The Scope and The Meaning of Post-Painterly Abstraction

October 25, 2016

As a rebellion against the gestural and painterly approach of numerous Abstract Expressionists, term post-painterly abstraction was coined to help define the variety of styles which came forth. In 1964, the author of the term, critic Clement Greenberg used it in the title of the exhibition featuring new tendencies in color field painting, hard-edge abstraction, and the Washington Color School. Believing that early 1950s Abstract Expressionism has stopped achieving any innovations in painting, the critic turned his eye and the eye of the public towards works lacking any evidence of the artist’s inner workings. Anonymous in its execution, the new paintings reflected the move away from the grandiose drama and spirituality of Abstract Expressionism.[1]

museum promotion of american abstraction and expressionism was done by clement greenberg.
Karl Benjamin - Stage II. Image via

The Beginnings and Key Ideas of Post-Painterly Abstraction

Opposing the dense painterly surface of the 1940s and 1950s abstract expressionism works, the new paintings concentrated on pure abstraction. Linear in design, favoring bright colors, lack of any details or evidence of the artist’s presence, the new artworks were inclined to lead the eye beyond the limits of the canvas. The painting was understood as an object, rather than the surface recording the soul and emotions of the author. Borrowing the term painterly from the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, Greenberg understood that the development of painting needed to move away from painterly painting and to reflect more the ideas of Synthetic Cubism, Bauhaus, and the painter Piet Mondrian.

Seen as the most important event, which has helped to place post-painterly abstraction on the map of art history, is the 1964 show at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art. With the total of 31 artists exhibiting in the show, evident was the dominance of color, the flatness of the canvas surface, and adoration for geometric shapes.

angeles museum listened to clement greenberg 's ideas and introduced abstraction in collections.
Morris Louis - Alpha Pi. Image via

Styles and Concepts of Post-Painterly Abstraction Artists

The move towards a more hard-edge style of abstraction, the clear lines, high contrast of color and its various hues, along with the rejection of the tactile application of paint were seen as the dominant features of such movement[2]. Few of its most famous artists, such as Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Al Held had a tendency to work with clean lines and clearly defined forms. Other artists, such as Helen Frankenthaler were well known for the technique of soaking the paint into the untreated canvas. The effect produced was the direct step of the paint onto the canvas, creating a vibrant and utterly flat visual plane. Such approach to paint and canvas influenced the work of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. Implementing the soaking technique, the artists created a variety of color field paintings in their own unique designs. These works functioned in terms of the painting medium and focused on pure ideas of form, composition, color, scale, and texture.

angeles museum adores american abstraction such as works by rothko and newman.
Left: Mark Rothko - Orange and Yellow / Right: Mark Rothko - Black in Deep Red. Images via

The Legacy

Understood as an umbrella under which hard-edge painting, color stain painting, lyrical abstraction, and minimal painting stood, post-painterly abstraction introduced a more logical and systematic approach to creativity. Rigorous denial of the inwardness and mysticism along with any residual references to the world created a purely factual kind of art. The 1965 event at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art marked the beginning of the Washington Color School[3]. Many of the participating artists of the show were also included in the 1964 LA show. Understood as the representatives of the color-field sub-movement production, Washington painters produced minimalist works featuring stripes, thin bands of alternating colors, and geometric shapes.

One of the most innovative aspects growing out of the movement was the experimentation with size and grouping of the canvases. Completely transforming painting’s literal form, artists such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland began to use oddly shaped and asymmetrical canvases. This innovation broke the tradition of the square and rectangular support and offered a new understanding of the production’s surface not to mention it proclaimed the objecthood of the picture. In the later development of art, early 1970s art is seen as the breaking point between modern and contemporary art. Breaking into different branches, including feminism art and innovations in land art, color field painting was replaced by minimalist art. Yet, the legacy of the focus on color, geometrical shapes, and experimentation with compositions decorates graphic design works and contemporary painting today.

 Editors’ Tip: Colourfield Painting: Minimal, Cool, Hard Edge, Serial and Post-Painterly Abstract Art of the Sixties to the Present

Exploring the painting style of the mid-1960s art, the book references the history and legacy of colorfield pictures. Reflecting on the connection of this periods creativity to pop art, op art, kinetic art, non-gestural works etc., the book illustrates works of Minimal artists such as Brice Marden, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt and Robert Ryman; Colourfield painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Sam Gilliam and Morris Louis; post-painterly abstractionists such as Frank Stella, David Novros, Richard Diebenkorn, Al Held, Jo Baer and Jules Olitski; and Hard Edge painters such as Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mangold, Joseph Albers and Elisabeth Murray. For anyone that wants to learn more about the magic of color and innovations in painting, this book is a must-have.


  1. Willkin, K.; Belz, C., Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975, Yale University Press, 2008
  2. Fer, B., On Abstract Art, Yale University Press, 1997
  3. Harris, J., P., Writing Back to Modern Art: After Greenberg, Fried, and Clark , Routledge, 2005

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Barnett Newman - Voice of Fire. Image via Kenneth Noland - Sarah's reach. Image via;Jack Youngerman - Blackfoil. Image via Morris Louis - Artwork. Image via

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