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Washington Color School: Bibliographic Essay

Bibliographic Essay

Kristen Tivey


The Washington Color School was a fleeting, yet influential movement in American abstract art. Attempts have been made to define, redefine, or even un-define the group of painters working in Washington D.C. in the 1950s and 1960s through critical art literature, exhibition curation, and through different monographic perspectives on the individual artists associated with the movement. A dedication to color composition, a physical relationship with Washington D.C., and a chronological correspondence to the 1950s and 1960s unite the artists featured in this LibGuide, and in the movement as a whole. The following bibliographic essay will seek to guide the researcher through the existing material on the Washington Color School to help give some definition to a movement that itself evades a strict sense of classification.


Exhibition catalogs are a good source for in-depth explorations and analysis of the Washington Color School. The most thorough are the essays in the catalogs accompanying the 1971 exhibition of the Vincent Melzac Collection at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the 1990 exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art entitled Washington Color Painters: the first generation

The 1971 exhibition entitled The Vincent Melzac collection: Modern American art featuring New York abstract expressionism and Washington color painting focused on the collection of Vincent Melzac who was an avid supporter of the Washington Color School. The exhibition catalog contains background information on Louis, Noland, Davis, Mehring, and Reed and on Vincent Melzac's collection as a whole. It also contains an essay by noted art critic Barbara Rose, Retrospective Notes on the Washington School, which provides an in-depth look at the history of the Washington Color School. This source is fairly exhaustive when it comes to the five artists mentioned above, but does not expand into surrounding Washington artists. Rose concedes this in the last few paragraphs of her essay, explaining that another more in-depth essay would be needed to cover the contributions of the other artists working in and around the movement, like Sam Gilliam. Still, this essay should be considered a valuable reflection on the Washington Color School as a phenomenon.

The 1990 exhibition entitled Washington color painters: the first generation featured Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, and Kenneth Noland. It contains two essays, each of which give a thorough overview and analysis of the Washington Color School movement. The essay Washington Color Painters: The First Generation is by Gerald Nordland, the curator of the pivotal 1965 exhibition at the Washington D.C. Gallery of Modern Art. The perspective of the curator from the defining exhibition is an interesting and thorough one and defines each of the featured artist's activity within the movement. The essay Toward a New Aesthetic by curator Sue Scott explores the nebulous nature of the Washington Color School as a defined movement. The title of the exhibition admits the limitations of the exhibition's perspective. As long as this narrow viewpoint, considering only five all white all male artists, is taken into account, this is another informative resource for the Washington Color School. 

A few websites have worked to assemble resources surrounding the Washington Color School. One that stands out as a well-compiled collection is



Clement Greenberg was an advocate for many of the artists and ideas behind the Washington Color School, especially Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Any research of the Washington Color School would be incomplete without reference to his art criticism. His essays have been collected in a four volume set published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by John O’Brian. Volume 4, Modernism with a vengeance, 1957-1969, contains important essays relevant to the movement. In his 1960 essay Louis and Noland, Greenberg explored the way in which Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis benefited from being based in Washington D.C. and tracked their influences (primarily Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock) and the resulting style in the late fifties. His 1964 essay, Post painterly abstraction, 1964, was published in conjunction with the similarly titled exhibition curated by Greenberg for the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum. This exhibition featured the work of many Washington Color School artists including Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, and Kenneth Noland. Though not mentioning the Washington Color School or artists in particular, this essay gives a valuable view of the trends happening in painting since the beginning of abstract expressionism in the 1940s.

Because of the geographic nature of this movement, the Washington Post archives are a valuable resource for anyone interested in the Washington Color School. The Washington Post website archive only provides access to articles after 1996, but most public libraries should have access to the archive through a database subscription.  For example, the New York Public Library provides library-card-holders with access to The Washington Post from 1877-1997 through Proquest Historical Newspapers. This database provides downloadable and searchable pdfs, so searching the terms “Washington Color School” or “Washington Color Painters” will retrieve many relevant articles, often exhibition reviews. Authors who wrote about the Washington Color movement include Andrew Hudson, Jo Ann Lewis, Paul Richard, and Elizabeth Stevens. Steven favorably reviews the 1965 exhibition at Washington D.C., and interviews Paul Reed about the show and his simultaneous show at another Washington gallery, Henri Gallery.


Since the movement, many exhibitions have circled around the Washington Color School. Most seek to expand the all white, all male roster of the 1965 exhibition to include other Washington D.C. artists like Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, and Anne Truitt. (This LibGuide works toward a more inclusive and open interpretation of the movement as well.) Press coverage of these exhibitions is generally easy to find for free from online news sources. The few decades of perspective help to better contextualize the movement, and the inclusion of other artists gives a more accurate representation of the art being made in Washington D.C. at that time.


This bibliographic essay focuses on sources that provide an overview of the Washington Color School as a movement, such as exhibition catalogs, art criticism, and other press resources.  There are many ways to approach researching any art movement and this LibGuide works to provide these perspectives as well. In the boxes in the righthand column you will find links to pages within this guide that will provide valuable resources for research.

To get complex and details information it is best to focus on the artist themselves. Manuela Aronofsky has compiled an overview of several Washington Color School artists. On this page you will find a list of sources and databases that provide reliable information on a wide range of artists. Though the page is focused on Washington Color School artists, these resources represent a good starting place for research on any artist.
Often overlooked in scholarship is the importance of experience the works of art in person. Amelia Bathke has compiled a guide to museums in New York City that display works by Washington Color School artists. For Washington Color School, the intensity of their color, the treatment (or lack thereof) of their canvases and sculptural surfaces, and the sheer dimensions of their work are all crucial to their work. Have a look for yourself!
We have compiled a bibliography of press resources for material during and after the movement.