Morris Louis and Ken Noland were both living & painting in Washington DC… They made a trip to NYC and during that trip visited Helen Frankenthaler’s studio. The report is that when they returned to Washington Frankenthaler’s “staining technique” was incorporated in their work.

Noland was teaching at Catholic University and Howard Mehring and Tom Downing were students of his. There are a number of paintings where it is difficult to tell which of the three artists did the painting.

Mountains and Sea, 1952, Helen Frankenthaler, Oil on canvas, 7′ 2 5/8″ x 9′ 9 1/4″, National Gallery of Art, Washington

While the information says “oil on canvas” I believe that it is painted with “Magna” developed by Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden… and this was the paint that Louis, Noland, Mehring & Downing used in their early work. The other two painters included in the first exhibition called “The Washington Color School” Gene Davis & Paul Reed I don’t think they used magna for any of their major works.

The preferred Washington surface was a matt, stained surface. With a water based acrylic “water tension breaker” was a key element in allowing the paint to “stain” the canvas. There were a number of other artists whose principle subject was Color and Shape whose work did not have this matt stained surface.

Saraband, 1959. Morris Louis, Acrylic resin on canvas, 101 1/8 x 149 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 64.1685.


BEGINNING, 1958, Kenneth Noland 90 x 97 7/8 in.
Noland’s Website quite nice.


Black, circa 1963, Howard Mehring, Magna on canvas, h: 46 x w: 52 in / h: 116.8 x w: 132.1 cm

Howard Mehring on Artnet
at Conner Contemporary Art


Red Plum, 1961, Thomas Downing, Acrylic on canvas, h: 85 x w: 84 in / h: 215.9 x w: 213.4 cm

Thomas Downing on Artnet


zig field

Zig Field, 1970, Paul Reed, h: 28 x w: 42 in / h: 71.1 x w: 106.7 cm

Paul Reed AskArt
Reed Resume


Cannonball, 1969, Gene Davis, acrylic on canvas, 70×68″, Cowles Gallery

Gene Davis Catalogue on Artnet.

Color Field Painting, Post-Painterly Abstraction essay by Clement Greenberg. Artists included in that exhibition

Others mining a similar vein:
Anne Truitt, Alma Thomas, Willem de Looper, Sam Gilliam, Ken Young,

Color Field remix

I arrived in Washington, D.C. to attend the Corcoran School of Art in 1965. I was pre-disposed to like “realist” & “figurative” art and this art of the Washington Color School seemed like a form of backdrop for the activities of the Washington socialites. In 1967 I transferred to Maryland Institute College of Art. One of my teachers, Lila Katzen was a friend of Morris Louis and in my last year at MICA I also studied with Sam Gilliam who was a friend and associate of Davis, Downing, Reed & Mehring. It was at MICA that I was introduced to the writings of Baudelaire… he described the essential thing about painting as Color… paintings were containers for Color. It was this statement that gave me insight to the Washington Color School painters. Baudelaire hadn’t envisioned paintings that were strictly areas of Color but his statement gives a rationale for such paintings.

It was a epiphany of sorts. Color alone could be the subject of painting

Aqua Libra, 1992, Lila Katzen, stainless steel textured with bronze weldments, 96″ x 43″ x 40″
Courtesy of The Sculpture Foundation, Inc

Sam Gilliam would introduce my work and me to Nesta Dorrance. Out of that introduction grew an opportunity to be in a group show and a part time job with the gallery.

Light Depth, 1969, Sam Gilliam , acrylic on canvas, 10 x 75 ft Corcoran Gallery of Art

“High Art addresses this writing by seriously reevaluating Baudelaire’s key essays. Moving from “Salon of 1846” to “The Painter of Modern Life,” and from “Artificial Paradises” to three paintings by Henri Matisse, Carrier integrates structural analysis with philosophical exegesis. The result is a fertile exchange between the languages of modernism and the situation of art writing today. In chapter 1, Carrier takes up Baudelaire’s view of history by focusing on the problematics of his divergent theory of painting, one that links an appreciation of Eugene Delacroix to a fascination with the painting of modern life. For Carrier, Baudelaire’s linking of color theory to the political debates of his time underscores the mechanism of historical and aesthetic change. He extends this notion of transition to later discussions of high and low art and understands such incompatible claims structurally. In doing so, he finds that this rhetoric of ambiguity serves to enrich Baudelaire’s text.”

High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting. – book review

Oral History Interview with Leonard Bocour


10 Responses to “Washington Color School Legend”

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