For the five years that he’s worked downtown in a fourth-floor office on E Street, Michael Ross had a rather uninspiring view of the backs of four crumbling buildings. As crews began the dirty work of ripping down the long-condemned structures between 920 and 930 F St. NW, he hardly expected that an extended demolition project would improve the scenery. Then, just last week, the top three floors of the Ritz Hotel, at 920 F St., caved in to reveal several bright paintings attached to the internal walls.
Viewing the paintings is a rather perilous affair, because the block is an active demolition site. The three visible surviving pieces cannot be seen from the street, only from the end of the roped-off adjacent alley. And if you manage to sneak into the restricted area, there is little context left in the rubble to help you make sense of what you see.
Two of the paintings portray moments of everyday life, incorporating post-impressionist influences into an un-self-conscious folk-art style. A kitchen scene playfully contrasts a ’50s-style refrigerator rendered in thick, black comic-book lines with a dining table that recalls the glowing pastels and bent perspective of Cézanne’s Still Life With Plaster Castbut without the technical polish. The other slice-of-life piece offers a peek into a cramped bedroom, where four young girls rest on a metal-framed bed. The autumn tones of a patchwork quilt set off the subjects’ warm brown skin; the painting brings to mind Gauguin’s languid portraits of young Tahitian girls. A third work, a Crayola-colored collage of abstract shapes and pointilistic swirls, brings forward an otherworldly aquarium.
The paintings are actually portions of larger installations from “Putting On the Ritz,” a 1983 exhibit put together by artists involved with the Washington Project for the Arts and New York City’s Collab. The show was billed as a “non-elitist” forum for participants in the then-booming downtown arts scene, and it attracted more than 300 exhibitors. Many of the works, however, weren’t very good, apparently; in an April 8, 1983, Washington City Paper review, the show was described by one observer as “art by bag ladies.” Not that many people noticed: The Ritz had been condemned in 1981 because of fire-code violations, and the D.C. Fire Department closed the exhibit almost as soon as it opened. Some of the works stayed right where they were, remaining abandoned and unseenuntil now.
The Ritz and its neighborsincluding the nearby Atlantic Building, which housed the 9:30 Club from the early ’80s to 1995won’t be destroyed completely. The buildings’ façades enjoy government protection through the D.C. Inventory of Historic Places; they will be fused onto the new office and retail buildings planned for the site. But such protection applies only to structures, says Jerry Maronek of the D.C. Preservation League. The paintings are now the property of the developers, the Bernstein Cos. and Clover Development, which have made no attempt to preserve any of the works. “Every room had something on the wall, but I didn’t know of any artistic significance,” says Eric Burkey, Clark Construction’s demolition project manager. “Nothing has been salvaged, and it will end up at the dump, I’m sorry to say.”
Judy Jashinsky, a painter who has lived and worked in the downtown area for 18 years, works from a studio across the street from the Ritz building. She participated in the 1983 “Ritz” show and recalls the area’s community feel. “There were hundreds of us down thereover 60 artists in just the Atlas Building on 9th Street, where my studio was. There were hardware stores and junk shops all around to get supplies from. You were in walking distance from the National Gallery, and the old 9:30 Club was right there with all the new music. It was quite a scene.”
Back then, artists looked to older, sometimes condemned buildings for cheap studio space, but in the late ’80s and early ’90s, those structures began to deteriorate dangerously. Artists began to move elsewhere. Today, the little studio space available in new downtown buildings is pricey, and many artists who’ve remained downtownincluding Jashinskyare moving their work spaces to the Millennium Arts Center at Half and I Streets SW.
Despite the lukewarm reception the “Ritz” exhibit received 17 years ago, its fragments are meaningful now as relics of downtown’s once-vibrant arts community. For those who don’t have a convenient office view of this spontaneous exhibit, Ross has a few words of advice: “If you want to see it, you’d better get down there now.” And bring a hard hat. The project manager estimates that the wrecking ball will take its final swing within a week. Shauna Miller