It’s been nearly 50 years since Gene Davis lent Popsicle, a characteristic stripe painting, to a happening at which 50 Corcoran students tried to re-create it. It was 1968, and the doors of the Washington Color School were closing: By then it had pretty much all been done. Since 1952, when Helen Frankenthaler debuted a transitional abstraction called Mountains and Sea, in which she applied oil directly onto ungessoed canvas, color-field artists stained, sprayed, painted, and applied pigments to various supports. These post-painterly artists eschewed the artist’s touch that’s evident in the works of their abstract-expressionist forebears, preferring reductive and often geometric fields of color without a lot of to-do: stripes, circles, zones, pours.
Those were salad days for the city’s art scene, and it hasn’t entirely moved on. Hard times came in the late ’60s, prompted by local race riots and economic stagnation, and languishing interest in painting everywhere. New York revived during the ’70s and took the helm of abstract painting, a title it hasn’t relinquished. These days, though, D.C. is in bloom, as gentrification paves the way for new creative corridors. Conceived by the Kreeger Museum and organized with a handful of local arts and tourism organizations, the ColorField.remix festival features exhibits of classic color-field artists as well as shows by contemporary artists inspired, sometimes loosely, by the color field and Washington Color School. The fest is as much a nod to the city’s heyday as a formal recognition of its recent progress.
Throughout the summer and beyond, area museums are giving color-field artists another look. Frankenthaler’s pivotal piece is on display at the National Gallery of Art; a retrospective of works by prolific stain artist Morris Louis will open at the Hirshhorn in September. Through July, the Phillips Collection will display “Lyrical Color,” a show of Washington Color School artists Davis, Louis, and Kenneth Noland. Addison/Ripley Fine Art and Osuna Gallery, respectively, are hosting mini-retrospectives by lesser-known artists Thomas Downing and Paul Reed. (The Downing works are on display at the Warner Building, 1299 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.)
The lineage between contemporary and color-field artists is hazier. It will take some gymnastics by Richard Chartier and Brandon Morse, sound and video artists who are curating works for the Washington Project for the Arts\Corcoran’s Experimental Media Series, to assemble a show of new media that owes a legitimate debt to stain painters. Galleries like Meat Market have arranged shows that piggyback on the festival, but just a few contemporary art stops will show works by artists with a color-field legacy.
There’s a line between remix and rehash, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities crosses it. Re-creating a festive 1987 public art project, a stretch of 8th St. NW between D and E will be painted in Gene Davisnesque stripes. The ColorField.remix is a celebration—but it should also be a punctuation. Even the Washington Color School artists moved on. Washington should, too.
Jason Gubbiotti: Wrong Way to Paradise
To May 26 at Hemphill Fine Arts
Maybe you’ve heard the well-traveled anecdote about Jason Gubbiotti: Several years back, Gubbiotti used discontinued Magna acrylic paints for some one-off paintings. When word of this made it into print, his gallery (Fusebox, at the time) fielded a call from Morris Louis’ widow, who suspected that the turpentine-based Magna paints played a role in her husband’s death. Frankly, that’s where Gubbiotti’s legacy as a color-field artist begins and ends. He’s a post-painterly abstractionist who paints compounds, not fields. Folk Biology and the Return of Oxytocin is his one wink toward the color-field festival; the first piece made with his Hemphill show in mind, it’s an acrylic painting on ungessoed canvas. (Most are on wood panel.) In his other new works—paintings from 2006 and 2007, a site-specific wall drawing and a sculptural installation—Gubbiotti continues with an examination of color that tends toward the formulaic. He often starts with the detail work, rolling contrasting bold and pastel acrylics onto canvas in a familiar, topographic arrangement of polygonal territories. Monochromatic expanses that look like backgrounds are often applied after the fact: One example is the eggshell-blue field in Youth Gone Wild (One Minute of Silence), which rises against receding white pentagons, forming taut little ridges. Gubbiotti’s third typical effect is the countermanding stripe. In God Does Not Always Have the Best Damn Plan, he contradicts all the enthusiasm he musters with lemon, lime, and sky-blue elements by deploying a single, foundational, drab olive-gray block. While Gubbiotti’s compositions are predictable, his use of color evokes political provocation—see the Gitmo orange and militaristic cellblock structures in Is This What Happiness Looks Like? And Youth Gone Wild pulls the gallery into the grid: A diptych, one-panel painting curls around a gallery corner, while the other half is mounted on the facing wall. The flawless execution may point to too much practice, but he does pull off some sick tricks.
Jules Olitski: Late Sculpture
Through 2007 at the Katzen Arts Center
At Vermont’s Bennington College in the ’60s, Jules Olitski, then the director of the art department, befriended British sculptor Anthony Caro, whom Olitski had given a temporary post. Caro repaid the favor by inspiring the painter to take a spray gun to his canvases. The results—airy atmospheres of layered, subdued colors—became his post-painterly signature. It’s fitting that toward the end of his life (he died this past February)—marked by a staggering fall from grace with critics after hitting the rarefied heights of a one-man show at the Met—Olitski tipped his hat to Caro. The three sculptures from the 2006 “Cyclops” series, his last major works, are brightly plumed concrete-mixer shells, fitted with holes, laced by spiraling steel helixes, and seemingly propped up by steel bars and cantilevered wedges. Two of the monochromatic, egg-shaped pieces are painted in pink and purple Easter pastels, and the third is Day-Glo green; the paint is Olitski’s own formula, an industrial oil based on deck paint. (Thankfully, the formula is in American University’s possession: After the journey from Vermont to D.C., the sculptures could use some touching-up.) As a painter, Olitski was particular about surface values, preferring the grainy texture that distinguished his spray-paint canvases or else impasto; the color application in the “Cyclops” pieces is straightforward and flat, however. Whereas Caro used bold colors to emphasize the density of steel, Olitski hopes to lighten the load with vivid color. His use of form also gives a lift: Accordion wedges arc upward along the exterior of his hollowed-out shells. But the roughshod execution goes too far, and the pieces look a little flimsy for it. The interiors are the most Olitski, with helixes and double helixes punctuated by variously sized holes—the kind of dots that the artist loved to use to enjamb vast fields of color on his canvases.
Works by Peter Fox
To May 17 at Knew Gallery
If his work didn’t sometimes look so much like Gene Davis’, no one would mention Peter Fox and the Color School in the same breath. Fox doesn’t always paint in stripes. In fact, most of the new works by the New York painter on display at Georgetown’s Knew Gallery aren’t striped at all. Fox paints seismic shifts, using a unique application system to layer and layer and layer thick, gestural swabs of swirled acrylic on linen canvas (sometimes treated, sometimes not). Late Shift reads from left to right like an EKG or seismological reading. More intriguing is the vertical scheme that appears in his maelstrom of color: in the top strata, a marlin-colored blue-and-white mixture; in the middle layer, a green-and-yellow swarm of grasshoppers; and at the bottom, a red-and-white surge of iridescent seashell pink. With all the gestural abstraction, what’s he doing in a color-field show? First, there’s a Gene Davis look-alike, Uniformal, which is the largest piece in the show. It’s a vertical-stripe painting built up by layering acrylic in troughs and divots that he fills in with even more acrylic; the painting culminates in satisfying stalactites that collect at the bottom of the canvas. The evidence of Fox’s process can be seen in tiny tears, holes, and air bubbles in the stripes—which is another way Fox deviates from the gestural set. Psychedelic and fractal arrays of color are the result of plodding, methodical application. Fox isn’t color-field per se, but he owes more to that set than the stripes alone.
Gene Davis: Interval
To July 31 at the Kreeger Museum
Gene Davis fiercely defended his status as auteur of the stripe painting. Like seemingly every artist in the late ’50s, Davis dabbled and dripped paint onto canvas, yielding ever-diminishing returns. It wasn’t until 1960, two years after he put down his first vertical stripes, that Davis turned away from abstract expressionism forever and pursued the post-painterly strategy that would bring him into the color-field orbit. There’s always an opportunity in the District to see what he wrought: work by the city’s favorite son is usually on display at museums, galleries (such as Marsha Mateyka, who represents his estate), and private collections. Interval, a retrospective organized by the Kreeger Museum, is as fresh a take as anyone could expect on a well-known, beloved body of work that exhaustively examines just a single idea. All of Davis’ modes are represented here. There is the edge-to-edge stripe work, such as Black Balloon, whose strict intervals of bold, dense color lock the viewer’s eye. The pacific white stripe in Icebox is meditative, calling to mind Agnes Martin—but it’s nevertheless rhythmic and insistent. Paintings as disparate as the Morris Louisnesque stained Foxgate and the hard-edged Sherwood Forest (hung on opposing walls to punctuate the gallery) emphasize Davis’ compositional innovation. This is less apparent in what Davis tried to squeeze out of the stripe near the end of his career, such as Red Pope, a bar-code painting whose rhythm reads in an obvious, if exaggerated, left-to-right manner, like sheet music. Davis didn’t care for the pressure to continually innovate at the level he’d already achieved. Once was enough—he tweaked American abstraction, nudging composition away from the single, all-over, iconic field.
Leon Berkowitz: The Cathedral Series
To May 26 at Hemphill Fine Arts
The closest thing that the Washington Color School had to a physical campus was the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, a school and community center located at 2020 Massachusetts Ave. NW that was founded by Leon Berkowitz in 1945. Never mind that the workshop folded by the end of the ’50s, well before the watershed 1965 exhibit that formally put the Color School on the map. Or that Berkowitz, an abstract painter, rejected all claims that he was a member of that club. It was his close association with artists, both as a teacher and an administrator, that earned him a reputation he considered undue. The Washington Arts Museum isn’t doing him any favors in that regard: “Looking Into Color,” an exhibit from the artist’s mature period, puts him at the center of the festival—and squarely within the color-field tradition. In Winged (1968n72), Berkowitz paints roughly hewn vertical stripes on a hexagonal field; the piece not only links his work to Davis’, it resembles the reductive experiments in frame and canvas that would follow the color-field period. I Thou (1985) falls somewhere between the expansive atmospheres of Mark Rothko and the reductive spray-painted fields of Olitski. Enter looks like something by Pollock before he was Pollock: a hard-edged, abstract, mythic painting. But Berkowitz’s primary concerns trend far earlier: He was a spiritual painter, not much taken with the formal developments of his colleagues and students, and he described his works as paintings of light. What primarily distinguishes him from the Color School is his brush: Berkowitz applied paint with the painterly ambition that color-field artists rejected with their pours and stains. Possibly adding insult to injury, Berkowitz’s paintings are paired with some non sequiturs—including three early portraits of his Washington Color School buddies.