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Smithsonian American Art Museum Presents Special Installation of Washington Modernists
Gene Davis, Black Grey Beat, 1964, acrylic. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift from the Vincent Melzac Collection.

WASHINGTON.- “Local Color: Washington Painting at Midcentury,” on view at the Smithsonian American Art through Oct. 13, presents a special installation of 27 large-scale paintings from the museum’s permanent collection. The installation examines the cross influences of Washington-based artists between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s when the nation’s capital was home to one of the most dynamic artistic communities in the country.

In 1965, six Washington artists working with bold colors soaked into unprimed canvas were part of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition “Washington Color Painters.” Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Kenneth Noland and Paul Reed later became known as the Washington Color School; however, they were neither a cohesive group nor the only artists exploring chromatic abstraction in the city. Looking beyond the Color School label, “Local Color: Washington Painting at Midcentury” explores the astonishing breadth of styles and techniques adopted by nine Washington artists, Davis, Downing, Mehring and Reed—from the Washington Color School set—as well as Leon Berkowitz, Sam Gilliam, Felrath Hines, Jacob Kainen and Alma Thomas, who also were experimenting with color and form. Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art, and Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator, selected the paintings included in the installation.

“We are thrilled to present these pioneering works,” said Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Washington was home to an array of vibrant artists during this time, and it is a natural fit for the Smithsonian American Art Museum to showcase their work as part of Washington’s and America’s cultural legacy.”

“The Smithsonian American Art Museum has had a long-standing relationship with these artists and their work,” said Mecklenburg. “This instalation represents a moment in history when Washington was an epicenter for art around the world. You can still feel the ripples of that movement in the work of artists today.”

“This installation offers a rare chance to see works of this scale together,” said Marsh. “Just as the artists knew each other and were familiar with what the others were working on, the installation allows the visitor to see the interplay among the paintings, the development of each artist’s unique style and how those styles continued to evolve.”

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection comprises an extensive number of works by these artists, including more then 300 works by Davis, 136 by Kainen, 22 by Gilliam and 30 by Thomas. Over the years, the museum has celebrated the contributions of these artists through numerous exhibitions and acquisitions, such as: “Jacob Kainen: Prints, A Retrospective,” 1976; “A Life in Art: Alma Thomas (1891-1978),” 1981; “Gene Davis, Selected Works,” 1991; “Gene Davis: A Memorial Exhibition,” 1987; and “Jacob Kainen: A Retrospective,” 1993. The installation of “Local Color: Washington Painting at Midcentury” complements the popular exhibition “Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975” held at the museum in early 2008.

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