Yes, Washington Art Matters, But Let’s Make a Better Case For It
"Any show so varied, it is bound to leave a blur," wrote Washington Post critic Paul Richard about "The Washington Show," an exhibit the Corcoran mounted in 1985. The show aspired to establish the importance of Washington artists at the time. "Washington Art Matters," an ongoing exhibition at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, pursues the same mission—and Richard's assessment applies to this show, too.
Until August 11, the top floor of the American University Museum presents a 50-year retrospective of D.C. art between 1940 and 1989, and it feels much like a multifarious Washington Project for the Arts auction. On view are some muscular works by Jim Sanborn and Robin Rose, as well as a few old standards by Martin Puryear, Sam Gilliam, and Kenneth Noland. But, with more than 80 artists represented in the exhibit—most by a single piece—the show doesn't distill the working careers of the artists involved or offer a coherent sense of identity or movement happening in D.C. The only exception is the featured work from the late 1950s and early '60s, when seemingly every artist in Washington was under the spell of Abstract Expressionism and the so-called Washington Color School. After that, District art hopped all over the map.
Of course, this is an exhibit of some compromise, pulled together in limited time. American University Museum Director Jack Rasmussen, a consistent supporter of D.C. art, found a hole for an exhibit last year when he learned The Washington Arts Museum was publishing Washington Art Matters, a book on local art from 1940 to 1989. Earlier this year, the book's authors gave Rasmussen a list of artists to include in the show, and the museum got to work plucking the relevant art from private collections and three area museums in under 10 weeks (the museum already owned about a third of the work).
Washington Art Matters, written by Jean Lawlor Cohen, Sidney Lawrence, Elizabeth Tebow, and Benjamin Forgey, is, by the authors' own admission, "well intentioned." Unfortunately, it struggles with the same hurdles the exhibit does. This summary of 50 years of Washington art, condensed into 213 pages, often reads like a summary of a summary.
The authors intended the work to be conversational—and it succeeds at that—with Lawrence and Tebow modelling their chapters after three Cohen essays originally written for Museum and Arts Washington in 1988 (and greatly expanded here, according to Cohen). But the conversation feels like the product of eavesdropping on a party line. Washington Art Matters offers the occasional pithy anecdote about an artist, usually squeezed into a parenthetical sentence, but it has a bad habit of just listing names, galleries, and events in a utilitarian way, stunting personalities and compacting events that might flourish with more exposure to light.
Additionally, the conversational narrative revisits the tired moaning about how D.C. is just as good as New York. Washington Art Matters ostensibly intends to illuminate the importance of Washington's art scene, but it's awfully hung up on Manhattan—a common and ultimately counterproductive affliction in this town. The thing is, D.C.'s inability to compete with New York isn't unique; it's the same story for... the rest of the country. Perhaps the most significant event that separates us from other cities is that Clement Greenberg came here, the colorful staining of canvas was declared a "school," and the recognition made the art-survey books. But D.C. is not New York, and it never will be. That is OK.
Washington Art Matters does a few things well, like remind us of some artists whose work is often overlooked or forgotten. The D.C. arts community readily recalls Gilliam and Davis (the latter is mentioned on a whopping 41 pages of the book), but what about Rockne Krebs, Ed McGowin, and Yuri Schwebler—whose output can make work by today's local art darlings look like idiot farce? Also, while the sheer quantity of galleries mentioned in the book can be overwhelming, the mention of Barnett Aden is significant because it was a successful gallery run by African Americans during segregation-era D.C. The book is also profusely illustrated—a saving grace when its prose drags. The text offers suggestions of places to go to do research on D.C. art, too—helpful for academics or the devotedly curious.
Of course, there's no question that D.C. has contributed to 20th century art in important ways, and nurtured significant artists, as it continues to do. But Washington Art Matters recycles old, whiny arguments to make that point, and the companion exhibit in the AU Museum was afforded too little time and not enough space to give D.C. art the exclamation point it too often seeks.
Photo: An image from the Katzen installation, with works (from left to right) by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Anne Truitt, Thomas Downing, and James Hileary