Thomas Downing

Henri Gallery

Thomas Downing’s recent development points up one “favorable circumstance” that is changing the artistic climate of Washington: the inspiration to the local artists of the increased number of contemporary museum shows. Since the “Washington Color Painters” show, Downing’s work has been going through a process of rapid change and transition: it’s as though he, more than Davis or Mehring, realized the general crisis of direction built into the achievement of the “Color School” that that show celebrated, and the need to move on to something beyond the “flat color areas” style perfected by Noland. It’s possible that not having had the same amount of recognition as Davis and Mehring was a help to Downing, leaving him more free to experiment. (In fairness, I must record the little sortie made by Davis into what he called “micro-paintings,” exhibited last season at the Jefferson Place Gallery: tiny, colored canvases about 1 1/2 inches square arranged as accents of color on a bare white wall, which he termed an attack on “one of the major clichés in art—the mammoth wall size canvas.”)

Last season, Downing’s one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery and his large painting in the Corcoran’s “Biennial” showed him making a manful struggle to combine something of Noland’s color with something of Stella’s angled shaped canvas divided into parallel stripes. (Stella’s canvases of this type were shown in Washington when the U.S. exhibit from the Sao Paulo Biennial came to the N.C.F.A., the previous season.) Downing’s more successful paintings of this series were those containing a Noland-type juxtaposition of pink and blue.

Another museum show, last season, helped Downing to more radically depart from the “flat color areas” style of the Color School. The exhibition, “A New Aesthetic,” at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art contained several shaped paintings by Ron Davis, in which this artist had successfully assimilated aspects of Noland, Stella and Olitski, and gone out on his own against their work, by re-introducing geometric illusion. Shortly after this, Downing transformed his arrowed parallel bands of color into a schematic illusion of overlapping colored planks.

In his first one-man show of this work at the Henri Gallery this season, Downing experimented in a variety of shape arrangements (the “planks” might be vertically or horizontally aligned, might seem closer together or further apart, might taper more sharply, or more slowly, into perspective), while, for his coloring, he returned to the gentle play with related “families” of color that characterized his “reprise of the discs in grid formation theme” paintings of 1965–66. The “planks” were in closely related reds or blues, or alternated from green to brown (always a slightly different, but not too different, shade). The show struck me as a good beginning in a new direction; the most recent paintings, with more squat looking “planks” spread out horizontally seemed the most successful.

Andrew Hudson