‘Art in Congress’

November 3, 2011

I have often noticed the incredible exterior of the 19th-century house at the corner of Q and New Hampshire. It is every bit as grand on the inside as the outside and it houses the Woman’s National Democratic Club (1526 New Hampshire Ave.). There is currently a show there (through July 22) entitled “Art in Congress,” with works by members of the U.S. Congress and their families. Everyone can cheer the inclusion of Representative Barney Frank’s partner, Jim Ready, who has a large photograph, “Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009.” It depicts the view of the crowd attending the Obama inauguration in epic manner.

The works in the show contain some surprises, including the thought that Senator Diane Feinstein of California could quit her day job and launch a respectable career as a floral artist. Though she is needed in the Senate, her lovely “Autumn Bouquet” would be welcome to anyone needing some quiet color affirmation. And Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona displays some very strong graphic gifts in his “Long Day of Legislating,” drawn with a Sharpie. One can feel the tension of April 28, 2007 in his jagged linear qualities.

A surprise is also the sumi-e brush painting on rice paper by Representative Jim McDermott, of Washington. He has been classically trained in the sumi-e technique, and his “Mountain Bamboo” brings its auspicious freshness to the show. On a totally different note, Representative Dina Titus of Nevada shows her book cover for “Bombs in the Backyard: Atomic Testing.” It is appropriately grim.

Erin Kelly, daughter of Representative Betsy Markey of Colorado, is a gifted photographer. She has a diverse body of work that shows a wide range of styles. Representative Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii is represented by a technically accomplished clay sculpture entitled “Tokyo Dango” that includes cherry tree twigs. There is a bit of ikebana in the piece; it is bold, but in a graceful way.

There is a poem by Representative Diane E. Watson of California entitled “Aunt Gert.” Poems should be found more often on the wall. And California Congressman Mike Thompson has a very skillfully done “Drake Hunting Decoy” made of redwood, oil, and glass, used for duck hunting in the Pacific Flyway of California.

Suzanne Finney of the Woman’s National Democratic Club’s Arts Committee accompanied me through the show. I asked her in the spirit of bipartisanship if any Republicans were invited, and she smiled in response. [gallery ids="99134,102722,102714,102699,102707" nav="thumbs"]

Secrets of the Double White

At the Phillips Collection, there is a double feature of (almost) white painting with Richard Pousette-Dart and Robert Ryman occupying different floors within the museum (1600 21st St., through Sept. 12.) It is the differences between the two artists that enhance the choice of having both exhibitions at once. In conjunction with the show, Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” a play focused on how a white painting puts friendship to the test, will perform at the Phillips on July 1 at 6:30 p.m.

White is not a color often featured in Western painting before the 20th century. It usually is found in paintings in clouds with tints, on the highlights in objects and sometimes in snow. Here it stands alone, or almost alone. Robert Ryman’s show is the best Ryman show I have ever seen. This is possibly because of the small scale of the work that allows you to pay more attention to how the paintings are painted. One can focus on the edge that is painted, the threads that stick up from the frayed canvas, and the actual strokes that tell far more.

Here Ryman astutely contemplates painterly means, and he is sometimes lyrical in a fumbling manner. His small works have the dramatic tension of a stage whisper. For me it is the all-black Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell (of the “Iberia” series) that mentor Ryman, especially in his early works. Ryman is closer to Johns in being emotionally deadpan. Motherwell had more range than Johns or Ryman. And unlike Johns or Motherwell, Ryman does have one of the all-time worst signatures in art — very junior-high-school. Nevertheless, Ryman has had a huge influence on the look of abstract painting of the last 40 years; you see his pokerfaced progeny everywhere.

Visiting these shows for the third time, it is Pousette-Dart’s work that holds repeated viewing. With Pousette-Dart there is real experimentation with technique and an openness of the possibilities of painting. His extensive drawing with graphite into the final, rather than the preliminary, aspect of painting was innovative. His few sculptures are worthy of inclusion, not just sidepieces. They have a direct relation to the paintings, though they are lighter hearted.

In Pousette-Dart’s sculpture and the painting, there is overt and covert figuration. One work is divided with a male and female figure splitting the canvas, yet meshing in the web of space. There are biomorphic forms in most of the paintings. Visible is the common heritage of abstract-surrealism derived from Picasso and Miró. But it is Pollock and his allover drip paintings from the late forties that inform the structure of some of the greatest of Pousette-Dart’s almost-white paintings. Somehow he could easily integrate Pollock’s great reckless expanses into his much more intimate quest.

Pousette-Dart’s line is deft and unlyric but weighted and incisive. His use of space is always dynamic and active and his pictures activate the space around them. A painting should have secrets, and these wry and sometimes quietly joyful pictures do contain enough to warrant real looking. [gallery ids="99152,102834,102829,102824,102843,102847,102851,102819,102855,102839" nav="thumbs"]

Christian Zapatka

The greatest antiques in Georgetown are the amazing townhouses and homes that climb the hill. A New Yorker once said to me that Georgetown is more beautiful than Greenwich Village, and indeed it is. The caretaking of Georgetown’s homes that are mostly built in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries is best left to architects who respect the building, and without violating them, give them new life. Christian Zapatka, winner of the Rome Prize, is the architect today who makes the most out of re-inventing the Georgetown townhouse.

One of Zapatka’s newest re-inventions is for sale on Q and 30th Streets. This is a part of Cooke’s Row, made up of four pairs of semi-detached houses built in 1868.

Cooke’s Row has Italianate and Second Empire features, including mansard roofs. D.C.’s first governor, Henry D. Cooke, commissioned these houses. Cooke had been appointed by President Grant and belonged to the Republican political machine during the post-Civil War era.

This house had been neglected for a good while and was in need of drastic repair. What is interesting is what Zapatka left intact and what he created out of the traditional maze of bedrooms and few bathrooms. The single most amazing thing about the interior is the circular staircase that goes all the way to the third floor. It has been reinforced using its original balustrade, but with a newly invented round skylight at the top. Some of the original flooring has been retained and doors, including pocket doors, have been refinished and reused. All windows were removed and reinstalled, faking some of the original glazing when pieces were missing. An unusual feature is the slate fireplaces that were found under several layers of paint. They are polished to a dark luster.

With Zapatka in charge of the renovation everything flows; the traditional features ebb into the modern. There is never a disjunction. Because Zapatka works closely with contractors on site, he adjusts the design details on the spot. Therefore they attain certain perfection. He also employs one of the rarest of artisans: a great plasterer. Bathrooms and the kitchen are modern, created with a mastery of refined understatement.

Studying architecture with Michael Graves at Princeton and later working for him formed Zapatka’s vision. Zapatka says that Graves frequently referred to a building as a piece of furniture, or furniture as a building. Recently he attended a symposium where Graves spoke on the antiques in his house. Perhaps this is why Christian Zapatka can cull the best of an old house, at the same time renewing it.


Christian Zapatka: Reinventing the Georgetown Townhouse
Frank Randolph: Interior Designer Extraordinaire
John Rosselli: Georgetown’s Antique Aficionado
Marston Luce: In Search of Elegance
Scandinavian Antiques & Living: International Accents
Susquehanna Antique Company: Redefining Tradition
Sixteen Fifty Nine: A Mid-Century Renaissance

Frank Randolph

Walking into Frank Randolph’s house makes you aware of what a great interior designer can do. Randolph lives in a house once occupied by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. What he managed to do with it (not to it) is to create marvelous spaces with impeccably designed interiors. This is the hallmark of his work. All is classical, spare without being minimal and luminous.

Frank Randolph’s living room is one of the most beautiful spaces in Georgetown. It is high ceilinged, and during remodeling Randolph dropped the windows to the floor, creating real French windows. They look out onto a lovely garden below. Graced by arches, the living room contains some of the furniture Randolph has designed himself as well as a pair of 18th-century painted French screens. Small porcelain Chinese bowls and other objects are placed on tables and the mantle. He describes them all as inexpensive pieces. Randolph likes to change the arrangement every few months.

A real Washingtonian who grew up near Georgetown and attended Western High (now Duke Ellington), Randolph is the rarest of decorators, a self-taught man. The antiques that Randolph works with are mostly Swedish and Danish pieces from the 18th and 19th century. “People want to walk into a house with less of the darkness associated with antiques,” Randolph says. “They want a home to have lightness and happiness.” In his own home you can see he practices and lives with what he preaches.

“Clients don’t come to me for a strictly contemporary or modern look,” he says. “My passions are evenly divided. As an interior designer one must include things that are practical but still wonderful and beautiful. You cannot sell 19th-century chairs anymore because they break.” Randolph’s own dining room chairs are modeled on antique pieces, but in light wood and are extremely sturdy. He says that if you cannot find a piece, you can often have it reproduced.

Instinctively generous, Randolph even has a few good words to say about Martha Stewart: “I admire her way of getting the general public involved in presentation of food and of things you have in your home.”

It is rare for an architect to speak of lessons learned from a decorator. However, Georgetown architect Christian Zapatka speaks of learning from Frank Randolph and how sometimes covering a window rather than merely exposing it can create more. It is a lesson Zapatka is carrying out in his own newly designed home.

“Making people happy is rewarding,” Randolph says. “But you have to get the architecture right. Thomas Jefferson was the first American interior designer, he went to bed thinking about it and he woke up and rearranged the furniture!”


Christian Zapatka: Reinventing the Georgetown Townhouse
Frank Randolph: Interior Designer Extraordinaire
John Rosselli: Georgetown’s Antique Aficionado
Marston Luce: In Search of Elegance
Scandinavian Antiques & Living: International Accents
Susquehanna Antique Company: Redefining Tradition
Sixteen Fifty Nine: A Mid-Century Renaissance

John Rosselli


-The venerable firm of John Rosselli & Associates opened its first shop in New York City 50 years ago. Its Wisconsin Avenue Georgetown branch has been in business for 10 years. According to Jonathan Gargiulo, who commutes between New York and Washington, the shop is a designer resource. Clients often visit the shop with decorators. When you look at the website of John Rosselli, it’s fabrics that dominate. And that seems to be a bellwether of where the antique trade is going.

What has happened is that buyers are less interested in what is called “smalls,” the smaller objects one would find dotting the interior of every antique store. Those footstools, end tables, and bibelots were the bread and butter of the antique business, with clients coming in periodically adding to their collections. Garguilo says, “It used to be I would spend all day wrapping and putting in bags for clients’ silver, vases and small pictures. Now people decorate with less, they are more interested in an important piece of furniture, and reproductions as well.”

The economy has not helped the antique business and several dealers did not survive the downturn. But the economy is coming back and there is a different kind of client: one made much more savvy due to the popularity of the television “Road Show” series. That, and eBay has made his customers more discerning about prices as related by Garguilo. It also makes it harder for antique stores to pick up bargains the way they used to.

Peter Quinn, who helped start the John Rosselli store in D.C., has what you find in the best antique dealers: a passion for history. That is what is lacking in many of the younger buyers today who are much more part of the information age and do not take the time to learn, for instance, about the hallmarks on silver. That is what motivates the insider in the antique business, the unfolding narrative of where a piece was made and when. He also says Washington can be a tough market, a bit fickle and not too adventurous.

Quality is the underlying value in the best antique stores and John Rosselli & Associates is cited by everyone I have spoken with as one of the best places in D.C. to stop by, with or without your decorator.


Christian Zapatka: Reinventing the Georgetown Townhouse
Frank Randolph: Interior Designer Extraordinaire
John Rosselli: Georgetown’s Antique Aficionado
Marston Luce: In Search of Elegance
Scandinavian Antiques & Living: International Accents
Susquehanna Antique Company: Redefining Tradition
Sixteen Fifty Nine: A Mid-Century Renaissance

Returning to Paint

July 26, 2011

Inscape that has hints of the natural world as well as jewel-fragments is found in the work of Robin Kohlman Fried (Temple Emanuel, Art in HaMaKom, 10101 Connecticut Ave, Kensington, MD; Mon. – Thu. 2:30 -5, Fri. 9-4; though Sept. 30.) Although relatively smaller in scale than some of this artist’s earlier work, these pictures seem done on a dare to create as wide an arc as possible in terms of color and composition. That Fried succeeds on her own terms in each picture is the result of her own gifts, but also a strong determination.

Fried seems fired up in each piece using every technique at her disposal to manifest a rich inner world. She speaks of a long hiatus in her working as a painter that is experienced by many who initially start out in adolescence and early adulthood to pursue a creative path. “I fully intended to keep painting when I first became a mother,” She recalls, “but I had to give my complete attention
to raising my children. In my inner world I was an artist, even though I was no longer painting. I was seen by others as a parent and as someone active in the community.”

What Fried did not do was stop looking at art and going to museums; her inner dialogue was kept alive through being in contact with art. What made her want to paint again was seeing all the new art work being made that was “over intellectualized…I wanted to affirm the aesthetics I value that seem ignored in much work today.”

The works by Fried in this show are carefully made and manage that delicate balance between the heat of spontaneity and the coolness of the critical judgment involved in balancing color and composition. Her pictures have a sensuous attack on surface and pictorial space. There is also a use of collage elements, but Fried’s craft is so secure that you often have to look hard to see the edges. Each work is separate in its achievement and what is especially noteworthy is the carefully achieved color. Fried is a terrific colorist, a quality that has to be inborn.

It is the freedom of the painting that triumphs in Fried’s work. In “Glimmer Glass,” there is temerity of purpose. “Secret Garden” is another work that is highly individualized with an exuberance of paint. Fried’s work is a private inner world dared into the light of day.

Tom Wolff’s Portrait Project

The best photography show currently running in the DC area is Tom Wolff’s portrait series, at the 39th Street Gallery in Brentwood, Maryland (3901 Rhode Island Ave). Wolff recalls, “The idea of the project was to do a photographic survey of the arts district in Mt. Rainier, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville, focusing on the art community and the business owners. This is an effort to introduce people in the area to one another and build a friend base for the art center. I shot for about two months to get the first 70 portraits and I will continue to add to the group until it closes October 29th.” The excellence and variety of his work astonishes [gallery ids="99201,103431,103428" nav="thumbs"]

Curating for a Cause and Jackie Cantwell

Jackie Cantwell is a courageous young dynamo in the DC art world who has created Curating For A Cause, an organization that benefits non-profits through promoting DC artists. She spoke to us about her unique organization and her life.

Where are you from?

JC: I was born and bred in good ol’ Reston. My Dad is a painter and professor of computer art and animation at Montgomery County College. He also frequents my auctions as the Auctioneer and is known for hamming it up. I grew up in a house stacked high with artwork. One early memory I have is being perched on my Dad’s hip, with him asking me why each painting had a good composition. My Dad and I used to draw a cartoon called “Fuzzy Bunny” every night before I went to bed, about the adventures of an excitable male rabbit looking for love.

Later I majored in painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

My Mom has done it all: she got her BFA in photography and worked for NASA.

Who are you favorite artists?

JC: I admire people who do what makes them happy, no matter the stakes. I would include films by Wes Anderson and David Lynch. I also love the graphic nature of Jenny Saville’s paintings. Pablo Picasso is an oldie but goodie.

What got you into connecting artists to auction their work for charity?

JB: Last year I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a local non-profit called Dreams for Kids. With no budget and very little experience, I planned their first arts fundraiser in the form of an art show and auction.

I wanted to create arts events that were accessible to everyone. I was sick of stuffy, expensive, quiet events where everyone whispered and went home early.

I created Curating For A Cause, an organization that not only benefits non-profits monetarily, but also provides a platform for people to access good art, promote artistic talent, and connect with various networks, thus creating marketing opportunities for all parties involved. Our events are accessible to a diverse group of audiences and truly benefit all participants. These are charity events where there are real people, and good music, and there just happens to be high quality art that you might fall in love with, all to benefit a great cause.

What is your connection with Pink Line Project’s Philippa P.B. Hughes?

JC: I was looking for advice and wanted to see if Dreams For Kids could work with the Pink Line Project in some way. After putting on a show of work at Paolo’s in Georgetown I was looking for my next venture. Philippa told me to keep doing what I was doing and that I would find my way. She asked me if I wanted to write for the Pink Line Project and now I do. I learned from Philippa that you must be true to your own voice.

Who have been your mentors?

JC: Adam Lister, from the Adam Lister Gallery in Fairfax, has been a great mentor on all accounts. I admire Adam and how he provides free art activities for children. Also Andrew Horn, the executive director of Dreams For Kids in DC, has been there for every second of the growth of my organization. His energy and outlook are truly inspiring.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you in Curating For A Cause?

JC: The biggest surprise is what a great artistic community DC really has. I have also been surprised by the willingness and genuine interest the artists have shown in working with me.

Do you enjoy teaching, and what does it bring you?

JC: I love teaching kids. Watching a kid realize that blue and yellow make green: that’s it for me!

Visit Curating for a Cause online for more information. [gallery ids="99587,104914" nav="thumbs"]

Paradise and Modernism: Gauguin at the National Gallery

Paul Gauguin fills part of two floors of the East Wing of the National Gallery with some spectacular works that changed the form and focus of art (“Gauguin: Maker of Myth,” at the National Gallery through June 5). Gauguin’s color greatly influenced the 20th century. Gauguin could use color in an almost empirical way, and it was unlike anything in earlier European art. He was also a born illustrator, and when he joined those talents to his quest for a paradise unfettered by modern civilization, his work broke into a powerful dreamscape, showcased in paintings such as “The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch.”

It was Gauguin’s appreciation of Tahitian art, whose influence he incorporated into his own work, which led directly to Picasso’s appreciation of African art. Accordingly, Picasso had something of a revelation when he saw Gauguin’s phallic sculpture that was meant for his tombstone. That would jump directly into Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” It would also lead in turn to the art of Brancusi, as well as Modigliani’s marvelous sculpture. The paintings exhibited in Gauguin’s work, with its sparing use of paint and illustrative mode, brings into question whether this master did not also influence Picasso’s blue and rose period.

Born in Paris, Gauguin came from a complex parentage, with his mother being partly Peruvian as well as the daughter of an early feminist. Gauguin’s early childhood was spent partly in Peru, which would undoubtedly influence his quest for a pre-European idyll only fulfilled in his last years when he lived in Tahiti. Gauguin was not a paradigm of the good or kind artist. He abandoned his family in Copenhagen along with his job as a stockbroker in order to paint. The modern sleuthing of recent scholars also suggests that Gauguin, an expert fencer, may well have sliced off van Gogh’s ear.

Earlier than van Gogh, in 1919 Gauguin entered the mythology of literature with Somerset Maugham’s “The Moon and Sixpence.” It later became a movie starring George Sanders. In most of Gauguin’s self-portraits he portrays himself as an earnest, almost ordinary looking man, with the exception of the incredible specimen from the Chester Dale collection in the National Gallery. This very arch and slightly demonic self-portrait is an indelible image that disturbs with its magnetic color and through the use of a snake as a kind of cigarette. Over Gauguin’s own head he painted a halo. Two dangling apples imply a male Eve, and perhaps he is being true to his grandmother, taking original sin onto man.

Another arresting portrait is of Jacob Meyer de Haan, sliced as it is by a shelf with two books. One of the books is “Paradise Lost” by Milton. This is the subject of Gauguin’s greatest works, including “Contes Barbares.” De Haan is placed crouching to the side of two young beauties in the tropics.

Dominating the later galleries of the show is the vision of paradise Gauguin encountered in Tahiti. Earlier there are the peasants he depicted in Brittany with masterpieces such as “The Yellow Christ” and “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel.” There may be no greater or more timely 19th century paintings with Biblical subject matter.

Though it is the startling image of “The Loss of Virginity” that almost steals the show. A fox hugs the shoulder of a prone nude girl. Here Gauguin dives deep, going further and further into dream and myth.

“Gauguin: Maker of Myth is at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art through June 5, 2011.

Abstract Expressionism at New York’s MoMA

Visiting New York right now should include MoMA. The Museum of Modern Art sits in the middle of mid-town Manhattan in an assortment of buildings starting with the first International Style building in America by Stone and Goodwin, to the recent add-on by Taniguchi. With all the adding, the subtraction of this process has been the alteration of the way the original building opened onto the sculpture garden. It was once a real jewel of an urban space. I remember watching Natalie Wood way back in 1966 in MoMA’s garden, during the filming of “Penelope,” blowing bubble-gum.

Currently there is a triumphant show, “Abstract Expressionist New York” on the entire fourth floor that somehow fits the space of MoMA like no other. If you ever doubted the power of Jackson Pollock’s gifts you go away awed by his classical command of drawing and the creation of a totally new pictorial space. Somehow he keeps his demons at bay, but their power energizes his sometimes enormous pictures. All works in this show are in MoMA’s permanent collection. Pollock’s work exhibited here rivals anything else in MoMA.

There are several artists given solo-gallery status including Guston, Pollock, Rothko and Newman, with a few half-galleries thrown in for Kline and Gorky. David Smith’s sculpture is sprinkled throughout the galleries to great effect with his “Australia” standing triumphantly in juxtaposition with Pollock.

No museum can beat the assembled collection of Barnett Newman with “Vir Heroicus Sublimis.”
The Rothko room at MoMA is a treat, and one hopes it could be left up. Though seeing MoMA’s Rothkos makes one realize that DC’s own National Gallery has a much richer selection. Tie that together with the Phillips Collection’s Rothko Room and DC wins as Rothko City! Also the National Gallery’s “Stations of the Cross” by Barnett Newman comes close to matching MoMA.

De Kooning is the one painter that was a giant of the movement that is slighted in this show. He is not given his own room. And why in the world did they not show “Woman II,” which they own, along with “Woman I?” The one painterly abstraction “A Tree in Naples,” from 1960, is not one of the best of that period. Thinking on the title of the show I recall the exclamation of de Kooning at the time, “It is disastrous to name ourselves.”

Women are here in full force with Frankenthaler, Hartigan, Mitchell, Krasner and Sterne. Only Krasner and Hartigan are represented by first-rate work. Lee Krasner is never strong for me, after the 40s. Joan Mitchell really did her greatest work after the 60s. And the lone Frankenthaler should have been replaced by the far greater “Jacob’s Ladder.”

And why do they have the dreadful “Elegy” up by Motherwell when they own a much better one? It is probably due to the fact that today’s curators have discarded quality as an essential element of art.

Photography has its own galleries with great works by Aaron Siskind and Minor White among others. Collaboration with poets is featured in another group of galleries.

Abstract Expressionism, or the New York School, was the last art movement to really have all the arts on board at once. The poets were very much part of the milieu, as were the classical composers: one thinks immediately of Morton Feldman and Stefan Wolpe. All of these artists from various disciplines met at The Club where they discussed art in sometime heated debates.

Perhaps one reason why art has become more impoverished since Abstract Expressionism is this lack of interconnectedness. When I speak with artists today they speak about everything but the arts. They never mention poetry, and have never listened to classical modern music, nor do they attend dance performances.

Remembered fondly is poet, Frank O’Hara, who worked at the information desk at MoMA until someone remarked that he had written a book on Jackson Pollock. He was promptly promoted to curator. What museum would have the guts or wisdom (not a part of Postmodernism) to do that? He was a go-between to many of the artists in this show, and his poem “Why I am not a painter” should be posted on the wall.

Please note MoMA is closed on Tuesdays and “Abstract Expressionist New York” continues through April 25th, 2011.