Washington, D.C.

Willem de Looper

Jones Troyer / Fitzpatrick Gallery / B.R. Kornblatt Gallery

In two recent exhibitions of abstract paintings, long-time Washington artist Willem de Looper presented very different kinds of work: large acrylic paintings at Kornblatt and small gouache on paper works at Jones Troyer Fitzpatrick. The contrasting nature of these shows revealed the complexity of de Looper’s art and something of the difficulty in establishing his relationship to the Washington Color School.

The gouaches, never before exhibited, are not sketches, but finished works taken from sketchbooks. In them, de Looper explores problems of space and light, utilizing color, line, and shape in a way that recalls Hans Hofmann. In the most successful gouaches, illusionistic overlapping is carefully avoided; formal and spatial tension is created by shapes pressing together against the picture plane. In Untitled #16, 1986, a large red circular form, irregularly drawn and cropped at the top and bottom of the sheet, dominates the picture by its size and intensity. Held in place by areas of tan in the upper corners and by striped green and silver in the lower ones, this red is modulated by two quick horizontal blue stripes anchoring it on one side and an upward band of meandering white edging on the other. In later gouaches, there is a tendency for shapes to become somewhat more geometric and less biomorphic, as in Untitled # 13, 1988. Despite this, these works display an inventiveness of form and color that seldom falters. With their intimacy of scale and detail, these gouaches evoke the subtlety of Persian miniatures and the richness of medieval illuminations, evocations heightened by the frequent use of pearlescent gold and silver pigments.

The large paintings represent another change for de Looper. The works in his previous show were composed of atmospheric paint in horizontal bands; they recalled landscapes with mystical overtones. Those overtones encouraged the alignment of de Looper’s art with the more transcendental branch of the Washington Color School. These new paintings contradict this suggestion; they are formal, geometric abstractions that not only eschew the informality of the gouaches, but betray little evidence of mysticism and thereby caution against any static, fixed definition of de Looper’s work. Organized around a window format, these new paintings (all Untitled, 1988) have a monumentality and seriousness appropriate to their size. De Looper suppresses drawing and incidental detail and uses a restricted palette—black, white, and metallic copper and silver predominate. Especially in the later works, layered vertical and diagonal rectangles are used to form complex configurations of planes articulated by contrasting finishes, textures, and colors. Arranged so as to defeat any suggestion of illusionism, these planes are cropped by the picture edges, creating large-scale cubist grids extending beyond the picture frame.

Clearly, this series is in a developmental stage—two paintings have illusionistic passages with lines casting shadows, another is structured around a simple red rectangle like an icon. In the works with unstable figure/ground relationships, space acquires a psychological tension; the precisely constructed forms suggest order, but they defeat the viewer’s attempts to establish perceptual stability. In a sense, the window forms become metaphors for looking at the world and suggest the complexities involved in knowing and understanding through acts of perception.

Howard Risatti