The Dynamics of the DC Art Scene: Redefining ‘Color Field’?

A recent Washington artworld event suggested, among other things, how the term “Color Field” might be understood in another, more literal or political sense. The revival of interest in that local school of painting is demonstrated by the Corcoran Gallery’s show Washington Color and Light, as well as by the work of a pertinent study group led by scholar Margot Arnold. This took place on February 24, when the Kreeger Museum hosted a panel discussion (in collaboration with the Art Dealers’ Association of Greater Washington) while showing a temporary exhibition of monoprints (sponsored by Millennium Arts Salon/The New Beginning Initiative).

Rene Stout, "Rusted Sign," 2010, oil based monotype with mixed media, 30" x 22"

The discussion was titled The Dynamics of the DC Arts Scene and its participants included: Jack Rasmussen (Director of AU’s Katzen Arts Center); Johanetta Cole (Director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art); Juliette Bethea (patron of the arts, philanthropist, and collector— or “steward,” as she put it—of African and African-American art); Giselle Huberman (together with her husband, a collector of contemporary art based in the capital and Coral Gables, Florida); Judy A. Greenberg (Director of the Kreeger); and Bill Dunlap (painter and WETA media arts commentator acting as moderator). But it was after the panel had spoken, when the audience became involved in the discussion, that the panel’s topic took on further implications.

The exhibition taking place at the same time was In Unison: 20 Washington, DC Artists, curated by artist Sam Gilliam, together with the Kreeger’s Greenberg, art dealer Marsha Mateyka, and art critic/art historian Claudia Rousseau of Montgomery College. It consisted of monoprints produced in the new printing studio at George Mason University School of Art, with one image chosen from the portfolio of five works by each participating contemporary artist. In addition to Gilliam himself, particularly striking prints were contributed by Sondra Arkin (of Mid City Artists), Tom Green, and Renée Stout.

The roomful of prints in the Kreeger’s downstairs one-room temporary exhibition space made a somewhat muted yet (in keeping with the show’s collaborative nature) unified impression: largely characterized by biomorphic, geometricized, and/or collage-like abstraction, in some cases incorporating figurative and representational elements. The frequently layered and/or juxtaposed, freehand-improvisational character of the monoprint as a medium—although these ranged from screenprints through lithographs to images further over-worked with chine collé or powdered pigment, and included digital prints—homogenized the group of works despite their artists’ diversity.

Tom Green, "Charred," acrylic on oil based monotype, 30" x 22"

Regardless of the discussion’s title, promising a perhaps more-comprehensive overview of some of the “dynamics” moving Washington’s art scene, what emerged was more along biographical lines as the panel proceeded, the material and personalities being interesting enough in themselves. The Kreeger’s Director Greenberg began, explaining that since 1971 the Museum has sought to associate itself with Contemporary Washington art, focusing on the interaction between visual arts, architecture, and music; and recounting some of her institution’s projects, including cooperation with the Kennedy Center.

Rasmussen followed, appropriately given his decades-long involvement here: starting with running the Watkins Gallery at AU as a Graduate Assistant, joining the staff of the WPA, referencing his own commercial gallery, and then returning from California to run the American University Art Museum—stressing the importance of working with both private collectors and using new communications media. Third came Director of the National Museum of African Art Johanetta Cole, who gave kudos to prominent dealer Norman Parish and referred to Jim Willis, the other dealer in the city handling traditional African art. She also stressed the Smithsonian’s commitment to Contemporary art, tracing the collection’s basis back to Ron Robbins’ (a retired Foreign Service officer who thought of his collection as a locus of inter-racial dialogue) private holdings.

Fourth was collector Giselle Hubermann, speaking about the importance of her sense of mission, the impact of the works she selects on her mode of vision, the internationalism of her taste, and the significance of the process of collecting for her marriage relationship. Finally, patron (or “steward,” as she put it) of African-American art Juliette Bethea, having begun as a bookseller and now working in the financial industry, discussed her ongoing involvement with arts communities in Washington as well as in Africa, elsewhere, and with Howard University’s Art Department.

But seeing that from among the four out of six women panelists two were African-American, added to references to the city’s two African-American private dealers, and the fact that half the artists included (partly by Sam Gilliam) in the In Unison exhibition were African-American, the issue of inter-racial relations within the District’s art scene had already implicitly come to the fore. During the audience discussion that ensued, this topic of integration with and opportunity within the city’s artworld for DC’s African-American community reappeared as one of several strands being dealt with, conveyed via talk of cultural fragmentation, and access to publicity and other resources. Hence my opening suggestion that in a sense the panel at the Kreeger and its accompanying exhibition were wading, whether intentionally or consciously or not, into the discussion of inter-racial integration within the capital’s artworlds: prompting the realization that the term “Color Field” could contain more complex allusions than aesthetics alone might anticipate.

Julia Bernard, Editorial Consultant

April 2011




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