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Washington, D.C., is known for many things. Launching an art movement is not one of them. Still, starting in the 1950s, the federal city was a cradle for a group of artists who produced colorful, abstract, even joyful works. Dubbed by one art critic, color field painters. An exhibition of their works just went on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.

SUSAN STAMBERG: These guys had amazing techniques, tradition-breaking. They rarely used paint brushes. They didn't prime their huge canvases before putting on their paint. And some of them — like Gene Davis — couldn't even draw. He was a sportswriter, then he reported on Roosevelt and Truman. But Gene Davis always wanted to make art.

Ms. BETSY BROUN (Director, Smithsonian American Art Museum): But he was in his 40s and he said, I'm much too old to learn to draw. I know how hard it is. So I am going to simply going to paint stripes.

STAMBERG: And so, Betsy Broun, director of the American Art Museum says, without doing a single drawing, Davis striped his way onto the walls of museums around the world. Using what looks to be a very long ruler, Gene Davis set down a series of strictly drawn straight lines, and painted various vivid colors inside those lines.

His main interest was color — what it could express, without representing anything. No apples, no chairs, no torsos. Just stripes of bright color.

Ms. BROUN: He said, I play by eye in the same way that a jazz musician plays by ear.

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Ms. BROUN: These are artists who came along very much in a postwar mood. The economy was doing well, the nation was all recovering and bouncing back.

STAMBERG: Betsy Broun says the color field pioneers — Gene Davis, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Sam Gilliam among them — reflected the upbeat spirit of the 1950s and early '60s. The stability of the Eisenhower years, the youthful possibilities of JFK.

Ms. BROUN: There is a kind of celebratory quality to a lot of these works. It was American at its optimistic peak.

STAMBERG: And that shows on these canvases.

Ms. BROUN: Yes. In fact, I think there was recently a Morris Louis show and a scholar named Alex Nemerov said he looks like court painter to John F. Kennedy.

STAMBERG: Their artistic inspiration was New York painter Helen Frankenthaler. Her pictures reacted to the ropey, anxious canvases of abstract expressionism.

Ms. BROUN: She was looking for a different way to get a more luminous quality in her painting.

STAMBERG: Helen Frankenthaler was influenced by Jackson Pollock. She knew him, she watched him work in the early 1950s. She saw him put his canvases flat on the floor, and then rope and lasso skeins of enamel paint onto them.

Ms. HELEN FRANKENTHALER (Painter): What I took from that was the gesture and the attitude and the floor working...

STAMBERG: This is from a 1988 NPR profile of the artist.

Ms. FRANKENTHALER: But I wanted to work with shapes in a very different way. And instead of being involved in his technique, what evolved for me out of my needs and invention had to do with pouring paint, and staining paint.

STAMBERG: To do that, Frankenthaler diluted her paint, thinned it out so it melted into the weave of the canvas and became the canvas, and the canvas became the painting. This was new.

Two young Washington artists — Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis — rode a train up to Manhattan to visit an art critic friend of theirs named Clement Greenberg. He was Frankenthaler's lover at the time, and took the D.C. painters to her studio. There they saw her massive 1952 work, "Mountains and Sea" — tinted with buckets of fast-drying, thinned-out acrylic paint that she poured and dribbled and pooled onto unprimed canvas.

Ms. JOANNA MARSH (Curator, Smithsonian): Both men were absolutely blown away by "Mountains and Sea," and this staining technique, which Frankenthaler had developed.

STAMBERG: Smithsonian curator Joanna Marsh says it was a life-changing experience. The men went home to Washington and started to pour. Morris Louis did, anyway. Kenneth Noland was more symmetrical, sometimes straight-edged and geometric, with wonderful colors, put on flat — sometimes with a brush — in abstract shapes. Morris Louis was freer. He stained. Radiant colors soaked into the canvas in light, translucent veils. Joyful.

Ms. BROUN: No angst.

STAMBERG: Again, American Art Museum Director Betsy Broun.

Ms. BROUN: This is called "Floral Five," and indeed you can easily see why: it looks like a bouquet of gorgeous pastel colors with pinks and blues and greens and oranges and yellows.

STAMBERG: It's rainbow gorgeous and huge, which is amazing considering where Morris Louis made his art.

Again, curator Joanna Marsh.

Ms. MARSH: Louis worked in his dining room in his home. It was a very small space and he was quite secretive about his process. He didn't allow people to come in to see him while he was working.

STAMBERG: Sometimes Morris Louis's work was a secret to himself. For a series he called "Unfurled," made on wide, wide canvases, his small studio - that converted dining room — became a real issue.

Ms. MARSH: He had to work piecemeal. He never saw the entire canvas, because the space was so confined. So he would work on one section, for instance the left side, and then he would move over to the right side of the canvas, but not be able to see what he had just done on the left.

STAMBERG: In a way, that determination to make it new defined the art of all of the color field painters. Now their bright and shining new ideas can be seen at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington through May 26. The exhibition is called "Color as Field: 1950-1975." It was organized by Karen Wilkin for the American Federation of Arts.

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STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you can go to NPR.org to see some of the Color Fields splashes and stains and optimism.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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