At 92 years of age Paul Reed is the last surviving participant of the Washington Color Painters exhibition, a pivotal event in the annals of the Washington, D.C. art scene. This traveling museum show, curated by Gerald Nordland, included a group of artists–Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Kenneth Noland, and Paul Reed–who would come to be collectively known as the Washington Color School. It opened on June 25th 1965, at the now defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art, and continued on to the University of Texas, the University of California, and the Rose Art Galleries at Brandeis University, ending its run at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Of all the Washington Color Painters, Reed employed the most non-programmatic approach to painting. His work is enigmatically structured and unabashedly chromatic. He always seemed to be separated aesthetically from his pack. Reed created some of the most confounding geometric color field paintings with his aerial view series, works that view extreme close up floral or mandala patterns through a field of color and wedges of geometry, as if seen from a great height. He was, and still is, the only original member of the Color Painters to continually use Nature itself as a referent in his work (Reed’s daily walks on the Potomac River provide him endless inspiration). His preference for painting plein air when the weather permits would likely be antithetical to his contemporaries, were they still among the living. This experience imbues Reed’s work with “a precise blending of intellectual and sensual experiences,” as David Gariff, Senior Lecturer of the National Gallery of Art, describes it.
On April 25th of this year, a warm, sunny spring day, I visited Paul Reed in Arlington, Virginia, at the quiet suburban home he shares with his wife Esther. The house, a modest dwelling surrounded by flowering bushes, trees and a well kept lawn, is a stones’ throw from the Potomac River and about 10 miles from Fairfax County, where I spent my entire childhood, where my parents live to this day.
Upon entering Reed’s home, my eyes were drawn to the windows, which are covered by muslin “canvasses” painted with translucent washes of color, amplifying the incoming light like stained glass and transforming the room into a diaphanous spectrum. Only after extended viewing did I realize that these paintings are views of tree trunks, leaves and branches, as seen through those very same windows. I soon came to understand that Reed’s interests lie far beyond the formalities and martial scheme of reductive color geometries, or even color field painting (which he has a right to lay claim to), and purely in color itself, apart from the materiality of paint, color in its most allusive but observable property, that of illumination.
Throughout the rooms of his house, more than a half century of dedication to Reed’s ideal of color painting can be found hung on the walls, or in the process of being photographed and archived. Additionally, downstairs in what Reed called Monet’s Tomb, is a large cabinet holding hundreds upon hundreds of his works, carefully rolled up like rare Chinese scrolls, a treasure chest awaiting revelation to future art historians.
Like the original progenitors of abstraction, whose works were conceived in an altered state of occult contemplation, Paul Reed demonstrates again and again that such principles can provide an ideal ecosystem for germination. His introverted approach to life and painting has served him well, keeping his own discoveries peculiarly eccentric and, even today, shrouded in mysticism.
Mark Dagley, June 9, 2011