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Color Field Paintings

Painting with Frame by Helen Frankenthaler

[Wright Exhibition Space]

I’ve written twice before (here and here) about seeing exhibits at the Wright Exhibition Space. This is a small gallery that mounts shows from time to time drawn largely, or entirely, from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. I highly recommend going, whatever the show, because the art is superb, the mix of art is interesting, you often have the space to yourself or nearly to yourself, there’s an informative little printed guide, and there’s often a docent to introduce you to the show and chat with. The gallery is open Thursdays and Saturday, with free admission.

The current show is Color Field Paintings and Related Abstractions Revisited, the “revisited” referring to the fact that much the same show was put on in 2004. We went down to see it on Thursday afternoon. Thursday was our wedding anniversary, so this seemed like a good way to mark the day, all the more because the gallery would be on the way to another stop we wanted to make in celebration of our anniversary, Albert Lee Appliance. What better way to celebrate domestic bliss than to shop for kitchen appliances?

The exhibit features multiple paintings from the Wright Collection by Helen Franenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Larry Poons, plus single paintings by Mary Corse, Hans Hoffman, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell, Gerhard Richter, and Anne Truitt, 23 works in all. From the guide, Virginia Wright writes:

Dismissed as “corporate,” “lacking in human emotion” and “merely decorative,” critics attacked Color Field paintings as a dead end, of no interest or inspiration to other artists. For a long time there were few exhibitions of the work of Louis, Frankenthaler, Noland and Olitski, and only modest sales of their works. For example, Olitski’s Thigh Smoke in this exhibition, a painting that had been included in the Venice Biennale in 1966 and in Geldahler’s important 1969 exhibition at the Metropolitan, came up at Sotheby’s at a morning sale in 1997 and failed to make the opening bid of $20,000. We acquired it after no one else showed any interest in it, and regard it as one of the most important works in our collection.


Matthew Kangas and Bagley Wright had been after me for some time to organize a Color Field show because our collection includes many Color Field paintings. They felt that after some thirty years, it was time to take another look at these “merely decorative” works. The hope was that in 2004, as a new century was beginning, we would perhaps begin to look back at the 20th century with new eyes, and Color Field painting might get a reprieve. In fact, there were already some indications of a change of heart. …

I have been pleased that the Color Field show of 2004 did help to retrieve the reputation of the artists on view. It was so popular that we decided to repeat it. This show is almost identical to the earlier one, but with a few changes we hope will intrigue viewers. Our hope is that Color Field painting will come to be seen not as a dead end but as a stunning chapter in the development of abstract art, capable of inspiring other artists and, above all, providing pleasure of the very highest order.

On Thursday, we spent a few minutes getting an overview of the show by the docent, then explored on our own for 40 minutes or so. We each had our favorites, and some of the works we had seen in previous shows, but as much as the individual works, we loved the impression they make as a group. We will return before the show ends in September, and you should go too if you’re in the neighborhood.

Categories: Art
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