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Red-1966, 1966

Thomas Downing

American, 1928-1985
Acrylic on canvas
84 x 86 in. (213.4 x 218.4 cm)
Norton Simon Museum, Gift of Mrs. Donald Brewer
P.1973.17
© The Estate of Thomas Downing, courtesy GARY SNYDER Project Space, New York

Not on view

Thomas Downing is known as the pioneer of the dot. He was a professor at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and a core member of the Washington Color School, which included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis. These artists gained national attention for their elevation of color as subject and their related technique of staining acrylic-based pigment onto raw, unprimed canvas.

Red contains 36 crisply delineated circles, in a spectrum that flows from maroon to pink, floating in an invisible grid system. Working on the floor, Downing drew the circles freehand, without a compass, and used fast-drying Liquitex thinned with turpentine to soak the pigment onto the canvas. Slight spatial differences between the motifs and the occasional drip of pigment are the sole evidence of the artist’s handwork. Raw canvas played a substantive role in Downing’s color fields as it “kept light and air in the color no matter how dense or intense.” The artist’s dot paintings have been praised for their optical effects—the dots appear to advance and recede— and for their spiritual and symbolic qualities, based in the elemental form of the circle. However rich its associations, Red also embodies the openness and clarity that critic Clement Greenberg promoted in his theoretical writing, though it does so with a light-hearted tone, thanks to the upbeat palette that audaciously includes pink. Classified as Hard-Edge, Minimal or Op, Downing’s paintings are some of the more dazzling images of the sixties.

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