'Jack Boul: Then and Now' at the American University Museum

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 22, 2008

Jack Boul, 81, has never been the flashiest of Washington's good artists. But he has long been the most frugal, which all at once feels central. Only a little while ago, the 80 pictures he's exhibiting in "Jack Boul: Then and Now" at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center would still have looked peripheral, but not anymore, now that the money's gone.

As you may have noticed, the usual stuff of bold new art -- the paintings big as bedsheets, the photographs as large, the plugged-in flat-screen videos -- have begun to look braggy, blatant, slightly out of sync, what with optimism wobbling, 401(k)s evaporating and hard times on the way. But the more prospects darken, the more Boul's unassuming, slightly rumpled little pictures will glow calmly in the gloom.

When it comes to taste in art, predictions aren't worth much, I know. But here's one anyway: Frugality is going to be big.

This won't be only reaction. Frugality possesses its own distinct aesthetic. The Shakers saw the beauty of its purposeful restraint, its disinclination to discard, as did the Quakers and the Pilgrims. Americans, in general, have valued it, though not recently.

Boul is an exception and has been for decades. He showed at the Jefferson Place Gallery on P Street in the 1960s. He taught at American University in the '70s and at the Washington Studio School in the '80s. His mission hasn't changed much. He has been frugal all along.

Almost always, he works small. Some of his best monotypes are as big as your palm. Some of his best oils are no larger than a paperback. With McMansions in foreclosure and grandiosity becoming increasingly inapt, coziness is looking pretty good again. Boul is ready. His light-filled pictures can open little windows in small, leftover spaces. They don't eat up whole walls.

He has long built his art on the given -- a figure on a park bench, the presence of his wife, the sunlight in his studio, an alley view, the sky -- sights the world itself, with its endless generosity, puts before his eyes.

He doesn't pursue fashion. Fashion feeds on newness, and newness means discarding, and Boul prefers retrieving themes he's worked before (the black-and-white stolidities of placid grazing cows, the shine of flowing water, daylight on a wall), as well as the materials (the etcher's press, the paint tube, the easy-to-move canvases that fit into a painter's box, the sliding oily ink moved across the metal plate by his fingers or his brush) that have served him for so long.

Instead of yearning for the heights, frugality accepts a certain local groundedness. Boul grew up in the South Bronx, but he's a Washington artist now. His art is deeply rooted here -- not only in the sights he sees when he looks around, but in the teaching tradition that connects the Phillips Collection to AU and the Studio School and in the museums, particularly the National Gallery of Art, with its wealth of small French paintings.

Frugality discourages accentuating niceties. Unlike many other artists who work small, Boul is never icky-picky. When asked -- by historian Eric Denker, the National Gallery scholar who curated his show -- how he conceives his art, Boul responds with a quotation from Camille Corot, who said: "I am never in a hurry to get into details; I am first and foremost interested in the large shapes and general movement of things."

"That's what happens when I look at something," Boul continues. "If I look at it, it is almost as if I am squinting at it. If you squint you don't see any detail, all you see is the large simple shapes. If you have been doing this for a number of years, you don't even have to squint." The frugality we're headed for may encourage squinting. Stubble on unshaven chins is no longer seen as slovenly. With hard times coming, maybe wrinkled shirts, pulled straight from the dryer instead of brought back from the cleaners, will look acceptable as well.

Denker, the curator, says he fell for Boul's art the first time he saw one of his small monotypes -- a wheelbarrow in sunlight -- reproduced in black-and-white in the pages of this newspaper nearly 20 years ago. The dings in the old metal, the foliage behind, the height of the green grass -- all of this is felt, and known, though none of it is sharply seen, just efficiently evoked.

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