The Washington art scene has been crackling all week with the presence in town of both the College Art Association, numbering thousands of artists and museum people, and the Women's Caucus for Art. The Women's Caucus stole the show.
From Alexandria to Bethesda to College Park and back again to Georgetown and the P Street Loop, no less than 40 exhibitions by women artists have been organized to coincide with the meetings. Seeing them all would be difficult, but the highlights should not be missed.
The week got off to a spectacular start with the arrival on Tuesday of Louise Nevelson, Alice Neel, Isabel Bishop and Selma Burke. They were in town to receive, with Georgia O'Keeffe who was not present, the first Annual Awards for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts given by the Women's Caucus and to attend the opening of a show including all of them at Middendorf-Lane Gallery, 2014 P St. NW.
Nevelson's art in the Middendorf-Lane show is a knockout. In fact, the thing that distinguishes this effort is the high quality of all the work on view, including an O'Keeffe oil from 1927 and a surprising recent abstract watercolor from 1977.
It is, however, Alice Neel's riveting portraits of art world denizens such as Linda Nochlin, critic John Gruen and fellow artist Isabel Bishop that are the spellbinders here. Bishop herself is represented both by her well-known realist paintings and etchings of New York street life in the '30s, and by less often seen recent paintings entitled "Students Walking Outdoors" -- isolated, uncommunicative figures walking directionless in surroundings dissolved into abstraction.
Selma Burke, whose poignant sculptures range in subject from mothers and children to representations of "Despair," is perhaps least known to Washington gallery-goers. But she is better known than all the rest for her portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt that graces the American dime. The show closes March 3.
While success was a long time coming to earlier generations of artists, it has been coming earlier to women artists of today. A case in point is Rebecca Davenport, whose work is being featured in several shows around town, including one just returned from Paris and now at the old Federal Reserve Board Building between 20th and 21st Streets on C Street NW, which is open regular office hours, closed weekends, through next Friday.
But the headquarters for Davenport's work is at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW, where a new series of paintings called "Washington Walls" has just gone on view. Anyone familiar with her earlier portraits of poor rural whites and Washington art dealers lounging on their davenports (on view at the Federal Reserve) will be surprised at these new works. There isn't a person in sight.
These are large, straight-on studies of deserted storefronts and battered facades, all brick, raw plywood and fading paint. Though she uses photographs to establish the carefully laid-out patterns of her work, Davenport's focus, like that of Richard Estes (now at the Hirshhorn) is on texture. While Estes emphasizes light-reflecting surfaces, however, Davenport dwells on dry, drab, light-absorbing stucco and wood. She grids off her canvas; Estes does not. But in the end their goals are the same -- to show beauty in surroundings that others would probably ignore. Through Feb. 4.
An early portrait of "Two Black Women" is the centerpiece in yet another show, this one a group of 15 women artists who have shown before at the new Osuna Gallery, formerly known as Pyramid Gallery, at 2121 P St. NW.
Ann Truitt is showing a new purple column, and Gay Glading's "Tondo" seems to move with billowing clouds of colored smoke. There are several abstract paintings of note, including a piece by the late Mary Meyer, and a bit of pointillist colorplay by Elaine Kurtz. An aggressively Xplicit male nude by Manon Cleary fails to get past being merely shocking, while Bernis von zur Muehlen goes at the same subject in a more poetic vein. Through February.
The Premier Gallery in Bethesda Square (corner of Old Georgetown Road and Woodmont Avenue) has just catapulted itself several leaps forward with a show of sculpture, drawings and etchings by the prolific Mildred Thompson, former artist-in-residence at Howard University, where she showed in a mind-boggling solo last year.
Having abandoned New York several years ago, Thompson spent several years in Germany where she studied with etcher Paul Wunderlich, among others, and achieved great success. She returned to the United States two years ago to see whether things had improved so far as black artists are concerned.Happily, she has decided to stay, at least for now.
The abstract wood sculptures on view are constructed from the same interlocking forms seen in her Howard show, and are as impressive now as they were then. It is the new series of highly expressive abstract etchings, however, that reveals Thompson's growth even in the short time she has been in Washington. A set has been acquired, not surprisingly, by the National Collection of Fine Arts.
Also on view are a series of large new fantasy drawings dealing with highly informed, private interpretations of fairy tales from Grimm and others, a recurrent theme in her art and one that is fascinating in her hands.
The show has been sponsored by the Washington Bar Association, which has named Thompson "Artist of the Year." The show continues through Feb. 28, and the gallery is open seven days a week, including Saturday 10 to 8 and Sunday 1 to 6.