The Shape of Colour: excursions in colour field art, 1950-2005 at the AGO (317 Dundas West), to August 7. $18, stu/srs $15. 416-979-6648. Rating: NNNNN
Barnett Newman once shocked his fellow New York painters by saying he preferred the prairies of Churchill, Manitoba, to Paris, France, as a source of painterly inspiration.
This preference for pristine open space is a key to what drove colour field painting, the subject of the AGO's heady retrospective this summer.
It also points to an interesting connection with Canada, where the movement was nurtured by many artist communities. David Mirvish's outstanding collection was the source of several works in this show.
New York critic Clement Greenberg, colour field's most vociferous champion, felt that painting's integrity could only be saved by eschewing kitsch, by which he meant the crass representationalism of market capitalism or totalitarian communism.
Painting needed to concern itself exclusively with those properties that defined it as a medium: flatness, space, colour and surface. The result is work that seems forbiddingly austere yet is surprisingly accessible visually.
These paintings ask you to forget your preconceptions about "art" and give yourself over to your eye. The AGO stretches the orthodox definition of colour field to include some minimalist and early pop art as well as the work of contemporary artists informed by its brief 10-year reign.
There's no arguing with the masters of this movement. Robert Motherwell's giant blue canvas inspires an intense visual pleasure that belies its simplicity, and Helen Frankenthaler 's pigment-soaked raw canvases explode off the surface.
Agnes Martin's rose grid on a desert-coloured background has an immense and meditative subtlety, while Polly Apfelbaum runs riot with crushed-velvet streaks of lush colour whose iridescence is an added surface quality. These are only a few among great works too numerous to mention here that require a careful eye and patient viewing.
This show reaffirms the importance of an impossibly high-minded movement whose adherents sought to return painting to its essence. More often than not, as this show attests, they succeeded.