D.C. Artist Shaped the Phillips Collection

Mr. de Looper, shown with his painting
Mr. de Looper, shown with his painting "Dolphy," began as a guard at the Phillips museum and became its chief curator. "He made the Phillips an artists' museum," a colleague said of de Looper, who was an abstractionist. (1977 Photo By Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Willem de Looper, 76, a prolific abstract painter who for many years was a major figure on the Washington art scene as an artist and chief curator of the Phillips Collection, died Jan. 30 of emphysema at the Washington Home hospice.

Mr. de Looper, who worked out of a studio in his home at the St. Regis Apartments on California Street NW, painted large, often colorful works that were, in essence, experiments in color, form and texture.

Like the local artists known collectively as the Washington Color School in the 1950s and 1960s, he experimented with technique, but his works gradually became freer and more expansive than such Color School predecessors as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

"He always danced between abstraction and a very expansive and lush vocabulary," said Terry Gips, an artist and former director of the fine art museum at the University of Maryland at College Park.

During his years as curator of the Phillips Collection -- where he started out as a guard -- Mr. de Looper worked to promote Washington artists, instituted the first systematic inventory of the collection and organized a number of significant exhibitions.

"He made the Phillips an artists' museum," said Gips, who curated a retrospective exhibition of Mr. de Looper's work in 1996. "It became kind of sacred to artists because it had a personal feel that the bigger museums in Washington didn't have."

His own work was influenced by his daily exposure to the museum's collection, particularly the works of such abstract painters as Paul Klee, Mark Rothko and Wassily Kandinsky.

The Color School artists also influenced him. Following in the footsteps of Helen Frankenthaler, they worked to eliminate obvious brush strokes on the finished canvas. Mr. de Looper experimented with such Color School techniques as spraying, rolling, pouring and sponging acrylic paint onto canvas or paper, particularly in his later years when arthritis in his hands made it difficult to wield a brush.

Willem Johan de Looper was born Oct. 30, 1932, in The Hague, where his father was a banker. He grew up during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

He learned to draw in his native country, but art wasn't that important to him when he arrived in the United States in 1950 to live with his older brother Hans, who worked for the International Monetary Fund. He was enthralled by American pop culture.

"After the war, I became very interested in America," he told The Washington Post in 1996. "As a teenager, my heroes were all black American musicians. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, [Thelonious] Monk, all those guys. I knew I wanted to be here, to be part of the cultural life. But I didn't arrive thinking I would be a painter."

In 1953, he enrolled at American University, where he majored in economics to please his parents and took his first formal art classes to please himself. He studied with faculty members Robert Gates, Sarah Baker and Ben Summerford. He also hosted a jazz show on the campus radio station and was the AU baseball team's equipment manager.

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