Figurative and content-driven art, often political in character, has been dominating contemporary art everywhere. Yet recently later twentieth century abstraction has also been getting renewed attention. Paintings from the Washington Color School have been featured in multiple exhibitions in the Washington DC region. These have particularly highlighted artists who were either on the edges of the movement or among the younger generation of painters who studied with the “second wave” of artists and were working from the 70s through and past 2000. Among the latter, for example is the work of Kenneth Victor Young featured in two local exhibits this year. Colors of Confidence, the current exhibit at the relatively new Pazo Fine Art gallery (PFA) in Kensington, MD, shows a small but powerful group of ten works by eight DC abstract painters, three of them major names from the Washington Color School including Tom Downing, Howard Mehring and Paul Reed.
Sometimes termed the “lesser” or “second generation” stars of Washington’s only major art movement of the twentieth century, these three artists were mentors themselves of a generation of art students. Their work has been seen in the larger context of a worldwide renaissance of 1960s abstraction, particularly of the “optic” rather than “haptic” (or tactile) kind. While this suggests some need for justification, the fact is that the works themselves, as evidenced in the PFA exhibit, look fresh right now. Their uncompromising formal emphasis, their rejection of any kind of illusionism, and their shining colors interacting across the picture plane have a simple, straightforward visual appeal that is surprisingly magnetic.
As is characteristic of all Color Field painting, these are works on bare, unsized, unprimed canvas, into which acrylic color is stained right into the fabric, making the pigment and the support become one. This practice negated the idea of a distinction between “figure” and “ground,” and insisted on an absolute purity of formal intention, devoid of extraneous content or references. Washington Color School artists, employing the staining technique invented by New Yorker Helen Frankenthaler (her groundbreaking Mountains and Sea, 1952, is at the National Gallery of Art) were pioneers in rejecting the notion that a painting had to represent something else, even the personality or emotional state of the artist: the “content” of Abstract Expressionist paintings like those of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. For the Washington painters, color and form could stand on their own, and contemporary criticism, especially that of power-broker Clement Greenberg, lent them strong support. Greenberg specifically wrote about the work of Color School founders Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis achieving “optical space,” a formal purity and flatness that, he believed, modern art had been moving toward since Manet in the mid-19th century. In the work of these artists Greenberg identified a new school of specifically American art—not the recently championed Abstract Expressionists whom he had later connected to the European tradition. Greenberg’s famous lecture, “Modernist Painting,” first delivered on Voice of America in 1960, coincided with his attention to the Washington area art scene, setting the stage for the blossoming of an art movement that focused on the optical effects of color, and spawned international interest.
The group of works by Downing, Mehring and Reed at PFA provides an array of these effects. One of the most striking things about the exhibit is the condition of the paintings. Two of the Downing paintings have never been exhibited and were received at the gallery still in their original rolls. The Reed received an extensive restoration by a conservator from the Philips Collection. Ambient dirt, dust and fingerprints, a major problem with the bare canvases of Color Field art, and a curator’s nightmare, are not an issue here.
Tom Downing’s paintings show the virtues of the now defunct magna acrylic medium used by many of these artists in the ’60s and ‘70s. Magna intensifies the values of colors, so that they can optically interact more efficiently. His very large Split Possession (1972) shows his signature dots arranged symmetrically as two hexagons that meet in the center. His controlled placement of the dots, and their isolation on the blank canvas generate the effect of “optical space”. With looking, the dots, which are fixed and completely flat, seem to blink on an off and to travel around in their track. This effect brings up an interesting point about paintings like these. Unlike Abstract Expressionist or more recent gestural painting, where the movement in the painting is perceived in following the gesture, here it occurs within the viewer’s perception of the shape that exists in that optical experience. Downing’s two other works in the show, Quadrille (c. 1965), a simple composition of four large dots on a square canvas, and the more complex and the larger Run, where lines of white and pale blue dots run in intervals across the canvas are similarly striking in this way.
The exhibit opens with a large Mehring from 1964, the last year in which the artist was painting the stippled surfaces he had invented in 1958, as well as employing the cut out technique that made his paintings since 1961 essentially tightly fitted collages. Magenta Double is also painted in oil rather than acrylic, and has a soft sheen that is effectively invisible in photographs. The deep magenta of the two bars, a jewel-like color, also seems to evade the camera, as well as the green and blue fields that surround them. In an essay accompanying the exhibit of Mehring’s work at connersmith gallery earlier this year, gallerist and curator Jamie L. Smith, Ph.D., discussed something of the artist’s stated intentions with these works, called the “Broken Color Series”. Having invented the pouring/stippling technique as early as 1958 to create his “Allovers”, in 1961 he began to experiment with geometric compositions like the one here. These were based on abstractions of the letters T, L and W. Double Magenta is based on the W, and, as Walter Hopps observed, like all these compositions, is symmetrical from left to right, but not from top to bottom, “creating a dynamic upward thrust”.  That thrust is completely optical in nature, as the bars are firmly fixed.
The PFA exhibit includes the work of other artists working in the period only tangentially associated with the Color School, or in their own abstract styles. Among them was an artist who used geometric abstraction, but from a completely a completely different perspective. Simon Gouverneur was born in the Bronx, NY in 1934. He was multiracial, being of Dutch, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean and Amazon Basin Indian origins. Coming of age in the early 1950s, he felt like an outsider, and spent decades living in Europe and South America. In these travels, he engaged in what became a spiritual quest for the mystical origins of various traditions, ranging from the Indian Vedic to pre-Columbian mythologies of the Aztec and the Maya. As John Yau has commented, during this period, “he came to view art as a devotional practice that requires belief and discipline.”
Gouverneur came to Washington in about 1980, and through his friendship with Sam Gilliam, had a solo exhibit in 1983 at the Martin Luther King Library, followed by exhibits at the Phillips and gallery representation. The painting in the PFA exhibit comes precisely from this DC period, dated prominently by the artist 1985. It features a square grid, unevenly lined, enclosed in a circle. The grid contains smaller drawn squares in which are colored dots that have an optical effect. However, unlike Downing, this was not Gouverneur’s aim. With its ideographic purpose, Gouverneur is closer to abstractionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Hilma af Klint and many others who were looking for a universal language of mystical symbolism.
The quirky abstraction of longtime Washington DC artist Tom Green (1942-2021) is quite different. Teaching at the Corcoran, Green encouraged his students to look inward to find their own formal vocabulary, one that could be symbolic and personally expressive in a decisive move away from the dominance of Color School theory—at the same institution where both Downing and Gene Davis were teaching. He encouraged sketching, a sort of doodling to capture these visual notes, and he is known to have been an example of that habit. Sightings, an acrylic on paper from 1997, is characteristic of his later period. The playful, somewhat childlike character of the central forms, and their almost figurative appearance is reminiscent of Paul Klee, while the composition, and the stone wall segment with abstracted blood drips (?) that appears in more than one of Green’s work, seems more influenced by the work of Jasper Johns. All in all, the PFA exhibit constitutes a small survey of the history of abstraction in the DC region, and it does shine.
“Colors of Confidence,” July 16-August 22, 2021, Pazo Fine Art, 4228 Howard Avenue, Kensington, MD 20895. https://www.pazofineart.com/colors-of-confidence for online catalog. email@example.com, (571) 315-5279.
 https://www.connersmith.us.com/exhibitions/howard-mehring-cutting-edge/selected-works-inquire?view=slider. The exhibition, “Howard Mehring: Cutting Edge,” was on view April – June 2021.
 Yau has made similar observations, as cited in n. 3.