Reviving Washington, D.C.'s Art Scene

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Washington, D.C., is known for its landmarks, monuments and museums that usually showcase art works created in other places. But this summer Washingtonians are reclaiming their spot in the art world.

A city-wide celebration called "Colorfield Remix" features some 30 different exhibits honoring the homegrown Washington Color School.

The Washington Color School was in it's heyday in the 1960s and was comprised of a small group of painters who were making big, bright works known as Color Field paintings: Artists like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Gene Davis who's multi-striped canvases are the major inspiration for this paint-in:

"Well, a color strip was a way for him to challenge the viewer in many ways rhythmically in terms of pattern," artist Mokha Laget told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver.

Laget studied with the late painter Gene Davis and helped coordinate this event.

"They wanted to use raw canvas, have the color really set in, saturate, live, glow and be a presence the color school just blossomed," she said.

Laget and other artists are trying to say that at one golden moment the capital of the United States was also a center for art that mattered throughout the world.

Curator Jean Lawlor Cohen says that the most famous of the artists is probably Morris Louis. Louis came to Washington, D.C., because he married a Washington woman. He painted in their small house, which could not hold his canvases because they were so long. He would staple them around the walls and at one point someone said he had 600 canvasses rolled up in his basement.

Louis died of lung cancer at 49 before his work really took off, but is now considered a major American artist. His paintings are not only on exhibit at the Washington's Phillips Collection, but also in a recent exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. Lawlor Cohen said she believes that Louis's paintings were about Zen space by leaving white space in the middle of his works.

"He was just playing with what water based paint will do when it hits something raw that absorbs it," she said.

Louis's good friend was Kenneth Noland, who was known for his circular paintings which were sometimes called "targets:"

"There's a real apocryphal story that when he was teaching at Catholic U., that students would put these targets around, and they would put them up in the dorms and they would get darts out and so somewhere there must be Nolands with holes in them," Lawlor Cohen said.

The Washington Color School painters in fact were never an organized group, although they all knew each other and some did exhibits together. The name was reportedly coined by the influential New York art critic Clement Greenburg.

All of the artists used color to create very flat looking canvases, but each had a distinct style: Howard Meehring favored Z shapes, Alma Thomas was influenced by patterns of light, Paul Reed painted elaborate spheres and Thomas Downing's circles looked like discs. Downing and some of his friends are said to have been influenced by a psychologist in Philadelphia.

"They'd go up there on a train, and he would help them get centered and he would even take a cake tin and put it on his stomach to try to center his system," Lawlor Cohen said. "So the circle appealed."

The circle did not appeal to Gene Davis. He was all about straight lines. His work is being displayed at the Kreeger Museum where Judy Greenburg is director. She said Davis' work shows the diversity of the stripe.

Davis kept painting stripes until his death in 1985, but the excitement over the Washington Color School waned by the mid '70s.

"Things change," Greenburg said. "Other artists, other movements came in and for some reason it just stopped here."

But the movement led to something. It led to concepts that continued. Acclaimed artist Sam Gilliam knew and worked with the Color School painters and says they were a major influence on him and other artists coming up in the '60s.

"When you're next," he said, "you don't want to be the same as before and that's essentially — it's that ideas and concepts in art had changed. Because the color field had opened up possibilities and you had to know where to land."

Gilliam says that it's important to remember that as much as the Color School artists are being praised now many had a hard go of it in their own lifetime.

"It had to be miserable because Washington was a small place, not even the galleries in Washington recognized them," he said.

So now Gilliam is delighted with all the attention being showered on his old friends.

"Because if you didn't see it the first time, this time you can see it and you learn," he said. "You think — I mean maybe that's where art really is: it's in the reruns."
  • Caitlin Johnson

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