Painter Maggie Michael clearly feels an affinity for the work of Arthur Dove, who’s generally considered America’s first abstract painter. At the invitation of the Phillips Collection, the 44-year-old Washington artist — one of the city’s most buzzed-about — has selected nearly 20 of Dove’s paintings and collages from the museum’s holdings to hang alongside six of her recent pictures. Yet the resulting exhibition, “Depth of Field,” is mostly a study in contrasts, not connections.
The show is the fourth installment of the Phillips’s “One-on-One” series, in which a contemporary artist picks one or more works by a single artist from the museum’s permanent collection to match with her or his own pieces. Ideally, the juxtaposition shines light on the new and the old.
One immediate difference between the two artists is scale. Most of Dove’s paintings are modest in size — small enough that the show can fit a cluster of 13 of them, plus one of Michael’s, on its most crowded wall. (The Phillips owns lots of Doves because founder Duncan Phillips was the artist’s principal patron during his lifetime.)
By contrast, three of Michael’s pictures here are vast, as is typical of her work. This reflects the influence on her work by the abstract expressionism of the 1950s, when such artists as Clyfford Still and Robert Motherwell began to make pictures that were simply too much for the average wall.
The effect of Still’s and Motherwell’s sweeping compositions was dramatic and immersive, as it is with such examples of Michael’s art as the vivid “If a Cloud Was Green Because the Sky Is Yellow,” a 66-by-94-inch piece from her “Colored Ground” series. (With her pictures, even the titles sprawl.)
The epic expanses give Michael a playground for diverse media, techniques and focal points. Even at his most innovative, Dove tended toward traditional, neatly centered compositions. Michael’s painterly gestures — poured, brushed, smeared or dripped — compel the eye in various directions at once. Emulating pop artists, especially Robert Rauschenberg, Michael adds found objects and stenciled patterns.
Dove died in 1946, just a few years before artists began experimenting with staining canvasses with pigment. This tactic, facilitated by the introduction of water-soluble acrylic paints, was embraced by the “Washington Color” painters who came to prominence in the late 1950s, including Gene Davis, Morris Louis and others.
It’s tempting, if facile, to call Michael a latter-day Washington colorist, and yet she does make extensive use of diluted acrylics, a medium that allows her to apply color that’s intense yet fluid. Where Dove’s oils look solid and fixed in place, Michael’s acrylics appear spontaneous and — almost — ready to resume their flow.
Like Georgia O’Keeffe, whose style his work influenced, Dove found his way to abstraction through nature, streamlining and distilling organic forms until they were no longer representational. The natural world plays a role in Michael’s paintings, too, but in a different way.
Michael often works in sequences, some of which have been inspired by specific geography. “Depth of Field” features two pictures from her “Krakow” series, and previous shows have included paintings made with such souvenirs of her travels as Danube River water. But such ingredients are invisible; if the artist has to tell you they’re there, does it matter? Other mixed media (including sand, metal dust and pine needles) can be seen, but their significance is unclear. Are they also mementos of a place or simply things that seemed to fit at the time?
The freedom with which Michael incorporates these materials amplifies the stodginess of, say, “Goin’ Fishin’,” a 1925 assemblage by Dove containing bamboo rods and parts of a denim shirt. Unlike Michael’s work, the collage tells a coherent story. It’s just not a very interesting one.
Whatever links Dove and Michael may have, the two come from different traditions. While moving away from representation toward abstraction, Dove kept the outlook of a 19th-century painter. His pictures have the appearance of something planned and completed.
She, on the other hand, takes a more impromptu and open-ended approach, with the finished products resembling documentation of an experiment: their own making. If Dove’s exploration cracked open the portal to abstraction, the exuberant paintings by Michael, such as the “Residual” series’ “Weak Heart, Strong Lungs,” blow the door off its hinges.
The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. phillipscollection.org .
Dates: Through May 5.
Prices: On Saturdays and Sundays, admission to the museum is $12; $10 for seniors and students; free for members and visitors 18 and under. Tuesdays through Fridays, admission to the permanent collection galleries (including to “Depth of Field”) is free.