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Evolution Through Color: The Art of Paul Reed
Acrylic on muslin, 30 x 20 inches
THE ART OF PAUL REED: Color, Creativity, Curiosity
by David Gariff
Senior Lecturer, National Gallery of Art
Paul Reed at the age of ninety-one continues to make art in the basement studio of his Arlington, Virginia home. The studio opens up to the light and colors of the landscape behind his house, a gentle descending slope through trees to a small tributary of the Potomac River. Reed spends as much time outdoors as weather permits. His most recent paintings, washes and drizzles of paint stained on unstretched, raw muslin, illuminate the rooms of his house. Attached to his windows, they create a vision of modernist stained glass that serves to unify and blur distinctions between interior and exterior, light and color, art and nature. As if in homage to Matisse and Rothko, light and color enliven this domestic space and present a personal microcosm of the defining nature of Paul Reed’s artistic world...
Click here to read Dr. Gariff's essay in its entirety.
A poet of color and form in abstract art, Paul Reed (b. 1919) has lived, taught and worked in the Washington area throughout most of his career. He became nationally recognized when he exhibited with five other Washington artists, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, in a traveling exhibition of the Washington Color Painters, from 1965-66. The Washington Color School, as it came to be known, adopted materials and methods from artists in New York, especially Helen Frankenthaler, who began working with newly available water-based acrylics in the 1950s. The fluid paints were poured onto fresh, unprimed canvas in a “staining” technique that resulted in luminous, vivid color and hard-edge forms. The cool, formal abstraction they introduced to Washington was perceived as a departure from the gestural, painterly brushwork of New York-based Abstract Expressionism.
Continuing to experiment through process and media, Reed would explore a new series of work about every decade. In the 1960s he read Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which posited the philosophy of non-linear time, or a web of infinite lines representing innumerable futures and choices. This paralleled Reed’s approach to the creation of art and is reflected in the myriad color tests and combinations he employed, the shaped canvases, the mirrored photographs and the rock portraits, in a scientist’s approach to visual form. Today, Reed continues stain painting, using fast-drying muslin instead of canvas, painted with brilliant acrylic colors. The final piece in the exhibition (above), intended to hang against a window, involves the changing effects of sunlight to filter through the colors and patterns like stained glass.
A former faculty member of the Corcoran School of Art and visiting artist at Arizona State University, Reed’s work has been acquired by major national institutions including the Smithsonian, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and other museums across the country.
Special Collections is proud to display the work of this gifted and prolific artist, whose vivid, colorful paintings continue to evolve in new dimensions and ways of engaging the viewer. The exhibition would not have been possible without the generosity and support of Mr. Reed, who donated 25 works to Georgetown in 2009, and loaned the remaining pieces on display.
Paul Reed was working in an engraving shop in Atlanta when he drew this masterful self-portrait in the contemporary realist style. The network of fine lines that create shadow and depth reveal his interest in the medium of etching. With eyes trained on his mirrored reflection, his hand skillfully delineates his likeness while with determined gaze he seems to assert his future career as an artist.
During the 1940s Paul Reed worked in advertising design in New York. There he absorbed the spirit and freedom of Abstract Expressionism through the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, among others, returning to Washington in 1950. Alpha reveals an engaging tension between painterly or “gestural” brushwork dominated by an inert, banded square at the top. This interest in contrasting expression and form recurs throughout Reed’s career, including paintings from the last decade.
The curvilinear shapes of Reed’s watercolor form a circular frame of floating blue and green petals in this screenprint. This followed a series of fluidly painted, radiating Mandalas, themselves inspired by Jungian psychology. A writer in Art Magazine in 1965 wrote that Reed’s Mandala series recalled “the progressive integration of the unconscious traced by Jung.”
In this study of interlocking biomorphic shapes, Reed’s work was transitioning from the gestural paintings of the previous decade towards the geometric color abstraction of his mature style. A critic at the time compared these shapes to the late paper-cutouts of Matisse which had been exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1960.
#26A introduces opposing triangles and four orange, compass-drawn dots over the circle of biomorphic shapes. Here the overall structure is based on the principle of the golden section in geometry. The dots form the corners of a cube layered over the blue floating curved forms. Subtle tonal contrasts of the two corners (brown and mauve) create a diagonal compression, while the opposing colors of orange and green in the center create further resonance as color defines form.
Reed’s disc paintings, ranging up to 7 by 9 feet in size, incorporate the triangle, circle and rectangle in varying color combinations. As Elisabeth Stevens explained at the time,
…the smoothly brushed backgrounds and the wedge-shaped areas he usually includes in the upper right and lower left corners are “unmixable” colors created by superimposing one layer of transparent acrylic on a lower layer that has already dried.
In 1965-1966 the discs were shown in a landmark traveling exhibition entitled Washington Color Painters organized by Gerald Nordland, which opened at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art near Dupont Circle. This marked the first formal recognition of a local “school” of painters including Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring and Paul Reed, all working in color abstraction. This was soon followed by Reed’s solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery.
In 1964, Reed created some forty disc studies in this format to serve as color tests for his water-based acrylics on canvas.
Having ended his investigation of resonating circular forms, Reed turned to a grid construction with internal bands of color. At the same time, the external shape of the canvas became altered in a sequence of shaped canvases over the next four or five years.
The crossed stripes of Emerging, a tilting quadrilateral resting on the point of the wider angle, almost appears to rotate in space, and—like all of Reed’s geometric paintings—optically evokes the third dimension.
The Topeka study shows the artist experimenting with the spatial orientation of a pentagon, which ultimately resolved with a vertical central axis running up through the narrowest corner. The dynamic form with uneven bands of three layered colors rests on its shortest side.
Having seen Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952), Paul Reed embarked upon a series of zig-zagging stripes he called the Upstart paintings. Here, layered bands of acrylic applied with a roller traverse the narrow, vertical canvas in harmonic bands of color.
Another in the “shaped” repertoire, the tonally related orange and pink colors of the two chevron forms in Barcelona are surmounted by a five-sided structure which reads in three dimensions. The vibrant color contrasts of the polygon shape appear to lift up off the paper and float in space before the viewer.
From 1971 – 72 Reed produced the Gilport paintings consisting of two parts nailed directly to the wall. This is one of two screenprints he created from the series. They consist of two trapezoidal shapes placed side by side against the longest edge. The intervening space is equal to the width of the bisected green rectangle hovering in the center. The jagged edges of pink and blue horizontal bands contrast with the cold geometry of the rectangle and trapezoid in a visual dialogue of space, color and form.
In this photograph, mirror images of a restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown are curiously merged atop mirrored images of a bank in Globe, Arizona.
Reed was staying on a ranch 30 miles from Scottsdale, Arizona, when he made these photographs of a bull’s skull that hung over his bed. The ranch was owned by art dealer Riva Yares, whose gallery, founded in 1964, still exhibits the work of contemporary artists. The ranch was an ideal place to work in solitude and find inspiration in natural forms. This work’s title refers to the tiny image of the artist reflected in the chrome fender of a vintage Rolls Royce he saw at an auto show in Phoenix.
In this compelling Quad photo, Reed contrasts a classical statue from the Roman pool at the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California with a soft shell crab the artist cooked and ate along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay where he had stayed in the 1960s. The gray shell of the crab continues the lines of the statue’s bent arm, and the outlines of the red claws seem visually to echo the outlines of the sculpture.
In this piece, Reed contrasts mirror images of a cactus and a lily as the central panel of a triptych. Here, kaleidoscoping color continues and amplifies, through form and color, the patterns and shapes along adjoining edges of the photographs.
Reed began creating oil pastel works 1973, when he moved from a large studio in Washington—where he had recently finished work on the Gilport paintings—back to his home in northern Arlington. He also began a decade-long faculty position at the Corcoran School of Art at this time. With limited space in which to create, the dimensions of his work became radically scaled down, but he “liked the idea of feeling the touch of the paper, the texture, and the surface.” The oil pastels have a sensuous freedom and fluidity recalling the “automatic Surrealism” in the works of Arshile Gorky and the early paintings of Jackson Pollock.
In this drawing with photo-collage the mirrored image of the “murderous” macaw owned by Reed’s dealer in Arizona is paired with an equally disturbing, upside-down image of an early aviator’s helmet at the Smithsonian.
In fall 1980, Paul Reed was invited to Arizona State University as a visiting artist. Considered to be a leading innovative center for printmaking during this era, the ASU Print Research Facility was home to master printer Joseph Segura. The collaborative work between painter and printer led to Reed’s series of gouache paintings (ca. 1980 – 1994).
The gouache paintings combine painting and printmaking techniques: Reed starts with a sheet of acrylic and rolls the colors of gouache onto the sheet with an ink brayer. The sheet of plastic is then pressed onto a sheet of paper, creating a print.
This process results in a monotype print. Ink must be re-applied to the plastic sheet for every impression on paper, making each impression unique.
Reed continues exploring by modifying past series to create new work. In PSI III he combines his formal painting background with the lessons learned from master printer Joseph Segura taking “painterly prints” a step forward.
Reed’s first step in creating PSI III was applying paint to unprimed canvas, and the green and yellow paints were allowed to bleed across the surface. Two gradations of violet were applied afterwards, in eight mirror-imaged semi-circular bands that dominate the surface. Reminiscent of the harmonious gouache paintings, PSI III also provokes the sonic sense with its rhythmic gestures.
This untitled diptych is one of Reed’s complex monoprints. Monoprints are similar to monotypes in that they both begin with adding paint and ink to a surface. However, an advantage of the monoprint is its ability to produce multiples of the transferred image due to permanent features on its plate.
Reed again uses his motif of parallel bands, first seen in Alpha (1953). By changing color schemes and repositioning the plates, the two monoprints together create a conversation among the shapes and lines.
Reed pays homage to his familiar parallel bands but experiments with color fluidity, as in his early 1960s unprimed Mandala series. A mixture of geometry with organic forms produces a “post-painterly abstraction,” a term coined by art critic Clement Greenberg in the 1960s to describe the new openness in painting after Abstract Expressionism.
Paul Reed believes that all art is drawn from the art of the past, and in his rock portraits of the 1990s, we see a prime example of this. In another take on the natural versus cultural dialectic that had informed his earlier Quad photos, the artist began collecting naturally formed rocks and stone in which he observed shapes and patterns resembling famous sculptures by artists such as Rodin, Giacometti and Boccioni. Reed would often mount them on bases or pedestals and create found versions of recognizable portraits from the canon of Western art. The original bronze by Boccioni (1882 – 1916) is a wittily conceived Cubist portrayal of the artist’s mother.
In this computer generated print, Reed’s signature “platform” shape is superimposed over a photograph of a blowhole along the coast of Baja California. The presence of the four receding bars flattens the space and challenges our perceptions of depth. This is another medium in which Reed explores spatial compression and contrasting forms, as seen in the paintings Alpha (1953) and Boden (2001).
The four bands resembling a receding platform are a recurring motif in Paul Reed’s oeuvre. The shape is an archetypal form that can reference classical art, or any arbitrary object such as a hand, flag, sail or raft. In the case of Boden, the color scheme along with the bands strongly recall Renoir’s La Loge (1874); the unintended similarities suggest a universal vocabulary of compositional form.
Click the Boden thumbnail to see Gamma II in situ.
Reed explores color spontaneity on unprimed canvas with CKI. Set on a horizontal axis, four parallel bands rise into a palette of magenta and blues receding into space. Reed’s gestural brushstrokes are carefully painted within these stenciled rectangular shapes.
Through the use of muslin instead of canvas, the background colors become freer and seem to be in motion across the fabric. One can see the effects of the more translucent medium through the interaction of the stenciled rectangles over the mixed background colors.
Influenced by Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, and following the premises of Morris Louis’s Veil paintings, GXN and HFN combine spontaneous fluidity and structured geometry. Reed leaves negative space that contains the multi-colored backgrounds, but the white and translucent blue overlapping bands extend over the edges; the forms thus contrast in their apparent planes as well as in color and texture.
Presented with this artwork in its unmounted state, the viewer might be surprised to learn that Reed intends the darker, heavier red and violet area to be at the top. In fact, the interplay of colors and tones is inspired by the patterns and forms of a stately tree in the artist’s garden, with dappled light falling through.
LuLen Walker • Art Collection Curator
Christen Runge • Assistant Curator
Marvin J. Aguilar (COL ’11) • Assistant Curator
David Gariff, Ph.D., National Gallery of Art • Catalog Essay
David Hagen • Graphics Production