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Date: Mon, 30 Sep 2002 19:44:23 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Washington's Color-Field Painters, Like the '60s, Are Back. Why?
Sunday, September 29, 2002; Page G01
Washington's Color-Field Painters, Like the '60s, Are Back. Why?
There's No Black-and-White Answer.
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
A painting stained from edge to edge with dabs of glowing crimson.
Buzzing dots in blue and red waltzing around a canvas, or bright
stripes line-dancing across it. Watery veils of mauve, cerulean and
burnt sienna pouring down the picture plane. The hallmarks of
Washington's glory days as an art town, back in the 1960s.
This city's artists were pioneers in rejecting the idea that a picture
had to be a record of the world, or even of its maker's emotions,
worldview or brush skills. By staining washes of paint right into their
canvases, they insisted that color and composition could stand tall all
Since then, however, local heroes like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland,
let alone lesser lights like Howard Mehring (the crimson paint dabber)
and Thomas Downing (painter of the dancing circles), haven't always
done so well, at home or in the wider world of art. They were early
casualties of the 1980s putsch against abstraction. For years,
figurative art with evident content -- political, social, conceptual,
even just personal -- pushed pure color and form right out of sight.
It turns out that abstraction wasn't so easy to kill off. The biggest
names in American abstraction -- Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and
others -- have all had hugely successful museum retrospectives in recent
years. And now it seems time for the second tier of abstract masters,
including Washington's former finest, to follow them back into the
limelight. But with these lesser masters, there may be more to it than
the usual story of neglected greatness rediscovered. Warts, weaknesses
and all, they fill specific needs and tastes in current creativity.
There's no doubt that old-time Washington abstraction is back in vogue:
* A new documentary about Louis has just had its premiere at the
Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum. His innovative stained veils of pigment
made him the most famous of the Washington Color painters right off,
and the one to suffer the least neglect since then. His early death in
1962 made him a canonical Dead White Male before his time. According to
the dealer for the Louis estate, in the last five years or so there's
been a massive upsurge of interest in his work, which had taken a hit
"big-time" in the 1980s.
* Mehring, from the generation of Louis's students, is now getting a
retrospective at Catholic University, his alma mater. It's a modest
show of his mostly mild-mannered works: Canvases stained with gently
fluttering solid tones, sometimes then cut up and reassembled. But it's
also the first solo of any kind for Mehring since his death in 1978.
* Downing, Mehring's flashier colleague and contemporary, who died in
1985, is receiving commercial shows at Washington galleries Signal 66
and Conner Contemporary Art. Some of these trademark canvases from the
1960s, stained with colored dots arrayed in grids or circles across the
picture plane, have only now been put on stretchers for the world to
see. Downing dealer Leigh Conner, who also had a hand in the Mehring
event, has taken to showing defunct Washington Color painters alongside
the contemporary artists in her stable.
* Georgetown gallery owner George Hemphill has just opened his fourth
show of abstract works by the late Jacob Kainen, another D.C. color
guy -- though more a father figure to the local school than a paid-up
And this local rebirth fits into the larger context of a worldwide
renaissance of 1960s abstraction, especially in its less celebrated
aspects. At prestigious institutions all over, long-neglected
abstractionists -- Op artist Bridget Riley, her more minimal
contemporaries Jo Baer, Ellsworth Kelly and others -- have been getting
You could say that this revival is par for the art-world course. Almost
every artistic movement goes through a period of rejection right after
its first big success. It takes about a generation, and then the
grandkids discover that the old folks had talent after all.
When it comes to the less obvious stars of abstract art, however, there
may be more to their revival than a simple recognition of neglected
greatness. The lesser figures may be riding the coattails of the big
names: With Rothko priced way out of reach, dealers say that
more-modest collectors, museums and corporations are turning to figures
such as Mehring and Downing, who cost one-hundredth as much and can
sometimes be almost as good. But they also have a very special place in
today's art world that is theirs alone.
In these days of acid-wash bell-bottoms and shagadelic movie spies,
Downing's spinning dots look ever groovy, baby. Looking at her newly
mounted Downing show, Conner laughed and said, "This art kind of
reminds me of 'The Valley of the Dolls' . . . of amphetamines and
Jamie Smith, the art historian who curated the Mehring show at Catholic
University, asked students in her class on color-field abstraction --
significantly, one of the first such classes ever to be taught -- why
they had taken it, since most of them were not registered in art: "They
said that it was because they were interested in the '60s era."
Even a living room that aims to feel contemporary now comes decorated
with chairs of molded fiberglass and orange plastic lamps, often newly
made by celebrity designers who've achieved success by rehashing the
old. As Georgetown dealer Hemphill points out, pictures that suit these
newly sleek decors are getting more attention than ever, and works by
the Washington Color School fit the bill perfectly.
This retro trend may especially favor abstraction's less substantial
schools and figures. A Newman is officially important art -- perhaps
because it really has a special, innovative excellence -- and so we
know to give it a more-than-casual look. A work by an abstract artist
that you've barely heard of, on the other hand, is easier to treat (or
mistreat) as attractive period scene-setting, interchangeable with
works by any number of his peers. There can be something comfortably
generic about some of the works of Mehring and Downing, even of Gene
Davis -- celebrated D.C. painter of hard-edged colored stripes -- that
you don't quite get with celebrated textbook masterpieces.
Imagine putting together the music for a '60s-themed dance party. You
might have more luck establishing your mood with the Monkees' 1966 hit
"Last Train to Clarksville" -- or it could as easily be the Troggs and
"Wild Thing" -- than with a timeless Beatles number like "Eleanor
Rigby," let alone with something that John Cage also composed that year.
In the world of more radical contemporary art, however, there are
reasons for choosing unknown vintage art other than just achieving a
retro feel. By deliberately favoring artists who have faded away,
you're also staking out a position against the whole idea of an
official, timeless canon set to last forever.
There's a real desire to overturn old notions about what's worth
looking at. Unpretentious, unambitious, maybe even weak abstraction,
deeply set in its own time, becomes a kind of antidote to the grand
claims of timeless excellence and high seriousness that used to
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp turned the art world upside down by showing a
urinal and claiming it was art; in 2002, you can get some of the same
effect by looking at officially "minor" abstract pictures and insisting
that you like them best. Brought up in a relativist world where taste
and standards are definitively up for grabs, we can now decide to favor
the strange, the offbeat, the seemingly out-of-date: Downing's
psychedelic '60s dots may suit us better than Louis's epochal veils;
halting attempts are chosen over celebrated achievements. If someone
says that some abstraction risks becoming wallpaper, why not answer
that you like wallpaper?
Even in the 1960s, there was a keen concern that abstraction that
wasn't of the very highest order could become empty decoration, a mere
design object. On today's artistic vanguard, however, there's a desire
to rethink such modernist bugaboos, by asserting, for instance, that
abstract decoration isn't necessarily empty and that design is never
Los Angeles artist Jorge Pardo is one of the most eagerly watched
figures of the younger generation. His work consists of making
household objects and decors that look as though they came straight out
of the archetypal "modern" home, circa 1960 -- and insisting that they
must be counted as high art. (So far, his most prestigious
"installation" has been the retiling, in vintage kitchen colors, of the
entrance and bookstore of New York's Dia Center for the Arts -- just
downstairs, that is, from the galleries where Dia has been busy
reviving some neglected figures of vintage abstraction.)
Pardo and some of his West Coast peers look at abstraction from the
'60s as a source of inspiration. Other contemporary artists, however,
look at it as a target for satire.
New Yorker Peter Halley is the past master of the ironic take on
classical abstraction. He has long been making pictures that look more
like the supergraphic stripes painted on 1960s vans than like
high-minded attempts to get at the essence of good painting. When a
Halley canvas includes a square of dimpled stucco, as used on rec-room
ceilings in the 1970s, you know that it can't quite take itself
seriously. And once you've admired a Halley, it's not hard to read
Downing's "Maroon With White Stripe," a late painting of his that also
evokes a surfer's groovy van, in the same light. You can see it as
lighthearted, almost comic abstract play with form and color, rather
than as a sober-minded attempt to live up to the highest ideals for
art. For some of today's viewers, looking at it as a charming vintage
product, it can evoke a so-bad-it's-good frisson that a Newman almost
Damien Hirst, the best of the famous 1990s crop of young British
artists, has made distinctly Downing-like fields of colored dots that
look at first like a straightforward homage to hard-edged abstraction.
But rather than demonstrating some ambitious program for how color
should be used in art, their hues are, in fact, arrived at essentially
by happenstance: The only rule for choosing them is that no two colors
Such abstraction is deliberately, polemically tied to the mundane,
rather than attempting to soar above it into high aesthetics and
philosophy, as abstraction used to claim to do. It can seem goofy, even
dumb, and in the process seems to suggest that older abstraction, which
it looks so much like, may not have been much smarter.
Of course, the goofiness of a Halley or a Hirst is really just a pose:
Their work is a knowing response to what came before it. Much other
contemporary abstraction, however, is more genuine in its naivete.
After the 1980s and 1990s, decades when high theory and deadly
political seriousness ruled the art world and its schools, a new
generation of artists have come along who insist that they don't want
to do too much reading or hard thinking, either about their own art or
about its antecedents. They make what you could call slacker
abstraction: In strong contrast to the philosophically ambitious
abstract artists of the '50s and '60s, they're just kids having fun
Abstract art in the 1960s was built around complex ideas about the
different things that art could be. Supporters of such varied movements
as op art, minimalism and finish fetish, color field abstraction and
hard-edge painting felt that each one had different, even incompatible,
missions and mandates. There were barroom brawls about them. The
artists who work in similar styles today don't care about such subtle
old ideas and the strong distinctions that they drew. So long as it's
attractive, one contemporary abstract picture can seem just as good as
any other, very different bit of pretty patterning.
At District Fine Arts in Georgetown, a current group exhibition called
"Poetic Minimalism" (the title alone would once have been an oxymoron)
includes many different, incongruous versions of this new Abstraction
Lite, from wooden shoe boxes hung on the wall to art deco-style
compositions. The sheer variety of works on view makes it clear that
different approaches to abstract picture-making don't come freighted
with the load they used to bear. In today's abstraction, anything goes,
because nothing matters all that much.
Last year, a talented Washington painter named Jason Gubbiotti, 27, got
his hands on some of the obsolete Magna paints once used by Color
Schoolers to rethink the boundaries of their medium. He's got their
paint and knows their work -- he was once Kainen's assistant -- but he
admits to rejecting their high ideal that abstract art should have a
rigorous intellectual backbone. He's "into the ephemeral, the pure
experience" of a good pop song, he said, and is achieving it in
avowedly retro works that are more pleasantly intriguing than deeply
Especially in New York, and mostly on the commercial scene, this
lighthearted "new abstraction" is a major recent movement, and a very
sellable one. And a lot of it inevitably consists of riffs and cover
versions of abstraction from the 1960s. If only because, during that
fruitful and experimental decade, most every abstract painting that
could be painted, was. Without any very different current trend in
painting to act as competition, it's only natural that the abstraction
of an earlier era -- at its very best but also when it's only pretty
good -- should find an easy welcome.
Dealer Leigh Conner decided to mount shows of the original Washington
Color School after seeing similar contemporary work that didn't seem to
understand its ancestry.
"You see what these younger people are doing, and you ask, 'Where does
it come from?' "
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