Works by well-known Color Field painters are on the walls at Seattle's Wright Exhibition Space through Sept. 24, 2011.

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You don’t go to an exhibit of Color Field paintings to look at pretty pictures. Instead, it’s a visceral experience.

In this show, curated by Virginia Wright at Wright Exhibition Space, you’ll be engulfed in expanses of color on huge canvases, swept away by the interplay of color and shape. It includes paintings by most of the top Color Field artists during the period of their greatest creativity.

Color Field painting developed in New York in the 1960s, an outgrowth of Abstract Expressionism. Throughout history, painters have experimented, but these artists might be said to have ventured on a whole new quest. One contemporary curator called it “revealing the unknown.”

The artists experimented in every way they could. Acrylic and spray paints were new tools, and they tested out all the possibilities. Some put their canvases on the floor and poured paint on them or used squeegees, rollers, brooms or spray guns to apply the paint. They tested the effect produced on unprimed canvases.

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Of course they didn’t break with all tradition. Numerous artists who preceded them were influences — Jackson Pollock for techniques, Matisse for use of color and even Monet for the optical illusions he created in his water-lily paintings.

What these Color Field artists came up with was art without the superfluous. Just color to tease the mind and delight the eye.

Helen Frankenthaler gets credit for developing the technique of staining the unprimed canvas so the color was free to move in its own path — guided, not controlled, by the artist. Her luminous 1973 work “Venus Revealed” is a wonderful example of this. Its surface, devoid of brush strokes, is a flat continuum.

Jules Olitski’s 1966 “Thigh Smoke,” one of the largest pieces in the show, deserves special attention. The colors sprayed onto the canvas overwhelm the viewer. Get close to the work and see the individual flecks of paint as they hit the surface. Then step away, and you find that the artist is really inviting you to step through a doorway composed of color so you can better appreciate the magic of submerging yourself in color.

The exhibit also includes two Olitski paintings from the mid-70s. Here he abandons the typical Color Field techniques and moves back to thickly layered textures. Be sure to compare “Thigh Smoke” with the two later paintings.

Kenneth Noland experiments in different ways. “And Again” is a diamond-shaped painting with multicolored chevrons at one corner. Look at it closely, and then walk through the gallery to the far end and look again. He’s created a three-dimensional box that invites you to enter.

Art styles change over time, and Color Field painting lost its allure some years ago. But it’s coming back. Gerhard Richter’s “Abstract Painting,” done in 1993, fits nicely in this show. And, just this month, an Olitski show — the first since his death in 2007 — opened at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Missouri.

Nancy Worssam:

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