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Gian Garofalo's “Tutti Fruiti,” mixed media on panel, 48” x 48” x 4”

True Colors

by Tiffany Jow | DC magazine | October 29, 2012

On a recent trip to the Windy City, Long View Gallery Director Drew Porterfield stumbled across a painting by Chicago artist Gian Garofalo—and fell in love. The abstract artist’s vertical stripes, repetition and vast spectrum of shades immediately reminded him of Gene Davis, the prolific talent who was famously part of the Washington Color School. “I started thinking about how important the Color School is to our city and how many doors they opened for other artists,” Porterfield says. Soon, he was chatting up Garofalo and sowing seeds for his next exhibition.

Opening Nov. 1, Color Schooled will feature six artists from all over the country—Garofalo, Betty Cleeland, Martina Nehrling, Laura Berman, Robert Stuart and J. Jordan Bruns—who are influenced by the homegrown movement. Their approach to art-making, Porterfield asserts, exists because of the Color School, a band of painters from the ’50s and ’60s who are known for successfully reducing art to pure and basic modernist forms.

During a time when artists were debating what made a complete image and examining the relationship between canvas and paint, DC was a place of major experimentation. The city’s artists were in constant conversation with their abstract-expressionist peers in New York, and, between frequenting Manhattan galleries and studios, they were inspired to advance the techniques they observed in remarkable ways. In 1953, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland visited the studio of New York artist Helen Frankenthaler and saw her stain paintings for the first time. Frankenthaler worked by laying an unprimed canvas on the ground and saturating it with paint—a technique that was a trendy subject in then-contemporary painting, as soaking and staining canvases with poured pigment activated the grain of a raw surface and created a novel intensity of color.

Louis and Noland returned to DC and began working alongside other Color School artists to advance the technique, where the recent advent of synthetic acrylic paint was key. They distinguished themselves by emphatically embracing the strange new medium (which was, unlike oil, dilutable and pourable) and meticulously explored its potential. Their perfected technique of soaking and staining in large, nonobjective paintings became the Color School’s signature, which momentarily stole the spotlight from New York and catapulted the thriving Washington scene into the fore for the first time.

More than five decades later, the artists in Long View’s showcase continue to experiment with drizzling, drenching and abstraction. Garofalo’s thin, Davis-inspired stripes are dribbled from the top of the canvas and painstakingly applied layer upon layer. Cleeland uses scads of monochrome dots to create seemingly infinite, pixelated surfaces. Similarly, Louis’ sensual handling of material and slim color stains is integral to Nehrling, who uses short dashes of thick, viscous paint to form and fill oversized circles. “Often the work of the Color School operates as a beacon from the past, legitimizing my proclivity for color,” Nehrling says. “They set an example and gave me permission.”

Porterfield’s exhibition is less about a resurgence of the movement and more about his own realization of the Color School’s contemporary influence on many artists he wanted to work with this year—where dripping, dappling and soaking remain the expression of choice. “Perhaps my eyes weren’t totally open to the influence of the Color School,” he says. With his forthcoming showcase, he hopes to bring that burgeoning DC pride to the fore in the most artful way yet.