Washington, D.C.

“Transcendence: Washington, D.C.”

Baumgartner Galleries

The Washington Color School was formulated by Clement Greenberg around the work of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Furthermore, because many of his ideas about “post painterly abstraction” were also articulated through their work, most of the critical dialogue about the school became focused on post-Cubist space, color staining, and formalist structure. As a consequence, work by other Washington abstractionists like Leon Berkowitz, Howard Mehring, and Thomas Downing was similarly characterized, often overlooking other salient features of their art.

Though small (only 10 works, from 1960 to ’87), this exhibition continued the current reassessment of Modernist abstraction begun by the L.A. County Museum exhibition “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985.” Specifically, “Transcendence: Washington, D.C.” attempted to posit a non-Greenbergian context for abstraction through an examination of the work of nine local artists. Its thesis was that mystical and spiritual concerns underlie the art of Berkowitz, Mehring, and Downing, and that these concerns are shared by various younger Washington painters as well.

Clearly, mystical and spiritual concerns were intended in Summer, 1987, the last painting that Berkowitz did before his death. Gossamer veils of orange and blue shrouding a subtle geometric shape create an abstract, light-filled “space.” At once flat and limitless, Summer elicits a meditative state through its inner luminosity. Mehring’s spiritual interests were also apparent in his two mantralike cruciform paintings shown here. One of them, Radiant, 1961, features a centralized cross in warm colors (stained in small blotches on unprimed canvas) and anchored around a dark central core. Blotches of red radiate from the intersections of the cross into the corners of the canvas, a motif that evokes the painting’s title. Downing was represented by an untitled acrylic from about 1961, a carefully organized work composed entirely of red, blue, and gold diamond-shaped dots. Painted on a square canvas, these small diamonds appear to form a diagonal grid—like Op-art lattice work—and at the same time, through the shifting of hues from warm to cool in four symmetrical sections, create a pinwheel design. This design, with its interlocking shapes, hints at the Taoist concept of yin-yang.

Into this context, co-curators Manfred Baumgartner and Robin Rose situated the work of six younger Washington painters: Simon Gouverneur, Chip Richardson, Andrea Way, Caroline Orner, William Willis, and Rose himself. Paintings by the latter three were hung in the same room with the Berkowitz and Mehring works. Compared to them, Orner’s untitled 1987 painting of an elongated golden triangle (a mountain?)silhouetted against a red circle (the moon?) seems illustrational; and although Willis’ House, 1979, flirts with the idea of being an icon of itself, and Rose’s Same as the Other, also 1979, makes faint references to landscape, they evoke themes of transcendence only faintly, if at all.

The work of Richardson, Way, and Gouverneur was hung with Downing’s painting in an adjoining room to underscore mutual interests in systems. Richardson’s painting Strange Attractor (Running the Wires) and Way’s drawing Blind Radiance, both 1987, are programmatic works that suggest the complexities of cybernetic systems through networks of interconnecting lines and shapes. The spatial ambiguities of their work contrasted with the flatness of Gouverneur’s Scanner, 1984, which consists of a circle of + ’s and 0’s over a square grid of numbers and letters (apparently analogues of each other) and which reads very much like a simple chart.

The juxtaposition of paintings in this reassessment of the Color School raised issues not broached by Daniel Barbiero’s short accompanying essay on spirit and intellect. In particular, the exhibition revealed that transcendence is not achieved, as Barbiero intimates, through a fusion of intellect and spirit alone. As Berkowitz, Mehring, and Downing acknowledged by adhering to Modernist strictures about flatness and illusionistic space (both Greenbergian tenets), matter is an inescapable element in art. In fact, matter is not only the vehicle used to fuse intellect and spirit but also the element to be transcended—in a sense, the basis of trancendence, its necessary opposite.

The role played by Greenberg’s ideas in the development of an art of transcendence can hardly be avoided. Reassessment of the Washington Color School should not ignore his relevance, nor should younger artists attempting such an art; for, despite today’s anti-Greenberg sentiment, his ideas offer important insights into the struggle to overcome the limitations of matter, a struggle that remains essential to an art aiming for transcendence.

Howard Risatti