05 September 2013

'Washington Art Matters'


The American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, a gallery my mom and I used to visit periodically because it’s right near where she used to live, spotlighted the art of my hometown this summer.  Five exhibitions featuring works by Washington artists opened 15 June and closed 11 August.  I only caught one show, Washington Art Matters: 1940s-1980s, a comprehensive exhibit of about 80 artists, occupying the entire third floor of the AU Museum, that told the story of art made in the Capital over five decades (starting just before I was born, as it happens).  This was reportedly the first significant endeavor by a museum to present a comprehensive retrospective of the District’s most prominent artists.  The exhibition, which Mom, two friends, and I saw two days before it closed, was based on Washington Art Matters: Art Life in the Capital 1940-1990, a book published in June by the Washington Arts Museum, a recently-closed organization dedicated to the presentation and promotion of the city’s art and art history, and co-authored by Jean Lawlor Cohen, Benjamin Forgey, Sidney Lawrence, and Elizabeth Tebow. 

As I wrote in my report “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10),” 18 January 2010: “[S]ince at least the post-World War II years, the Nation’s Capital has been a true art center.  Not only have the big museums . . . long been important venues for displaying and viewing art of many cultures and eras, but Washington had long had a vibrant retail gallery presence. . . . .  But all of these facts aren’t what made Washington an art center.  That would be the community of artists, some native Washingtonians . . ., others born elsewhere but drawn to the active art scene there.”  Washington, though, was an unlikely place for an art center to blossom: aside from its innate conservative taste (which the emerging artists soon challenged and quickly exploded), the book’s authors point out: “Despite a number of optimistic gallery owners, the city had no bohemian neighborhood, no cafes or coffee houses to pull the artists and their patrons, no gathering places for a subculture during the war.”  By the start of the next decade, however, “all the elements for a Washington art community were in place.  The city had commercial galleries and a growing, albeit low-profile, base of collectors.  It had an academic center—American University—providing a regional presence and a link to the national scene.  But most importantly, Washington had a critical mass of brashly confident free spirits.” 

Most of the painters and sculptors of that culture are represented by at least (and largely) one work in AU’s Washington Art Matters (including several who’ve showed up in some of my past blog reports).  Despite a few notable sculptures (Ann Truitt most prominently), some “constructions” (Yuriko Yamaguchi's Water and Dream, 1989) and several photographs (Sally Mann and a handful of others), the exhibit is clearly “a painter’s showcase,” as O’Sullivan of the Washington Post observed, because, he asserted, “Washington has traditionally been a painting town.”  Neither the AU exhibit nor the WAM book claim to be comprehensive; the AU Museum has computers placed around the galleries inviting visitors to type in the names of artists whom they think should have been included but weren’t, and the authors of the book’s preface baldly state, “No doubt many artists, institutions and events have been missed, although they deserve mention.”  Nonetheless, both the book and the show made the point that, even in Washington’s segregated society before the mid-’50s, the city’s largely African-American population contributed greatly to the art scene, with many successful black-owned galleries (including the Barnett-Aden Gallery, the subject of John Nathaniel Robinson’s 1947 painting First Gallery, displayed in the show) and important African-American artists (aside from Robinson, others on exhibit at AU included Lois Mailou Jones, Alma Thomas, Sylvia Snowden, Jeff Donaldson, Allen “Big Al” Carter, Martin Puryear, Sam Gilliam, and Michael Platt).

Though the AU Museum mounts many exhibits of work from all around the country and the globe (a sixth show at the Katzen showcased a San Francisco artist), it’s known for showing local art, something director and curator Jack Rasmussen initiated when the museum opened in 2005.  (The other four exhibits in the series were Kitty Klaidman: Beneath the Surface, which highlighted recent mixed media paintings by the Washington artist; Nan Montgomery: Opposite and Alternate, consisting of the artist’s recent oil paintings; Raya Bodnarchuk: Form, spotlighting sculptures by the influential mentor in Washington art for 40 years; and Tim Tate: Sleep Walker, which featured video installations by the District’s best known contemporary glass artist, as well as collaborations with Pete Duvall, a Washington photographer, and Richard Schellenberg, a painter, sculptor, and video artist in the city.) 

“Museums were not showing Washington art except on very rare occasions,” Rasmussen said in a May interview with American, the American University magazine.  (The Washington Show, a 1985 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, was one such rarity.)  “It’s important to have local artists on your side,” added Rasmussen.  “They support you, they talk to their friends, the friends come, and all this makes it possible to have a scene in which people want to participate.”  (In the mid- and late ’50s, as I’ve reported before, my parents were partners in a small art gallery in Washington, and the managing partner was adamant about not letting it become a “Washington gallery.”  As a result, she turned down exhibits by some artists who became highly regarded, such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, one of each of whose canvases were included in Washington Art Matters.).

According to John Anderson of Washington City Paper, Rasmussen got wind last year of the planned publication of WAM’s Washington Art Matters and the authors gave the director-curator a list of the artists to be covered in the book.  He opened a gap in the Katzen’s exhibition schedule and went about assembling the samples for an AU show paralleling the book.  The AU Museum already owned about a third of the works in the prospective show, so Rasmussen started borrowing the rest from private collections and three large museums in Washington, putting the exhibit together in less than 10 weeks, which may account for a cobbled-together feel.  In a way, however, this also made AU’s Washington Art Matters a doubly Washingtonian show—the artists have lived and worked in the District and the art on exhibit came from local sources, too. 

Anderson quoted the Washington Post’s Paul Richard on the 1985 Corcoran show: “Any show so varied, it is bound to leave a blur,” adding that AU’s Washington Art Matters “pursues the same mission” and therefore encountered the same drawback.  Anderson thought the exhibit felt like an eclectic art auction, and I can’t disagree.  To try to cover half a century of one region’s artistic creativity (or, really, any human endeavor) is asking for a blurry, unfocused outcome: individual elements may be interesting, even stunning, but the overall experience is bound to be a little like herding cats.  If you make each cat a different color and breed, you get an idea what viewing Washington Art Matters was like.  My father used to say of the popular restaurant meal back in the day, the mixed grill, that it had too much of some things and not enough of anything; that’s a bit like what Washington Art Matters was like.  Not that the effort was unworthy (as I’ll try to explain shortly).

Rasmussen’s Washington Art Matters, a title whose double entendre I rather like, both for the book and for the exhibit, is divided vaguely into three sections: a small gallery (with a long tail) of works from the 1940s and ’50s; a larger, quasi-circular space with art from the later ’50s and, mostly, the 1960s; and, over the bridge-like ramps across the gap of the museum’s atrium (a gulf between the Vietnam and pre-Vietnam turbulence and the post-Watergate wildness?), into the 1970s and ’80s.  If some sort of developmental timeline was Rasmussen’s aim, it was subverted by the fact that when we got off the elevator on the third floor, more-or-less directly in front of us was a view of Gene Davis's untitled 1966 canvas of vertical rainbow-colored stripes and, across that gallery but still in sight as we stepped away from the elevator door, Morris Louis’s vertically dripped, bright-colored stains and Kenneth Noland’s equally colorful op-art bull’s-eye target.  (For a report on a Louis show and a mention of Noland’s work, see “Morris Louis,” 15 February 2010, and “Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin,” 26 June 2011.)  To start the exhibition at its chronological beginning, we had to make a sharp right turn to view a small wall displaying a little collection of works from the 1940s, including an abstract geometric print by Jacob Kainen and a serene, black-and-white linoleum-block print by Lila Asher, a woman my mother’s known since they were at summer camp together as children.  (My parents also knew Kainen, but not well.  I own a Kainen print and both my mom and I own an Asher; both artists specialized in printmaking.)  These artists are among those Jean Lawlor Cohen calls “The Old Guard.”

Following the chronology of the layout, as my friend Rich did, the works of the 1950s trailed off to the left of the elevators in a long, narrow gallery where Marjorie Phillips’s Night Baseball (1951), a very literal painting of a ballgame with which I wasn’t familiar, was on display.  The artist was the wife of Duncan Phillips, the man who founded the Phillips Collection, and I wondered if the baseball diamond depicted might have been the old Griffith Stadium, home of the original Washington Senators ball club (subject of Damn Yankees).  I found out later, on a website of the Phillips Collection (which loaned the painting to AU) that not only does the painting depict Griffith Stadium, but the game in progress is the Nats playing the hated New York Yankees (“Joltin’ Joe” is at the plate)—an iconic match-up!  (Hey, maybe that game was the inspiration for Damn Yankees, which, after all, opened on Broadway only four years later.)

It was easy, however, to keep walking up the ramp from the ’40s works into the larger space that housed the art of 1970s and ’80s or peel off into the 1960s (pulled in by the extremely colorful and enticing Noland, Davis, and Louis canvases I mentioned).  If that happened, as it did to my mother and Sallie, the other friend who was with us, you lose any progression Rasmussen wanted to demonstrate, any sense that one generation of Washington artist fed the next or was nurtured by the previous one.  “[V]isual artists stand on the shoulders of other artists,” observed F. Lennox Campello, an artist, art dealer, and critic (and author of 100 Artists of Washington, D.C.) who blogs at Daily Campello Art News.  Artistic lineage—how the baton of tradition is passed on at times and then rejected and replaced at others—is one of the show’s sub-themes,” asserted O’Sullivan in the Post, though I can’t say I caught it in the gallimaufry of works in AU’s Washington Art Matters. 

Also in the ’50s-’60s gallery was Stair (1977—yeah, the chronology gets a little . . . ummm, creative), one of Sam Gilliam’s draped hangings; an earlier Davis (Black Flowers, 1952, with elongated vertical stem-like abstractions topped with red-and-white puffs); Pietro Lazzari’s Bull (c. 1950), a thick application of “concrete” into which the artist incised the abstract silhouette of a raging bull; and one of Anne Truitt’s glossily painted, minimalist wooden-tower sculptures (this one in silver gray).  “There’s lots to look at in this gallery,” remarked O’Sullivan.  (For a report on work by Gilliam, see “Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin,” and for a brief discussion of Truitt’s art, see “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10),” both mentioned above.)  The Post writer called these Washington Color School pieces “iconic” works, and for me they were the most salient works and artists in the exhibition, but that may just be because some of those artists’ work is among my favorite of modern art.  It may also be that this gallery alone, as City Paper’s Anderson pointed out, presented “a coherent sense of identity or movement happening in D.C.” because during that period, “seemingly every artist in Washington was under the spell of Abstract Expressionism and the so-called Washington Color School.  After that, District art hopped all over the map.” 

(In the late ’50s through the mid-’60s, Morris Louis with other Washington artists like Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis, all of whom have canvases in Washington Art Matters, helped develop what became known as Color Field painting—simultaneously establishing the Washington Color School, a name that, like Impressionism, was taken from the title of an exhibition.  The principal tenet of the colorists was to cover their canvases with unified blocks of bright, pure colors.  Like abstract painters, with whom the colorists shared many parallels, Color Field painters rejected the representation of identifiable figures.  In addition, colorists also eschewed symbolism in art, feeling that even abstract forms distracted viewers from experiencing the pure color.  There weren’t supposed to be any subjective, emotional connotations in the hues or forms on the canvas.  Red was just a color, not an expression of passion.  The painting was just art, nothing more meaningful or symbolic.  It was all supposed to come to a pure sensation of enjoyment.  The focus on purity of form strongly links Color Field painting with Minimalist art—as we see in the work of Anne Truitt.  Louis, for instance, pared his paintings down to just what he felt was necessary, the bare minimum to create his effects.)

Hopping all over the map was openly demonstrated in the last gallery of AU’s Washington Art Matters which focused on the District’s art scene of the ’70s and ’80s.  The media employed as well as the subjects and the styles, not to mention the creative dynamic and the points being made by the artists, weren’t emblematic of just a herd of cats—but cats on PCP.  Like the pop music that started after 1975 or so, the art from that era on began to appeal to me less and less.  (Okay, I’m not just a geezer, I’m a reactionary geezer.  So, sue me!)  Not much in this gallery affected me—it was all mostly a matter of curiosity.  The most interesting piece in this collection was among the half dozen or so photographs: one by Sally Mann.  I’m not much of a fan of art photography, but Mann, whose work has been controversial as well as praised since she made the scene in the mid- and late ’70s, is known to me because she was a teenaged townie when I was in college.  (Her mother ran the university book store.  By the time I was a junior and senior, Mann began dating some of my younger schoolmates—it’s a small school—so I knew who she was.)  I had no idea she was considered a Washington artist, though.  Mann’s from Virginia, where she still lives with her family, but not the D.C. suburbs across the Potomac; she’s from central Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley.  (Benjamin Forgey, in the WAM book, suggests that the Washington metropolitan region should include the Shenandoah Valley and other areas far from the city’s immediate suburbs, but Rasmussen didn’t make such a stretch notable in his AU display.)  I was surprised to see her work included in Washington Art Matters, but I’m no authority.  (I guess that’s obvious, isn’t it?)

Nonetheless, the exhibition was worth having been mounted and having seen.  As Campello, the art blogger, advised art students and gallery directors, “[T]ake the opportunity to visit and learn about our area's visual arts footprint.”  (He also strenuously recommended his fellow artists see the show.  “[T]his is Washington . . .,” he admonished local artists, “so go and pay homage to your predecessors.”)  I knew that D.C. had an art life—because I’m a hometown chauvinist and my family’s been involved on the fringes of the Washington art community (after the gallery ownership, my dad became involved in the private precursor of what’s now the National Museum of African Art in the ’60s and ’70s, then he served as a docent at the National Portrait Gallery through the ’80s into the early ’90s; my mother’s still friendly with Lila Asher and Sam Gilliam) most of my life—but a lot of people, including a lot of Capital-area residents, have no idea.  At AU’s Washington Art Matters, I was surprised at how many of the artists’ names I didn’t recognize—and I mean even before the mid-’70s.  That’s me, the Washington chauvinist, like I said.  I knew this world existed—I just didn’t know as much about it as I thought I did! 

Washington has always had a sort of inferiority complex; Anderson wrote about D.C.’s sense of competition with New York over the significance of its indigenous art, but that’s not what I mean.  While I was growing up in Washington, there was little sense that the city was a true community, with a municipal character unique to itself and a cultural life of its own, not something connected to or derived from the federal government.  Before his short stint as a Foreign Service Officer, my dad ran an ordinary business, the kind every city and town has (he operated movie theaters); the parents of all my friends were in the same line—doctors, dentists, vets, lawyers, shoe store-owners, builders, liquor importers, factory-owners, even some farmers (because back then there were still family farms in Maryland and Virginia just outside the city).  To all of us, Washington was just our home city—but to everyone else, including many of the kids I went to school with (politician’s kids, military brats, children of foreign diplomats), Washington was the “capital of the United States,” the seat of government, not a real town.  We had poor restaurants, little in the way of theater, a losing joke of a baseball team (Washington: “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League!”) that even left town in 1960.  People traveled out of town to shop for clothes and we even had to go to Baltimore for deli.  (Assignment to Washington was not considered a plumb posting for foreign diplomats.  It was a backwater.  The book quotes one art dealer who arrived from France in 1945: “Washington was a village.  Cows were grazing on Georgia Avenue.”)  It took until the 1980s for Washington to grow into a real community, establishing itself at the same time as a cultural center.  But the fact that through all that time, there was an indigenous and vibrant art world in the District meant that real people did live there, that Washingtonians made things other than laws and bureaucratic rules.  The decades covered by WAM’s book and AU’s exhibit “bracket the evolution of Washington, D.C.’s art identity,” assert the book’s authors.

It’s high time Washingtonians and everyone else knew about this part of my native city.  That, Mr. Rasmussen, is more than worthy of a major art exhibit.  (It would be great, and really interesting, if a show devoted to Washington-area artists were mounted in New York and maybe traveled to cities like L.A. and Chicago.)  Even if the show is messy and unfocused artistically, without a clear aesthetic message, many of the artists in the show are good and quite a few are even great.  When I visited Quebec some years ago and then Vancouver, I made a point of going to the museums that were dedicated to the local art.  Both collections were mediocre at best, uninspiring—even the Québécois, who are more French than the French, didn’t inherit the art gene from their Old World forebears.  I mean, name three world-famous Canadian artists.  Okay, name one . . . .  That’s not a problem in Washington—you can name famous D.C. artists—it’s just that most people don’t know that’s where they’re from.  There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with the art on the AU walls—this wasn’t a bad art show; the problem was only that there were too many trees to see the forest.  But the mere fact that there was a Washington Art Matters is laudable and beneficial.  Not that either the book on which the exhibit was based nor the American University show was didactic—the book is dubbed “conversational” by Anderson.  In O’Sullivan’s words, Washington Art Matters was “an attempt to tell the story—make that the stories—of a city’s art scene, from the musty if modernist old guard to the funky vanguard”—and a most welcome one.  The city needed it, and the world needed it.  As Campello put it: “[T]hank you to American University Museum Director Jack Rasmussen, whose drive and insight and skill shows and demonstrates what a museum can do to become . . . a key part of a city.”

Washington Art Matters: Art Life in the Capital 1940-1990 (available from the AU Museum Shop and Amazon.com, but not at ordinary bookstores, including Barnes & Noble or The Strand) represents the final project of the Washington Arts Museum, a curatorial institution that, since its inception in 1999, mounted exhibits of work by significant, perhaps neglected, regional artists.  ”The focus of almost all the museums within the city is not local,” says the now-defunct non-profit’s website.  As part of its mission, WAM has documented Washington’s artistic history in audiotaped interviews and videotaped panel discussions with artists, curators, gallery directors, and others in the city’s art scene.  (The tapes and other WAM archival materials have been turned over to the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.)  WAM founders Renee Butler and Giorgio Furioso see the book, which covers the years of WAM’s primary focus, as a finale to their efforts “to spotlight Washington‘s unique and creative community and history and to provide an alternative to the largely national and international focus of the city’s longstanding private and public art institutions and museums.”   (I stopped in at the Museum Store to have a look at the book and I overheard the clerk explaining to another customer that the creators of Washington Art Matters are planning a sequel which will bring the history of the District of Columbia’s art up to the present, covering the last two decades of local creativity.)  In terms that can also be applied to Rasmussen’s art show at the Katzen, Campello called the book an “intense and important labor of love” and Benjamin Forgey, a former art and architecture critic for the Washington Star  and the Washington Post, dubbed his afterword, “Art Life on the Edges,” “what I would like to be a love letter to Washington as an art city.”  That sort of goes for my report here, too, but I’d call mine a “thank-you note.”

[The gallery my parents bought into in the 1950s was the Gres Gallery, 1729 20th Street, N.W.  I once considered writing an article on the little gallery, but I found a dearth of documentation (though I suppose if I made a research trip to D.C., I’d find some information bearing on its history).  It got a passing mention in Washington Art Matters, however, so in the interest of nostalgia (mine), I’ve decided to append it to my report:

[What most artists wanted even then [the 1950s] was gallery representation, an agent who not only provided space for shows but also promoted sales and kept the books.  Fortunately, the still-active commercial pioneers . . . were joined by a number of new galleries . . . .

[One of the most ambitious was north of Dupont Circle, the Gres Gallery founded by a South American woman named Madame Tanya Gres, who soon sold the operation to 10 shareholders putting up $1,000 apiece.  Their manager Mrs. Hart Perry traveled to Europe and South America. Selecting works for first-in-America exhibits, such as oils by “a skinny young artist” named Fernando Botero.

[Although the Gres had little interest in showing local art, it created excitement among collectors who, until then bought only in New York and Chicago.  And it created a social scene—with Larry Rivers, playing jazz piano into the night.  Alice Denney remembers that gallery goers would arrive at her less-endowed operation the Jefferson Place Gallery trailing balloon bouquets from the Gres’s more elaborate openings.

[Gres Gallery was only the second gallery in the U.S. to mount a solo show of Fernando Botero’s work; MoMA bought his Mona Lisa from the Gres show.  It was the first U.S. gallery to exhibit abstract paintings from Poland in Fifteen Polish Painters, a whole show MoMA took to New York.  By the turn of the decade, most of the partners, many of whom were Foreign Service Officers, were transferred out of the country—my own parents went to Germany in 1962—and Gres Gallery closed.  “Helping out” in the gallery—I stuffed envelopes and such—and meeting artists at the vernissages the partners hosted are some of the most vivid and cherished memories of my childhood.  When I hung around the gallery and met some of the artists, none of their names meant anything to me at the time—I just knew they were artists and created the works I saw at the gallery.  I even made collages (cut-out construction paper, to be sure), inspired by a collagist exhibited at the gallery.  The experience provided me with an exciting and eye-opening art education before I was a teenager, and the influence has remained strong ever since.

[By the way, one additional sidelight, concerning Marjorie Phillips’s Night Baseball.  I doubt I was at that Nats-Yankees game—I’d have been four then—but later my dad took me to Griffith Stadium.  More significant, at least in terms of my memories, is the fact that Clare Griffith, the daughter of Calvin Griffith, owner of the Senators for whose adoptive father, Clark, the stadium was named, was a classmate in middle school.  I remember we got to listen to an occasional game on the radio in class, but I don’t think that was because of Griffith’s influence—Sidwell Friends School didn’t work that way—but we had an outing to a Nats game in the spring and there was also a pool party for the whole class at the Griffith’s home while Clare was at Sidwell as well.  (Calvin Griffith was the Branch Rickey of Washington.  He didn’t integrate the Senators, but he took our home team away, moving it Minnesota after the 1960 season where they became the Twins.  I lost interest in baseball at about that same time—but I don’t recall that that was a result of Griffith’s betrayal.  (I went away to school in ’61 and then abroad in ’63.  When I got to college, I did manage the ball team for two season.)]


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