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“Howard Mehring:

Classical Abstraction”

At Catholic University’s Salve Regina Gallery to Oct. 25

“Thomas Downing:

Origin of the Dot”

At Conner Contemporary Art to Oct. 26

“Tom Downing:

Major Paintings”

At Signal 66 to Oct. 19

Two cramped, humid rooms wheezing with window-unit air conditioning. In the back one, large pipes intrude on track lighting, and paint spatters trail across bubbly, liver-colored linoleum. Through an open door, a studio class clatters away. In the front room, grubby ceramic tile and perforated radiator covers clogged with repainting. In the corner, next to a rack of mailboxes, a computer workstation. On the bottom shelf, a Rolling Rock box half-filled with rubber bands.

Is the Catholic University of America’s Salve Regina Gallery any kind of place to stage a comeback? Even spared a setting that suggests the church could stand to earmark more money for art education, the early color-field canvases of Washington’s Howard Mehring would face an uphill battle. Any attempt to canonize an artist consigned to the second string of a movement that has already sent two or three members (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and arguably Gene Davis) on to lasting glory needs to make its case with precision. And though the site was ostensibly selected out of respect for its historical importance—Mehring studied at Catholic under Noland—I remain unconvinced: Put Mehring’s paintings up against the sundry obstacles that muscle in on what has to be one of the District’s most inhospitable art spaces and they’re goners.

At any rate, don’t accuse 1961’s Green of shirking its duty; it is quite possibly unaware it’s even part of the campaign. Wait long enough and a grad student or member of the adjunct faculty—at least I hope it wasn’t a full professor—will unlock the door to his office and there, bivouacked among photocopier, electric typewriter, and laser printer, the little picture hangs. Writ small within its borders are all the shortcomings of the larger paintings in the back room. Its obsessively stippled swatches of mottled color glued to one another so that the edges between them are reminiscent of the legs of freshly scissored cut-offs, it manages to look both labored and slapdash. It is understandably difficult to maintain precise geometries using such methods, and larger compositions such as the back-to-back green E’s of Spring Is (1963) and the three concentric foursquare courts of Primal (1961-1962) skew perceptibly from their ideal configurations.

Mehring’s earlier allover pictures, each painted on a single expanse of uncut canvas, don’t suffer such complications, but only the burnished, webby neural field of an untitled 1958 piece occupies the front room with any authority. The straight-out-of-the-tube red of a 1959 painting oversimplifies the more subtle hues of another from the previous year, but even the predecessor lacks presence. It’s difficult to determine where lighting ends and brushwork begins, but for a field painting meant to evoke the infinite, it stays safely ensconced within its borders.

Having started loose and grown increasingly tight, Mehring would eventually take up true hard-edge painting. Over at the Phillips Collection, among a compact installation of Washington Color School paintings and out-of-town abstraction from the same era, Interval sets up a vibrant opticality with its nested zigzags in flat-painted blues, maroon, brown, scarlet-orange, and dusky mauve. The picture seems both successful and a bit facile. Painted in 1967, it is considered a late-period Mehring. Within the next couple of years, the artist would give up painting altogether, although he lived another decade. What kind of painter throws in the towel before he hits 40? In Mehring’s case, one who set his standards high but whose dissatisfaction wasn’t necessarily misplaced.

Given that the botched Mehring hanging is a co-production of Catholic and Conner Contemporary Art, the success of the Dupont Circle gallery’s Thomas Downing exhibition is somewhat unexpected. Say what you will about the pristine tyranny of the white cube—for color-field painting, nothing works better. Conner, like virtually every contemporary gallery in town, is bound by the concessions it makes to the architecture of an era unprepared for ordinary citizens’ ownership of public-scale art. But it makes a fair approximation of the required space. And Downing is a vastly more supportable candidate for the big leagues. He was at his peak at roughly the same time as his former studiomate Mehring, from the late ’50s to the late ’60s, but he reached greater heights.

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An untitled allover composition of yellows and pinks from 1959 fills a wall with shimmering pointillist sunlight; its contemporary, Jade, blossoms like the dense foliage of a Klimt fruit tree in green, pink, purple, periwinkle, and turquoise. This pair already exhibits Downing’s signature motif: the dot of color stained into unprimed canvas. But whether buffeted by breezes or scattered by the random collisions of Brownian motion, the overlapping circles of color in the early works suggest a kinesis and an allusion to nature that would soon be abandoned.

Downing had adopted the dot in response to Noland’s target paintings, and it is inconceivable that the formal power of that series had nothing to do with Downing’s subsequent decision to isolate his dots against the bare expanse of the canvas. Following the example of soak-and-stain pioneer Louis, color-fielders had made Magna, a now-obsolete solvent-based acrylic paint, the medium of choice. Its pigments carried out into the weave of the raw canvas on halos of turpentine, and it lent itself to a kind of color-focused abstraction that was “post-painterly” (to use the term Clement Greenberg coined for a 1964 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that included both Downing and Mehring, as well as Noland, Louis, and Davis) but not quite hard-edge.

In Helen’s Eyes, a grid painting from 1961, Downing emphasized the looseness of his handling, as contrasted with the exactitude of the formulas governing the size, color, and placement of the dots themselves, by making little attempt to guard against drips and spatters. They dance around the disks of blues, purple, and an opalescent gray-white, toying with the rigor from which the picture draws its strength. In the 1963 grid Blue and Gold, the interstices between the tightly packed dots fill up with the trapezoidal overlappings of adjacent halos. Chemical peculiarities cause both the dark and light blues to have halos lighter than the canvas itself, whereas components of Downing’s white paint leach out to form nimbuses darker than the support. The gold dots have darker ones still.

In 1964’s Blue Tender, the formal intensity of what is potentially Downing’s most forceful configuration of dots, the “dial,” owes to the tension between circle and square. On a square canvas more than 7 feet on a side, two concentric eight-dot rings, each composed of two interleaved groups of four dots arranged in a square, radiate from the large dot at the painting’s still center. The glow of the dots’ slender coronas only contributes to the opticality created by the competition between the colors, in this case a muted rose and a variety of powerful blues ranging from ultramarine to midnight.

By the time he painted Ring 3 Saranac, in 1971, Downing had switched from Magna to water-thinned acrylic, which eliminated any halos. Circumscribed by pencil lines and anchored at their centers with compass points, the circles of color become more rigid. There is still play between the colors of this painting, as like hues form the vertexes of a sequence of equilateral triangles, but it has all the drama of the steady sweep of a rotary phone dial.

Drawing from the estate of former Corcoran Gallery of Art Administrative Director Vincent Melzac, a collector who amassed the largest private holdings of both Mehring and Downing paintings, Conner may not have the space to present the complete Downing, but the one selected is a force to be reckoned with.

The scruffy alternative space Signal 66 has a Downing show, too. But the contrast between its installation and Conner’s serves as an object lesson in the importance of employing sound curatorial practices even in nonmuseum settings. With the inclusion of a couple of hard-edge pictures from 1980, the 10 paintings at Signal 66 cover a broader range of time, but by building their show around a poorly differentiated group of five red and blue dial paintings, all from 1963, the organizers make Downing out to be a less versatile colorist than he in fact was.

When post-painterly types worked in series, it was ostensibly to work out the variations of each basic pictorial idea. But it was also to overcome the limited geographic range of physical objects, by which all painting threatens to become regionalized. Downing likely intended for these dials to be scattered throughout the art world, establishing his reputation equivalently in distant locales. Instead, they wound up in the grasp of former D.C. gallerist Ramon Osuna, who appears to have thought little of them until presented with the opportunity to piggyback on the Conner exhibition.

The Signal show gives every indication of having been assembled in haste. No new research was done for the press kit, which reads like a time capsule from 1980, the date of the latest newspaper review included. You’d never know from the accompanying bio that Downing died in 1985 or that Osuna Gallery couldn’t still be reached at its long-gone 7th Street NW location via Telex. And the stretching of the rolled canvases is a total hash: Downings are a bother to work with, no doubt—he laid out his meticulous compositions on unstretched canvas laid on the floor—but there’s no way he intended for all of his dials to list to the left. As for the rows of staples pounded into the sides of the stretchers, on work of this type, they are an absolute defilement. The condition of some of the paintings also leaves something to be desired; the pigment of the large purplish blue dots toward the bottom corners of Red Dial (1963), for example, appears to have been abraded.

Color-field paintings are fragile things, both physically and in terms of their extreme sensitivity to the environments in which they are hung. The challenge, four decades after they were made, is to ratify their significance by making them seem new again. At Conner, in addition to a knockout show of work that still seems fresh, you can witness the brick-by-brick construction of a lasting reputation; at Signal 66, you can see it threaten to crumble apart. CP