TOWARD A NEW AESTHETIC
Art history in the United States in the 1950s is a study of the reaction to or extension of Abstract Expressionism. In addition to what was happening in New York City with the proto-pop art of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the stain painting of Helen Frankenthaler and the figurative work of artists such as Alex Katz, Larry Rivers and Philip Pearlstein, this reaction spawned several important regional movements. Among them were the Bay Area Figurative Painters (artists including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff working in San Francisco who returned to painting the figure), Assemblage artists in California, and several hundred miles to the south of New York, what was to become known as The Washington Color Painters.
Beginning in the early 1950s, a group of artists living and working in Washington D.C. started experimenting with techniques and styles that would lead them away from the heavy impastoed, gestural work of the Abstract Expressionists and toward the development of their individual but related styles. Through their use of thinned, water-based paint on unprimed canvas each was able to achieve his philosophical goals of ordering space while asserting the primacy of color.
Five artists—Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring and Kenneth Noland -formed the core of this important regional movement.
Considering the Washington Color Painters as a group is problematic on several levels. A number of people, including a few of the artists themselves, question the notion of a specific school or movement. And in fact, although some of these men had a close relationship -for example Downing and Mehring shared a studio at one point and Noland and Louis both taught at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts—others, such as Davis and Louis, only met several times on a casual basis.
In addition, over the past three decades, this appellation has been expanded to include other important artists such as Leon Berkowitz, Sam Gilliam and Paul Reed, who also used a staining technique. As a result, the lines have blurred to where the term "Washington Color Painters" encompasses any number of artists who reside in Washington D.C. and use or used this technique.
In broad terms, a "school" or "movement" can have numerous definitions. It can be loosely applied to artists living in the same geographical area. It can simply denote artists working in a like manner and coming under similar influences, regardless of where they live. In previous times, it meant artists who studied with or worked in the style of a particular master, for example the "school of Rubens."
For purposes of this discussion and exhibition, the following criteria were considered: a) geographic location b) similar technique and format and c) parallel time frame.
What exactly were the similarities among Davis, Downing, Louis, Mehring and Noland? Undeniably, they all lived and worked in Washington D.C. during the mid-fifties to the early sixties. In looking for an individual response to Abstract Expressionism they anticipated the developing aesthetic of the sixties—brighter colors, a larger format and a harder edge. They all used a staining technique of thinned paint on unprimed canvas. And they all worked on a monumental scale painting abstract forms of flattened color.
In a 1964 article entitled "The Primacy of Color," critic Barbara Rose outlined what she considered to be the fundamental reasons for the emergence oft his "new sensibility,"—color field painting which included the work of the Washington painters. According to Rose, four factors played a role in influencing the rise of this new sensibility. These were 1) the opticality of works by Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko; works which engaged the eye rather than the mind, 2) the works and writings of Josef Albers on the use of complementary and discordant colors 3) Matisses's decoupes published and later exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and 4) the development of plastic—based paints which allowed experiments with technique as well as a broader palette of colors from which to choose. (1)
Another important factor had to do with the geographic location of Washington D.C.—close but not too close to New York City. "From Washington," wrote the critic Clement Greenberg, "you can keep in steady contact with the New York art scene without being subjected as constantly to its pressures to conform as you would be if you lived and worked in New York."(2)
Interestingly, the initial link to New York came through Kenneth Noland via Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Having studied at Black Mountain College with both Josef Albers and Ilya Bolotowsky, Noland introduced sophisticated ideas about art both as a painting teacher at Catholic University and an instructor at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. Noland's friendship with Greenberg, whom he had met at Black Mountain College, not only provided a connection to the New York art world, but also resulted in Greenberg's frequent trips to Washington where he lectured and visited artists' studios.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, was the personal vision of each artist resulting in his highly individualized styles. For amidst the similarities that became the primary argument for the idea of an art "movement"—paint stained into unprimed canvas, working on large scale, sublimating content to color—emerged five highly original artists with five distinct styles. As a result, it is impossible to mistake the cool opticality of Tom Downing's work with Howard Mehring's sensuous color and mottled surface quality, with the romantic paint application of Morris Louis, with the rhythmic vitality of Gene Davis' stripes and the monumentality and movement of a Kenneth Noland target or chevron.
THE EARLY YEARS One may wonder why this technique-driven movement emerged in a city known more for its political personalities than for its painters. Although disparaging remarks have been made about Washington's lack of cultural sophistication, several events set the backdrop against which these five artists would create their finest work.
With the opening of the Phillips Collection in the fall of 1921, residents of the District were guaranteed an exposure to modernism. Through the eyes of the collector Duncan Phillips they were able to study firsthand works by Renoir, Cezanne, Braque, Gris and Roualt. Most of these Washington artists mention the work of Paul Klee as being particularly influential and it is interesting to note that Klee's Arab Song acquired in 1941 was painted on raw burlap, a method that the Washington Color Painters would emulate when they allowed their acrylic paint to soak directly into unprimed canvas.
The Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, a non-profit cooperative, founded by Leon and Ida Berkowitz in 1943, beyond being a community arts center which offered classes in art, acting, film making and dance, provided exhibition space and a central meeting place for artists and critics. An invitation to a symposium entitled "How to Encourage Washington to Become More Art Conscious" scheduled for December 8, 1946 indicated an interest in improving local response to art. The list of speakers included the director of the American Federation of Arts, the President of American University and a curator from the National Gallery of Art. (3)
Catholic University, Howard University and American University had active art departments, each playing a part in the development of this movement by providing exhibition space, teaching positions and educational opportunities.
From an historical vantage point of over forty years, knowing what would become of these five artists, one can look back and see the hand of destiny at work. Several events occurred prior to 1950 which brought these men together both geographically and artistically.
In 1948, Morris Louis began to use Magna paint, an acrylic medium developed by Leonard Bocour. The use of acrylic paint which could be thinned with turpentine was instrumental in the development of the technique used by the Color Painters.
That same year, Thomas Downing entered Pratt Institute to study art. The following year, in 1949, Howard Mehring would graduate from McKinley High School, Washington D.C. (Davis attended the same High School), Kenneth Noland moved to Washington and Gene Davis, who was working full time as a White House Correspondent, began to paint.
Born in 1912, Morris Louis was more of a contemporary of Jackson Pollock than he was of the other Washington painters. He attended the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts from 1927-32 and was active in the Baltimore art scene before he moved to New York in 1936. Although Louis did exhibit some works and was employed by the Easel Division of the WPA Federal Art Project from 1939-1940, his time in New York was perhaps most important for the friendship that developed with Leonard Bocour.
Financial problems necessitated a return to Baltimore in 1943 where he lived with his family until 1947. Louis' fortieth year brought in retrospect what can be seen as some of the most significant developments in his career. In that year, 1952, he moved to Washington D.C. and began teaching at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts where he met fellow instructor Kenneth Noland. Finding an artistic kindred spirit in Noland, Louis said later of their meeting, "Suddenly I wasn't alone."(4)
Noland's route to Washington D.C. was equally circuitous. Discharged from the army in 1946, he enrolled at Black Mountain College, a mere fifteen miles from where he was born, where he studied until 1948. Black Mountain College was an advanced arts school which attracted some of the finest artists, critics and teachers from around the country. The theories of Josef Albers head of the art department, certainly pervaded the thinking at the college, yet Noland points to the influence of lIya Bolotowsky, a geometric abstractionist, as his primary influence there.
Offered a job as a student teacher at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Noland moved to Washington D.C. in 1949, but continued to spend his summers at Black Mountain College. During these sessions Noland met artists Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Theodoros Stamos and Helen Frankenthaler, among others.
The following year saw Noland back in Washington D.C. teaching full time at Catholic University and in 1952, evening classes at the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts.
Gene Davis, born in 1920, and Howard Mehring, born in 1931, were the only native Washingtonians. Unlike the other members of the group who from relatively early in their lives seemed intent on a career in art, Davis initially pursued and achieved success as a journalist. The only inkling of the path he would ultimately follow as an adult were the several occasions he won children's drawing contests sponsored by The Washington Post.
From 1946 to 1949, Davis worked as a White House correspondent and it was during that time that he first began to paint. In 1949, Davis began psychotherapy, a decision that perhaps served as a catalyst for this initial entry into the world of art. "I entered psychotherapy in the fall of 1949, and one month, almost to the day, afterwards, I had this very strange, difficult-to-explain urge to paint." (5)
Knowing he lacked formal training, Davis sought out other artists from whom to gain exposure to what was happening in the art world. Primary among those he encountered was Jacob Kainen, an artist, curator of graphics at the Smithsonian Institution and part-time teacher at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. Through Kainen, he was introduced to ideas on contemporary art.
In these early years, Davis's main source of education was direct contact with the New York art scene, which he accomplished through frequent visits to the city. Particularly influential on the young artist was Barnett Newman's first exhibition in 1950 at the Betty Parsons Gallery and a show of Abstract Expressionist works at the Stable Gallery.
Younger than the other members of the Washington Color Painters, these early years for Howard Mehring and Thomas Downing were those of the student and neophyte.
After graduating from McKinley High School in 1949, Mehring entered Wilson Teachers College. from which he graduated in 1953 first in his class. A full tuition scholarship enabled him to attend Catholic University, where he took his MFA in 1955. At Catholic University, he studied design with Kenneth Noland, whom he had met in 1953.
Born in Suffolk, Virginia in 1928, Thomas Downing graduated from Randolph Macon College in Virginia at the age of twenty. In 1949, he entered Pratt Institute in New York where he studied for a year. Equally important as his year of study was the exposure to New York artists, particularly Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb. After leaving Pratt, Downing began teaching near Norfolk, Virginia before receiving a European travel grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1951. In Europe, Downing studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, traveled and exhibited before settling in Florence, Italy. While in Europe he participated in an exhibition at Galerie 8 in Paris and was part of a group exhibition entitled "Americans in Florence."
After serving a two-year military assignment, Downing took a job teaching art in Prince Georges County, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. It was only a matter of time before he would be involved in the Washington D.C. art scene, when he enrolled, in 1954, at Catholic University on his G,!. Bill, There he met Kenneth Noland, who was to have a Significant impact on his work,
THE FIFTIES In the early fifties, the general art aesthetic, not only in Washington, but across the United States was rapidh' being defined by the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning's first one man show in 1948 established him as a major force in the movement, A 1949 article in Life Magazine featured Jackson Pollock and his radical method of pouring and dripping paint directly on the canvas. The article posed the question "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"
By the time Harold Rosenberg published his highly influential article "The American Action Painters" in Art News 1952, outlining the basic tenets of the movement, what Irving Sandler calls the 'early wave of second generation' had already emerged. To this small coterie of Washington artists, Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, Rothko and Newman were masters whose techniques, styles and philosophies must be contended with.
1953 was a pivotal year for the Washington Color Painters. On a larger spectrum, in New York, it was the year that Martha Jackson opened her gallery; Willem de Kooning: Paintings on the Theme of the Woman premiered at Sidney Janis Gallery, while Larry River's Washington Crossing the Delaware was exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
On a local level, this year marked the point that these artists first came together. Kenneth Noland served as the axis for many of their activities. Gene Davis and Noland became acquainted and Noland arranged a one-man show for him at Catholic University. Noland also taught Thomas Downing in a summer class at Catholic University and Howard Mehring, who entered the MFA program there. Beyond artistic matters, Noland, who was involved with Reichian therapy at the time, influenced Mehring to begin Reichian therapy, an exploration he was to maintain the remainder of his life.
This was also the year that Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, along with Ida and Leon Berkowitz, made their now-legendary trip to New York to visit Clement Greenberg. Greenberg took them to Helen Frankenthaler's studio where they saw her painting Mountains and Sea, an abstract work in which she had dripped and splashed thinned paint onto unprimed canvas.
Louis' life was consumed by painting; when he was not teaching at the Washington Workshop, at Howard University or giving private lessons to students from Baltimore, he was sequestered alone with canvas and paint. This isolation was increased further the following year when he broke off his friendship with Kenneth Noland as a result of artistic differences.
This was a time of rapid-fire experimentation for all these artists -not only with styles but with materials. Although each man was searching for his individual voice, in the mid-fifties each continued to work within the confines outlined by Abstract Expressionism.
In 1955, Downing, Mehring and Noland were included in the Corcoran's Ninth Annual Exhibition. Theirs were the only abstract works—selected, curiously enough, by Andrew Wyeth, one of the jurors. Downing and Mehring share studio space. The following year unfortunately saw the closing of the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, but also brought opportunities for Davis, Louis and Noland to exhibit at Barnet Aden Gallery.
In 1957, Jefferson Place Gallery opened under the leadership of Alice Denney, a woman who was to become a major force in bringing contemporary art to the nation's capital over the next twenty years. Jefferson Place was a cooperative gallery owned and run by ten artists, among them Kenneth Noland and Robert Gates, head of the art department at American University. In her review of the gallery's first exhibition, Leslie Judd Portner noted that the artists represented "the most avant-garde group working in Washington today. All the painters are abstract, and all are very competent."(6) In Washington the avant-garde was still being defined by an Abstract Expressionist aesthetic.
The late fifties were to see a quickening of development on many fronts. On a larger scale, 1958 heralded the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Jasper Johns and Marisol had their first solo exhibitions at Leo Castelli Gallery; Red Grooms had his first one man show in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Billy Al Bengston showed at Ferus Gallery and Robert Rauschenberg displayed his combines at Leo Castelli Gallery.
In Washington, Gene Davis joined the group at Jefferson Place. Paintings from this period show the seeds of the pictorial order Davis was searching for -they are still painterly, yet one can see the colors beginning to coalesce into the vertical format which would become Davis' trademark. Also in 1958, Noland exhibited his loose targets—later heralded as his "breakthrough" paintings.
THE SIXTIES 1960 was a watershed year, not only in Washington D.C. but also in a larger sense. Irving Sandler in The New York School pointed to a "change in sensibility," made manifest in a variety of movements ranging from Happenings, to the figurative art of Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein, the imagery of Rauschenberg and Johns and the hard edge lines of Frank Stella. As dissimilar as they might appear visually, what many of these styles have in common, as Sandler sees it, is that they moved from the '''hot,' 'dirty,' painterly look of the fifties to the 'cool,' 'antiseptic,' mechanistic look of the six•ties."7 This is particularly evident in the work of Davis, Downing, Mehring and Noland when one compares their looser, more gestural work of the late fifties to the hard edged, linear style each developed right around 1960 or shortly thereafter.
Equally influential at the time was the writing and philosophy espoused by the critic Clement Greenberg. Although Davis, Downing and Mehring would later be estranged from Greenberg, their initial contact with the critic was important to their development and exposure. Greenberg’s formalist theory argued that contemporary art was moving teleologically towards the flatness of the picture plane and stressing the importance of color as the primary content.
Greenberg opened doors for the artists in New York City by putting them in touch with galleries and other artists. In 1954, Greenberg included both Noland and Louis in the "Emerging Talent" exhibition he curated at the Kootz Gallery in New York and as advisor for French and Company he arranged for one man shows for both artists.
Although Greenberg had been involved and a frequent visitor to Washington D.C., it was not until 1960 that his support resulted in national exposure. In the article "Louis and Noland," published in Art International, attention was focused on what was happening in Washington D.C.: "neither of the two I consider serious candidates for Major status…works in New York. I mean Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who both live in Washington D.C…."(8)
Overnight, the work of Louis and Noland was elevated to a national status, a tremendous boost for any artist regardless of where he lived. Although at this point neither man had yet had a museum exhibition, the time was not far off and it is likely this article served as a catalyst.
1960 was notable for a number of other reasons as well. At Jefferson Place, Gene Davis exhibited his first stripe paintings; the work of Downing and Mehring shown at the same time was beginning to point to a new style. "Of particular interest as indicative of new directions in painting," wrote Leslie Judd Ahlander, "are the canvases of Gene Davis, Howard Mehring and Tom Downing. Thinly rendered, with a minimum of 'paint appeal,' they are flat color patterns which avoid texture, subject or composition in an effort to have color say the ultimate in terms of expression. Davis paints neat pinstripes; Mehring, liquid marbleized effects, and Downing, neat flat patterns that recall the backgrounds in Matisse's odalisque."(9) The cool aesthetic of the sixties had arrived.
The early sixties was a time of tremendous activity for all of the artists. Morris Louis continued with his private explorations and more than any of the other artists stood apart from the direction of the aesthetic of the day. Experimentation with a more porous canvas and a new type of Magna paint produced exceptionally fluid paintings. Although his line became more compact, Louis never totally bought into a hard edged grid. Paintings from this time, particularly the stripes, retain a visual depth and fluidity that is much more romantic than the hard edged aesthetic developing at the time.
From 1960-1962, Louis had one-man exhibitions at French and Company in New York, Benington College in Vermont and Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York. At the same time, his international reputation was enhanced by one-man exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, the Galleria dell' Ariete, Milan, at Galerie Neufville, Paris, and at Galerie Schmela, Dusseldorf, West Germany.
One month following his death at age 50 on September 7, 1962, another one man show opened at Andre Emmerich Gallery. Louis had left a body of work numbering over 650; close to 600 were produced in the last nine years of his life.
These years were equally busy for Kenneth Noland. He moved to New York City in 1961, after a decade of living and working in Washington. Noland, who taught and drove a taxi to support himself, had been the impresario of this loose-knit group of Washington artists. For it was Noland who taught Downing and Mehring at Catholic University; it was Noland who organized one man shows for Davis and Louis and it was Noland who served as the catalyst and liaison between Washington and the larger, more active art scene of New York. It was in Washington that he made his 'breakthrough' paintings -the painterly bands of concentric circles -that laid the groundwork for his explorations of color and space that continue today.
In the years immediately following his departure from Washington D.C., Noland exhibited on an annual basis at Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York, and in 1964 was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. That same year his paintings took up one-half the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Downing and Mehring evolved from students to accomplished artists. By the time Downing had his one man show at Jefferson Place Gallery in the spring of 1961, he had formalized his artistic vocabulary into solidified dots arranged in a grid pattern. The following year, his first one man show in New York opened at the Allan Stone Gallery, followed by solo shows at the Stable Gallery, also in New York, in 1963 and 1965.
Mehring's New York exposure came along a little later. Alice Denney added him to the group of artists exhibiting at Jefferson Place Gallery where he was featured in one-man shows in 1960 and 1962. In 1963, he had a solo show at The Adams-Morgan Gallery, Washington, D.C., entitled Reflections 63–The Paintings of Howard Mehring. (This exhibition brought attention to Mehring's work. Greenberg, impressed with the work, selected three paintings which would be included in the exhibition Post Painterly Abstraction.)
1965 was a turning point in Mehring's career. His first New York exhibition in 1965 at the A.M. Sachs Gallery was given favorable reviews by the critics. He was awarded the Corcoran Gallery of Art Prize and Painting Prize by juror Gerald Nordland as part of the Corcoran's Seventeenth Area Exhibition. Nine of his paintings were included in the traveling exhibition The Washington Color Painters organized by Gerald Nordland, Director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art.
The following year, another one man show at A.M. Sachs was both a critical and commercial success prompting the headlines in Potomac, The Washington Post Magazine to read, "Young Washington Artist Scores a Selling Grand Slam."(10) A total of twelve paintings were purchased by museums and collectors including the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art), the Pasadena Art Museum, Chase Manhattan Bank, Harry Abrams and the Seagram Collection.
In 1968, Mehring had another one-man show at A.M. Sachs Gallery which included his most hard edged works to date. Although he would later take up drawing to a limited degree, that same year he quit painting. Future exhibitions featured earlier works.
Gene Davis' artistic voice and direction began to crystallize when he first exhibited his stripe paintings in the group exhibition at Jefferson Place Gallery in 1960. That same year he received visits by William Seitz and Robert Rosenblum at his studio. Later, Barbara Rose observed that he had "created outstandingly original paintings, which stand comparison with the best work done around 1960."(11)
His first one-man show featuring all stripe paintings was held at Jefferson Place Gallery in 1961, an exhibition that was visited by Clement Greenberg. However, it was not until 1962, after viewing paintings Davis displayed at the Chelsea Hotel, that Greenberg recommended Poindexter Gallery as a possibility for a New York gallery, a suggestion that resulted in Davis' initial New York exhibition the following year.
In 1963, Davis was given his first museum exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Two years later, he would be awarded the bronze medal at the Corcoran Gallery of Art's 29th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Painting.
Davis continued to exploit the myriad possibilities of the stripe which would lead him to create, in addition to his well-known canvas paintings, micro paintings, vignettes, plank paintings and monumental outdoor works where he striped entire streets and parking lots with color.
Two years following his death in 1985, he was honored with a Memorial Exhibition at the National Museum of American Art in Washington D.C.
The level of historical significance achieved by these artists individually and as a group is best illustrated by the national recognition they achieved during the early to mid-sixties. All of the major exhibitions organized during this time that dealt with color field, minimalist or systemic painting included the work of all or most of these artists.
In 1964, the exhibition Post Painterly Abstraction, organized by Clement Greenberg, opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Paintings by all five of the Washington painters were included. In his introductory essay, Greenberg explained his selections: "... this show is not intended as a pantheon, as a critic's choice of best new painters. It is meant to illustrate a new trend in abstract painting… "
Greenberg suggested that in addition to the fact that all of these artists were reacting to (and thus extending) the basic tenets of Abstract Expressionism, or what he referred to as Painterly Abstraction, they have in common….the high keying, as well as lucidity, of their color. They have a tendency, many of them, to stress contrasts of pure hue rather than contrasts of light and dark. For the sake of these, as well as in the interests of optical clarity, they shun thick paint and tactile effects. Some of them dilute their paint to an extreme and soak it into unsized and unprimed canvas….In their reaction to the "handwriting" and "gestures" of Painterly Abstraction, these artists also favor a relatively anonymous execution. (12)
Greenberg suggests that although these shared characteristics do show a trend, they do not make up a school. He surmises that they do, perhaps, reveal a "new episode in contemporary art," documented by the Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition.
The following year, Gerald Nordland, as Director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, organized the exhibition The Washington Color Painters which included the work of Davis, Downing, Louis and Noland were each represented by a single piece.
William Seitz's Responsive Eye exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, also in 1965, brought together paintings which constituted primarily a 'retinal' experience. All the paintings in the exhibition were entirely abstract. In addition to such diverse artists as Josef Albers, Agnes Martin and Victor Vasarely, the show included Washington painters Davis, Downing, Louis and Noland.
The Systemic Painting exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966 seems to have been organized, in part, to answer the question"... are there other, less narrow, descriptions of post-expressionist art possible than that proposed by Greenberg?" (13)
Lawrence Alloway, curator of the exhibition, makes the point that one must go beyond a strict formal analysis: "Formal analysis needs the iconographical and experiential aspects, too..."(14) Repetition of images and the images themselves (i.e. circles and squares) either achieve or have an iconography that must be considered. Mehring's inverted L's, Noland's diamond and Downing's dots were included in the survey. Curiously, Davis, who was to explore every conceivable combination of the stripe over the next twenty years, was not included.
CONCLUSION It is not quite clear when the term 'Washington Color School' was initially used. Probably the first official use was with the organization of the traveling exhibition in 1965 by Gerald Nordland for the Washington Gallery of Modern Art entitled The Washington Color Painters. Informal reference is found in a postcard from Clement Greenberg to Gene Davis dated August 5, 1961. Obviously in response to a statement by Davis, Greenberg wrote, ''I'm tickled by the idea of a 'Washington School' in art. (15)
Arguably, the case can be made that a 'school' of Washington painters, per se, did not exist. For at the very point that one began to see the formation of a similar aesthetic, Noland had already moved to New York and Morris Louis was deceased. Downing later lived in Houston, Texas and Provincetown, Massachusetts and Davis and Mehring remained in Washington D.C.
However, it cannot be denied that for a brief period of time there were, in a rather small geographical location, five artists who, influenced by the same artists and art movements, worked in a style that had more similarities than differences. That brief moment is what this exhibition has attempted to document.
Curator of Contemporary American Art
1. Barbara Rose , "The Primacy of Color," Art International. 8, no. 4 (May 1964), pp. 22-26.
2. Clement Greenberg, "Louis and Noland," Art International, May 25, 1960, pp. 26-29.
3. Flyer, Vertical files, "Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.
4. John Elderfield. Morris Louis, N.Y.: Museum of Modern Art, 1987.
5. Steven Naifeh. Gene Davis, N.Y.: The Arts Publisher, Inc. p. 16.
6. Review, Leslie Portner, The Washington Post, October 13, 1957.
7. Irving Sandler. The New York School, N.Y.: Harper and Row p. 292.
8. Ibid., Greenberg.
9. Review, Leslie Judd Ahlander, The Washington Post, December 25,1960.
10. Leroy Aarons, "Young Washington Artist Scores a Selling Grand Slam," Potomac, The Washington Post Magazine, Sunday, July 10, 1966.
11. Ibid., Naifeh, p. 67.
12. Clement Greenberg. Post Painterly Abstraction, Los Angeles, CA.: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
13. Lawrence Alloway. Systemic Painting, NY: The Guggenheim Museum.
14. Ibid., Alloway.
15. Postcard from Clement Greenberg to Gene Davis dated August 5, 1961.