It comes as no surprise to learn that Miklos Pogany, whose works are on view through May 26 at the Phillips Collection, was a professor of comparative literature before deciding to become an artist.
Although Pogany occasionally uses poems by Yeats or Eliot to title his abstract monotypes, collages and paintings, this is not the primary clue, which derives instead from a certain brooding thoughtfulness in the works themselves.
Pogany, born in Hungary in 1945 and educated in Italy and the United States, shifted careers shortly after earning his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1972. His technical accomplishments as a self-taught artist are impressive: He became familiar with printmaking processes and used them inventively to produce the large, singular images that are the better pieces in this show.
"Klarika" (1983) is typical of this kind of work. Produced, apparently, by running carefully cut, composed and colored pieces of paper or cardboard through a large etching press, and then adding accents and overlays with paint, pastels and pencils, it combines subtle textures and colors that are at once intense and satisfying. The primary form -- a tall figurelike presence that is masculine in its verticality and feminine in its bulbousness -- adds an appropriately strong note of ambiguity to the image.
The structure of this work and others like it basically relates to the late, "synthetic" phase of Cubism, in which forms were built up with distinct, interlocking parts. Other Pogany compositions, particularly the series titled "Requiem for the Fisherman," with irregular geometric shapes splayed upon a light-colored, flat background, relate more to the Constructivist tradition. To each tradition Pogany adds his particular blend of intelligence and sensuousness, although it is perhaps too early to say, as John Yau does in his catalogue essay, that Pogany has become "an important abstract artist."
One of the curious aspects of the exhibition is that similar forms arranged in similar relationships are much less persuasive in the paintings than in the monotypes and collages. It is as if, without having to fight the limitations of the printmaking processes, the artist cannot quite achieve the same kind of expressive resolution.
The exhibition, selected by curator Willem de Looper, is Pogany's first solo show in an important museum. Installed in the three ground-floor galleries of the north wing of the Phillips, it is more extensive than was necessary at this stage of the artist's career, but it fits the tradition of encouraging emerging talents established long ago by Duncan Phillips, the founder of the institution.
There are other excellent reasons to visit the Phillips' north wing this month. On the third floor one finds a display of the bulk of the museum's superb collection of John Marin paintings, the fourth and final show of a series of "Appreciations" funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. And on the second floor there is the kind of reinstallation of works in the permanent collection that has provided welcome surprises since the remodeled museum reopened last year. This one features a Milton Avery room (where Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" used to hang) and galleries devoted to Augustus Vincent Tack, the New York School and Washington color painting.
The Washington show, including important early pieces by Gene Davis and Rockne Krebs, and excellent works by Sam Gilliam, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing and, on the stairwell, Leon Berkowitz and Robin Rose, is a special treat.