Opening at the Whitney on March 29, Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s focuses on paintings from the 1960s and early 1970s that engage with bold, saturated, and even hallucinatory color to activate perception.
Drawn entirely from the Whitney’s collection, Spilling Over includes important recent acquisitions by Emma Amos and Kay WalkingStick, as well as works by Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Gilliam, Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, Alvin Loving, Miriam Schapiro, Frank Stella, and others. Half of the included paintings have not been shown at the Whitney for over twenty-five years.
“Color as a formal, social, and political matter feels particularly urgent today, but the artists in Spilling Over already saw it as a means to bridge the seen and the felt, the conscious and unconscious, the political and the environmental. We’re thrilled to bring together such an incredible group of artists and their works, some acquired nearly at the time of their making and some very new to the Whitney’s collection,” said David Breslin, the exhibition curator and DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection.
Scott Rothkopf, Senior Deputy Director and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator, remarked, “We are particularly honored to be unveiling the first paintings to enter our collection by Kay WalkingStick and Emma Amos, the latter of which has been acquired jointly with The Studio Museum in Harlem—a fitting symbol of the long friendship between these two museums and the many artists we both hold dear.”
During this period, many artists adopted acrylic paint—a newly available, plastic-based medium—and explored its expansive technical possibilities and wider range of hues. Color Field painters poured paint and stained unprimed canvases, dramatizing painting’s materiality and visual force. Painters associated with Op art deployed pattern, geometric arrangement, and intense color combinations to emphasize that vision is a commingling of physical response and unconscious association. While focusing primarily on abstraction, Spilling Over also includes paintings in which figures are depicted as extensions of the pulsing color that animates the work.
At the same historical moment, an emerging generation of artists of color and women explored color’s capacity to articulate new questions about perception, specifically its relation to race, gender, and the coding of space. The exhibition avoids grouping artists by art-historical movements and looks instead to the divergent ways color can be equally a formal problem and a political statement. Many of the artists in the exhibition were painting as active participants in the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Their paintings permit spaces for viewers to consider the politics of place and presence.
The title of the exhibition comes from a quote by artist Bob Thompson. He said, “I paint many paintings that tell me slowly that I have something inside of me that is just bursting, twisting, sticking, spilling over to get out. Out into souls and mouths and eyes that have never seen before.” Spilling Over demonstrates how painting retained an urgency for artists who wanted to see anew.