The term was originally applied to the work from about 1950 of three American abstract expressionist painters Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. ‘The colour field painters’ was the title of the chapter dealing with these artists in the American scholar Irvine Sandler’s ground-breaking history, Abstract Expressionism, published in 1970.
From around 1960 a more purely abstract form of colour field painting emerged in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam and others. It differed from abstract expressionism in that these artists eliminated both the emotional, mythic or religious content of the earlier movement, and the highly personal and painterly or gestural application associated with it. In 1964 an exhibition of thirty-one artists associated with this development was organised by the critic Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He titled it Post-Painterly Abstraction, a term often also used to describe the work of the 1960 generation and their successors.