Jacob Kainen -- painter, art collector, scholar, connoisseur and distinguished elder statesman of this city's art scene -- is showing 17 new oils at the Phillips Collection here, and they are a surprise.
Would you believe it? Kainen has become a minimalist of sorts.
Forty years after his first one-man show, the new paintings at the Phillips are the biggest he has shown. Their geometries are spare and totally abstract. There is no calligraphic brushwork here. These are pictures about color. In the simplest of his paintings, say "Aegean VI," Kainen shows us only two narrow bands of color and a pair of squares.
"The thing about getting older," said Kainen, 71, "is that you lose your vanity. You yearn for the large utterance. You no longer need to show how clever you can be."
At first his large new paintings seem partially familiar. Their right-angle triangles, diagonals and diamonds call to mind the formats employed years ago by such local painters as Ken Noland and Paul Reed. But Kainen is no follower belatedly attempting to join the Color Painters. He got here on his own.
One sees that in his colors. Never does he show us the saturated hues of a Davis or a Noland. He prefers the minor key: colors soft and veiled, with a sense of depth and fog. His whites are not just white; his blues are shades of blue. One peers into these hues as one would into mist: That yellow has been floated over a soft blue; that gray is painted over red and the red shows through.
Kainen improvises still, softening this color, intensifying that one, and there is an eerie glow at those active edges where his planes of color meet.
There has long been something dogged -- a preference for the gradual, an antipathy to fashion -- in Kainen's art. His work at first was figurative. The poignant prints he made in New York in the '30s for the WPA were full of political compassion. In Manhattan, he worked with Stuart Davis and de Kooning, and was a friend of Arshile Gorky's. But while close to the avant-garde, both there and in this city, he never really joined it. While his New York friends together were fighting toward an art of complete abstration, he stuck to figuration. When the Washington Color Painters began to stain their canvases with new acrylic paints, he adhered to oils. Unlike his friend Gene Davis, he stayed away from masking tape. He never liked hard edges. Never in his life has he leaped for the new.
Kainen's colors -- like so many one sees at the Phillips -- once seemed slightly French. In the new paintings, they seem so no longer. He thinks of them as Russian. "Seeing the icons in Moscow -- those saints in white surplices, those black crosses on white -- moved me greatly," Kainen says. Russia was the birthplace of Jacob Kainen's parents, and "while I was in Moscow vestigial memories emerged."
These large and subtle paintings seem to grow as one confronts them. They are among the most beautiful pictures he has shown. Kainen is still growing. His exhibition at the Phillips Collection, 1600-1612 21st St. NW, closes Jan. 25.