Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s

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Morris Louis

Gamma Delta, 1959-60

In Morris Louis’s Gamma Delta brightly colored, poured ribbons of paint uncoil to the bottom edge of the canvas, leaving a void in the center. To make the work, Louis stained the canvas by diluting and pouring synthetic paints onto its surface, allowing the colors to spread and bleed. Critic and friend Clement Greenberg observed that color in Louis’s paintings almost seemed “disembodied.” Louis explored the technique for nine years, in response to the paintings of Jackson Pollock and especially to those of Helen Frankenthaler, whose studio Louis visited in 1953.

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Josef Albers

Homage to the Square: “Wait”, 1967

This painting comes from Homage to the Square, a series Josef Albers developed from 1950 to 1976 that eventually encompassed more than one thousand separate artworks. Albers approached each of the Homages with meticulous consistency. He would select one of four set layouts, all of which were symmetrical and oriented toward the bottom edge. He then applied each color, in this work a range of oranges and reds, from the center out, using a knife to spread paint straight from the tube. Albers’s technique allowed him to use the same form to create vastly different experiences, and to explore the distinction between “physical fact and psychic effect.” Across the series, color combinations affect not only how we see individual hues but also how we perceive space and form, with some squares seeming to leap forward while others recede.

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Helen Frankenthaler

Orange Mood, 1966

In Orange Mood, Helen Frankenthaler thinned acrylic paint to the consistency of watercolor in order to create large, curving expanses of color through which the weave of the canvas remains visible. Like Jackson Pollock, she placed her canvas directly on the floor and poured paint from above, largely without the aid of a brush. Frankenthaler used color as her painterly language, but she never entirely abandoned representation. Although the references can be subtle, her paintings consistently evoke nature. The undulating forms in Orange Mood relate to a simplified landscape, with zones of color recalling different emotional states. Hue and shape convey place and feeling. “I think of my pictures as explosive landscapes, worlds and distances, held on a flat surface,” Frankenthaler once stated.

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Ellsworth Kelly

Blue Green Red, 1964

Ellsworth Kelly’s abstract paintings are rooted in the world and lived experience. In Blue Green Red, he drew on the main colors used to mix the projected light of color television, which was a relatively recent invention at the time the work was made. Although direct in the symmetry of its forms, the painting’s intense colors prevent the image from being easily apprehended. Instead of rehashing the representations seen on television, Kelly responded to the way technology changes how we see—and to the act of perception itself.

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