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Art review of 'Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings' and 'Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations' at the Phillips Collection

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"What if I try this?" Ryman says, enlarging the few spidery strokes of his signature into almost illegible pencil lines that dance top to bottom across a square of anodized aluminum. "Or how about this," says Ryman, turning the metal brackets that hold a picture to the wall into an integral part of the work by using his trademark white paint to draw attention to them.

Despite this exhibition's title, these pictures don't read as stylistic variations on a single theme. You could almost imagine the 26 works having been done by 26 artists, sharing one little basketful of art supplies. Looking at how much Ryman achieved with such limited tools, you ask yourself "What will he do next?"

Richard Pousette-Dart

Richard Pousette-Dart was born into an artsy family in Saint Paul, Minn., in 1916, started showing in Manhattan in the 1930s, found success in the 1950s as a minor member of the so-called New York School (Pollock and de Kooning were its major lights), then kept faith with expressive abstraction until his death in 1992. (That year, the Phillips gave him a solo show; it now owns four of his works.)

Pousette-Dart was mostly known for paintings that tended toward bold colors and lashings of paint. His rare white-on-white moment is presented via 27 works mostly made between 1950 and 1954. White, in Pousette-Dart, becomes a kind of veil tried out briefly on top of clearer things.

Conservators working on "White Garden, Sky," a 1951 painting on loan from the National Gallery -- and possibly the best work in the show -- pointed out that its whites were laid down over a blue ground. In "White Flower," from the next year, blues and yellow peek out from under Pousette-Dart's snow. In almost all the pictures, white muffles what's beneath it.

Pousette-Dart's white paintings are not really monochromes. They have too much going on: layerings and tangles of beiges and grays, as well as skeins of pencil line. But if you keep looking, what emerges from beneath these paintings' hints and drifts is a fairly normal view of reality, and of painting.

We glimpse upright thrusts that could be people and level edges that might be fragments of horizon. There are remnants of right-angles that could be corners in buildings and a few quite recognizable bodies, as in a painting called "Quiet Lovers" that suggests a woman's breasts and a man's torso. And in almost all these pictures, the basic structure of Western picture making -- a "subject" in the center set onto a "field" that empties out as it moves toward the frame -- is never abandoned. It's only a bit of an exaggeration to say Pousette-Dart's paintings could be an academic painter's works, under an overlay of modern white. The elegiac, music-through-a-fog impression given by these works may be all about nostalgia for Old Master traditions, glimpsed here for the last time before they fade completely away.

Somehow, Pousette-Dart's art of the 1950s seems to look back to the 19th century. Ryman's looks forward to the 21st.

Robert Ryman: Variations and Improvisations and Pousette-Dart: Predominantly White Paintings run through Sept. 12 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Call 202-387-2151 or visit http://www.phillipscollection.org.


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