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Vertical Files: The Washington Color School

About this collection

The artists typically associated with the Washington Color School did not actively set out to become a school. In fact, they did not necessarily associate with one another despite being labeled as a group. It is unclear precisely when the name 'Washington Color School' was first used, but it appeard in exhibition titles as early as 1965. Growing out of the abstract expressionist works of Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, this group looked to color for expressive purposes without any overarching pictorial program. The materials - and the technique - were the message. These artists were interested in what was happening on the canvas (or, as in some cases, in the sculpture) through the application of color in a variety of methods - staining, pouring, dripping, dabbing - than in exact representation. This was known as Color Field painting, in which large unprimed canvases were arranged with color in large, abstract fields meant to engage and envelop the viewer.

 

This collection draws from the Vertical Files of two institutions: The National Gallery of Art Library and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery Library. The Vertical Files (VF) are the libraries' ephemera collections, and contain a treasure trove of miscellaneous, small (fewer than 50 pages) materials. Ephemera usually refers to published materials, but as you will find here, the VF also houses unique items like personal correspondence. We have combed through the files on key WCS artists in both collections to find the highlights - the result is this digital library.

 

We hope to bring attention to both the value of the Vertical Files and the cultural significance of the Washington Color School, and we have attempted to choose objects that illustrate the full scope of the 10 year movement. VF will provide research value in ways such as showing items that are held privately (with permission) and rarely seen. Unlike traditional image collections, items in VF are often in color, essential for WCS, a movement based on the visual effects created by interrelationships of color.

 
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