Expansive Color: American Post Painterly Abstraction
Online Auction: 24 September–1 October 2021 • 12:00 PM EDT • New York

Expansive Color: American Post Painterly Abstraction 24 September–1 October 2021 • 12:00 PM EDT • New York

S otheby’s is pleased to present Expansive Color: American Post Painterly Abstraction, a first-of-its-kind capsule sale comprising a selection of Color Field works. Referencing the title of a group exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1964, this special auction celebrates an exploration by several artists who, after the boom of post-war Abstract Expressionism, begin to favor a purity of color and the dissolution suggestive forms in order to liberate art from its relationship to the subject.

The Color Field movement, through its chromatic brilliance and formal innovation, is arguably one of the most influential and important movements of 20th century art history. From Helen Frankenthaler’s soak-stained canvases to Kenneth Noland’s mesmerizing concentric circle, the artists involved in this movement stand as masters of abstraction. Emerging in the 1950s, this new approach to painting developed in response to the leading movement of the time: Abstract Expressionism. During this time, the sheer intensity of the Abstract Expressionist movement, defined by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline—known as the Action Painters—became a stylistic tendency the Color Field artists were yearning to step away from as they discovered a new layer of abstraction. Through their techniques that were focused upon in the Color Field school, these artists were able to continue exploring concepts that were integral to Abstract Expressionism, yet with a shifted focus to the uncomplicated and pure beauty of color on the canvas.

Sam Francis, Untitled, 1988, LOT 313 , © 2021 Sam Francis Foundation, California / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Characterized by open compositions and broad applications of paint that limit painterly gestures, Color Field works sought to reimagine space as it was traditionally conceived in painting, and as a result, color appears to expand beyond the edges of works themselves to render canvases into limitless fields of varying hues. In the words of Helen Frankenthaler, “There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture ... that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about. ” Not unlike the Impressionists before them, color thusly becomes the central subject, and with that, the rapture of an accompanying emotive experience by the viewer layers this genre of painting with a decisively postmodern approach.

Hedda Sterne, Vertical Horizontal No. 15, 1962, LOT 301 © 2021 Hedda Sterne / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The popularity of Color Field stemmed largely from Clement Greenberg’s formalist art criticism, especially his essay ‘American-type Painting’, written in 1955 for Partisan Review, which implied that Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko had consummated a tendency in modernist painting to apply color in large areas or ‘fields’. By the late 1950s, a new generation of color field painters started to emerge, and the popularity of the style continued among modern artists until the mid-'60s. Slowly, the movement departed from Abstract Expressionism in that there was less emphasis on gesture and more attention to process and the emotive perception of the finished work. Rather than referencing concepts of or elements belonging to the world outside of themselves, a Color Field painting aims to present an end within itself.


This Fall, Sotheby's is proud to present prominent examples from Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, Hedda Sterne, among many others. A kaleidoscopic selection of works from important periods of each artist's individual practice, this capsule sale is a chance to delve into this groundbreaking and highly influential period of history. Highly emotive, personal, and sublime works of painting, this sale presents the very best caliber of each artist's dedication to color and its profound psychological and visual impacts.

"What sets the best Color Field paintings apart [from Abstract Expressionism ] is the extraordinary economy of means with which they manage not only to engage our feelings but also to ravish the eye."
Karen Wilkin, "Notes on Color Field Painting", New Criterion, New York 2007


Sotheby’s is honored to present Color Field, an incomparable group of paintings that embody a comprehensive narrative of the Color Field movement and its groundbreaking impact on greater art history. The artists presented in this capsule sale characterize the independence and innovation that was integral to their growth as artists, with an emphasis on purity of color and form. Motivated by color, emotion, and the ability of the two to evoke meaning specific to the viewer, Color Field artists pioneered a simultaneously emotive and formalistic approach to creation. The art historical significance of this moment in time resounds to the present moment, as contemporary artists are furthering the lines of inquiry posited within Color Field painting—a movement which came to define the trajectory of 20th- and 21st-century abstraction.

Closely aligned with Abstract Expressionism yet continually relevant to developments in Contemporary painting, the chromatic brilliance, formal innovation and art historical significance of the movement has never been more appreciated. Including works by Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Hedda Sterne, Richard Diebenkorn, and others, this specialty sale captures a spirit which blurred the lines of inquiry as posited within Color Field painting, dictating the trajectory of 20th- and 21st-century abstraction. A curated auction of 18 select lots, all works will be exhibited alongside the Contemporary Curated auction on the 3rd floor of Sotheby’s between 25 – 29 September. This sale is an online-only auction open for bidding between 24 September – 1 October, with lots closing at 1-minute intervals in descending order beginning at 12 PM EST on closing day.

Spotlight on: Helen Frankenthaler
“There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture ... that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about. ”
Helen Frankenthaler

Strikingly radiant and emotionally evocative, Helen Frankenthaler’s œuvre largely inspired and elegantly encapsulates the Color Field movement as a whole. Preeminent among the second generation of postwar American abstract painters and widely credited with paying a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting, Frankenthaler expanded the possibilities of abstract painting while drawing inspiration from figuration and landscape in new ways. Her signature soak-stain technique, which involved pouring thinned paint directly onto unprimed canvas, allowed for the juxtaposition of amorphous fields of color and gestural brushstrokes, producing a dynamic rhythm of activity that remains visible on the surface of her compositions. Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, both little-known artists at the time, visited her studio in 1953 and were inspired by Frankenthaler’s departure from the narrative of Abstract Expressionism of the time, dominated by an active, masculine energy. The Color Field school, rather, opted for the pure beauty of color on the canvas. Expansive Color is proud to feature three works by the artist and highlight the career of one of the most important painters of the 20th century.

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