As portraits of unfathomable destruction go, The Last Washington Painting is a doozy.
In the distance, a mushroom cloud rises over the District. In the foreground, cars rush across the Potomac, inbound and straight for the blast.
The scene, depicted in photorealistic style, brings to life a prospect that seemed all too possible back in the Cold War year of 1981. Ronald Reagan’s hawkish administration had just swept into power. The Soviet Union had just swept into Afghanistan. And, no surprise, Alan Sonneman’s surreal, serene doomsday painting was the talk of that year’s “Metarealities” show at the Washington Project for the Arts.
“These locally made paintings...are creepy, but peculiarly conventional,” critic Paul Richard wrote in The Washington Post. “They call to mind this town. Even when they deal with the most peculiar subjects, with monsters and disasters, they dress as blandly as bureaucrats. Their brushwork remains placid; their surfaces are calm.”
Sonneman was 27 at the time. He had moved to the District after graduating from the Art Institute of San Francisco in 1976, living in a Glover Park group house. The transition between peacenik San Francisco and geopolitics-minded D.C. provided the inspiration for his monumental work.
“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.” It was also a personal rebuke to East Coast types: “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,’” he says.
The work was included in several local and regional shows in the Armageddon-obsessed early ’80s: WPA’s “Metarealities,” “Crimes of Compassion” at Norfolk, Va.’s Chrysler Museum, the now-defunct Nourse Gallery’s “Crimes of the Corporate Wars.” An image of the painting was published in nearly every local paper. Two prominent gallery owners, Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi of Dupont’s Gallery K, soon purchased it for $5,000.
Sonneman eventually moved to Los Angeles to paint and work in the film industry as an on-set artist. When he left, he didn’t keep in touch with Gallery K. Many of his Washington friends also scattered across the country. Moyens and Wachi sold the painting at some point. Sonneman never heard about the sale. And that’s how The Last Washington Painting became the Lost Washington Painting, not to be seen again for 30 years.
But now, in a whole new age of terror, the painting is suddenly back—slated to star in this fall’s WPA anniversary show. The story of how it was found involves several generations of Washington artists. And the story of where it was found is, quite literally, a mess.
Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi loved art, and each other. They owned more art than could fit on the walls of their Alexandria home: works by Jackson Pollock, Anne Truitt, Joseph Cornell, Gene Davis, and Robert Rauschenberg. There were so many significant pieces that the great Walter Hopps once curated a show of Moyens’ collection for the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Moyens and Wachi started Dupont’s Gallery K in 1975, specializing in photorealism and surrealism, neither of which were trendy in an era when the Washington Color School was at its peak. But the gallery was well-liked nonetheless, exhibiting Washington artists such as Sidney Lawrence, Lisa Brotman, Wayne Edson Bryan, and Y. David Chung. It became an opening-night fixture in a gallery scene that was still based in Georgetown.
“They were true art lovers and connoisseurs,” says Brotman. “They were wonderful in the sense that they would let you show work that was difficult, even though it wasn’t commercially viable. They had a threshold for unusual work.”
But they were less fastidious about keeping records. “They were great people to do business with, but they were very old-fashioned,” says Jack Rasmussen, director of American University’s Katzen Gallery. “They closed deals with a handshake.”
Which would have been no problem if their business had lasted forever. But by this spring, when Sonneman began trying to track down The Last Washington Painting for the anniversary show, Gallery K was long gone. It closed abruptly in 2003 when Moyens suffered a fatal heart attack at the opera. Wachi, who had been sick with pancreatic cancer, died three weeks later. They had been together for 37 years.
After the deaths, the two mens’ families—long estranged from the couple, according to friends—took control of the collection, auctioning it off. The art community’s only real chance to mourn the gallery came in 2007, when Rasmussen organized one last pre-auction exhibit of their collection. By then, The Last Washington Painting was nowhere to be found.
Sonneman’s attempts to track down records of the sale were fruitless. He was told that the gallery’s only receipts were among 50 disorganized boxes of papers, all of them handwritten. If a receipt was in there, it would be a needle-in-a-haystack search. It was also a moot point: The boxes had been sealed when the pair’s estate was settled. Opening them would require a court order.