If the Carol Summers show at the Phillips Collection was designed to win new friends for this popular printmaker, it has quite the opposite effect.
Jammed into two galleries, frame to frame, the exhibition is a visual blur. And if it makes any point at all, it is that Summers is a Johnny-one-note of the visual arts.
The 53 woodcuts represent a truncated version of last year's retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, and will be on view at the Phillips through July 23.
Taken one by one, however, which is what thousands of Americans have been doing over the past two decades, Summers emerges as one of the most popular printmakers in America. His prints deliver more sensual pleasure, luscious color, and - for the broad white walls of contemporary dwellings - sheer chromatic span than any printmaker now at work. Woodcuts issued in 1969 for $200 recently have been resold for as much as $2,500.
As a result, profits have been accruing to collectors who bought the best prints and are now reselling them, spliting the profits with dealers. The Fendrick Gallery has a big Summers resale trade, and is currently showing several works, old and recent. One is an impression of "Rainbow Glacier," issued in 1971 at $300 and now tagged at $2,500, unframed. Two impressions were sold last year at that price, according to Fendrick.
The price came as something of a surprise to Summers' New York dealer of 20 years, Sylvan Cole of Associated American Artists. "But I don't deal in the resale market, so I'm just guessing." A moment before, he had guessed that the top price for "Rainbow Glacier" or any other Summers print would be "around $1,500."
While Summers collectors and dealers have profited greatly, Summers himself has been trying to keep his prices within reach. Twenty years ago his 32-inch-square prints were issued at $75 in editions of 50. Today's price for the same size is $450, not a great increase considering inflation and his current reputation.
Issues usually sell out immediately. What Summers has done to increase his take is enlarge the editions to 75 or 100 impressions. Each impression is still printed by him by hand, and so has its own character. This is a different approach from that taken by many big-name painter-printmakers and their publishers, who have created scarcity by making tiny editions and selling them at high prices. That market is now depressed.
None of this has anything to do with Summers as an artist - his splendid craftsmanship, the velvety textures of his rich, rare hues. Summers, 53, has come a long way from the early works on view at the Phillips - tentative, self-conscious semiabstractions. He has developed an art which is unmistakably his own.
In the end critics are likely to conclude that Summers' is, as the show implies, limited by a basically repetitive, somewhat "mannered" style, wherein decorative rather than expressive elements prevail.
However his thousands of fans, who daily get a lift from looking at Summers' joyful, color-soaked hearts and rainbows, exuberant flower-like suns and brooding moons need not mind.
Collectors on a budget might take particular note of a silkscreen poster from the Brooklyn retrospective now on sale at the Phillips for $25. It is as pleasing a Summers image as can be found.
Buying work by good artists when they're young and still reasonably priced is obviously a good idea, and one such artist is John Grazier, whose pencil drawings stand out among the "Garbage and Wrecks" (their title, not mine) on view downstairs at Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St.
Grazier's now-familiar drawings, of Victorian architectural gingerbread seen from a sharply distorted perspective, have now been supplanted by more complex works set in high-rise buildings.
In "View of the Company Yards," for example, the viewer overlooks rows of parked buses on the street below, and only after some looking around, notes that a car is being hauled away by a tow-truck. A phone left off the hook implies some recently departed human presence. Is there some connection? In these drawings, the mystery adds new dimension to the work of an already interesting artist.
Other new artists in the show who manage to make trash worth looking at are Mel Rosas of Detroit, Idelle Weber of Brooklyn and two British photographers, Fionnuala Boyd and Leslie Evans.
American University art professor Hilda Thorpe is showing new work at Wolfe St. Gallery, 1204 31st St., which expands on her current "ribbon" theme in both canvas and painted steel.
In three large and affecting sculptures, thin stripes of painted canvas are slung in concentric curves from the wall, one subtle hue melding imperceptibly into another. Further variations emerge from the seeming "glow" of color-tinted shadow.
Smaller framed works use the same vocabulary of forms, but exploit the shadow even further.
Touchstone Gallery, 2130 P St., just completing its second season and selling well for a co-op, is currently showing the first of three summer groups, figurative art by gallery members.
The overall quality at Touchstone has moved up several notches, but there is still much derivative work, particularly in the obvious references to Richard Lindner and Marisol.
But there are less pretentious works of real integrity, particularly the drawings of Marylou Hartman and Rick Stamm and photos by Alan Janus. Washington artist Sam Bookatz has newly joined the group.