"(Tom) was one of the first persons that ... let me know that the Washington Color School painting wasn't about what was being written by Greenberg. ... Tom would interestingly tell you that it was only about seeing; and then later he would tell you that it was only about color; or that it was only about the music of color; or the way you could structure color. And then later he would say that it was like pop art."
- Sam Gilliam
Thomas Downing, born in 1928 in Suffolk, Virginia, initially studied English literature at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, where he earned his BA in 1948. While enrolled there, he frequented museums and gallery exhibitions, which ultimately led him to pursue art. He subsequently studied painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, until 1950, when the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts granted him a scholarship to travel Europe. While abroad he studied briefly at the Académie Julian in Paris and also worked as a studio assistant for acclaimed painter Fernand Léger. He returned to the US in 1951 and served briefly in the US Army before settling in the greater Washington, DC, area, where he took a position as high-school teacher.
During this period Downing enrolled in a summer course at Catholic University, and there he met painter Kenneth Noland, who introduced him to the Washington Color School painters. He soon became a significant player in the movement. Downing went on to share studio space with fellow artist Howard Mehring, and he had his first solo show in 1959 at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. Following several successful group shows, he was included in Clement Greenberg’s 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition that opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking show The Responsive Eye,1965 curated by William C. Seitz.
Downing’s unique focus on color and shape rather than composition, with canvases most frequently displaying concentric grids of colored circles, drew positive reviews, and he enjoyed several years of success. During the 1970s, though, interest in his work faded, and he fell into a degree of obscurity. After relocating numerous times around the US, he settled in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1985, the year of his death.
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in his work, and it has been acquired by several important collections, including the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, both in Washington, DC; the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California; and the CIA Headquarters Building collection.