Washington, DC

Gene Davis, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing, Paul Reed, Rockne Krebs, Howard Mehring and more

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Something obviously has to be done about the format of the Corcoran Gallery’s biennial “Area Show” of local painting, sculpture, drawings, prints and pottery. The value of the show was already in doubt two years ago when Director Herman Warner Williams, Jr., complained that too few of the better local artists had submitted work, and threatened to conclude the series if there was not more co-operation in 1967. This time, with the “area” for the 18th show extended to a radius of 200 miles from Washington, additional categories for film and photography, and an outside juror—Bates Lowry, Director designate of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—to judge the painting and sculpture, results were not much better. Some, but not all, of the better artists submitted work, and, after seeing the exhibition, one sympathized with those who hadn’t: for among the paintings and sculpture, a great quantity of facile, derivative student work was admitted, and at least one important piece by a serious Washington artist rejected. In these circumstances, one can hardly expect local artists of any ambition to go on submitting their work.

The solution, I think, would be for the Corcoran to abandon the open competition and jury system altogether, and for its staff to choose its own show. The Corcoran is already making such choices (fairly wisely, and with considerable success in the last two years) in the Invitational Section of its “Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting” and in the more select series of one-man shows by local artists that it is now presenting. It is making similar decisions (again, mostly wise ones) about acquisitions and the acceptance of loans. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t also choose its own survey of local art, just as it does of American painting. The need for such a regular, hand-picked survey show (or shows) of Washington art is all the more pressing, since today more is happening here than two years ago, and the number of local artists whose work is worth celebrating has increased.

Two years ago, the situation here was pretty accurately reflected in the exhibition of “The Washington Color Painters” that Gerald Nordland organized for the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, and which subsequently traveled across the country. The former (and vitally enlivening) presence in Washington of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland was indicated in that exhibition by one large painting by each artist; the work of the three other prominent members, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, and Howard Mehring, was shown in some depth, by eight paintings each. The work of a sixth Washington painter, Paul Reed, while not measuring up to the quality of the other five, filled out the show, and pointed to the existence of other, lesser members of the “School.”

The 17th “Area Show” at the Corcoran depicted the same situation, although not so clearly. Among the vast array of unadventurous, nondescript work, two paintings alone stood out: Mehring’s prize-winning Cadmium Groove and Davis’s Ornette, submitted hors concours. (Downing didn’t submit work.) Though not successful (I thought them over-decorated) the two sculptures by a then-unknown artist, Rockne Krebs, one of which won the sculpture prize, looked ambitious, as though he were trying to do something new, something beyond the merely imitative and provincial.

Since that time, a great deal has happened to change the Washington “scene.” Prompted by the adventurous spirit of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, the Corcoran has rejuvenated itself, the W.G.M.A. has continued its program of contemporary exhibitions, and at the same time the National Collection of Fine Arts, in bringing to Washington the U.S. exhibits from the Venice and Sao Paulo Biennials, has also helped to increase a local awareness of, and interest in, present-day American work. Exhibitions at all three museums have in addition brought artists, critics and dealers from New York and the West Coast to Washington. As a consequence of all of this activity, Washington artists have had a chance to frequently see major contemporary work, and to meet important figures in the art world on their home territory.

Even more important for the development of Washington art has been the decision on the part of the young artists to stay in Washington, rather than move to New York or elsewhere. These painters and sculptors are finding incentive and stimulation from each other’s presence and each other’s work, as well as from Washington museum exhibitions and from visits to New York. That Davis, Downing and Mehring had previously decided to remain in Washington perhaps set a precedent: Downing has also contributed in an important way by being a “bridge” for the younger generation, through talk and encouragement, and, more recently, through his teaching at the Corcoran School. Also in the last two years, a step forward has been made in the development of a local commercial gallery “scene” (principally at the Jefferson Place and Henri Galleries, both now within a block of the Phillips Collection and the W.G.M.A.), and of a local audience for more adventurous Washington art.

Despite its poor over all quality, the Corcoran’s 18th Area Show couldn’t help but reflect, to some extent, these changes: this year, there were, I thought, not two, but six outstanding paintings. While, this time around, Davis and Mehring did not enter, Downing did; and along with Downing’s purchase-award painting, Seven, those of five younger artists maintained their interest on successive visits to the exhibition. All of these five—Chun Chen, Willem De Looper, Sam Gilliam, Valerie Hollister and Blaine Larson—have emerged into the Washington art world since the last Area Show, or (in the case of Gilliam) with a major “breakthrough” in the development of his work. Only De Looper, of the five, was included in the 1965 Area Show (where he won an honorable mention).

De Looper’s large Blue Over Green in the 1967 Area Show was more fluid and relaxed, an improvement on his work shown at the end of last season. Although rather Kelly-ish and not yet entirely personal, the four-color, hard-edge Kulen by Chun Chen, one of Downing’s former students, had nevertheless a conviction and zing that rang out. Larson’s Yellow No. 2, a tall yellow canvas infiltrated from its edges by a border and tentacles of black, was, I thought, the most daring work in the show, the one going most against “safe taste”: it was also a new departure for this artist, not yet rightly appreciated in Washington—probably because of the unevenness of his work. (In both Larson’s one-man shows, the quality of the two or three truly accomplished, original paintings has been obscured by a surrounding number of weaker, less personal ones.) Larson is the one young Washington abstract painter of promise who does not relate at all to the “Color School”; the roots of his painting lie more in Leger and Krushenick, than in Noland, Newman and Louis (and his abstracted drawings from nature owe something to Paul Klee). Hollister—whose husband’s work has now taken her to Madison, Wisc., although she continues to show in Washington—like Larson, outlines her flat color areas in black; however, her paintings are figuratively based, offering a kind of visual conundrum with sections of arms, knees and legs that stretch all the way across the canvas. Her Adequately Armed in this season’s Area Show turned out to have, in its illusionistic riddle, much in common with Downing’s Seven, near which it was hung, and with which it vied in forcefulness.

An accurate hand-picked survey of what has developed in Washington art in the last two years would certainly contain work by all of these young artists, and of others besides. Two young sculptors, Ed McGowin and Rockne Krebs, who would deserve a place in such a survey, were not represented in the 18th Area Show. Krebs, as I have mentioned, won the sculpture prize two years ago; this season, his work was rejected—an inexplicable decision on the part of the juror. The Corcoran, wishing perhaps to make amends for this gaffe, subsequently borrowed the work from the artist, and exhibited it in its gallery of contemporary Washington and American art; whether or not it was intended, the point was well made, for Krebs’s XXVI, a tall end-stopped angle of clear plexiglas, one of the largest and best pieces by him I’ve seen, stood its ground here, without demur, over against the wonderfully dancing, decisive chevron painting, Sarah’s Reach of 1964, by Noland—something achieved by only a few of the other works in the room. (This gallery, “Gallery 30” of the Corcoran, and its twin at the other side of the front staircase, should not be missed by visitors to Washington: comprising a small, frequently changing exhibit of loans and items from the Corcoran’s permanent collection, it is the one place in town where the work of the “Washington School“ can be seen together.)

The work of other older artists, besides Davis and Mehring, was missing from the 18th Area Show: perhaps these painters did not submit, or were rejected by the juror, because their work did not seem “advanced” enough—their work was also absent, perhaps for the same reasons, from the 17th Area Show. I am thinking here of the more quiet figurative artists, whose work from time to time provided me with a pleasant moment in group and one-man shows over the last two years: the jewel-like peopled interiors of Robert d’Arista; the cheekily loose, more hastily drawn nudes of Luciano Pena y Lillo; a few still lifes by Sarah Baker and Ben Summerford; some landscapes and a studio interior by Jack Boul. (Several of these artists are associated with the art department of American University, which, in former years, helped promote an interest in contemporary art exhibitions, and which has produced some of today’s younger artists, such as Larson and De Looper. Unfortunately, though, its less enterprising students have cultivated a crippling, semi abstract “American University manner,” now an often-seen phenomenon in Washington exhibitions.)

Andrew Hudson