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“Mountains and Sea”, by Helen Frankenthaler

Starting in the late 1950s the great American art critic Clement Greenberg only had eyes for Color Field painting. This was the lighter-than-air abstract style, with its emphasis on stain painting and visual gorgeousness introduced by Helen Frankenthaler followed by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski.

With the insistent support of Greenberg and his acolytes, Color Field soared as the next big, historically inevitable thing after Jackson Pollock. Then over the course of the 1970s it crashed and burned and dropped from sight. Pop and Minimal Art, which Greenberg disparaged, had more diverse critical support and greater influence on younger artists. Then Post-Minimalism came along, exploding any notion of art’s neatly linear progression.

Now Color Field painting — or as Greenberg preferred to call it, Post-Painterly Abstraction — is being reconsidered in a big way in “Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975,” a timely, provocative — if far from perfect — exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here…It is wonderful to see some of this work float free of the Greenbergian claims for greatness and inevitability (loyally retraced by Ms. Wilkin in her essay), and float it does, at least the best of it…

One problem with Greenberg may have been a lack of humor. He didn’t appreciate that if, as he said, Abstract Expressionism was Baroque, then Color Field might be Rococo: beautiful, frivolous and even comedic. Color Field shares its insouciance with Pop Art, its declarative use of materials with Minimalism and its high-key artificial palette with both. It even has links to Process Art in the work of early adapters like Alan Shields and has become a trope for so-called post-Modernists like Monique Prieto, Rudolf Stingel and Kelley Walker.

But given Color Field painting’s long neglect, a time capsule is in itself a new look, and Ms. Wilkin’s retelling has some new twists. Take for example her account of the legendary visit, orchestrated by Greenberg, that Mr. Louis and Mr. Noland made to Ms. Frankenthaler’s studio to see “Mountains and Sea” during their 1953 visit to New York from Washington. Ms. Wilkin writes in passing that the visit occurred in Ms. Frankenthaler’s absence, which completely reframes this pivotal event. Color Field was arguably the first major art movement initiated by a woman, and that woman was not present, in her own studio, to watch the wheels start turning in the heads of two male artists who, let’s face it, were competitors?

Sometimes a critic’s enthusiasm can do as much harm as good, especially when the critic has a blinkered take on the art of his time. The Icarus-like flight Greenberg took with Color Field was damaging to both parties and became a cautionary tale for art critics. New art is an unmanageable beast. If you think you have its reins in your grip, you will surely be unseated. Better to remain on your own two feet, ever alert to the inevitability of surprise and of betrayal, not the least by your own aesthetic responses.

Roberta Smith
New York Times