East City Art Reviews—Willem de Looper : Paintings 1968-1972

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on February 7, 2022
Willem de Looper: Paintings 1968–1972, installation view. Image courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.

As we walked into Hemphill gallery’s elegant white spaces, a friend commented “it’s like a chapel”; an especially apt description of the sensation that emerges from this group of eleven paintings by Willem de Looper on exhibit here for the first time in many years.  My friend was referring to the sense of calm, a meditative sensibility that one feels in seeing these luminous works together in an otherwise empty space.  No labels interfere with the experience, imbuing a quiet in the viewer akin to that in the Rothko room at the Phillips Collection, or in that artist’s chapel in Houston.[1]  Yet, this calm is neither dark nor static.  One of the first things one notices is the brilliant color and the perceived movement in each of the paintings.  De Looper’s veils of extremely diluted poured acrylic seem almost like colored smoke, moving in and around in the space they occupy in unpredictable sequences.

Often termed a member of the Washington Color School (WCS), de Looper was not among the “first generation” that included Morris Louis and Ken Noland. In fact, de Looper didn’t apply the term to his work, although he did exhibit with other WCS artists at the Jefferson Place Gallery in the later 1960s and early 70s.  He was a “rule breaker,” as Kristen Hileman wrote in the accompanying catalogue, doing things that were “startling and contrary to standard Color School techniques of flat, stained color.”[2]  Unlike Louis’ and others’ expanses of raw unprimed canvas left unpainted, de Looper’s paintings push out to the edges.  And unlike artists like Kenneth Victor Young among those associated with the WCS in those years who painted on unstretched canvases on the floor, de Looper stretched his before starting to work on them.  He moved the canvases horizontally or vertically to control the numerous pours of thinned acrylic that each mixed with the layers underneath, but didn’t eliminate them.  This is one of the ways that de Looper achieved a sense of deep space in many these works, the layers sometimes taking on an almost volumetric shape.

Willem de Looper, Trough Blues, acrylic on canvas, 55 ½ “x 47 ¼”, 1968. Image courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.

A good example of this phenomenon is a large painting titled Trough Blues (1968).  The stunning blue color of the central form is invaded from the left by a green that the artist mixed with white to get a sense of light moving inward, while on the right a shock of it propels a black squiggle, its progress stopped as it approaches the deep blue shape.  The longer one contemplates the work, the greater amount of subtlety in the variation of the color density and saturation appear.

Although de Looper’s surfaces are smooth and very thin, they are often broken by small flicks of paint that sit on top of them like seeds or gravel.  Like the black intrusions in Trough Blues, these flicks, made with a dry brush, were made deliberately to leave a sign of the artist’s hand in the work.  They create a texture that draws attention to the haptic or tactile, rather than the purely optical—the latter a basic premise of WCS painting. For similar reasons, when the artist tried mechanical spray painting he quickly abandoned it.  These layers were done by hand, and their presence is also that of the artist himself in the finished work—a carryover, perhaps, from Abstract Expressionist thinking.

Willem de Looper, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 12” x 78”, 1969. Image courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.

The flicks can be seen in a particularly striking untitled painting from 1969.  Long and narrow, and the smallest work in this show, they appear like little stars seen against nebulae coming up from below.  The effect is reminiscent of space photographs taken much later by the Hubble telescope, and perhaps influenced by the first images from the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory or OAO-2 launched in December 1968. In the center, a darker area is edged against a lighter one with a brilliant yellow that brings the eye to the center of the canvas and holds it there.

De Looper was born in The Hague in 1932.  He and his family endured the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and the trials of the aftermath of WWII.  In 1950, at 17, he immigrated to Washington DC, joining his brother Hans who was working for the International Monetary Fund. He earned a BFA from American University in 1957 in an art department then dominated by gestural abstraction.  He began to show the influence of the founders of WCS in the 1960s, and became close to Sam Gilliam who also showed at the Jefferson Place Gallery.  In the Washington DC of that period, he may well have been aware of the work of Rockne Krebs who used light, and then candle smoke with pigment to achieve effects that de Looper would attempt with diluted acrylic alone.[3]  In the late 60s Leon Berkowitz was occupied with a more painterly version of the stripes of Gene Davis, but by the early 70s had begun to paint luminous veils of acrylic that may well have been influenced by de Looper’s example.  Berkowitz is quoted to have said “I am endeavoring to find that blush of light over light and the color within the light; the depths through which we see when we look into and not at color”[4]—an idea that could have been expressed by de Looper about his works.

Willem de Looper, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 68 ¼” x 67”, 1969. Image courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.

From around 1971 de Looper began painting compositions that reflect a more organized layering of horizontal bands going up the picture plane.  These are still made with his highly controlled pouring technique, but have a more defined movement and are often strongly vertical in format.  This exhibit has a few striking examples of this later type from 1971-2.

Willem de Looper, Pinetop, acrylic on canvas, 71 ¼ “x 29 ½”, 1972. Image courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.

As a result of the banding, many of these works have a subtle landscape reference, something that the artist seems to have underlined with titles.  Pinetop (1972) is one of these, tall and narrow with a stretch of dark green on the bottom followed by blues and greens, and culminating with a very dark “pine” green band at the top.   Another of these, Into Night (1971) evokes a sunset turning into night.  Interestingly, the reddish band through the center ends on the left with an applied dash of red paint on the surface, and the green band on the bottom looks brushed in.

Willem de Looper, Into Night, acrylic on canvas, 59 ½ “ x 35 ¾”, 1971. Image courtesy of Hemphill  Artworks.

Untitled 1972, a largish square canvas in purple tones is similar in format.  Although it lacks the referential title, to me the painting evokes a coastal scene, with a storm moving in from above.  All it lacks is the boat at the water’s edge.

Willem de Looper, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 46” square, 1972.  Image courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.

Before closing, I want to point out the superlative arrangement of the hanging of the paintings in this gallery.  The sensitivity to color and shape adds greatly to the aesthetic experience described at the opening of this essay.

WILLEM DE LOOPER: Paintings 1968 – 1972, Hemphill Artworks, 434 K Street NW, Washington DC 20001, January 15–February 22, 2022.  By appointment only, masks required.  202-234-5601 or gallery@hemphillartworks.com .

Caption for banner image: Willem de Looper, Trough Blues, acrylic on canvas, 55 ½ “x 47 ¼”, 1968. Image courtesy of Hemphill Artworks.

[1] The Rothko Chapel was commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, in 1964 and is located between the Menil Collection and Chapel of St. Basil on the campus of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX.  Rothko’s paintings, installed in 1971, are black infused with the darkest red.

[2] Kirsten Hileman, Willem de Looper: Paintings 1968-1972, Exh. Cat., introductory essay, Hemphill Artworks, 2021.

[3] Cf. my review of an exhibit of these works at Hemphill in 2016. https://www.eastcityart.com/reviews/hemphill-fine-arts-rockne-krebs-smoke-drawings-reviewed/

[4] https://www.hollistaggart.com/artists/67-leon-berkowitz/


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