We know little of the life of Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936) and the little that we know will not stay in focus.
That curious minor modernist was, by all accounts, a vain Virginia gentleman streaked with contradiction. Part dandy and part recluse, he was imperious yet secretive, prissy yet progressive. He believed himself to be a master, yet would not show his art. Bruce, the great-great-great-grandson of the martyred Patrick Henry, took enormous pride in his patriotic American lineage, but did not love this country. He preferred to live in France.
Awkward and derivative paintings he produced there in 1910-'12 are currently on view at the Federal Reserve Board, C Street between 20th and 21st streets NW. This paltry exhibition does him a disservice.
His reputation rests on the spare and enigmatic still lifes he began to paint after World War I. Their colors are peculiar and their perspectives skewed. Each seems to show a table top scattered with strange objects -- slabs and blocks and cylinders and bits of scroll sawed wood -- which, though bathed in colored light, somehow cast no shadows. In the 1960s, when hard edges and flat colors were everywhere in fashion -- and Bruce was rediscovered -- these pictures seemed prophetic.
They are, with one exception, absent from this show.
The current exhibition, instead, is devoted to the groping little pictures that Bruce produced in Paris while a student of Matisse. Most appear to be half-uncomprehending rip-offs of Cezanne. Cezanne, by putting down disconnected, rough-edged patches of pure color, could somehow pop an apple into three dimensions. Bruce, when he attempts the trick, tends to merely scribble. Cezanne's every work has an aura of nobility, but the early art of Bruce -- his flowers and his bowls of fruit -- suggests a kind of groveling. This is student work, at best. It is garbled and pretentious. The Patrick Henry Bruce we encounter here is working with half his heart and painting in a language he does not yet understand.
Bruce was not a happy man (he killed himself with Veronal in 1936). His originality came late. The long-neglected painter deserves a better show than this.
Of the 28 paintings on display, 26 were borrowed from New York's Washburn Gallery. The only mature Bruce on view -- "Forms No. 4," 1922-23 -- is on loan from the Hirshhorn. Handsome though it is, it does not save, but only adds confusion to this small footnote of a show, which closes Aug. 31.
Austria's Arik Brauer
The art society of the International Monetary Fund, 19th and F streets NW, is showing the colored etchings from the "Human Rights Portfolio" of Austria's Arik Brauer, an artist who combines the humane with the hideous. His little, well-made prints somehow seem to blend the nightmares glimpsed by Bosch with the whimsies of Chagall. Like other Viennese fantasists, Brauer, born in Vienna in 1929, offers miniature glimpses of a medieval world inhabited by peasants, lizards, snakes and fire-feathered birds. "No Torture" shows a blob-like form strapped down to the block; "Protection from Arbitrary Arrest" portrays a prisoner with a parachute; "Freedom of Movement" shows a hobo -- or a refugee -- carrying what seems to be a delighted rooster. Brauer uses stained-glass colors. The viewer is not sure whether he should grin or grimace at these pictures. They are sometimes funny, sometimes frightening, sometimes merely foolish. They will remain on view through Aug. 28.
For the galleries, at least, August is the dullest month. Those dealers not on holiday, or planning for the "season," which opens in September, put group shows on the wall. One such exhibition, far better than average, is now at Jack Rasmussen's, 313 G St. NW. Rasmussen recently added to his stable Robert Stackhouse and Joe Shannon, two gifted artists who are represented well here, Shannon by a painting from his series on the Holocaust whose subject seems to be a martyr seen in triumph, and Stackhouse by a drawing that portrays a clipper ship's wood ghost. Other works on view, by Walter Kravitz and Tom Green, are similarly impressive. Royce Dendler is represented by a movie-in-a-box that's full of sneezes and tractions, sight gags and cartoons. The sound is by Spike Jones. Dendler's zany, busy film costs 50 cents a viewing, but is worth it for the yuks.