sunday Painter' - an artist in his spare time - and because of this, Noland was able to start playing with art materials, and appreciating art at a very early age (Wolfe, 2018). After serving in the U.S. Air Force during WWII, Noland utilized money from the GI bill to attend the experimental art school Black Mountain College, also in North Carolina.
Like other Washington Color Painters, Noland grew to reject the more popular abstract expressionism art movement, and thus began to craft his unique style of "near-anonymous paint application, clear color and symmetry" (Wilkin, 2010). Noland became a key artist in the Washington Color School after teaching art classes at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts in the mid-1950s. It was here that he became very close friends with Morris Louis (another prominent Washington Color Painter).
Kenneth Noland's name is synonymous with a particularly American kind of frankly beautiful, "cool" abstract painting based on the primacy of color. (Wilkin, 2010)
Noland's first solo art show was in 1965 at the Jewish Museum in New York. This was followed by a traveling retrospective curated by the Guggenheim, and several other prominent exhibitions. While best known for his paintings, "Noland was also an inventive printmaker and sculptor, as well as the author of an enormous mural installation at the Weisner Building at MIT" (Wilkin, 2010).
Noland's art is said to have been an influence on the future minimalist art movement, and in a broader sense has "exercised a continuing influence on a later generation of Washington, D.C. painters working in various modes of abstraction" (Wolfe, 2018).
The Phillips Collection. (n.d.) Noland - Biography. Retrieved from http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/noland-bio.htm
Wilkin, K. (2010, March). Kenneth Noland, 1924-2010. Art in America, 98(3), 176.
Wolfe, J. (2018). Kenneth Noland artist overview and analysis. Retrieved from http://www.theartstory.org/artist-noland-kenneth.htm
The following list includes further individuals associated with the Washington Color School. The annotated bibliography (seen below) provides resources to help you with any further research on the six featured artists, as well as the artistic figures on this list.
After receiving her graduate degree, Thomas taught art to Washington D.C. school children for over 30 years. During this time, she did little painting on her own time. However, during her time as a teacher Thomas "took part in African-American 'artists' salons' in Washington in in the 1940s, and helped organize one of the city's first commercial galleries to show the work of African-American artists" (Wilkin, 2016).
Thomas began seriously painting after her retirement as a schoolteacher, and when Howard University proposed featuring her artwork in a retrospective, she expressed interest in producing new artwork for the exhibit (SAAM). Therefore, the most influential and well-known of Thomas' paintings were created later in her life.
Although Thomas progressed to painting in acrylics on large canvases, she continued to produce many watercolors that were studies for her paintings. Thomas's personalized mature style consisted of broad, mosaic-like patches of vibrant color applied in concentric circles or vertical stripes. Color was the basis of her painting, undeniably reflecting her life-long study of color theory as well as the influence of luminous, elegant abstract works by Washington-based Color Field painters such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Gene Davis. (SAAM)
Thomas is now distinguished as the only black female artist in the Washington Color School Art movement, and in 1972 she became the "first African American woman to have a solo exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York" (SAAM). She later became the first female artist of color to have artwork exhibited in the White House art collection, during the Obama presidency (Rodney, 2016). Thomas passed away in 1978, at the age of 84.
Rodney, S. (2016, October 11). A black woman stands out among the Washington Color School Artists. Retrieved from https://hyperallergic.com/313199/a-black-woman-stands-out-among-the-washington-color-school-artists/
Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). (n.d.) Alma Thomas. Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artist/alma-thomas-4778
Wilkin, K. (2016, October). Alma Thomas at the Studio Museum. New Criterion, (35)2, 52-55.
Thomas, A. (2001). Alma Thomas, phantasmagoria: major paintings from the 1970s. New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery. (Accessible via NYPL)
Anne Truitt was born in Baltimore in 1921, and grew up on the Eastern shore of Maryland. It is suggested that her extremely poor eyesight as a child was a large influence on her artistic style (Schudel, 2004). While Truitt attended Bryn Mawr college in the '40s, and received her Bachelor's Degree in Psychology, she "became disillusioned by the field while working in psychiatric ward at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston," and in 1947 "began studying sculpture at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Washington" (Johnson, 2004).
While Anne Truitt is best known for her minimalist sculptures, she is often referenced as an artist of the Washington Color School. This is largely due to the fact that she resided in Washington, D.C. for most of her artistic life, and was close with Washington Color Painter Kenneth Noland, as well as the school's prominent critic (and advocate) Clement Greenberg.
For more than 40 years, Mrs. Truitt was a major figure in American art, best known for her richly painted sculptures of vertical blocks of wood. As early as the 1960s, she was considered a leader in the minimalist school of art, a label she reluctantly accepted even though her work defied simple classification. (Schudel, 2004)
Truitt's sculptures, the style of which was defined as " standing rectangular sculptures painted in subtle, precisely shaded colors" (Schudel, 2004), earned many awards (including a Guggenheim fellowship) and featured exhibitions, including retrospectives at the Whitney, and the Corcoran Gallery in New York (Johnson, 2004). Truitt was not only known for her sculptures. She also had several well-known published works, which were effectively personal journals documenting her life and work as an artist.
Anne Truitt passed away in the DC area at age 83.
Byrd, A. (2009, December 11). Anne Truitt: Perception and reflection. The Brooklyn Rail: Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture. Retrieved from https://brooklynrail.org/2009/12/artseen/anne-truitt-perception-and-reflection
Johnson, K. (2004, December 27). Anne Truitt, 83, sculptor whose books chronicled life as an artist, dies. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/27/arts/anne-truitt-83-sculptor-whose-books-chronicled-life-as-an-artist-dies.html
Schudel, M. (2004, December 25). Minimalist sculptor Anne Truitt, 83, dies. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A25222-2004Dec24.html
Gene Davis was born in Washington, D.C. in 1920. Compared to other Washington Color School artists, Davis had barely any formal art education. In fact, he before committing himself to art, he worked as a sportswriter and White House correspondent. However, he considered his non-traditional background "a blessing that freed him from the limitations of a traditional art school orientation" (SAAM).
Davis officially became part of the Washington Color School movement when he was introduced to the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, and consequently notable Washington Color Painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis (Phillips Collection). While considered part of the movement, several of his fellow artists believed that his bold striped works represented a different goal. Differing from Noland and Louis' "mostly symmetrical images that could be comprehended at a glance, Davis preferred to paint complex schemes that len[t] themselves to sustained periods of viewing" (SAAM).
Despite their calculated appearance, Davis's stripe works were not based on conscious use of theories or formulas. Davis often compared himself to a jazz musician who plays by ear, describing his approach to painting as 'playing by eye.' (SAAM)
Today, Davis is probably best known for his public installations, such as Franklin's Footpath, 1972 (pictured on the homepage of this LibGuide) - a monumental striped art piece painted in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. However, he also received much acclaim for his "minuscule 'micro-paintings,' often no larger than half an inch in either direction" (ArtNet). Davis passed away in D.C., in 1985.
ArtNet. (n.d.). Gene Davis. ArtNet. Retrieved from http://www.artnet.com/artists/gene-davis/
The Phillips Collection. (n.d.) Gene Davis - Biography. Retrieved from http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/bios/davis_g-bio.htm
Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). (n.d.) Gene Davis. Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artist/gene-davis-1147
Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1933. He attended the University of Louisville, where he received both a Bachelor of Arts, and M.A. in Painting. In the 1960s Gilliam moved to Washington, D.C., from where he has been painting since (SAAM).
Although by the time Gilliam moved to D.C., prominent Washington Color Painter Morris Louis had passed away & Kenneth Noland had moved to New York, Gilliam was still heavily influenced by the movement's artwork. In 1965, "Gilliam contributed his own innovation to the school by displaying unframed painted canvases, which allowed the work to flow naturally with the architecture of the display space" (HistoryMakers). His transition into nonrepresentational art, featuring "large, clean edged paintings with flatly applied areas of color" (SAAM), solidified his place in the Washington Color School.
Around 1965 Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of the unsupported canvas. Partially inspired by women hanging laundry on clotheslines he observed from the window of his Washington studio, Gilliam abandoned the frame and stretcher, and began to drape and suspend large areas of paint stained canvas. This innovative and improvisational technique was phenomenally successful and of widespread influence. (SAAM)
Gilliam is (notably) one of the few Washington Color Painters still alive, and his art has continued to grow in popularity and acclaim throughout the past decade. Critics as recently as this year have been calling his late-life success a "renaissance" and an "all-time high" (Kinsella, 2018). Today, Gilliam is primarily known for his large, draped canvas pieces of art.
The HistoryMakers. (n.d.). ArtMakers-Sam Gilliam. Retrieved from http://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/sam-gilliam-41
Kinsella, E. (2018, January 2). At age 84, Sam Gilliam is having his biggest renaissance yet. ArtNet. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/sam-gilliam-market-renaissance-1182377
Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). (n.d.). Sam Gilliam. Retrieved from https://americanart.si.edu/artist/sam-gilliam-1811
The following list includes major galleries where the Washington Color Painters showed their work, shared their ideas, and were inspired by fellow artists.
This open archive, published by the Smithsonian, provides primary source material for several of the Washington Color School artists (searchable by name - ex. "Alma Thomas" - on the top-right corner of the home page). Sources include photographs, autobiographical writings, and oral histories. This database is accessible freely online. See the video at the bottom of this section for a tutorial on this resource.
Keyword searches in this database for individual artists (ex. "Alma Thomas") bring up excellent secondary sources. These include exhibition reviews (which often include histories and biographies of each artist included), as well as obituaries. Many of the articles are available as full-text. Database is accessible through Pratt Libraries.
Keyword searches in this database for individual artists (ex. "Alma Thomas") bring up an index of bibliographic resources, including exhibition reviews, book reviews, and any mentions in periodicals. This database is available through Pratt Library.
This website aggregates artist data such as profiles, artwork for sale, and artwork currently on exhibit. Searching for an individual artist on the site's home page (ex. "Kenneth Noland"), will prompt the user to choose what sort of information they're looking for. On the artist's individual page, ArtNet provides a clear, short biography of the artist as well as helpful 'Related Artists' links. The user can also see a clearly formatted collection of each artist's work.
The Phillips Collection (located in Washington, D.C.) played a pivotal role in the history of the Washington Color School. Many of the artists gained inspiration from works hanging in the collection, & subsequently had their own exhibitions there. Searching for an individual artist on the site's home page (ex. "Kenneth Noland") will aggregate results throughout the collection's blog, website, library, and collection. Within the website, each artist has their own detailed biography page.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum (also located in Washington, D.C.) provides individual web pages for many of the Washington Color Painters. Searching for an individual artist on the site's home page (ex. "Kenneth Noland"), will bring up the artist's page. This includes (for most) a biography of each artist, as well as a visual collection of their notable paintings.
Below is a video tutorial on how to use the Smithsonian Archives of American Art to search for primary source material related to Washington Color School artists.