The briefest possible account of D.C. painting in the short ’60s (that is, 1960-69) would mention only the abstract painters commonly grouped as the Washington Color School. These loosely aligned artists usually stained raw canvas with thin acrylic pigment, often poured rather than brushed. Their style was cooler and tidier than New York-bred abstract expressionism, although clearly an extension of it.
“The Long Sixties” features pictures by most of the best-known Washington colorists, including Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis and Sam Gilliam. (Absent is the most famous, Morris Louis.) But Rasmussen also includes work by other sorts of painters, among them many representational artists and a few retrieved from the margins of the once-accepted history.
Rasmussen started, he writes in the show’s catalogue, with American University’s Watkins and Corcoran Legacy Collections, which together contain more than 13,500 artworks. But he found that female and Black artists were underrepresented, so he turned to other sources. Those yielded notable pieces by Jeff Donaldson and Frank Anthony Smith, both associated with the intentionally provocative AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). The pair taught at Howard University, while most of the other artists in the show with local art-school affiliations are linked to AU or the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
The show’s 1957 bookend is “Lavender Blue,” made by Noland when he was still using oil paint. Like Helene McKinsey Herzbrun’s out-of-sequence “Flowering” (from 1956), Noland’s picture is more abstract expressionist than Washington colorist. Its gestures are excited rather than calm, yet they’re centered in a way that portends the more orderly compositions of other color-field canvases in the show, painted by Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing, Alma Thomas and Willem de Looper between 1958 and 1973.
Those abstractionists are all to be expected in a survey of D.C. painting from the period. But nearby are figurative pictures that are gritty (Val Lewton’s “Arlington Cabs”), angry (Joseph Shannon’s “Freud’s Dog”) or funky (Allen “Big Al” Carter’s “Duck”). There’s also evidence of another “school” or two, populated by artists who emerged in the 1970s with styles that drew on both classicism and photorealism. Among these painters are three women: Manon Cleary, Rebecca Davenport and Michal Hunter, represented here with portraits of local gallerists. The pictures are immaculate — and, in Cleary’s case, characteristically odd: The late Ramon Osuna is shown lying in the grass, next to the tail end of a giant white rat.
(To add another kink to the timeline, Hunter’s portrait of eccentric Corcoran and Smithsonian curator Walter Hopps is her 2018 remake of a missing 1978 original.)
The show’s endpoints were set by events, both political and personal, important to Rasmussen. So it closes in 1982 not because of an artistic transition, but because that’s the year Rasmussen closed his downtown gallery. Still, taking the overview further would have been a challenge. By 1982, the Washington art scene documented in “The Long Sixties” had become uncategorizably broad.
Also at the museum is another show with a chronological hook: “This is a True Picture of How it Was.” Every day for more than five years, beginning in 2013, Raya Bodnarchuk made a small painting, usually in gouache, of the world around her. All 1,926 pictures are on display in order, documenting the artist’s everyday life with engaging directness.
Bodnarchuk, who taught at the Corcoran for 32 years, is known primarily as a sculptor and printmaker. Her visual diary began as black-and-white doodles on squares of paper, sometimes with touches of color. The pictures soon became brighter, more complex and mostly horizontal. The longtime Glen Echo resident depicted flowers, skies, rivers and animals, both domestic and wild, with steadily increasing vibrancy. The truth these gentle paintings reveal is entirely subjective, yet accessible to all.
The Long Sixties: Washington Paintings in the Watkins and Corcoran Legacy Collections
Raya Bodnarchuk: This Is a True Picture of How It Was
American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. american.edu/cas/museum. Open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 2:30 p.m.
Dates: Through Aug. 9.
Admission: Free. Advance, timed-entry tickets are required.