Washington, DC

Willem De Looper

Intended by the museum to honor one of the university’s own, this exhibition provides an in-depth look at the career of painter Willem De Looper, who came to Washington, DC, from the Netherlands in 1950. He enrolled in American University in 1953 and has remained in the area ever since. This exhibition, a retrospective of sorts, includes thirty-six acrylic paintings made by the artist between 1965 and 1998.

De Looper is often considered a second-generation member of the Washington Color School. Like its better-known adherents Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, De Looper created compositions of flowing color by staining and pouring paint onto untreated canvases, an approach that stood in marked contrast to the intense, aggressive brushwork typical of much New York gesture painting. Untitled XI, 1965, for example, is a tulip-like abstraction composed of thinned, translucent paint layered in a manner that suggests three-dimensional space. De Looper’s staining method lent itself to working directly on the canvas without preparatory drawing and mirrored the musical improvisation the artist so admired in American jazz. It also gave his work an inherent luminosity, a quality it was never to lose.

A group of works from the early ’70s, including Toujours, 1971, which evokes aqueous veils of blue-green light, typify this approach; they also reflect the landmark dissolution of traditional relationships (color and line, figure and ground) achieved through the staining techniques pioneered by Louis, Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. Only a few years later, however, such free-form washes gave way in de Looper’s case to a firmer structure of horizontal bands of denser, layered paint spread with a roller (which he also used to stamp the surfaces with coarse vertical marks). An example is Untitled 8, 1974, one of the most beautifully luminous works in the show; its mottled surface suggests the cool winter light of a furrowed field blanketed in snow.

In the early ’80s De Looper began making more architectural compositions of verticals and horizontals. These works, including Yellow Rectangle, 1980, echo Matisse’s paintings of open windows, some of which De Looper saw at the Phillips Collection, where he began working as a guard in 1959, retiring as its curator in 1987. These, his most ambitious works (certainly in terms of size), generally have a close-value color scheme of predominantly muted browns, blues, and taupes; while some seem rather inert, the most successful have an almost autumnal feel. By the mid-’80s the fading light of these works eventually yielded to brighter colors and jazzier compositions. Untitled, 1985, is composed of angular forms whose bright reds and contrasting blue-black are accentuated by bold lines drawn with paint squeezed directly from the tube. By the decade’s end, De Looper was using these angular forms to create some of his best and most structurally complex works, like the off-balance The Duke, 1989, and the pinwheel-like Brooklyn Bridge, 1990. Moreover, around this time he began applying metallic paints (silvers, coppers, golds) to his canvases in short strokes with a trowel, creating radically different surfaces that undulate, quiver even, with reflected light. While breaking new ground, they are, in their sensitivity to light and color, typical of De Looper. And like the other paintings on exhibition here, they reveal an artist steadfast in his means and their aesthetic possibilities.

Howard Risatti