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Corcoran’s New Exhibit Finds Color in Collection

Fall’s bright colors have faded and the gray days of winter are just around the corner. Finding a break from the dreariness can be tough, but the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s newest exhibit might be the best cure.

“Washington Color and Light” showcases the work of the Washington Color School, a group of D.C.-based painters who worked during the 1950s and ’60s, as well as their contemporaries. The exhibit is entirely composed of works from the Corcoran’s collection, many of which have never been displayed before or are emerging from storage for the first time in decades, curator Beatrice Gralton said.

“It’s a chance to see old friends and meet new ones,” she said.

What the name advertises is exactly what you get: room after room of bright, colorful canvases in all shapes and sizes.

The name for the Washington Color School was first associated with six local painters — Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Kenneth Noland and Paul Reed — when an exhibit called “The

Washington Color Painters” was mounted in 1965 at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The artists didn’t think of themselves as a group, but they had unmistakable similarities in their methods of painting.

Most of the Washington Color School painters embraced a soak-staining technique, where unprimed canvas is saturated with diluted oil paint. Louis and Noland learned the technique from New York artist Helen

Frankenthaler and brought it to Washington, where it was introduced to more artists. The introduction of the soak-staining technique provided a new way for Washington artists to experiment with abstract painting, Gralton said.

The question at hand was, “How do you be a painter after Jackson Pollock?” she said. Pollack broke so many “rules” that many artists didn’t know where to go from what he had done. Rather than follow Pollock’s splattering techniques, Washington Color School painters embraced Frankenthaler’s soak-staining method and moved in a variety of directions.

Gene Davis, whose work is the focus of one of the “Color and Light” galleries, experimented with grids and boxes before settling on massive canvases with very precise stripes. His 1978 painting “Red Chief” is nearly 20 feet of skinny red and pink stripes inside a blue border. A thin, unpainted border separates the two colors. Gralton said absences of color are what makes this style distinctive.

“It’s the space between things that matters,” Gralton said. “It becomes about controlling color on the surface.”

Artists who came after the original six Color School painters took abstract color painting even further, rejecting traditional stretched canvases for unconventional forms.

Sam Gilliam essentially tie-dyed his enormous canvases, creating splotches of color, then rejected the constructed frame by gathering and draping them. A work of his, “Light Depth,” is one of the first visitors to the exhibition see. But no matter the shape or hue, each work in “Washington Color and Light” is bound to bring visitors out of the winter doldrums.

“Washington Color and Light” will be on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (500 17th St. NW) through March 6.

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