Jacob Kainen is a lovely man -- thoughtful, independent, much admired on the art scene. Yet it is hard to get a fix on him.
Kainen, 73, seems not one man but many. There is Kainen the Washington Color Painter. (His oils are on view at the Baumgartner Galleries, 2016 R St. NW.) There is Kainen the printmaker. (The Hom Gallery, 2103 O St. NW, is exhibiting his monotypes). And there is Kainen the museum man, the promoter ofothers' talents, who built the print collection of the National Museum of American Art.
And that's not all.
There is also Kainen the Social Realist, who cared about the Spanish Civil War, and the poor of the Depression. That Kainen is our link to the WPA. There is Kainen the New York modernist who, in the 1930s, showed with Alice Neel and -- with Gorky and the guys -- drank countless cups of coffee in all-night cafeterias. And then there's Kainen the connoisseur who, aided by his wife, buys master prints with such discernment that their personal collection is soon to be exhibited at the National Gallery of Art.
All these many Kainens overlap but not exactly. That odd sense of hesitation, of contradicted expectations, is close to what one feels before his recent works of art.
He is a contrary fellow. Kainen is one of the last local painters to move from representation to abstraction. But he didn't march in step with others of his time. In the last years of the '50s -- as the first Washington Color Painters started staining their vast pictures -- Kainen decided to paint streetscapes. It was not until the 1970s, with figuration now the rage, that Kainen started making cool, completely abstract art.
Are his prints at Hom's reserved color studies or gestural abstractions? The answer is they're both. Working on copper plates (against which he then presses sheets of moistened paper) Kainen might brush in an ordered trio of small squares -- and then splatter them. Most of his prints seem to be about subtle colors, often soft moss greens and blues. Some are about brushwork. Some might be about art history: the governing horizons of Rothko's art, and Gottlieb's, seem intentionally suggested by "Wine Dark Sea I" in Kainen's current show.
His new oils at Baumgartner's include some of the handsomest he's done. These gracious Color Paintings, too, offer small surprises. Look at those stacked squares in "The Way XCI": Their geometries at first look strict, but their edges are not hard. And their surfaces aren't flat. The color at the center of his "The Way LXXXVIII" is a yellow over gray over red. Much that Kainen does -- the way he contradicts a rigorous rectangular geometry with a leaning band of color, his preference for oils over water-soluble acrylics, and the complex ways he overpaints -- breaks Color Painting's rules. Kainen is a serious painter at full maturity. And he is his own man, as he has always been. Both of his shows close Nov. 17.