Thomas Downing worked in the center of Washington, D.C.’s color field movement of the 1960s. Raised in Virginia, he studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and the Académie Julian in Paris, and settled in Washington in 1953. At Catholic University, he studied with Kenneth Noland, who became a close friend. Later in the decade, he shared a studio with Howard Mehring, who also became part of the group of color field painters.
In 1964, Clement Greenberg included work by Downing, Mehring, Noland, Frank Stella, and Helen Frankenthaler, among others, in his influential show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “Post Painterly Abstraction.” The title of the show became a term for the movement, distinguishing color field painting—and its often anonymous hand—from gestural abstraction. Downing taught at the Corcoran School of Art from 1965 to 1968, where his students included Sam Gilliam.
He exhibited regularly from the late 1950s on; in 1959 he showed at Sculptors Studio and in 1960 with Origo Gallery, both in Washington. By the mid-1960s, he was showing with Allan Stone and the Stable Gallery, as well as at museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Corcoran Gallery, the Whitney Museum, and the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). Downing died in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1985. His work is held in public collections including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Phillips Collection, and the Harvard University Art Museums.
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