Sunday, January 19, 2020

John Anderson on Washingtonian magazine article on DC galleries

I had my say here a few days ago on the recent article in Washingtonian magazine on DC art galleries.  Below is what former DMV art critic, artist, art historian, and curator John Anderson adds to my observations:
I’m going to argue your point about the halcyon days, Lenny, and say it was during the 1970s..There were about 120 galleries in DC (not DMV) at one point, and GREAT coverage in the Post and Star. (I can’t recall if Washington Daily News was still active, or the Virginia Morning Sun; the area had 4 dailies going into the 1960s, though). Hopps was absorbing DC artist works into the NCFA (now SAAM). Slade made the Corcoran healthy (and did so without breaking anyone’s nose). The Phillips was actively exhibiting local artists. The WPA opened and had three floors of crazy going on. The Hirshhorn opened. The NEA supported several area artists. There were the women’s artists conferences. The Bicentennial. Artists fighting for rights on The Hill. Rockne was shooting his lasers everywhere. The Art Now (1974) scandal. Yuri Schwebler’s Sundial. Exciting times! I won’t disagree that the 80s, 90s, 00s were all interesting, exciting, or brimming with potential. But I think the 70s was peak awesome in DC art history, and it was predicated by a scene that was growing in the 1950s and 1960s (something Andrew Hudson recognized in an exhibition he curated for the Edmonton Art Gallery in 1970, and something another curator in Baltimore recognized for a similar exhibition at the BMA: both opening in 1970, I believe).

It’s unclear from Bourland’s historical synopsis if he deemed the 70s as the hay-day, since he folds the 50s-60s Color School (WCS) in with Protetch, Moyens, Henri, etc... However, the omission of the Jefferson Place Gallery (JPG) struck me as interesting. I mean, if he’s going to mention WCS, he may as well credit the gallery that, at one time, supported Noland, Davis, Downing, and Mehring (the latter of which exhibited at the JPG at least through 1971). If he is going to mention Gilliam, again he may as well mention the JPG since Gilliam showed there from 65-74. In fact, every artist Bourland mentioned had some connection to JPG, whether being represented by or, in the case of Louis, eschewing invitation to do so.

The mention of “hard-edged abstraction of the Washington Color School anchored by Louis and Gilliam” also made me laugh. I mean, those are the two guys who are least hard edge (minus Gilliam’s first stripes). Come to think of it, Noland’s targets weren’t all that hard-edged, and Mehring’s best work—his dappled all-overs—also defied hard edges. The three who were most consistently hard edge were Downing, Davis, and most especially Truitt! Can’t get much harder-edged than the side of a rectangular prism.

There are other issues with his historical truncation, which make me wonder if it was just slap-dash editing, or some concession to word count. For instance, why was Bill Christenberry lumped in with the Color School guys? His stuff seems charged by memory, place, nostalgia, and time. In other words: content... which is something that isn’t present in a lot of the WCS stuff (although, Paul Richard will argue that Noland was doing targets because he was driving around L’Enfant’s traffic circles in his cabs way too much… and I really like that read!). When I think of Christenberry I think of photographs that follow in the footsteps of Walker Evans (at times, literally), his haunting Klan stuff, and ink drawings of pear trees. Maybe his assemblages of license plates and tin roofs were informed by WCS, but I think such a connection is a big stretch.

Also, Walter Hopps’ Washington Gallery of Modern Art? Hopps was the fourth director (5th if you count the hot minute Eleanor McPeck held down the fort between Breeskin’s resignation and Nordland’s appointment), and held the post for a smidgen over a year. Yes, he was doing great things. Great big expensive things. It’s partly why the Corcoran bought the property: WGMA couldn’t afford it any longer. Fortunately the Corcoran  had the sense to let Hopps continue doing interesting things there through late 68 and into 69. But, while Hopps may have had the most interesting tenure as director, WGMA was doing interesting things from its founding… back in the days when Alice Denney and Julian Eisenstein took their bar napkin sketch for a museum in 1960 and turned it into a museum showing a Franz Kline memorial retrospective in 1962. And then the Popular Image show, and Pop Festival months later. And, were it not for the Stern Family Foundation, everything that came before, during, and after Hopps wouldn’t have been possible: where’s Leni Stern’s credit?

What I think Bourland’s piece misses isn’t so much how a whimpering boom of three new galleries in the area can possibly excite the scene. Yes. It’s good they’re here. Quite possibly it creates an opportunity for a few area artists to show their stuff. Maybe, if those galleries are lucky, DC collectors will buy from them, too! And, while art is certainly a commodity, it is also one of the humanities. Art galleries are places that can ground us, give us insight into worlds unfamiliar to us, and spark meaningful changes in perception and opinion in the people who visit them. And that can lead to profound actual change in Washington. Were it not for the Jefferson Place Gallery, and the lectures and openings that John Brademus attended, perhaps he wouldn’t have been as successful whipping votes to make the NEA happen. Unfortunately, such touchy-feely things don’t pay the bills. But in a town experiencing such rapid change, having more galleries is a way to reconnect people to a variety of ideas in non-literary ways. Hopefully these three galleries, those that preceded them, and those that come to follow, will inspire.

And, God-willing, they all sell some stuff to go over a bunch of couches so that they can keep the lights on.

152 works by African American artists donated to Howard University

An art collector and widow of a former Howard University professor has donated 152 works by African American artists to Howard University. The collection, valued at $2.5 million, includes some of the earliest surviving works by African Americans in this country.
Read the story by Mikaela Lefrak here.