Washington D.C.

Washington Scene

It’s hard to believe that the sleepy Southern town that was Washington, D.C., before the Kennedys sparked a cultural renaissance has emerged during the styleless LBJ era with a certain style of its own. Not the least of the new stylishness is the small but definitely percolating art scene. The scene had its start in the fifties when Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland both lived and worked in the Capital and Clement Greenberg was a frequent visitor. Things began to happen with Alice Denny’s brief tenure at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, where she scheduled one of the first Pop art shows in the country. The energy of the indefatigable Mrs. Denny, whose enthusiasm for New York art led her to arrange several avant-garde dance and Happening festivals in Washington, has been an important factor in getting a local scene going.

With the example of Louis and Noland, who taught the principles of stained color painting in classes they held, artists had the proof that great art could be made in Washington, a previously incredible idea. A number of talented local artists including Tom Downing, Howard Mehring, Gene Davis, Paul Reed and Mary Myers be-gan to attract attention as the “Washington color painters”; and for the first time in its history, Washington was on the map as an art town.

Potentially, Washington was an art center from the moment Duncan Phillips opened the Phillips Gallery there in 1918. The first public gallery in America devoted exclusively to showing modern art, the Phillips today displays not only its original outstanding collection of 19th and 20th century European modernists and early American modernists (it is particularly rich in the works of Arthur Dove and John Marin) but major examples of New York School painting as well. In addition, of course, there are the matchless collections of Old Master painting at the National Gallery and Oriental art at the Freer to be seen in Washington. Recently this situation has been enriched still further by the excellent series of historical exhibitions of American art organized at the Smithsonian by the National Collection and at Maryland University by Dr. Francis V. O’Conner. And now, wonder of wonders, that stodgy old veteran, the Corcoran, has been revived by a bright, young administration and is putting on shows like the Olitski retrospective that can’t be matched anywhere in the country for taste and significance.

Under Charles Millard the Washington Gallery of Modern Art continued to mount exhibitions like the David Smith retrospective which couldn’t help but stimulate local artists. (Washington is incidentally the only American city to my knowledge to have a David Smith on permanent view outdoors.) Now that the appointment of Walter Hopps as the new director of the Gallery has been announced, Washington has acquired perhaps the most sensitive, enlightened museum director in the country. Hopps’s appointment has double significance for the future of art in Washington, for as virtually everyone knows, he was among the dedicated few who made it possible for Los Angeles to develop as an independent art center. The encouragement and sophisticated point of view Hopps can offer will be invaluable to the burgeoning group of young artists now working in and around Washington. And this group of young artists, judging from what I saw on a recent trip, is one of the liveliest in the country. Keeping in close touch with developments in New York, they manage to be relatively free of the provincialism that plagues artists in local art centers like San Francisco and Chicago, for example.

Washington artists have been able to exhibit for some time at the Jefferson Place Gallery, where Louis and Noland first showed their work. This season, however, with the opening of the Henri Gallery across the street from the Gallery of Modern Art, the picture is even rosier. The opening group show at the Henri, including works by local artists and New Yorkers like Tadaaki Kuwayama and Ludwig Sander—whose subtle, hazy mauve, red and blue abstraction was stunning—was fresher, better installed and of higher quality than any of the shows that opened the New York season. The work in general had a clarity, a sense of direction, and a vitality that could not help but engage the viewer. Three, a new painting by Tom Downing, which made use of illusionistic devices in a most convincing and original manner, was the highlight of the exhibition. Downing, who has always been a painter of integrity if not of force, appears in this new work to have found a way of activating the flat plane of the canvas with a sense of movement and an exhilarating buoyancy. Other works worth mentioning were James Hilleary’s assured geometric abstraction and Kuwayama’s large horizontal painting made of panels of brilliant yellow canvas lined up with object-like impassivity in a chrome frame. Exploring to some extent the same area as Kelly’s recent work, Kuwayama nevertheless manages to wring from these limited means a surprisingly personal statement. Two paintings by Charles Pollock exhibiting a lyrical sense of color and a light sensitive touch were impressive examples of stain painting. Finally, Ed McGowin’s vacuum-form plastic constructions showed the mastery of new materials a number of young Washington artists such as McGowin, Rockne Krebs and Enid Cafritz have achieved.

With the possibility for a more exciting cultural milieu, of which the opening of an experimental venture like The New Theater, which will be a Washington showcase for new avant-garde American plays, is symptomatic, one can predict that no city in America is in a better position to become an art center than the nation’s Capital.

Barbara Rose