Paul Reed (artist)
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Paul (Allen) Reed (born 1919) is an American artist most associated with the Washington Color School and Color Field Painting. Today Paul Reed has an easy rule of thumb for distinguishing the important painters of his day.
“I have a saying: Pollock dripped,” he explains. “[Helen] Frankenthaler poured. Morris Louis poured. Howard Mehring sprinkled. I blot.”
Reed, who is 92, references his own technique in the present tense because it has changed little in the six decades he has worked as a painter. Still painting to this day — and the subject of recent solo shows at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton and the Georgetown University Library — Reed is the last of the Washington Color School, an influential band of painters who captured the art-world flag from New York for a period in the 1950s and ’60s.
He has a theory about the Color School, which got its name after a 1965 exhibit at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art that showed his work alongside paintings by Louis, Mehring, Tom Downing, Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. Those six painters, all like-minded abstractionists, are the Washington artists most visibly identified with the Color Field movement. Reed likens the group to the Impressionists, whose plein-air painting was made possible by the invention of the collapsible tin paint tube in 1841. That invention ushered a sea change in the way art was made.
“You had a change in materials, and they went outside to paint, the plein-air painters,” Reed says. “So you change the process, got out of the studio, and change the material. What did the Washington people do? Acrylic color: new material. Unprimed canvas: changed the process.”
It was that innovation — applying paint directly, skipping the gesso buffer layer, creating a stain on the canvas — that launched Washington’s scene to the forefront of the art world, if for a brief time. Incidentally, the stain was a technique that Reed and others credit to Frankenthaler, a New Yorker. But it was Washington-oriented artists such as Louis, Noland and Reed who made it stick.
Where Morris and Mehring poured and sprinkled, Reed has stuck to hard, geometric edges. He describes the “disc” series that he painted during the ’60s — examples of which are in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian American Art Museum — as “a matrix for exploiting color, a format.” In those paintings, the formula was always the same: a rectilinear field onto which he painted a circle in the center and two triangles that hugged the corners.
In the ’70s, he adopted another strict geometric motif for his “Gilport” series: two trapezoids that mirror one another, a blank space separating them like a vertical axis. Over the last decade, he’s flipped the axis horizontally, and the trapezoids have transformed into a grouping of flat bars — “rafts” that look like the Bank of America logo.
In his studio, which takes up most of his home, Reed has hung a reproduction of Marcel Duchamp’s 1915–23 “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” a piece known more commonly as the Large Glass. “I put it there to see if I can’t do something free of these enormous influences. He’s using two-point perspective on the Chocolate Grinder” — a part of the Large Glass — “and I’m using two-point perspective on the rafts,” Reed says. “Of course, with Duchamp, he invented everything. You can’t get away from Duchamp. Forget it.”
Just one hard-edged painting from 1969 represents Reed’s work in the Corcoran’s “Washington Color and Light” retrospective, which features all six Washington Color School painters alongside Sam Gilliam, Anne Truitt and a few other second-wave artists connected with the Color School. Corcoran curator Sarah Newman says that Reed ran in a different direction than the rest. “A lot of artists made the transition from the stained aesthetic to a more hard-edged technique, and he seems to have done the reverse,” she says.
It shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. The Washington Color School was primarily an exhibit, not an artist co-op. Reed says he never even met Louis, who died in 1962 from lung cancer caused by exposure to the Magna paints he poured. And he only ran into the target painter Noland a few times in New York. But Reed and Davis, who favored hard-edged stripes, attended the same junior high in Northeast.
Reed was born in Washington DC and currently resides in the Virginia suburbs outside of DC. He attended and graduated from both San Diego State College in San Diego, CA and the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC. Reed’s group show debut was in 1958 in the Watkins Gallery, American University. He and a few of his select his contemporary peers made a splash in a 1965 group show at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art entitled The Washington Color Painters. Also called the Washington Color School, this group had a profound influence in the abstract arena and the pushing of artistic boundaries from mid-century forward. His first solo show was in January 1963 at the Adams-Morgan Gallery in Washington, DC. In November of that same year, he had another solo show in the East Hampton Gallery in New York City.
From 1962 to 1971 Paul Reed served as Art Director for the Peace Corps after which he joined the Corcoran School of Art in the position of Assistant Professor. In the mean time, he was featured in several dozen group and solo exhibitions including:
1964 Museum of Modern Art, New York City
1965 Institute of Modern Art, Washington, DC
1965 Art Institute of Chicago 25th Annual Exhibition of the Society of American Art
1965 Phoenix Museum, Inaugural Exhibition
1965-66 Washington Gallery of Modern Art, circulated to: University of Texas Art Galleries, Austin TX Art Gallery, University of California at Santa Barbara, CA Rose Art Galleries, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN
1966 Des Moines Art Center, Op Art
1966 National Collection of Fine Arts - The Hard Edge Trend White House Rotation Exhibition of Contemporary Art, Recent Acquisitions Exhibition
1966 American Embassy in Damascus Exhibition
1967 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Recent Acquisitions
1968 Comprehensive Survey National Collection of Fine Arts
1968 the Jefferson Place Ten Years, Washington, DC
1969 The Westmoreland County Museum of Art, 10th Anniversary Exhibition
1970 Jul. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center - New Accessions USA
2000-2002 Multiple-Venue Tour in Modernism and Abstraction; Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Selected Solo Shows
Paul Reed is also in more than 50 public collections including: the Detroit Institute of Art in Detroit, Michigan; Emory University in Atlanta, GA; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC; the National Museum of Art in Washington, DC; the Phoenix Museum of Art in Phoenix, AZ; the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Boca Raton, FL; the Santa Barbara Museum in Santa Barbara, California; and the Wadsworth Athanaeum in Hartford, CT.
Who’s Who in America 1976-1997
Who's Who in American Art 1973-1997
The Dictionary of Art (MacMillan Co., London 1989)
L’Avant Garde Abtraite L’Art Americain de 1950 a 1970 “Nouvelle Abtraction” – Claudine Humblet, Bruxelles
The National Museum of American Art, Interactive CD ROM, 1995
Introduction & Text by Roy Slade, "The Corcoran & Washington Art" Copyright 1976 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: 2000 copies printed by Garamond Press, Baltimore, MD LCCC# 76-42098
The Vincent Melzac Collection, Forward by Walter Hopps, Introduction by Ellen Gross Landau, Retrospective Notes on the Washington Color School by Barbara Rose, Copyright 1971 The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.: printed by Garamond/Pridemark Press, Baltimore, MD LCCC#75-153646
Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Interview with Gerald Nordland Conducted by Susan Larsen, Chicago, Illinois May 25–26, 2004 http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/nordla04.htm