In the years since Kevin MacDonald’s death in 2006, a number of lifelong D.C.–area artists have found new purchase in contemporary galleries and museums. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden put on an acclaimed retrospective of Anne Truitt’s colorful columns in 2009. Museums across the country are dusting off their Sam Gilliam drape paintings. And the Washington Color School, it seems, is back in session.

MacDonald doesn’t quite fit in with any of these artists. His drawings of houses, strip malls, cafés, interiors, and landscapes depart wildly—or rather, modestly—from the post-war abstraction for which the District is best known. His shy pastels and bashful devotion to Cubism, years after the fact, seem quaint by comparison. Even his favorite medium, colored pencil, is a demure throwback.

That makes MacDonald an ideal subject for a second look, and the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center has given him one with a career retrospective. “The Tension of a Suspended Moment” brings together dozens of the late artist’s paintings and drawings: from his stately studies from the late 1970s and ’80s to his bolder—and often weirder—flights of fancy from the ’90s and early ’00s. “The Tension of a Suspended Moment” poses, but never quite resolves, a central question about MacDonald’s work: Is it conservative or subversive? Or both, or neither?

Two drawings from 1976, “Untitled (Beige Vase Lamp)” and “Untitled (Green Vase Lamp),” are representative of his early graphic works. They are softly shaded colored-pencil drawings of ornamental lamps, flattened like Egyptian hieroglyphs by way of Dorothy Draper. MacDonald’s studies are, by narrative temperament, plain and pedestrian, kin to the kind of art that might hang in a budget-friendly hotel room. That’s no knock: MacDonald’s drawings are rendered with great skill. But they’re subtle stuff, overtly inoffensive, neither expansive nor immersive. There’s nothing conceptual or tricky about them.

That’s not to say that MacDonald’s works lack sophistication. His compositions are sharp. “Barnett Newman’s Collage” (1978), for example, captures a domestic scene that sort-of resembles one of Newman’s Abstract-Expressionist paintings: a visual pun. “Booth” (1976) and “8th Grade Dance” (1975) are clean, precise interior compositions. Early in his career, MacDonald tapped into the same pastel palette and sensibility that Michael Graves, the Postmodernist architect, brought to his classically informed architectural drawings. While the resemblance is bound to be coincidental, it’s relevant: Graves was invested in a reactionary project against high-Modernist adventurism. So too, maybe, was MacDonald.

While his mark-making style changed a lot over the years, MacDonald’s approach to composition never really did. A few paintings, including “Seascape” (1986) and “Window on the World I” (1987), saw MacDonald experiment with extending the landscape onto the actual frame, but that’s about as far as he ever got with formalist escapes. Throughout his career, MacDonald expressed an indebtedness to Charles Sheeler, the great Modernist painter of the urban landscape. (So have many others.) MacDonald took the core logic of Sheeler’s paintings, his forthright geometry and three-dimensional perspective, and extended it to the suburbs.

Along the way, MacDonald made some wrong turns. His brushstroke in the 1990s came to take on the style of Robert Delaunay, the French Cubist (or “Orphist”) painter. Reaching backward so far was not just an unfashionable choice, it was anti-fashionable. Works such as “Restaurant Booth, W. VA.” (1990) and “Last Deli in D.C.” (1991) look like imitations. “Dinner at Herb’s” (1991)—no doubt named for Herb White, a restaurateur and collector who was once described to me as the “Paul Mellon of Adams Morgan”—is a painting of a Cubist-styled dinner party. “Dinner at Herb’s” might have been important to MacDonald (it’s the largest piece in the show), but it’s not a compelling point in an argument for MacDonald’s work.

The show is very nearly bookended by the two best works on view. One is “Rooftops” (1982), a barely there drawing of a cluster of single-family homes. It’s possible this is a representative drawing of a real scene from the D.C. suburbs, but it hardly matters: It’s a collection of objects that works exactly like a still-life. This could be a tribute to Morandi. At the other end of MacDonald’s career is “Mysteries of Silver Spring, Girls Portion (Irving’s)” (2003), a much bolder precisionist painting (à la Sheeler) with a more intense palette. Strip-mall shop signs contrast with the fairly soaring towers of the Silver Spring skyline in a way that’s both funny and earnest—the way that Ed Ruscha’s text paintings are serious but never serious.

There is an argument to be found in “The Tension of a Suspended Moment,” although it’s not easy to find the through point. Just like any American University Museum exhibit, MacDonald’s retrospective sags under its own weight: There are just too many works. They are crammed too tightly into this notoriously tricky EYP Architecture–designed building. Hanging on one curving wall that runs about 25 feet are 12 different pieces. It’s a wall meant for maybe three.

A tighter show have might teased out MacDonald’s John Cheever–like fascination with the morality play of the suburbs or the silent Edward Hopper terror threading together so many paintings of isolated barns and empty booths. “The Tension of a Suspended Moment” makes the case for MacDonald as a contrary D.C. artist, but it may take another edit to give his work the context it deserves.

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