Let’s pull on the ethical knot first: Generally speaking, it’s a pickle for museums to host entire exhibitions about private collections, like the show now on view at the American University Museum: “The Barlow Gilotty Collection.”
The AU Museum is not exactly an art-collecting institution, however. And Philip Barlow and his partner, Lisa Gilotty — both government workers — are nothing like the typical investor-donors who set the agenda at so many museums today. Would that more collectors like these public servants did wield that level of influence. Viewers and institutions would be better off.
The exhibition — now occupying one-third of the seashell-shaped museum building at American University’s Katzen Arts Center — features 88 pieces from a collection of 459 assembled by Barlow and Gilotty, whose art collection spans their 33 years together. As a collector show, it’s a doubly unusual showcase: a broad survey of hyperlocal artworks (which is rare enough) and one with little trace of the Washington Color School style for which the city is best known (rarer still).
“Dancing Star” (1999) is a good entry point. The painting by Wayne Edson Bryan looks like a blocky collage, with ink and enamel panels of digital static and floral print patterning arranged in a no-nonsense grid. One square appears to show a neuroimaging scan of a brain, another a sort of fingerprint pattern. The push and pull is intriguing and a little off-putting. The unresolved piece conveys chaos rising from order — or maybe it’s the other way around.
Bryan’s piece could be a reply to “Welkin” (1987), made a generation earlier by Simon Gouverneur. This painting features a series of concentric circles containing still more bold-colored target shapes within each ring, plus a mysterious gridlike jumble of letters at the painting’s center. Gouverneur ran with such Color School artists as Sam Gilliam, but his dense cerebral constructions broke with that movement’s more expansive gestures.
Vivienne M. Lassman, an independent area curator, helped the collectors find a common thread from the works they own — beyond the fact that they’re all small enough to fit in their home. Her treatment zeroes in on hard-edge geometric abstraction. An acrylic grid by Andrea Way, an ink mandala by Jason Hughes, a circle sketch by Linn Meyers — it all seems to trace back to Gouverneur, as if he were the artist who cast the longest shadow over the District (and not his close compatriot Gilliam). Lassman makes a compelling case for this alternative history.
Knowing the collectors, it makes sense that they’d treasure works with a math-y zeal. Gilotty is a federal researcher who studies autism, and Barlow is a D.C. government actuary. Indeed, the couple’s scientific acumen extends to how they approach art. On view are charts and tables showing data about the collection: acquisitions by year, race of artists represented and more.
Geometry is not the only current in the show. Pat Goslee’s sensuous “Hide and Seek” (2008), Nikki Painter’s dynamic “Fence” (2008) and Hedieh Ilchi’s rich “How We Break and Mend and Tremble” (2016) are examples of more lyrical works. (Goslee is married to Washington Post journalist Michael O’Sullivan.) The survey also includes photography, video and sculpture. As rigorous data scientists, the collectors track these things, of course: Painting makes up 35 percent of the works in the collection and half of all spending for acquisitions, for example.
Even though video makes up just 2 percent of the collection, Barlow and Gilotty’s performance selections pack a punch. For “Resolve,” a memorable 2005 piece by Kathryn Cornelius, a screen shows the artist as she pushes a vacuum cleaner on a beach, a Sisyphean chore infused with feminist snark and a subtle spirituality. José Ruiz’s “Ghost Signatures and Minimalist Graffiti” (2005) puts the artist on two screens: In one, Ruiz is dressed in black and spray-painting a black drawing, and in the other, his double, wearing white, paints over it. It’s a street-art “Erased de Kooning Drawing” that seems far removed from Gouverneur’s symmetric labyrinths — but it’s also a binary.
Nobody asked, but Barlow tracked his gallery visits for a year: 257 shows, about five per week, and that’s without owning a car. That will surprise no one who has seen Barlow’s lanky figure bob through seemingly every art opening in the D.C. metro area for 30-odd years. For frequent gallery-goers, “The Barlow Gilotty Collection” will feel like a homecoming. I can trace works in this show to spaces whose location I can no longer remember. These collectors were there, supporting artists who have long since left the District, artists who have died, artists who have failed.
Two paintings in the show appear to hover, floating above eye level along a wall lined with works below. One is Manon Cleary’s “Sky Scape #8,” a gentle 1998 landscape painting of a stormy cloud formation. The other is Ian Whitmore’s “Keyhole” (2010-11), a painting of a nebula on canvas shaped like a puzzle piece. I think of these two artists often, but never together. Whitmore, a friend of mine, enjoyed a sensational rise with sold-out solo shows before family and other obligations pulled him away from the area. Cleary died in 2011 after an influential career as a painter and teacher; her widower still posts letters to her on her Facebook page. Collecting art can reveal hidden links between pieces. This pairing hums with a soft energy, attuned perhaps to the same celestial spheres that Gouverneur hoped to crack open.
To represent the collection in the broadest way, the show features at least two works from every year that Barlow and Gilotty have collected together, from 1989 to 2022. The methodical approach brings together established artists such as Sondra Arkin and Renee Stout with relative newcomers like Sarah Hull and Chris Combs. The through line here is the city itself — a city of makers and doers — as seen through the eyes of two of its most steadfast observers.
If you go
The Barlow Gilotty Collection
American University Art Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. american.edu/cas/museum.
Dates: Through May 21.