AN ART BRAND, BORN IN D.C.

A half-cen­tury ago, six pain­ters earned their stripes — and ce­mented a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion — by em­brac­ing col­or­ful shapes

The Washington Post Sunday - - GALLERIES - BY JEAN LAWLOR CO­HEN Co­hen is a free­lance writer. style@wash­post.com

June 25, 1965 — Art lovers con­verge at the Washington Gallery of Art west of Dupont Cir­cle. In suits and ties and dressy sum­mer sheaths, they dance to a four-piece band and pose for photos in front of rivulets of paint, whirling dots, T-squares, chevrons and vi­brat­ing stripes. The­mu­seum’s di­rec­tor and cu­ra­tor, Gerald Nord­land, has hung works by six artists and iden­ti­fied them as “the Washington Color Pain­ters.” Some­thing daz­zling and maybe im­por­tant is hap­pen­ing.

May 22, 1969— A black-tie crowd buzzes in the grand ball­room of the Mayflower Ho­tel. Hun­dreds sip wine, sur­rounded by stripe paint­ings in the sig­na­ture style of Gene Davis— 50 copies of his 6-by-6-foot “Pop­si­cle” ren­dered by a cre­wof Cor­co­ran stu­dents guided by artist Michael Clark. It’s the Give-Away, a hap­pen­ing launched by critic Doug Davis and artist Ed McGowin to dis­pense all of the art by ran­dom draw­ing. The two de­scribe their event as an homage to the “Color School,” as an over­due send-off that lib­er­ates Washington art to come.

Be­tween these two mo­ments, six artists be­came frozen in art history as the “Washington Color School.” A half-cen­tury later, the la­bel evokes nos­tal­gia, a de­gree of pride and some im­pa­tience. It calls for a reck­on­ing of what the term meant then and what it means now.

Take “Washington.” True, all six spent for­ma­tive stu­dio time here — yet by 1965, Mor­ris Louis had died of lung can­cer and Ken­neth Noland had de­parted for Ver­mont. An ex­hi­bi­tion out­side Washington the year be­fore had placed five of them in an L.A. County Mu­seum show called “Post-Painterly Ab­strac­tion.” In­flu­en­tial critic Cle­ment Green­berg had cho­sen 31 artists, among them Louis, Noland, Gene Davis, Tom Down­ing, Howard Mehring and Sam Gil­liam. For the 1965 show here, how­ever, Nord­land, the Washington cu­ra­tor, omit­ted the younger Gil­liam and added the more es­tab­lished Paul Reed.

“Color” cer­tainly fac­tors. Noland called it “the gen­er­at­ing force.” Each of these pain­ters em­braced color for its own sake — em­bod­ied, op­ti­cal, flat or vel­vety, sat­u­rated or trans­par­ent. The dis­cov­ery of fast-dry­ing acrylic resin paint gave them im­me­di­ate, in­tense color right out of a tube. Ul­ti­mately these D.C. artists took on a larger, na­tional iden­tity, po­si­tioned within a newly la­beled genre called “color field.”

But “School”? Nord­land had cred­ited all with the “lone-wolf as­pect” of their work. Yet the six did share two break­through con­cepts — soak­ing plas­tic paint into raw cot­ton can­vas and us­ing hard-edged, geo­met­ric forms such as stripes, cir­cles, dots and chevrons to carry high-keyed color. Although they knew one another’s work— and some formed friend­ships— they worked, for the most part, solo. There is no proof they ever found them­selves in the same room.

All six had prac­ticed “throw­ing paint” in the early 1950s, be­fore they re­jected that im­pas­toed, angst-rid­den sen­si­bil­ity. But they took their time break­ing free, slowly re­al­iz­ing they didn’t need or want to pro­ject emo­tion. Artists else­where also re­acted against the grip of “ac­tion paint­ing.” Some turned to pop­u­lar im­agery (pop), oth­ers to stripped-down geo­met­ric forms (min­i­mal­ism) and all seemed in­tent on rid­ding con­tent of self-ab­sorp­tion. D.C.’s col­orists were part of that rad­i­cal art his­toric shift, and they came to tol­er­ate the “school” han­dle. But even­tu­ally the term’s overuse and its ap­pli­ca­tion to hosts of lo­cal im­i­ta­tors fed the fear that Washington artists might never be as orig­i­nal or in­flu­en­tial again.

One­man’s power

When di­vorced fa­ther Cle­ment Green­berg came to Washington to see his son, he also vis­ited stu­dios. He seemed to ro­man­ti­cize Washington as a haven for un­cor­rupted ge­nius. “You can keep in steady con­tact with the New York art scene,” he said, “with­out be­ing sub­jected as con­stantly to its pres­sures to con­form.” Ye the wanted con­form­ity in his own con­cept of flat ab­strac­tion and of­ten gave aes­thetic ad­vice to Noland, Mehring, Louis and Davis.

Green­berg’s most im­por­tant in­flu­ence? He had a key to the Man­hat­tan stu­dio of his lover, ab­stract pain­ter He­len Franken­thaler. In April 1953 he took Noland, Louis and a few oth­ers there. Franken­thaler was out, but they saw her latest works, in­clud­ing “Moun­tains and Sea,” now at the Na­tional Gallery of Art. She had achieved a stain ef­fect by paint­ing raw cot­ton can­vases with tur­pen­tine-thinned oil. This later proved use­ful when Noland, Louis and peers adopted the new acrylic paints.

By 1959, Green­berg had con­ferred ma­jor sta­tus on Noland and Louis by se­lect­ing them for New York gallery shows and tout­ing them in in­ter­na­tional art mag­a­zines. This ran­kled those get­ting less at­ten­tion, but they kept to their reg­i­mens, and each earned some mea­sure of suc­cess. Mehring re­ceived early good press and New York gallery rep­re­sen­ta­tion with his geo­met­ric work and watery, dap­pled fields. Yet by his death at 47 in 1978, he was reclu­sive and was no longer mak­ing art. Down­ing (1928-1985) taught at the Cor­co­ran School and en­cour­aged other artists such as Gil­liam. Davis taught at the Cor­co­ran and in his stu­dio, showed ev­ery year in New York and earned recog­ni­tion with­out leav­ing the home town where he died at 64 in 1985.

Only Reed, 96, sur­vives. A beloved Cor­co­ran School teacher, he re­cently moved to Ari­zona and, with fail­ing eye­sight, has been learn­ing to play guitar. He en­joys strong late-in-life vis­i­bil­ity thanks to his New York gallery D. Wig­more Fine Art. The Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art and other mu­se­ums own and of­ten show works by all six, and com­mer­cial gal­leries and auc­tion houses con­tinue to pro­vide a mar­ket. Re­cent sight­ing: Thomas Down­ing’s fool-the-eye plank paint­ing, the only “Color School” work in the Whit­ney Mu­seum’s inau­gu­ral show.

Place in art history?

Washington’s color pain­ters helped pi­o­neer the shift of im­agery from messy ab­strac­tion to rigid ge­om­e­try. They did this by adopt­ing ma­tri­ces to carry the vi­brant color. But they also helped break the bound­ary be­tween paint­ing and sculp­ture. With large-scale works (Louis, Davis) and shaped can­vases (Noland, Down­ing, Reed), they lib­er­ated the framed rec­tan­gle and opened the way for art la­beled en­vi­ron­men­tal, in­stal­la­tion and in­ter­ven­tion. In 1972, Davis painted “Franklin’s Foot­path,” for a mo­ment per­haps the largest paint­ing in the world. With the help of vol­un­teers, he lined with stripes a paved street lead­ing to the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art.

Of course, much of what they did re­flected no­tions al­ready in the air. Davis, with his edge-to-edge ver­ti­cal stripes, played with sur­pris­ing jux­ta­po­si­tions and found drama in se­ri­al­ity, as did Andy Warhol with his mul­ti­ple Jack­ies and Mar­i­lyns. Noland adopted the tar­get for flat and painterly cir­cles, while Frank Stella laid out hard-edge con­cen­tric squares. Down­ing, en­am­ored of cen­ter­ing, painted dots in dial for­ma­tion, rows and di­ag­o­nals much like the op­ti­cal fields of Damien Hirst.

Thus, D.C. pain­ters played a part in mov­ing works of art from de­pict­ing things to be­ing things, quite stun­ning things, in them­selves.

Can a ‘Washington art’ hap­pen again?

Un­likely. Cy­ber-shar­ing seems to un­der­mine the rel­e­vance of where an artist works. That wasn’t so at mid-cen­tury, of course, when Davis claimed that “ge­og­ra­phy is des­tiny.” Paul Richard, long­time art critic at The Washington Post, spec­u­lated that artists might be in­flu­enced sub­lim­i­nally by the grids and cir­cles of Pierre L’En­fant’s city plan (Noland, in fact, drove a D.C. cab), while sculp­tor Anne Truitt cred­ited the Dis­trict’s height re­stric­tions with an in­fu­sion of Parisian sun­light.

Fifty years af­ter the Washington Gallery of Art im­posed an iden­tity on this city’s pain­ters and 57 years af­ter Davis painted his first stripe, it seems right to re­con­sider that home­grown al­liance of pain­ters who, de­spite their di­verse in­ten­tions and for­tunes, still pro­vide glo­ri­ous things to see. On June 25, “Washington Color Pain­ters Re­con­sid­ered” opened 50 years to the day af­ter the orig­i­nal, at Loretta Howard Gallery in New York, a trib­ute to the six and two other Washington mas­ters— Sam Gil­liam and Alma Thomas. Re­cent gallery shows in D.C. and else­where con­firm that con­tem­po­rary artists, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional, still pur­sue that fas­ci­na­tion with ge­om­e­try.

COPY­RIGHT GENE DAVIS/ARTISTS RIGHTS SO­CI­ETY/PHOTO BY JOHN SMALL

“Un­ti­tled,” above, a 1961 can­vas of edgeto-edge ver­ti­cal stripes painted by Gene Davis, left, of­fers up un­ex­pected jux­ta­po­si­tions and dra­matic rep­e­ti­tion. Davis was one of six artists who spent for­ma­tive stu­dio time in­Wash­ing­ton in the 1960s, be­com­ing rec­og­nized na­tion­ally for their dis­tinc­tive style in the “color field” genre. Another of theWash­ing­ton Color Pain­ters, Thomas Down­ing, painted dots in dial for­ma­tion, rows and di­ag­o­nals. His 1964 work “Mid­night Blue” is at lower left.

COPY­RIGHT THOMAS DOWN­ING/PHOTO BY CHRISTO­PHER BURKE

1981 PHOTO BY CRAIG HERN­DON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.