Capitalizing the Canvas


(American University Museum Images)

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By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 2, 2008

It is odd how certain cities, Washington included, declare themselves in painting. The most New Yorkish New York art, it is sort of fair to say, is belligerently new and difficult on purpose. London's is sensational. Chicago's folky-funky. And a lot of art arriving from sun-bright Los Angeles has a glare-reflecting sheen.

Washington's art feels different. Ben L. Summerford's paintings are as Washingtonian as can be.

One of their Washingtonian qualities is that they are distant from the chic. Power here appears in dark suits and rep ties, and the first impression made by Summerford's learned oils -- which are now on view at American University Museum -- is as unfashionable. His tabletop still lifes aren't revolutionary, they're customary. They're also sun-touched and spontaneous. And dense with visual citations. While the authorities they cite -- C¿zanne, Braque, Vuillard, Matisse -- aren't those of the lawbooks, Summerford's pictures defer as dutifully to precedent as do Congress and the courts.

Summerford is 84. His art is frankly Francophilic, and he's been producing it in pretty much the same manner for more than 60 years.

First he sets his table-stage with standard still-life props (a wine bottle, an open book, a crumpled napkin, a lemon on a plate) and then, with unsmoothed color strokes and with critical attention grounded in emotion, he does his best to build afresh summarized depictions of the harmonies he sees.

Ben Summerford was born in Montgomery, Ala., on Feb. 3, 1924. He studied piano from age 9, and in his love of harmony, daily practice and emotional interpretation, he's still sort of a musician.

At the upper left corner of "Box, Clock, and Brushes" (1974), a picture in the key of brown, he paints clear glass against glass, and a bottle of painter's turpentine standing against the windowpane, and next to it a stapler, and also a funnel to fill the bottle, and a clock, and a vase, and brushes, and sun-fall on the tablecloth. Something else is there as well.

When you peer into a Summerford you see Washington's art history, or at least a major chunk of it, unashamedly staring back.

Here museums rule the art world. Summerford ignores the preferences of dealers and the dictates of the market, but pays homage to museums. Lessons he has learned from the pictures on their walls flicker in his art.

You could track his paintings back to 17th-century Holland (where Protestantism drove religious art from fashion, and still lifes of the tabletop appeared to fill the gap), or to the bold new colors of early-modernist France. Or, better still, you could begin at Yale University, circa 1905.

That's where Duncan Phillips encountered C. Law Watkins. Those two young men were classmates, and both were Pennsylvania gentlemen, sensitive and prosperous. Those two men and a third equally important -- Karl Knaths, a modern painter -- are this exhibition's ghosts. They haunt the paintings on the walls.

Duncan Phillips is the man who brought French painting to Washington. The Phillips Collection on 21st Street, the museum that he opened here in 1921, was the city's, and the nation's, first museum of modern art. C. Law Watkins helped him run it. Watkins (who would join him as deputy director there in 1929) also ran the Phillips Gallery Art School, where Karl Knaths taught each spring -- and where Summerford absorbed the dogmas of his art.


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