If quality were all - and if his timimg had been better - Melville Price (1920-1970) might not be remembered as a first-rate painter of the post-war New York School.
His abstract expressionist canvases, now hanging at the Corcoran, are very good indeed. They are sophisticated, energized, painstakingly painted. The longer that one looks at them, the stronger they appear, but still they don't quite make it. Too much about these paintings tend to draw them down towards the second rank.
They are not quite original enough. Price, in 1939, met Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline; in the '40s he exhibited with Willem de Kooning, Conrad Marca-Relli, and Walker Bradley Tomlin - and he could paint in all their styles. Melville Price was cursed with the mimic's gift. We can see he fought it - his intergrity was high - but memories of others are summoned by his art.
And Mel Price was a little late. He was not on the cutting edge, but a bit behind it. The earliest work on view, "Big Red," is dated 1955, four or five years after the dead New York School first jelled.
Abstract expressions looked easy to the innocent. Young painters by the hundreds, misled by its canons, started flinging paint, and acting out on canvas, producing as they did so some of the messiest and weakest paintings of our age. Price is not to blame, but his superior works recall those of lesser men.
His paintings at the Corcoran are never sick or flimsy. Each, instead, records a long and hearfelt struggle. Though his brushwork looks spontaneous - he splattered paint and dripped it - his work seems oddly slow. He remained an abstract expressionist well into the '60s, long after that style had fallen out of fashion. And he painted at a distance. From 1958 until his death, he taught in Tuscaloosa, at the University of Alamaba, perhaps 1,000 miles from the wellsprings of New York.
He was, by all accounts, an extraordinary teacher, discouraging, demanding. A number of his students - the "Alamaba Mafia" of Ed McGowin, William Christenberry, Barbara Gillete Price, his widow, and dean Peter Thomas - have taught here at the Corcoran School of Art.
"We painted in his style - I'm not proud of that," says Thomas. "But we were all believers. Kline, de Kooning, Gorky, were his, and our gods. Price could be brutal. He said there were too many mediocre painters. When he saw them coming he'd try to shoo them out of art."
He was hard on himself, too.While some pictures by his friend, Franz Kline, look as if they might have been painted in 10 minutes, Price's look as if they required months. He would tune their many elements - that evocation of the figure, that underlying grid, that single flash of green - overpainting, balancing, considering, adjusting, until he had it right. These are not one-shot pictures. They are learned and inclusive. Their patience is their strength.
The Price show, arranged by curator Jane Livingston, is one in an admirable series called Modern Painters at the Corcoran. She says of Price, correctly, "His synchronicity was off."
Action painting faded when many younger artists turned away from anguish towards the machined, the cool. Price took another tack. His last works, with their letter forms and numbers, were complex, referential. Look, for instance, at "Black Warrior," a large work reminiscent of Rauschenberg and Johns. The painting is a beauty, but Melville Price, again, was that crucial step behind. In the last years of the '60s, when Price would take his fine new paintings to New York, his dealer there would tell him, "Look, it just won't sell. No one is buying that stuff anymore." The art world can be shallow, fickle and unfair. But the dealer, of course, was right. The Melville Price exhibit closes on June 4.
The Corcoran is also showing two one-man shows of photographs. Those by Arnold Kramer look conservative, familiar. Those by Jerry Burchard, the San Francisco artist, look quite unlike any this city has yet seen.
Burchard's photographs are moody, provocative and hip. Often they are blurred, for Burchard shoots at night, sometimes standing half and hour, with his shutter open, in the semi-dark, waiting for the unseen light to expose his film. The resulting pictures "have more to do with hunches than ideas," writes Jane Livingston. The objects he reveals - a palm tree or a deck chair or the surface of a wall - have a subdued ghostlines, an eerie, muted glow.
Burchard is quite willing to confound and tease the viewer. His photographs, at times, dissolve into fog; occasionally his pictures tell off-color jokes. His best works - a monsoon in Thailand, a teahouse on the Sahara, a penthouse in New York - are unforgettable. His is a highly original and memorable show.
Arnold Kramer's work, in contrast, seems conventional. He photographs interiors, bedrooms, living rooms, and dens, none of them inhabited, except by personal possessions, furniture and fabrics and the family photographs hanging on the wall. The flash bulbs that he uses give a coldness to his pictures, which are rigorous, straightforward and rectilinear.
There is now at the Corcoran an accidental confrontation that dents the Kramer show. Hanging on the wall, upstairs in the atrium, is a single walker Evans print that looks as if it fathered all 6 Kramer's pictures. It, too, shows a room wallpapered with flowers, a bed, a family photograph. There is nothing wrong with Kramer's work except its redundancy. The one idea he shows us was already stated, beautifully, succinctly, by Evans in 1931. The Burchard and Kramer exhibitions, which were co-organized by Livingston and assistant curator Frances Fralin, also close June 4.