21 September 2014

'The Washington School of Color'

When I was recently in Bethesda, Maryland, on a visit to my mother, I saw a short review in the Washington Post about an art show at a commercial gallery right near my mom’s apartment, the Marin-Price Galleries on Wisconsin Avenue.  The exhibit was The Washington School of Color, a collection of works by members of the mid-20th-century group of artists in the Nation’s Capital who originated the movement of that name (more commonly known as the Washington Color School), the only art movement identified with Washingon, D.C.  The Washington School of Color, which ran from 2 to 27 August, featured works by Leon Berkowitz (1911-87), Howard Mehring (1931-78), James Hilleary (1924-2014), and John Chapman Lewis (1920-95).  Special emphasis was given to the hard-edged work of Hilleary whose Op Art-like canvases bear a striking resemblance to the brighter, more vivid paintings of Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), one of the Color School’s more prominent members who’s not represented in this show.  

In fact, of the founders of WCS in the late 1950s, none of the movement’s leading lights—Noland, Morris Louis (1912-62), Gene Davis (1920-85), and Anne Truitt (1921-2004)—were part of the Marin-Price exhibit—which may account for its short run of only 23 days as well as the low attendance; we were alone in the small gallery when Mom and I spent an hour or so there on Monday afternoon, the 25th.  (The likely prices of these artists’ work may explain their omission more than any aesthetic decision: the costliest pieces in the Marin-Price show were $10,000 and $20,000, far lower, I’d guess, than a Louis or Noland would demand.)  Normally, I’d have thought, the curiosity value for area residents and visitors combined with the sheer vibrancy of the WCS masters’ works would have brought out a large number of viewers (not to mention potential buyers).  As it was, however, The Washington School of Color was a disappointing affair, not only lacking in star power, but in verve and excitement—two of the principal responses I, at least, get from displays of the best of WCS art.  (Washington Post art critic Mark Jenkins, estimating that the undated works largely came from the 1960s, noted the lack as well: “The more elemental shapes and hues came later.”)  My disappointment, of course, may just have been because some of those artists’ work is among my favorite of modern art; I’ve described these works as “extremely colorful and enticing.”  I called the poured, “rich and intense” acrylic stains of Morris Louis “luminous,” for example.  Noland’s Op Art hybrids I described as “bright and striking” and “exciting to look at” as they “seem to pulse and spin.”  (I’ve reported on ROT on several exhibits of WCS artists, including Anne Truitt in “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)” on 18 January 2010, “Morris Louis” on 15 February 2010, and, in passing mention, Kenneth Noland in “Picasso, Bearden, Gilliam, and Gauguin” on 26 June 2011—which also covers an exhibit of the work of Sam Gilliam, a later member of the movement.  I also mentioned the WCS and several of its member artists in “Washington Art Matters,” 5 September 2013.)

Marin-Price’s Washington School of Color, with its focus on the lesser lights of the movement, was basically a pale reflection of the power of the WCS.  The Post’s Jenkins also suggested that the display didn’t include the “mature styles” of some of the “less-celebrated” WSC painters.  Leon Berkowitz was represented, among other pieces, by a large (53" x 65") action abstract painting, Untitled (Spain) (1955), that was essentially gray (at a Color School exhibit?  Really?).  James Hilleary’s pieces were dominated by angular chevrons, mostly dichromatic (many of which looked to me as if they were different-colored versions of the same patterns) which reminded me of washed-out Nolands.  Where Noland’s stripes are bold and bright, Hilleary’s are pastel and pale, giving a watered-down feel to the work.  The offerings of John Chapman Lewis seemed like wannabe Mark Rothkos and the paintings of Howard Mehring, covering a variety of styles, also suffered, in my view, from lack of vibrancy and boldness in their palette.  My mother and I used to have a regular benchmark for art shows we liked: we’d suggest a “midnight shopping trip” to pick up the pieces we liked best.  I wasn’t moved to come back to the Marin-Price for a late-night raid on this collection

There were many practitioners of the Washington Color School movement including most notably Berkowitz, Davis, Noland, Louis, Hilleary, Mehring, Lewis, Thomas “Tom” Downing (1928-85), Sam Gilliam (b. 1933), Truitt, and Paul Reed (b. 1919).  Other artists associated with the group include Mary Pinchot Meyer (1920-64), Jacob Kainen (1909-2001), and Alma Thomas (1891-1978), among others.  The movement, which dealt with the effect of light on color, was a form of abstract art that grew out of color field painting, a type of abstraction itself that experimented with covering large areas of the canvas with solid pigment, as exemplified by the work of Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011).  (Color field painting is one of the two branches of Abstract Expressionism in the United States.  The other is known as action painting, the style which characterizes the best-known works of Jackson Pollock.)  The movement was a departure from the Abstract Expressionism then prevalent in New York art circles: “It was about color and light and form,” said Beatrice Gralton, curator of the 2011 Corcoran Gallery’s Washington Color and Light.  “It was about an all-over approach to imaging-making.  It was really this reduction to the most pure, elemental aspects of art making.”  

In 1953, Louis and fellow D.C. artist Noland visited New York where they saw paintings by Abstract Expressionists Pollock (1912-56) and Franz Kline (1910-62).  The two Washington painters also paid a call on Frankenthaler at her New York studio where she introduced them to the idea of pouring the pigment to stain unprimed canvases.  This newly popular technique created intense color and accentuated the grain of the untreated canvas.  Louis has said that Frankenthaler, essentially the founder of color field painting, created “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.”  Returning to Washington and working with other Washington-based artists like Davis, Downing, and Reed, the two painters helped develop what became known as the Washington Color School.  The early Washington colorists were among the first artists to experiment with the newly-developed, water-soluble acrylic paints, which they diluted to stain the raw canvas with translucent color rather than paint a previously primed canvas with opaque oil colors.  They experimented with all kinds of new techniques, essentially trying whatever came to mind.  They poured, dripped, dabbed, and dribbled the acrylic pigments onto unframed and unstretched canvases, using the floor (in Louis’s case, of his dining room) as the easel, the technique used by Jackson Pollock.  

(Simplistically, the difference between staining and painting is that with painting, the pigment coats the surface of the canvas or other medium forming a thick, solid crust while with staining, the pigment seeps into the fabric and is absorbed by the fibers, creating a tint through which the texture and grain of the cloth is visible.  Furthering this distinction is the practice of priming the canvas for an oil painting; that is, covering the raw fabric with a coat of white or neutral paint before applying pigment.  The stained canvases of the WCS artists were unprimed so the thinned acrylic is absorbed readily instead of sitting on the surface.)

The WCS movement was formalized in 1965 when a group of painters who lived and worked in the National Capital, including Louis, Noland, Davis, Reed, Mehring, and Downing, displayed works in Washington Color Painters, an exhibit at the now-defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art, a non-profit institution near the city’s Dupont Circle (where several art venues, including the Gres Gallery in which my parents were then involved and the Jefferson Place Gallery, a promoter of WCS painters, were located) that featured contemporary art between 1961 and 1968.  This show established Washington’s place in the nation’s art scene when Clement Greenberg (1909-94), the country’s most influential art critic in the middle of the last century, saw the exhibit and declared the staining of canvas with color a “school” (“I’m tickled by the idea of a ‘Washington School’ in art,” the critic wrote in a postcard to Davis.)  Washington Color Painters toured the country and defined what is now the city’s signature art movement and the name Washington Color School made it into the art textbooks and “put our city on the national art map,” as Jean Lawlor Cohen put it in Washington Art Matters.  “Everybody was into transferring their thinking from oil paint to acrylic,” said Sam Gilliam, “so that when you got together, you talked paint.”  So for about a decade, according to John Anderson, art reviewer for the Washington City Paper, “seemingly every artist in Washington was under the spell of Abstract Expressionism and the so-called Washington Color School.”

(Greenberg, a champion not only of Abstract Expressionism and color field painting, but Louis and Noland themselves, had introduced the Washington artists to Frankenthaler, thus perhaps sewing the seed of the WCS movement even before its inception.  By dint of his reception of Washington Color Painters, he was clearly the midwife of WCS; perhaps he was also the matchmaker who made it possible as well.  Though some art historians credit critic Clement Greenberg with originating the name Washington Color School, the show’s organizer, WGMA director Gerald Nordland probably coined it.  A few writers even deny either man came up with the phrase, but whatever the doubt for its source, art journalists needed a label in order to write about this new collection of hot young artists from the Nation’s Capital.)  

Washington had just become a true art center in its own right a few decades earlier because of the proliferation of museums (Corcoran, 1874; Phillips, 1921; National Gallery, 1941) and art schools (city universities established art departments: Howard University, 1921; American University, 1925; Catholic University, 1930 as the Division of Art and renamed the Department of Art in 1943; the Corcoran School of Art was founded in 1890).  This situation assured that the city would have regular exposure to the best art, including contemporary forms, and a steady flow of young artists.  Some historians note that Washington is close to New York City but not so close that its artists would lose their independence; as Clement Greenberg phrased it: “From Washington you can keep in steady contact with the New York art scene without being subjected as constantly to its pressures to conform as you would be if you lived and worked in New York.”  It also didn’t hurt that two local critics, at the Washington Post and Times-Herald and the Evening Star, were receptive and enthusiastic observers of the hometown art scene.  (Other art journalists dismissed much of the work of these upstarts as the output of monkeys with paintbrushes which “make Jackson Pollock look like Rembrandt.”)

At the same time, while the post-World War II generation of Washington artists were continuing the traditions of 20th-century American art, the next group broke with that model and, in the view of editor and curator Jean Lawlor Cohen, “entered love affairs with color and geometry, scale and materials, . . . intent on finding a breakthrough vision.”  Just as the previous generation of American artists had struggled to break away from the European model, their Washington successors wanted to break away from the influence of the New York Expressionists.  Though D.C. had a population of just under a million inhabitants in 1950 and ’60 (probably over a million in the whole metro area), it still had the feel of a small town, and discrete communities, like the art world, were even more communal.  The young painters all knew one another, at least casually or professionally: they attended the same talks and lectures, went to the same showings, taught or studied at the same studios, and got together and “talked paint,” as Sam Gilliam put it.  The “new” wasn’t just upon the Washington colorists, they were inventing it.  As Thomas Downing said of his own work, at the end of the ’50s, the young artists were “trying everything”; by the turn of the decade, Paul Reed declared, “We felt enormous momentum and excitement” and sculptor Anne Truitt quipped, “The brew began to boil up.”  

Following their initial impact at the WGMA show, as the original group of artists came to dominate the art community in the District from the ’60s into the ’70s, Davis, Mehring, Downing, and Reed exhibited at other galleries in the area. The original Washington Color School painters expanded into a second generation, which included Sam Gilliam and Rockne Krebs (1938-2011), and the movement continued to bear influence over the Washington art scene and beyond even as some of the original artists moved on to other work.  Some leading WSC artists didn’t survive the ’60s (Louis, Meyer) or the ’70s (Mehring, Thomas), but their influence and that of their Washington Color Schoolmates on American art stretched through the rest of the 20th century and on into the 21st.  Hilda Shapiro Thorpe (1920–2000), a color field painter who made large abstract paintings and handmade-paper, balsa, or sheet-metal sculptures, taught a generation of Washington-area artists and helped perpetuate the Color School movement into the present.  “I guess today you’d say that we learned to think outside the box,” Gilliam said, “but we also learned to think in the context of the larger art world.”  Among the later painters who bears the stamp of the WSC is Lou Stovall (b. 1937), a friend and colleague of Gilliam’s whose work I first saw in 2011 and have admired (read “coveted”) since.

The main tenet of the colorists was to cover their canvases with unified blocks of bright, pure colors.  In a review of a 2003 gallery show that featured James Hilleary’s work, Washington Post art critic Michael O’Sullivan wrote that he’s “able to distill lyricism out of pure line and color,” a founding principle of the colorists’ art.  Like abstract painters, with whom the colorists shared many parallels, color field painters rejected the representation of identifiable figures.  WCS artists generally painted abstracts, and there are parallels between the Color School and Abstract Expressionism, though there are significant differences as well.  The WSC adherents were more formalist than the Abstract Expressionists, more prone to decorativeness and less forbiddingly philosophical.  Though the use of stripes, washes, and fields of single colors of paint, for instance, was common to most artists in both groups, Washington colorists eschewed symbolism in their 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 lead to a pure sensation of enjoyment.  Baltimore Sun art critic Glenn McNatt capsulized this art: “Swirls of color, limpid washes of pigment that jump out and envelop the viewer, eye-popping stripes that seem to march across the canvas to a syncopated, ragtime beat.”  Painter Thomas Downing spoke of “the expressive potential of pure color—the necessity for a form which was simple and direct to convey it.”  The focus on purity of form strongly links color field painting with Minimalist art, as you can see in Anne Truitt’s brightly painted, formalistic  wooden structures, for example.  Morris Louis pared his paintings down to just what he felt was necessary, the bare minimum to create his effects.

The Washington Color School wasn’t strictly a “school” in the sense that most art movements connote by that title.  The artist didn’t work together or collaborate on techniques and styles; the WCS wasn’t an organized group.  They didn’t socialize as a group (though they knew each other for the most part and some, like Louis and Noland, were friends, as were Kainen and Davis).  The commonalities they encompassed were designated by critics and curators for the most part.  Each of the WCS artists had an idiosyncratic and personal style: Howard Mehring favored Z shapes; Alma Thomas was influenced by patterns of light; Paul Reed painted elaborate spheres; Thomas Downing’s circles looked like discs; Kenneth Noland was known for his hard-edged lines, chevrons, and, most distinctive, circles which were sometimes called “targets”; Morris Louis poured broad stripes of color on mostly raw, white canvases; Gene Davis was all about straight lines; Anne Truitt made geometric wood sculptures painted in high-gloss colors.  What linked them was, first, that they all lived and worked in the relatively small art community of Washington, D.C., and that they shared certain significant stylistic qualities: they worked in oversized formats, focused on color in bold and striking ways, painted in abstract shapes and forms, and used hard-edged stripes and swaths of (most often acrylic) pigment.   

The Washington Color School continues to hold the interest of exhibitors and spectators alike.  In the years before Marin-Price’s Washington School of Color, there were many other exhibits focused on the art and artists of the movement.  Over 30 arts institutions in Washington mounted a city-wide celebration of color field painting, ColorField.remix, including exhibitions at galleries and museums of works by members of the Washington Color School (such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing, Alma Thomas, Gene Davis, Leon Berkowitz, and Sam Gilliam), during the spring and summer of 2007.  Later in 2007 and ’08, the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden housed Morris Louis Now: An American Master Revisited and in 2009-10, the same museum presented Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection.  In 2011, the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea, the center of the newest of contemporary art, held Kenneth Noland: Paintings 1958-1968 and a group of Washington, D.C., art collectors began the Washington Color School Project, to gather and publish information about the history of the color painters, notably Davis, Louis, and Reed, and abstract art in Washington.  Sam Gilliam’s works have been displayed in D.C. shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2005-06 and the Katzen Art Center at American University in 2011, and in a site-specific project at the Phillips Collection, also in 2011.  (The Katzen show Washington Art Matters in 2013 spotlighted the Washington Color School in its survey of the art scene in the Nation’s Capital from the 1940s through the 1980s.)  Earlier this year, two galleries in Brookland, in the Northeast section of the District, mounted Under the Influence: Reverberations of the Washington Color School, a show devoted to  current “acolytes and a few antagonists” of the WCS.  

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