"It's been a zoo," said Adams-Davidson Gallery proprietor Ted Cooper, whose show of American Luminist painters opened Thursday night, just before "American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875," opens tomorrow at the National Gallery.
"All the lenders to the National Gallery Show, in town for the opening, are coming in to buy pictures. Yesterday we broke a record for the biggest day in our 10-year history.We sold seven paintings for $200,000."
The National Gallery show includes Federic Church's now famous "Icebergs," which brought the highest price ever paid at auction for an American painting when it sold for $2.5 million last October. The Adams-Davidson show includes works by many of the same artists, including Church, Martin Johnson Heade, Albert Bierstadt and others, but they are for sale.
The lenders to the National Gallery show are the country's most important collectors of 19-century American paintings, as well as scholars, curators and dealers who've been involved in heavy purchasing. Washington collectors, not to be outdone, had bought up 19 of the paintings in the Adam-Davidson show before it opened.
Fifteen remain, priced from $6,500 to six figures, including the most expensive painting in the show, Heade's "Two Hummingbirds Amidst Foliage," and two landscapes by the same artist, typical Luminist works depicting the dramatic changes brought about by the light before and after a storm. Sunsets and romantic moonlit sailing ships abound. The Adams-Davidson show at 3233 P. St. NW continues through April 15.
Although American painting still falls easily into two general camps -- realism and abstraction -- a struggle to combine the two is under way and has produced some challenging new art.
Most active in the struggle are the "New Image Painters" who showed at the Whitney Museum last year under that rubric. Australian-born Denise Green, a leading proponent, is currently exhibiting new work at Protetch-McIntosh Gallery, 2151 P St., NW; and if her paintings sometimes strain toward the esoteric, the best examples can be mysteriously rewarding.
A typical composition begins with a single, centered image -- perhaps a vaselike shape -- but flattened and reduced to its essence without detail or modeling. Isolated from any real context, this minimal "image" (or what's left of it) is then set against a grid or a flat, loosely painted field of color, or both -- as in "Longhouse," a dazzling white mushroom-cap afloat in a sea of lush red brushstrokes.
Is this painting realistic or abstract? The best works raise this question and effectively fluctuate between the two.
There are other visual games being played here, as in "Smallest Difference," wherein a pitcher and three vases overlap and curve slightly, implying a third dimension that cannot possibly exist against this flat ground. iHere Green has used traditional subject matter in a nontraditional way to both delight and confound. Elsewhere, she merely confounds or, as in one murky brown painting with a leaf, simply flops.
Upstairs there are several drawings that show Green in a warm, more relaxed mode. They're very hard to leave behind. The show continues through February.
Joe Shannon, one of the more profound of the "Nine Washington Artists" now on view at the Corcoran, is also showing recent work at Middendorf-Lane, 2009 Columbia Road, NW.
An unabashed realist, Shannon nevertheless creates wholly unreal -- often surreal -- scenarios for the very specific individuals who inhabit his work. In the amusing "Martha Before the Party," for example, a woman in an apron scratches her nose as an about-to-be-used broom levitates inexplicably nearby.
Behind her, however, a bookcase full of volumes on realists like Hopper, Manet and Chardin reasserts Shannon's allegiance to the past, something he reiterates in seven variations on a still life with skull. The traditional subject matter here is used as an excuse for several passages of just plain beautiful painting. Less beautiful are a rather dreary group of nudes, and a few portraits, including one of Walter Hopps, whose proliferating images suggest that he has permanently replaced St. Luke as the artist's patron saint -- at least in Washington.
Though this is not a major show for Shannon, it includes one major painting. "Magician for Pete" is a poignant sequel to "Magician II" at the Corcoran, which depicts a hospital corridor where doctors and nurses go about their business as a man in a black suit ominously strolls through the scene wearing a clown's face.
It is not clear in "Magician II" whether the figure represents a doctor/ clown/magician or death. In "Magician for Pete," however, little doubt remains as the same clown-faced figure hovers over a group of people no longer able to contain their grief. Taken as a pair, these are the most powerful paintings Shannon has ever made. The show closes March 1.
The masterful etchings of German artist Max Klinger (1856-1920) have aroused great interest in recent years as precursors of surrealism, though his neo-classical paintings and sculpture are still considered nothing more than Victorian kitsch.
The Federal Reserve Board Building on C Street, NW, between 20th and 21st streets, is currently showing 30 of Klinger's best prints in its entrace lobby. The show amply rewards a noon-hour visit, although visitors have to sign in and squint past reflections in glass.
Klinger produces several suites of narrative etchings that took issue with the social mores and miseries of his time, but always in a way just slightly removed from the real world, leaving much to the viewer's imagination. In a series called "Mother," for example, a battered woman is tried for attempting to drown herself and her child. It remains unclear what ultimately happens to her.
But it is in his best-known series, "The Glove," that Klinger comes closest to reflecting the influence of his contemporary, Sigmund Freud. In these 10 prints dating from 1881, Klinger begins his scenario at a roller-skating rink in Berlin, when a figure (presumably Klinger) retrieves the dropped glove of a woman skater. He proceeds to portray several fantasies involving the glove, which becomes animate. The glove ends up enthroned on the shore while the sea heaps roses upon it.
These dreamlike fantasies and juxtapositions of real and unreal objects -- of places, time and scale -- foreshadow the surrealist movement some 40 years later. The exhibition is open during regular office hours, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and closed Saturday and Sunday, through March 5.