Take a good look at this painting: It’s how artist Alan Sonneman once thought our fair city could meet its end. In a serene, blue sky, an atomic bomb mushroom-clouds over the District, visible from the viewpoint of drivers across the Roosevelt Bridge. So simultaneously calm and terrifying, it’s no wonder the painting caused a stir at the Washington Project for the Arts’ 1980 show “Metarealities.”
“It was painted in the days of Mutually Assured Destruction, the daily business of parents of people I knew in D.C.,” says Sonneman. “This is the business of Washington. My girlfriend’s father arranged the distribution of nuclear warheads for NATO.”
The painting wasn’t just a response to the Cold War—-it was also a personal rebuke.
“I had come here from going to art school in California, and people would say, ‘You’re a Californian, aren’t you scared of earthquakes?’ And my response was, ‘You’re going to get blown up first, before I fall into the sea,'” says Sonneman.
Titled “The Last Washington Painting,” this work is now also a lost Washington painting. Sonneman says that the painting was purchased in 1980 by Marc Moyens of the now-defunct Gallery K. Then Sonneman moved to Los Angeles, and the work was sold to someone else, unbeknown to the artist. Both Moyens and his partner Komei Wachi passed away in 2003, and left no records of the sale.
“I wish we had Facebook back then—-it was harder to keep in touch with people in the ’80s,” Sonneman says. “You sell [a painting] to someone and they can do whatever they want with it. It’s lost, from my point of view. I hope it’s still in the D.C. area.”
Sonneman says he’s received several inquires about the painting in the years since; now he’d like to track it down for an upcoming 35th anniversary survey of the Washington Project for the Arts. J.W. Mahoney (most recently of the May 4 one-night show “Acid Trip” at Curator’s Office) is the survey’s curator, and wants to include “The Last Washington Painting” because of the controversy it courted and the history it represented—-if only Sonneman can find the present owner. Sonneman says he’s followed several false leads, and is now reaching out to the media for help.