Championed by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg in the 1950s and 1960s, Color Field painting developed from the innovations of Abstract Expressionism, but at the same time rejected many of its tenets. By the early 1950s, the artists who followed the lead of gestural painters like de Kooning and Kline were increasingly viewed as derivative and overwrought. Many of the "second generation" Abstract Expressionist painters lacked the authority and imagination of their predecessors and critics began looking elsewhere for new artistic developments.
Greenberg, who had previously promoted artists such as Jackson Pollock, felt the future lay with artists who eschewed the angst-ridden gestural brushstroke in favor of works whose primary concerns were color, often in waves or unmodulated fields, and above all, flatness. In addition to being an influential art critic, Greenberg also curated exhibitions, which made him one of the most powerful figures in the artworld at this time. Greenberg organized a seminal 1954 exhibition for the celebrated Kootz Gallery, marking the first time many of these artists were exhibited together.
Helen Frankenthaler's breakthrough painting Mountains and Sea (1952) provided inspiration for many of the artists who would become Color Field painters. Frankenthaler created her masterpiece by dramatically thinning oil paint until she could apply it like watercolor and stain the canvas rather than using a brush. Her innovative working methods opened up new possibilities for a generation of artists. Each Color Field artist developed their own highly individual visual vocabulary, but for the most part, they all avoided painterly surface and any suggestion of pictorial depth. Greenberg's quote about Morris Louis is applicable to Color Field in general: "The fabric being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like dyed cloth; the threadedness and wovenness are in the color" (As quoted in M. Fried, Morris Louis, New York, 1970).