"I would not change one thing about my career not even the modesty of it," says painter Ben Summerford, in the Alabama-soft voice that has stirred and prodded American University art students for the past 32 years.
Certainly this bald, rosy-cheeked painter, now a tweedy, professorial 58, would not change the fact that his career is currently being celebrated with a 20-year survey of his art at the Phillips Collection, where he was once a student. The exhibition, though too casual and short of span to be called a retrospective, confirms Summerford's self-assessment: This is a modest body of work, comprising chiefly small-scale flower paintings and still lifes made in his studio in the Virginia countryside. But that does not diminish the ample rewards of the show: There are, in these tranquil paintings, intimate moments of shimmering beauty, deliciously painted passages, exquisite color, a pervasive joie de vivre. Wholly absent is the egomania of abstract expressionism -- which Summerford briefly espoused -- and the cool intellectualism of much subsequent art, which he rejects philosophically.
But that was Summerford's choice, and he made it years ago.
Ben Summerford's contribution to Washington art history goes well beyond his art. As a teacher and department chairman at The American University since 1950, he has shaped the minds and talents of dozens of future artists, teachers and curators who describe him as "inspiring" and "incredibly articulate." "He was absolutely my favorite teacher," says abstract painter Willem de Looper, now curator of the Phillips Collection. "He fills you with this enormous enthusiasm about painting."
But beyond that, during the lean decades of the '40s and '50s, Summerford and his AU colleagues played a crucial role in keeping a dialogue going on contemporary art. "Washington was barren except for the Phillips and AU," recalls Summerford, who, fresh out of the university himself, was managing AU's Watkins Art Gallery when Ken Noland, Gene Davis, Alma Thomas, Hilda Thorpe and other unknowns were given their first exposure there.
The Watkins also brought the first show of abstract expressionists to Washington, providing an ongoing link with the heady art world of New York through annual group shows.
"David Smith came and spoke," chuckled Summerford, who recently rediscovered a follow-up letter from Smith requesting reimbursement for expenses: total, $23. Jack Tworkov taught, as did critic Clement Greenberg, who brought along a young friend named Helen Frankenthaler. "He spent the whole time talking about his own landscape paintings. I'll never forget it."
Of Greenberg, Summerford says simply, "I am not an admirer."
In 1957, with Robert Gates, William Calfee, Ken Noland, Helene Herzbrun, Alice Denney and others, Summerford opened a major chapter in Washington art history with the founding of the city's first cooperative art gallery, Jefferson Place. "It was a significant event because local artists decided to do it -- our way of saying Washington will support a gallery that deals seriously with art, without a sideline to keep it afloat -- such as framing or books or knicknacks."
Jefferson Place later became known as the home of the Washington Color School, which Greenberg espoused. When the gallery "changed direction," Summerford says, he returned to the Franz Bader Gallery, where he still shows his work.
Of color painters, Summerford will say only: "If I have reservations . . . it's not because of what they've done, but because the paintings they made had no integral part in their lives. It is endemic to our time that people have chosen such modes of working in order to achieve recognition . . . In looking at the past 20 years I am very doubtful of the continued interest people will have in most of it, and the Washington Color School is part of the period."
"THERE ARE two ways to have ambition as a painter," says Summerford. "You can want to be the best painter you can possibly be -- and I feel that I've had that very fully -- or you can be ambitious for fame and money and recognition. To tell the truth, I have that not at all. I don't know why I don't have it, but I just don't."
The realization came in the late '50s, after the young painter had extricated himself from the overwhelming influence of Karl Knaths, his teacher at the Phillips Gallery School, and turned to abstract expressionism. "I sort of woke up at the end of the '50s and said, 'Gee, I'm not really that kind of painter at all. I may be a romantic, but I'm not an expressionist. What am I doing painting this way?' "
The issue was muddied by the fact that considerable attention was being paid to his abstract expressionist paintings, especially in New York, where he was included in two group shows at the Whitney Museum and received offers from various Manhattan dealers. "I corresponded with them, but finally, I felt I just didn't want to do it. Again, I'm not certain why, but I felt it would change my life.
"I chose to live here, and it has meant the kind of career I've had . . . If you want the kind of career a New York artist has, you have to go to New York to have it. I don't regret that."
What he got in exchange, he says, was "the freedom to be myself."
Summerford fortified his freedom with another early decision about how he would earn his living. "I felt that, first of all, I wanted to teach, which I love. I like the contact with the students, and I slipped into the job at American University -- my first and only job -- as an extension of being a student there."
Since then, Summerford has sought to live what he calls "a balanced life" with his wife of 32 years and his children. "I've been fortunate in the sense that I've been widely collected," says the artist, who produces only a dozen or so "acceptable" paintings each year and destroys the rest.
Most of the paintings in the Phillips show are borrowed from collectors. "I wish I owned more of them myself," says the artist, who numbers his holdings at 20 works.
SUMMERFORD came to Washington during World War II with the Office of Naval Intelligence, his education as a concert pianist at the conservatory of Birmingham Southern College having been interrupted by military service. He grew up in Montgomery, Ala., the son of a poor family, and produced his first work of art at age 15, not out of a need for self-expression, but out of a need for -- of all things -- a painting.
"I don't know why I needed a painting, but I did -- quite desperately -- from the time I was 11 or 12 years old. We didn't have any paintings, and I never considered the fact that I couldn't make one, so finally I did." It was the only painting Summerford would make until after World War II.
The subject? A still life -- his favored subject to this day.
The decision to abandon the piano for painting came while Summerford was still in the Navy, and practicing five hours a day."You'll never be a concert pianist," his teacher told him when he asked. "It was what I wanted to hear," he says now, "so I stopped."
"I DIDN'T realize there were so many flowers," Summerford said, almost sheepishly, last week at the Phillips as he viewed what he considers to be his best painting from the last two decades. "But I do love flowers."
In terms of chronology, the show starts in 1962, with several small paintings with landscape allusions, all made while on sabbatical in Spain. The best of them are almost wholly abstract, and rendered in thickly impastoed cool colors laid on with a palette knife in the manner of Nicholas de Stael. "I am, I think, a colorist, and color is the primary emotional presence for me," said Summerford.
After the de Stael flirtation, he seems to have moved back to a more visual rendering, with thinner, drier surfaces in warm browns and blues recalling the impressionism of Vuillard, and in some ways the compositions of the late Georges Braque. The one painting with a figure shows Summerford at his easel, an antique corner cupboard behind him.
But the most beautiful works are the newest, such as "Butter and Onion," a painting in which light seems to have been caught in the paint itself. "This is what I want," said Summerford with obvious excitement. "I can't always do it, but it's what I'm after."
He was also pleased with a small painting of asparagus, touched with a tiny squiggle of violet buried in the stalks. "It's that kind of thing that thrills me about nature and light and life," he said, standing back in pleasure. "It's that kind of experience I would like to share."