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Washington Color School: Home

Washington Color School

A LibGuide Created For LIS 652

By Kristen Tivey, Mia Bathke, and Manuela Aronofsky

A family tree of Modern Art in Washington

Figure 1: Cornelia Noland, A family tree of Modern Art in Washington [DETAIL], 1960s. Henri Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [Click through to explore image on the Smithsonian website.]

Figure 2: Cornelia Noland, A family tree of Modern Art in Washington, 1960s.Henri Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [Click through to explore image on the Smithsonian website.]

Figure 3: Cornelia Noland, A family tree of Modern Art in Washington [DETAIL], 1960s. Henri Gallery records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [Click through to explore image on the Smithsonian website.]


The Washington Color School art movement emerged in the 1950’s, and grew throughout the 1960's. It is said to have developed from the more widely-studied movement color field painting, and many of the writings about the Washington Color School use the terms interchangeably. The school's centrality to the DC-area (a drastic change from the New York-focused art world), as well as its use of new art techniques, distinguish it from more widely studied art movements (see 'Related Art Movements' for more information).

More information on the movement's prominent artists - known as the Washington Color Painters - can be found in our 'Biographies of Prominent Artists' box, however the movement is said to have been started by DC-painters Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. The painters' technique was characterized by the use of bold acrylic paint soaked onto raw canvas.

Often marked by severe geometric shapes, and strong swaths of primary color, the Washington Color Painters created a form of abstract art that focused on putting "pure color on the canvas" in order to "create an immediate, all at once, visual experience for the viewer" (Seiferle, 2018). In fact, the artwork of the Washington Color School is most-often defined by this use of bold color, along with “a focus on light and form,” and a rejection of “the artist’s projection of emotion within the painting” (McMahon, 2016). While often associated with abstract expressionism, the Washington Color School "rejected the gestural style of the New York artists . . . In contrast to the dripping and slashing of action painting, they preferred to stain their raw canvases, allowing the accidental combinations of gravity and paint to create veils of color that floated across the surface like the improvised harmonies of jazz" (Rose, 2007). 

As there are not many comprehensive resources on this particular art movement, we chose to make it the subject of our LibGuide. By consolidating different resources and sources of information, we hope the guide will help anyone who has an interest in the Washington Color School.


The Washington Color School is not widely written about. This is in part because the movement did not take place in New York (where most of the artistic focus was at the time), and partly because it is often referenced interchangeably with color field painting, as well as absorbed into the much larger abstract expressionist movement. The resources below are specific to the Washington Color School, and were used as references throughout this LibGuide. Below, the resources are seperated by accessibility, beginning with sources that are freely available online and ending with print resources all available through the New York Public Library.

We invite you to explore these resources in your own research!

Resources freely accessible online:

This resource does not directly apply to the Washington Color School, however if users are interested in current examples of data aggregation and statistics for the arts (an under-reported sector), this organization provides several publications, reports, and toolkits.

This is the governmental website most relevant to art and culture. If the user is interested in any artist's contribution to today's art world, they may find information on this site. For example, a search for "Sam Giliam" on the site's home page will bring up an archive of several articles and posts from the NEA's blog "Art Works."

The Art Story provides a wonderful synopsis of the Washington Color School, including a detailed timeline, important pieces of art that emerged from the movement, and (where available) links to Art Story biography pages of artists within the movement. Other fun features include notable quotes from Washington Color Painters, as well as a sort of mini lib-guide embedded on the bottom of the page, which includes interesting further resources - including relevant videos. 

Artsy provides a very brief overview of the Washington Color School, however as the site's purpose is to list artwork that is availably to purchase, more notable is its well-organized, visually appealing collection of relevant artwork. The art is organized by individual artist, and provides the user with a great idea of each artist's style. Also helpful is the site's link to individual artist pages, in which include overviews of their work, articles (internal) in which they have been mentioned, and CVs of each artist's exhibition history.

Print resources available through the New York Public Library:

  • Corcoran Gallery of Art. (1971). The Vincent Melzac collection: Modern American art featuring New York abstract expressionism and Washington color painting. (Exhibition catalog). Washington D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art

This exhibition 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 art critic Barbara Rose, Retrospective Notes on the Washington School, which provides an in-depth look at the history of the Washington Color School, though confined to the first generation.

  • Greenberg, C. (1986). The collected essays and criticism. John O’Brian (Ed.) (Vols. 1-4). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986-1993

Clement Greenberg was the art critic and scholar that supported, curated, and perpetuated many ideas and artists central to the Washington Color School. This 4 volume set is chronologically organized. The relevant volume to the Washington Color School movement is the fourth and last volume, entitled Modernism with a vengeance, 1957-1969.

Essays to refer to in this volume include:

  • Louis and Noland, 1960, pp. 94-100.

In this essay, 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.

  • Post painterly abstraction, 1964, pp. 192-197.

This essay was published in conjunction with the similarly titled exhibition curated by Greenberg in 1964 for the Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum which featured the work of many Washington Color School artists. 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.

  • Orlando Museum of Art. (1990). Washington color painters: the first generation. (Exhibition catalog). Orlando: Orlando Museum of Art.

This exhibition catalog was published on the occasion of the 1990 exhibition Washington color painters: the first generation which 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 Toward a New Aesthetic by curator Sue Scott explores the nebulous nature of the Washington Color School. 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 and defines each of the featured artist's activity within the movement.

  • Washington D.C. Gallery of Modern Art. (1965). The Washington color painters: Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring [and] Paul Reed; an exhibition. (Exhibition catalog). Washington D.C.: Washington D.C. Gallery of Modern Art.

This is the exhibition catalog for the first exhibition of the Washington Color School as a group curated by Gerald Nordland. It's available on microfilm.


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