Painters of the Washington Color School are among the artists celebrated in “Washington Art Matters: 1940s-1980s.” (COURTESY OF AMERICAN UNIVERSITY MUSEUM)

Climb the staircase to the third floor of the American University Museum and you’ll see, floating high on the wall of the soaring atrium, painter Paul Reed’s “Hackensack A.”

The angular, arrow-shaped canvas, a 1967 work by one of Washington’s famed color field painters, points toward the entrance of “Washington Art Matters: 1940s-1980s” like a highway exit sign. Hang a left at the landing and — bam! — you’re standing in front of a knockout wall featuring work by four of Reed’s colleagues: painters Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Thomas Downing and James Hilleary.

Welcome to Washington.

Those four iconic paintings — Louis’s loose stripes, Noland’s target of concentric circles, Downing’s dots and Hilleary’s X-shaped abstraction — could not more succinctly express the city’s artistic soul, or at least the best-known slice of it, embodied by the Washington Color School. The rest of the room contains work by art stars Sam Gilliam, Anne Truitt, Gene Davis and others. Among the 80-plus names in the show, Davis is one of the few represented by more than a single piece. His 1952 “Black Flowers,” with its long, almost abstract vertical stems, creates a nice echo with an example of the later work he’s renowned for: an untitled 1966 array of candy-colored stripes.

There’s lots to look at in this gallery. And you haven’t even seen the rest of the show.

Divided into two roughly chronological groups, the half-century survey separates the work of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s from the work of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s an attempt to tell the story — make that the stories — of a city’s art scene, from the musty if modernist old guard to the funky vanguard.

That timeline begins with several representational paintings, many of which are owned by the university and were painted by artists who once taught there, including longtime professor Ben Summerford. Artistic lineage — how the baton of tradition is passed on at times and then rejected and replaced at others — is one of the show’s sub-themes.

The departures from tradition are plentiful. Take Pietro Lazzari’s “Bull” (c. 1950), an almost sculptural schmear of thickly impastoed gray medium — more masonry than paint — into which the Italian-born painter has inscribed a calligraphic scribble. The work is a wonderful surprise when set against the more staid pictures by Lazzari’s colleagues in the A.U. art department.

Of course, any story about D.C. art must tell that story largely through the medium of paint. Scattered throughout the show, there are a handful of 3-D works by such sculptors as Martin Puryear, Jim Sanborn and Joan Danziger, along with an homage to the city’s black-and-white photography of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. But Washington has traditionally been a painting town, and “Washington Art Matters” is a painter’s showcase.

That being said, abstraction and realism ebb and flow here. Augustus Vincent Tack’s expressionistic “Time and Timelessness (The Spirit of Creation),” from 1943-44, gives way to Marjorie Phillips’s 1951 “Night Baseball,” a literal-minded canvas if ever there was one. I never especially liked the latter work, by the wife of Phillips Collection founder Duncan Phillips. But both pictures, on loan from the Phillips, are famous examples of the city’s wide embrace of divergent styles.

Hyper-realist works by Manon Cleary (1974) and Rebecca Davenport (1971) are among the show’s newer highlights, along with J.W. Mahoney’s Dadaist photocopied collage “Hibernia” (1989) and Carol Brown Goldberg’s trippy “Ya-Ya Decides to Go With America” (1984).

To the show’s credit, “Washington Art Matters” is racially diverse. In addition to pieces by Gilliam and Puryear, it includes art by such representatives of black Washington as John Nathaniel Robinson, Lois Mailou Jones, Alma Thomas, Sylvia Snowden, Jeff Donaldson, Big Al Carter and Michael Platt.

One thing it is not, however, is encyclopedic.

But who reads an encyclopedia from cover to cover anyway? “Washington Art Matters” is more like a collection of carefully selected tales. The cast of characters includes the living and the dead, the forgotten and the footnotes.

Although the temptation is there to see the show as a nostalgic glance at the past, it feels less like a period piece than like a story that’s still being written.


The Story Behind the Work

“Washington Art Matters” was inspired by “Washington Art Matters: Art Life in the Capital 1940-1990.” The snapshot-filled book is a publication of the Washington Arts Museum, an organization dedicated to the presentation and promotion of the city’s art and art history. It’s less an exhibition catalogue or an art-historical guide than a bit of both, combined with extended reminiscence, a dash of critical context and the self-consciousness that comes only from looking through an old family photo album.

The self-consciousness is a condition that seems to be as chronic among the city’s creative class as it is among the political class. For artists, the feeling manifests itself as a desire to compare what one is doing to what everyone else is doing. In the chapter devoted to the 1980s, painter and writer Sidney Lawrence indulges in a bit of tongue-in-cheek taxonomy, making up such goofy names for Washington’s artistic micro-movements as “Over-the-top Vernacularism” and “Hallucino-Abstractionism.”

He may have a point. As the exhibition makes clear, Washington is a hard town to nail down, but maybe that’s true everywhere. As Washington Color School painter Gene Davis once said, “Make no mistake, each [artist] . . . is a solitary voyager.”

— Michael O'Sullivan