A Tribute for a Washington Painter by Way of Holland

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 13, 2008

When the elevator doors slide open, and you're in Willem de Looper's big show of big Washington paintings at American University Museum, the first one you see is a 1965 abstraction that isn't only an abstraction: It's also a tulip. Elegiac, transitory, decorous and Dutch, it sets a tone.

In Holland, where de Looper spent his childhood, that flower is a symbol. And not just of nationality. The tulip that appears in 17th-century Dutch still lifes, with dewdrops on its petals, is also understood as an emblem of mortality, as it is in this show.

Flowers wither; so do we. De Looper is fading. Not his mind -- his lungs. For nearly half a century, he's been steadily around, painting honorably in Washington, but now he's in the hospital with emphysema, and there's no cure.

The pictures in the museum at the Katzen Arts Center -- some of them eight feet wide -- are mostly ones he made in the '70s and '80s. I see them as Washington color paintings, but not standard ones. He didn't just stain his canvas with diluted soak-in colors, a la Morris Louis. Beginning with "Zanzibar" in 1971, he began to paint on top of them: thick paint on the surface, colored atmospheres beyond.

His lines aren't standard, either. He didn't make them with long steel-straight edges and masking tape -- they're more freehand than that, softer, less severe. Usually de Looper would put his colors down, one atop another, with long-handled rollers. Often he would add final color lines squeezed directly on the cloth from the tube. He shows his hand.

When he was a kid in Holland, he couldn't wait to get to America. De Looper left behind his country's low gray skies, but often you can glimpse them in his moist-aired art.

His abstract paintings are good company. They're companionable, reliable. A family "friend" is what Benjamin Forgey, my onetime Style colleague, writing in the catalogue, calls the de Looper that he and his wife, Gabriella, bought themselves as a wedding present in 1967. For more than 40 years, it's been a Forgey household presence, "enlivening dinners . . . serving as a poignant gauge of time and times passing . . . and providing countless private moments of pleasure and contemplation."

He's right about the way these pictures help you feel the passing of good times. They're improvised, which ties them right here to the present, but they're also deeply rooted.

They're rooted in AU, where in the 1950s, when de Looper went to school there, artists were instructed to paint from the heart. And they're rooted in the galleries of the long-gone P Street strip where de Looper used to show (with Nesta Dorrance or Max Protetch) nearly every year.

And they're grounded especially in the Phillips Collection.

Many Washington painters learned from that museum, but de Looper learned the most. He memorized its pictures. Starting as a guard in 1959, and ending as its curator, he helped to run the Phillips for more than 20 years.

"I don't know of anybody," he says in the catalogue, "who has been influenced by a whole museum as I have been. It went into my pores from the very beginning."

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