Skip to content

Of Time, Color and Place

Smithsonian Mounts Exhibit of Washington Color School

Although great attention has been given in Washington, D.C., to the color field movement, a special installation at the Smithsonian American Art Museum makes clear the term “Washington Color School” represents far more than the six D.C. artists whose 1965 exhibit inspired the term.

The installation provides a broader look at a time when the nation’s capital was the epicenter of one of

the most innovative artistic communities in the country.

And it incorporates other local artists who were making similar experiments with color and form, but are sometimes overlooked.

“Local Color: Washington Painting at Midcentury” brings together 27 large-scale paintings, created between the mid-1950s and ’70s, from the museum’s permanent collection. These works pioneered new ways to work with color and form, using unprimed canvas and bold acrylics, usually without a brush.

Although viewers will be familiar with the colorful stripes, zigzags and geometric abstractions that are iconic in the color field movement, they may be less familiar with many of the paintings curators brought out from storage for the installation, or with the works of less-recognized color field artists.

Six artists became known as the Washington Color School in 1965 when their work was exhibited together at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art. However, the title never fully represented the artistic community.

“I don’t think any of the artists thought of themselves as a cohesive group,” said Joanna Marsh, the James Dicke curator of contemporary art at the museum. “As often happens, someone tried to attach a label, and it stuck.”

The installation highlights the works of four of the original Color School set — Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring and Paul Reed — as well as Leon Berkowitz, Sam Gilliam, Felrath Hines, Jacob Kainen and Alma Thomas.

[IMGCAP(1)]Although all these artists are well known, especially in Washington, their work is not regularly showcased together.

“This installation offers a rare chance to see works of this scale together,” Marsh said in statement. “Just as the artists knew each other and were familiar with what the others were working on, the installation allows the visitor to see the interplay among the paintings, the development of each artist’s unique style and how those styles continued to evolve.”

Reed and Gilliam are the only two artists whose work is featured in the installation who are still living.

Reed, who at age 89 continues to paint, believes it’s most important to have fun while he paints.

“I’m like a bear riding a tricycle,” Reed said. “It isn’t that you do it well, it’s that you do it at all.”

Gilliam’s painting “April 4,” which refers to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that occurred just one year before, stands out from the other works — which are to be enjoyed for their pleasing colors and forms — by making clear reference to the turbulent racial and political occurrences in D.C. at that time.

Although the subject matter of the other works may be less profound than “April 4,” they continue to influence artists.

“They’re relevant today because they’re still compelling to look at,” Marsh said.

Reed rejects looking too deeply at his own works and says he takes pleasure mainly from experimenting with new techniques and materials.

“When you first pour that paint out on the canvas … that’s the most remarkable thing in the world, because it’s never been seen before.”

The work of the color field artists is the only critically acclaimed artistic movement to emerge from Washington.

“It was a unique moment in visual arts,” Marsh said. “I don’t think there’s been such a movement since.”

However, Reed rejects the idea that there was something special about Washington that allowed for dialogue and creativity to flourish among the community of artists.

“It happened to be here, [because the city] happened to have fertile ground,” said Reed, who credits the area as an easy place for artists to get a job at the time.

“Washington can pat itself on the back as much as it wants,” Reed said. But what matters to him is the future of art.

“Now, we’re at the stage of saying,‘Where is it going?’ And I don’t know,” he said.

Critic Benjamin Forgey will joint artists Gilliam and Reed for a “Conversation on Local Color,” a discussion about the inspiration, creative process and influence of these artists at 3 p.m. Aug. 23. The curators of the exhibit will lead another discussion at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 24.

The special installation opened July 4 and will be on view until Oct. 8. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is located at Eighth and F streets Northwest and is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. For more information call 202-633-1000 or visit

Recent Stories

Rule for Legislative Branch bill would reinstate member COLA ban

Fire alarm fracas gets noisier around Rep. Jamaal Bowman

Congressional conjunction turns Supreme Court argument into grammar class

What to watch in Gaetz vs. McCarthy speaker fight

Senators will cut the week short to travel to Dianne Feinstein’s funeral

Judiciary nominations on track despite loss of Feinstein