The Norton Simon Showcases Abstract Painters from the ‘60s


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‘What you see is what you see,’ artist Frank Stella once remarked, referring to his method of painting.


Stella was one of a group of young artists influenced by, yet seeking to distinguish themselves from, such post war abstract expressionists as Jackson Pollock and Hans Hoffmann. Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Ralph Humphrey and Kenneth Noland are just a few abstractionists who rose to prominence in the 1960s and are the focus of ‘Surface Truths: Abstract Painting in the Sixties,’ at the Norton Simon Museum. ‘This group was up against a great generation of American abstract painters. They wanted to do something unique, find a new direction, but it had to be good with a sense of purpose and high-mindedness,’ said curator Gloria Williams.

They experimented with flat, monochrome color, staining a large section or the entire canvas. Their work was minimalistic with little brush work resulting in a magnitude of color, stripes and geometric shapes. Art critics tried to categorize this movement labeling it Post Painterly or Color Field painting.

The easels came down, many preferring to work directly on the wall or floor and on a large scale. Frank Stella’s ‘Damascus Gate I’ measures 32 feet long. ‘When you stand very close [to the paintings], your periphery is gone and you become enveloped by it,’ said Williams.

‘The modern approach of the late 19th century was geared to something simpler without complicated personal techniques,’ said Jack Youngerman from his home in Bridgehampton, N.Y. ‘Schools didn’t teach technique anymore in midcentury. A lot of us let go in a way and never learned how to paint.’

One main characteristic in this movement was the artists’ experimentation with materials. They used industrial and house paints, oil mixed with solvents and diluted turpentine. ‘Acrylic was more flexible and simple to use,’ noted Youngerman, who has since gone back to oils. ‘I realized later that acrylic was too passive and created a dead surface.’

The use of this paint mixed with bad techniques has created a lot of problems for conservationists. Two of the paintings had to be restored for this exhibition; Harvey Quaytman’s ‘Patient Love Potion,’ and Youngerman’s ‘Red Vermillion,’ which was restored at the Getty.

‘Twentieth century paint had so many additives — it’s hard to clean the same way as the old masters,’ said Tiarna Daughtery, associate conservator at the Getty who worked on ‘Red Vermillion.’

Fifty years of dust and grime created a surface haze effect (material coming out of the paint onto the surface) and cracks in the solid orange and reds revealed white coming through.

The lack of varnish also challenges conservation of this era. ‘We backed away from varnish,’ said Youngerman. ‘It had a tendency to be yellow and shiny.’

Some 17 works by 16 artists are displayed, drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and are on view through Aug. 16. Despite being sandwiched between postwar abstract expressionist and pre-Warhol Pop Art, these artists created their own niche and left their mark on contemporary art.

Said Youngerman, who at 85 continues to work: ‘Old painters don’t die, they just paint away.’ The Norton Simon Museum is at 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, 91105. (626) 449-6840

[For the Record, 7:55 p.m. March 29: An earlier version of this post misspelled the last names of artists Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann and Kenneth Noland as Pollack, Hoffman and Nowland, respectively.]

— Liesl Bradner

Images: Top ‘Damascus Gate I,’ 1969 Frank Stella. Right: ‘Red-1966,’ 1966 Thomas Downing. Photographer, Steven Oliver. Bottom left: ‘Red-Vermillion,’ 1961, Jack Youngerman. Credit: The Norton Simon Museum.