Washington's Frank Wright paints oils that are likable, competent, conservative. They go on view today in a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Wright seems most at home at home. He makes easily read pictures of his family, his friends and his studio on 9th Street. He also paints the Mall, the Washington of yesteryear and the landscapes of his holidays. His pictures will shock no one. They belong to the esthetic right.
Frank Wright is a sixth-generation Washingtonian. He is gentle and he's steadfast, 48 year old, an associate professor at George Washington University. His art is not unknown here, but it has been ignored. Champions of the new -- influential curators and dealers who sell the daring -- have paid Frank Wright small notice. His career, of late, has brightened: The Kennedy Galleries in Manhattan showed his art in March, and his sales have improved. But the Corcoran exhibit in his first museum show.
The artist's bearded face appears in perhaps half of the pictures here. He may be seen in one of them, "F Street, 1900" (1977), crossing the old trolley tracks to his LeDroit Building studio. The passerby ride bicycles, wear long Victorian dresses, alight from horse-drawn cabs.
Posing in Frank Wright's "The Artist and the Model" (1979) is a man in a plumed helmet with his hand upon a sword, who has dressed up as a Roman knight. Wright's botany is shaky -- he does not paint his trees from life, he summarizes photographs -- but his attitude toward foliage is that of the painters of the 19th-century Hudson River School. Wright's "Mr. De Oro" (1968-69) includes no Meerschaum pipe, but it's just the sort of character study ground out by the Americans who went to study painting in Dusseldorf and Munich a century ago.
A guest curator, David Tannous, the Washington art writer, organized Wright's show. Tannous, in the catalog, partially explains the public's lack of recognition of the artist: "It was clear that the Washington art scene of the '60s was not greatly receptive to traditional realism, especially in painting. Whatever cachet the city possessed as a center for contemporary art was tied to the idea of the Color School; painting had to be flat, emblematic, geometric and abstract. Acceptance for something as radically 'different' as straightforward representation would have to wait for at least ten years." But Wright's paintings did not look "different." Though he is much more accomplished than many of his colleagues, he represents a crowd.
Like many other Washington artists, he studied at Eastern High School with Leon Berkowitz. In 1950 he enrolled at American University where Sarah Baker. Bob Gates, Ben Summerford and others taught their students to admire the small domestic oils full of modesty and light that their beloved guide, Duncan Phillips, particularly loved. Even at A.U., Wright was thought "conservative" (as were his friends, the painters Bill Woodward and Jack Boul).
Wright's oils are charming, thoughtfully composed, heartfelt and well made. Like so many other realists who depend on photographs, and on the summaries of the camera, he tends to blur small details. But the better pictures here -- "Sunday Funnies" (1979), "The Visitor" (1980), "Three Windows on the Sea" (1976), and his fine, sunlit studio views -- show that when he paints the large effects of light -- on a bedspread or a studio floor, a carpet or a beach -- he is very good indeed.
"Ninth Street" (1977-80), his largest, most ambitious streetscape, is a five-panel piece that is more than 20 feet long. The trouble with this piece is that it summons to the memory the works of Richard Estes, and Wright cannot withstand such sharp competition. But his art is full of love, and of dedication. He is a patient pro. He is also the first local artist in some time to be given a one-man exhibition in the Corcoran's main galleries. "Frank Wright: Paintings, 1968-80," closes July 19.