The Washington Color School Is Ready to Bloom

A postcard of Eighth Street NW painted in stripes in 1987 to honor Gene Davis. The street soon will be painted again.
A postcard of Eighth Street NW painted in stripes in 1987 to honor Gene Davis. The street soon will be painted again. (By Robert Epstein Via The Corcoran School Of Art)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The extraordinary art from the color field movement and Washington Color School will be celebrated this spring in an area-wide event at several of the city's leading museums and galleries.

In addition to several important exhibitions, students from the Corcoran College of Art and Design will paint Eighth Street NW with stripes, in tribute to the late artist Gene Davis, the native Washingtonian known for his saturated colors and striped patterns.

Color field painting is a form of abstract art that explored ways to use large solid areas of paint. Mark Rothko's work is an example. The Washington Color School is the name given to a group of important color field painters in and around the city, including Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing and Davis.

Davis's work will be on display at a solo show at the Kreeger Museum that brings together 60 paintings. This is the second time the artist has been honored with Davis-like stripes on Eighth Street; it was also painted in 1987.

The Phillips Collection will fill several galleries with 20 of its works to show how Helen Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Downing, Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam all reflected the abstract style with energetic use of colors and bold designs.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is focusing on Louis, the Washington-based artist who placed his joyous colors on unprimed canvases. Hemphill Fine Arts will concentrate on Leon Berkowitz, the Philadelphia-born artist who specialized in washes of bright colors. His works will be juxtaposed with new works by Jason Buggiotti, a recent Corcoran graduate.

And Alberto Gaitan, a media artist, will take data from sensors around a local art gallery.

The data will be converted to computer commands sent to three robotic arms that will create a sound and video installation called "Remembrancer," to create a color field work. That will take place over a month at the Curator's Office on 14th Street NW.

"ColorField Remix" will also include public art projects, exhibitions and lectures. It starts in April, the organizers announced yesterday, and will continue through July.

In 1965 a show called "Washington Color Painters" at the defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art solidified Washington's place in the national movement and defined what is considered the city's signature art movement.

Kreeger Museum Director Judy A. Greenberg, said yesterday that the vitality in Washington's art facilities and studios inspired the broad celebration.

"I started thinking about a show on Gene Davis back in the summer of 2005. I had been feeling a wonderful surge in the art community and I thought it would be good to revisit our roots a little bit. But then I thought it wouldn't be fair to do just Gene Davis," Greenberg said. She brought in the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Cultural Tourism DC and the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp. to broaden the scope of the celebration and to include the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

It wasn't hard to find examples of the best of both movements in Washington. The National Gallery of Art displays Frankenthaler's 1952 "Mountains and Sea, " perhaps the first work called a color field painting and the inspiration for many artists. There are examples at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

There are even works by Davis in Neiman Marcus stores from the personal collection of Stanley Marcus. Greenberg says displays in Neiman Marcus windows will fit the themes of "ColorField Remix."

Derya Samadi, the project coordinator, said, "The Washington Color School is the only critically acclaimed movement to come out of Washington. It will be important to see how artists today are influenced by that."

To help with that effort, Richard Chartier, a sound artist, and Brandon Morse, a local artist, are challenging their peers to rethink the work of the color field arts in sound, performance and experimental media. The results will be displayed at the Corcoran.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company