THE AMERICAN University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center opened its doors this summer with "Soft Openings," a preliminary exhibition meant to highlight several things: its own distinctive architecture; the work of area artists; the school's nearly 5,000-object Watkins Collection; selected pieces owned by the donors whose name sits on the building, collectors Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen; and the ambition of its director and curator, Jack Rasmussen, to seek interesting art beyond his own back yard. With its "official" opening last month now behind it, the museum has tightened each of those focuses considerably, with five idiosyncratic shows.
The best of the bunch is "Emilie Brzezinski: Dialog With Wood." Now in her early seventies, the Washington-based Brzezinski has been working with tree trunks, which she roughly hollows out with a chain saw, chisel and sledgehammer but leaves largely intact, since the late 1980s. Grouped in standing, almost conversational clusters, or lying on the floor and ground like the discarded shells of some oversize nuts at the end of a good meal, Brzezinski's newest works from the past couple of years, true to her show's name, give new meaning to the phrase "talk to the trees."
Not only do the often elegantly contoured trunks, with their chainsaw "ribs" still visible, evoke human torsos gathered in silent communion, but they also create a kind of kinesthetic dialogue with the viewer, inviting him or her to physically dance with them as visitors move among and around their hulking -- yet paradoxically graceful -- forms, which are scattered among the museum's three floors and outdoor sculpture garden. Yet another, more rough-and-tumble conversation takes place between Brzezinski's wooden shapes and the Katzen building. Brzezinski's robust, yet gently torqued bowls and bodies both vie and harmonize with the Katzen's curvilinear architecture.
The primary exchange, however, seems to have already taken place between the artist and her material. It's clear that Brzezinski really listens to the wood, using her tools not to hammer her forms into submission, but to amplify the music and the wisdom that she hears in them.
"After Bruce Conner: Anonymous, Anonymouse and Emily Feather" lies at the other end of the energy spectrum. Several of Conner's delicate, lace-like ink-blot drawings of the 1980s and 1990s are in a darkened third-floor gallery, along with similar, more recent work purportedly made by three acolytes of the California artist, who officially "retired" from making art, at least under his own name, in 1999.
Conner -- who not only designed the exhibition, down to the benches and the palate-cleansing gray paint on the walls between the four artists' work, but who co-designed the accompanying catalogue -- is careful in a published interview with Rasmussen to refer to his three co-exhibitors in the third person. Rasmussen, however, can't quite keep up the joke, referring to Emily Feather at one point as "he," and then quickly correcting it with "I mean 'she.' "
While the work requires (and rewards) close looking, this head game played with the notion of artistic authorship gives the show a conceptual dimension, albeit one whose goofiness diminishes the work's power.
The entire second floor is given over to "Living Legacy: 60 Years of the Watkins Collection." The main idea of the show, according to Jonathan Bucci, assistant director and curator of collections, is "to tell the story of the collection." That collection began as a tribute to painting professor and AU art department founder C. Law Watkins, whose death in 1945 prompted the donation of a few paintings by his colleagues. Over time, the collection has grown to nearly 5,000 objects, many of which tell a second story: that of the city in which the collection grew.
To be sure, the roughly 50-work exhibition, the largest in the collection's history, is about more than Washington artists, but that story arc is its most interesting. Along with John Marin and Arthur Dove -- who, with their Phillips Collection associations seem almost honorary Washingtonians -- "Living Legacy" abounds with such names as Sam Gilliam, Jody Mussoff, Mindy Weisel, Carroll Sockwell, Jennie Lea Knight, Jacob Kainen, Willem de Looper, Gene Davis, Michael Clark, Yuriko Yamaguchi, Yuri Schwebler, Leon Berkowitz and others that will be familiar to longtime followers of the city's art-making scene.
It's a quiet, sober-minded show, with little that's splashy, but one well worth seeing.
Equally sober-minded is the work of William Allan, another Californian here represented by exquisitely rendered life-size watercolors of salmon, trout and other fish caught by the artist. Although there is a sameness to the pictures in "William Allan: Stories and Watercolors" -- surely part of the artist's point -- it is not the works' similarities but their subtle differences that grow more apparent over extended looking. As with Brzezinski, there's also something metaphorical at work here, as though they are not just pictures of fish, but, in a way, of us.
Juxtaposed among the watercolors are also texts by the artist, a recipe for beef brisket and a passage written by the artist's young son. While the stories at times possess a real poetry, I can't imagine many people reading that much writing while standing in a gallery. Buy the catalogue, I suggest, and take it to your favorite armchair.
Weakest of the five shows is "A First Look: David Bates, Nancy Graves, Gene Davis and Master Drawings From the Katzen Collection." While Bates's folksy canvases have a disarming charm, and the grouping of Davis's stripe paintings boasts an unusual, soft-edged piece ("Mardi Gras") that seems more like the work of fellow Washington Color Schooler Morris Louis, Graves's overly busy sculptures and glitter-bedecked paintings gave me hives. Two unexpectedly outsider-ish pieces are an especially pleasant surprise among the drawings : an Andy Warhol called "Christmas With a Pig" and Jim Dine's "Two Trucks on a Green Face."
The Katzens, whose collection will one day be given to the university, appreciate "color, humor and craft," as Rasmussen explains. And certainly, there's plenty of each on view in this "First Look" at this promised addition to the permanent collection. What will be more interesting to see is how much of it merits a second glance.
EMILIE BRZEZINSKI: DIALOG WITH WOOD
AFTER BRUCE CONNER: ANONYMOUS, ANONYMOUSE AND EMILY FEATHER
LIVING LEGACY: 60 YEARS OF THE WATKINS COLLECTION
WILLIAM ALLAN: STORIES AND WATERCOLORS
A FIRST LOOK: DAVID BATES, NANCY GRAVES, GENE DAVIS AND MASTER DRAWINGS FROM THE KATZEN COLECTION
All through Dec. 17 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. www.american.edu/museum. Open Tuesday-Thursday noon to 5; Fridays and Saturdays noon to 7; closed for Thanksgiving through Saturday. Free.