Color has come back into abstract painting with a force that hasn't been seen since the 1960s. Bright, bold and out of this world, the palettes of many young artists are looking like super-charged versions of the synthetic spectra once favored by artists from the movement known as Color-field painting. While borrowing from earlier styles is commonplace in the world of contemporary art, what's most remarkable about recent works by such artists as Polly Apfelbaum, Linda Besemer, Ingrid Calame, Penelope Krebs, Laura Owens and Monique Prieto is that in looking to Color-field painting, they are harking back to a style that for the past 25 years has been treated as the laughingstock of recent art history.
Color-field painting was invented in the mid-1950s in response to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings. Spreading his canvases on the floor, Pollock did not apply paint in brush strokes, but dribbled and flung it, forming linear webs that were celebrated for their delicacy and complexity. He changed the way artists looked at the act of painting, and his influence was profound. Among his followers were Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Larry Poons, a group that became known as Color-field artists because they stained their pigments directly into the weave of their canvases. Going beyond Pollock's gestures, they literally fused their works' image and surface.
These artists' work was championed by Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic of his time, and the man largely responsible for drawing attention to Pollock's work. With Greenberg's backing, the Color-field artists got attention initially; but unlike the Abstract Expressionists, their time in the limelight didn't last.
By the mid-1960s, Color-field painting had become synonymous with everything wrong with Modern art. Derided as elitist, authoritarian and vacuously decorative, Color-field was overshadowed by the emergence of Minimalism and Pop Art. Along with Op Art, another abstract style that was an indirect outgrowth of the Abstract Expressionist movement, the work of Color-field artists eventually was dismissed by critics and art historians.
Although with evolving tastes, virtually all styles eventually fall out of fashion--or are vigorously rejected by artists trying to establish different styles--Color-field's bad reputation has demonstrated a perverse type of longevity.
At a time when it is difficult for artists to know what they might oppose--after more than 100 years of avant-garde rebellion--Color-field painting has served as a surprisingly versatile foe, one that has been attacked and ridiculed from all sides.
In place of the now-routine academic critiques of Color-field, Apfelbaum, Besemer, Calame, Krebs, Owens and Prieto are doing something much more ambitious: They are attempting to redeem the style from the dustbin of art history. In the process, their diverse works have begun to make Color-field painting look interesting again.
Significant differences distinguish the work of these young, female artists--all but one of whom are from Los Angeles--from that of their mostly male, East Coast predecessors. Apfelbaum, Calame and Prieto all employ some type of stain making, yet none of their techniques is as straightforward as those of the original Color-field painters. Apfelbaum uses an eyedropper to squirt an exceptionally artificial rainbow of fabric dyes onto swatches of synthetic stretch-velvet, which she then cuts into circles, ellipses and slinky, beaded configurations before laying them out on the floor like discombobulated carpets endowed with seemingly hallucinatory powers.
Calame traces stains she finds on streets and sidewalks, using the silhouettes of these everyday spills to form the sharp contours of her meticulous compositions. Painted on aluminum panels in an unnatural palette of highly toxic enamels, her precisely copied accidents resemble paint-by-number puzzles or maps of imaginary lands.
Prieto uses a computer to design the oddly elongated blobs that populate her pristine expanses of raw canvas. With impossibly crisp edges, these indescribable shapes of supersaturated color cavort and cooperate, acting as if they had one foot firmly planted in a Dr. Seuss picture-book and the other in the world of monochrome painting.
Besemer's works beat the Color-field painters at their own game. Made of nothing but layer upon layer of stripes of acrylic paint--and no canvases--her 100% pure paintings join surface and support in three-dimensional pieces that resemble oversize dishrags. These eye-popping stripe paintings playfully suggest that they'd have no trouble cleaning up a spill before it becomes a stain--painterly or otherwise.