John Blee: The Poetry of Color

If color is a language, then John Blee can be considered a lyric poet. The Washington painter, whose solo exhibition will be seen at The Ralls Collection in October, produces abstracts lit with the sheen of a summer sunset. Vivid oranges and yellows play against sky blues that shade into purples, punctuated by pinks that range from the palest of roses to vibrant corals. In less skillful hands, the effect could be garish. Instead, Blee’s colors, no matter how surprising their combinations, sing with an assured harmony. “You paint out of the whole experience of your life,” says Blee, and an important part of that life was spent growing up in India and Pakistan, where his father was a State Department officer. “Indian color is off the scale—it’s not subdued,” he says, and his paintings reflect its sun-drenched intensity. Blee also points to the richly hued Indian Basohli miniature paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries as inspiration for his colors. His artwork—and life—is also informed by another influence nurtured during those years, the spirituality of India. Blee counts among his mentors painter Helen Frankenthaler, whose work helped shape the Color Field movement of the 1940s and 50s. “I remember when I met [her], when I was still an art student. I found her color amazing. Colorists are very rare. I asked her how she chose colors and she replied it was like a poet choosing a word for a poem. I feel the same.” Jane Roberts, whose Paris gallery hosted exhibitions of Blee’s work in 2008 and in June of this year, singles out his “supreme sense of color and light, like late Bonnard, whom he particularly loves. His paintings seem to glow from inside and have a joyous life of their own, unlike many abstract paintings which are merely formal exercises. A French collector, a busy lawyer, who bought a painting in 2008 told me that she has John's painting opposite her desk and it literally calms her down after difficult meetings!” Blee’s exhibition will focus on his latest works, paintings he groups into his “Orchard Suite,” whose genesis originated two years ago after seeing an exhibit of late Bonnards at the Metropolitan Museum of art. “There was one with a checked tablecloth in the bottom of the canvas with a still life on it,” Blee says. “It suggested to me the space of a landscape—the checks were like small farms seen from a mountain—and the fruit spilled over them the fruits of the land. From that picture I made ‘Eastern Orchard,’ the first of what I think of as my continuing suite” “But,” he adds, “Klee in the series of ‘Magic Square’ pictures [of the 1920s and 30s] always has played inside of me. Those works are like the purest sounds in music and they deeply engage me. I first started looking at Klee seriously when I was 14 or 15 in Delhi and bought a book of his work, my first thick art book. I still look at it.” The rhythmically deployed, rectangular forms that appear in much of Blee’s work often echo Klee. Gallery director Marsha Ralls finds other parallels in the “Orchard Suite” paintings: “These particular works of John’s really are a continuation of the Washington Color School. The color really glows.” The series also has literary roots, a 1920s collection of French-language poems by writer Rainer Maria Rilke, grouped under the title The Orchard. “The word ‘orchard’ has a sense of the seasons to me, of ripening and flowering,” says Blee. “It encompasses fruition, growth, decay, and transformation.” That John Blee’s paintings are underscored by both visual and literary sources—as well as philosophical ones—isn’t surprising. Spend time talking to him and he’ll weave a rich thread of references that range from Baudelaire to poet Hilda Morley to Hindu mythology to Braque. It’s this sense of connection and synthesis that fuels Blee’s creativity. “I believe very strongly that all the arts, though focused differently, have the same source. We speak in words, and where words are the most like painting is in poetry. It is not just or solely the images of poetry, it is the power of language itself. For me music and dance and theater are all the same as poetry and painting.” Blee says that “in the New York School of painting, which I descend from, as with the [pre-World War I] School of Paris, poets have allied themselves with painters and vice versa. I read Frank O'Hara's criticism in art magazines when I was a kid in Delhi. All my own critical work is based on those pieces, the verbal part anyway. O'Hara had a real love of painting that I share. His poetry is very much alive and accessible in the moment, coming right from life and spilling out.” “Rilke, though, was a far greater influence,” he says. “I read him first as a late teen, and really only began to ‘get’ him after a year or two. But his vast poetic landscape and a desire to go beyond all and put it together in a larger vision has always been part of my own search in my painting.” “For me, the poet of my own life is Hilda Morley whom I met at the artists’ colony Yaddo in 1973 and knew until her death in 1998. She knew all the New York painters and composers and had been married to composer Stefan Wolpe. She was the real thing. Her poetry mirrored the New York School of painting. One needs living examples to understand this complicated thing called ‘life,’ and being an ‘artist’ is not something that is easy. Hilda knew instinctually how to carry on and to be.” John Blee seems to have taken the lesson of “how to carry on and to be” to heart. He’s one of the city’s most notable painters, selected by critic and writer F. Lennox Campello among those included in his new book, 100 Artists of Washington, D.C. The top-floor studio of his house (whose color-splashed floor is a painting in itself) is filled with works in progress. He’s found a rewarding avenue in the courses he teaches at U.D.C and the Art League of Alexandria. And there’s always that next painting on the horizon, another opportunity, as Blee says, “to put the impossible in front of you, to aim as high as you can.” __________ John Blee’s work can be seen in “20 Years, 20 Artists at The Ralls Collection” through Sept. 24. Dates for his October exhibition are to be announced. (The Ralls Collection, 1516 31st St., NW, [gallery ids="100274,107084,107096,107089,107093" nav="thumbs"]

Kennedy Center Opens the Reach With Parade, Festival (photos)

Overlooking the Potomac River, the new campus is the setting for three matching white concrete-and-glass buildings with more than 130,000 square feet of space for artists and performances.

Holiday Macabre: ‘The Woman in Black’

The holidays may seem an unlikely time to enjoy a Gothic ghost story. Why relish in horror during the season of light? But there’s something...

Markus Lüpertz at the Phillips, Hirshhorn

The Hirshhorn just opened a major exhibition of rock-star Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the museum’s third in five years. It is a highly personal...

Neighborhood Visionary: Anne Truitt at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art is not your average neighborhood art gallery. While part of the D.C. community, the National Gallery of Art is a...

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"]

Stable DC

IN THIS D.C. ARTS SYNERGY, ALL PLAYERS MAKE IT HAPPEN Stable really was a stable — for a Nabisco factory, in the days of horse-drawn...

Richard Diebenkorn: Everything All At Once

The moment I saw the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn for the first time was one that shifted the course of my life as an artist. I was an 18-year-old student wrestling with things like color, form and, more onerously, ways to convey my ideas and break free from the self-aggrandizing egotism that artistic practice so easily brings about. Something in the style of my complaints must have triggered my teacher to offer me a book of Diebenkorn’s work. I had never been so affected by paintings. Even in the cramped dimensions of a catalogue, his works felt huge—they carried the visual grandness of a mural in a few square inches. His endless washes of color, falling through and beneath one another in farm-like grids, conveyed a vibrant and somehow weathered atmosphere, like sunlight piercing through morning fog. It was dilapidated doors, smoke, hot asphalt, sweat, fields, style, color, shape, geography, line, form, joy, peace, war. It was paint. And it had never looked better to me. I remember wanting to run my hands all over these paintings, these fields and strips of color that looked like Mondrian charged with a scuffed, pulsing static. I wanted to lift up the veils of yellow paint to explore the oceans of red ochre and blue-grey beneath the surface. Diebenkorn lets viewers into his process in this way, allowing us to know his paintings inside and out—and he offers this portal to us without reservation or anxiety. In his time, Diebenkorn was a famously generous and patient teacher, and this comes out in his work—even his paintings are good teachers. Unlike so many artists of the past century who went to great lengths to hide their techniques, Diebenkorn unveils his methods to us garnished on a plate. This was a man who wanted painting to survive when others denounced it as dead, to move the arts into the future in a way that connected and involved audiences. For the second half of the 20th century, Diebenkorn was the painter’s painter. You would be hard pressed to find a working artist today that does not adore this man’s work. It is painting as the idea in itself, which seems to speak about everything—about an artist in his environment, but also about things transcending any singular time, place or individual. “The idea is to get everything right,” Diebenkorn once said, rather prophetically. “It’s not just color or form or space or line—it’s everything all at once.” Take a moment to spend time in front of his paintings and you will know what he’s talking about. Through the end of September, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is hosting “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” a retrospective of the artist’s landmark series made between 1967 and 1988, which marks the first major museum exhibition focused on these luminous, grid-like paintings. Small works on paper, prints, drawings and collages—even some “cigar box” studies—share space with his signature massive canvases, many of which are over eight feet tall. “These works are powerful investigations of space, light, composition, and the fundamental principles of modern abstraction,” said Philip Brookman, chief curator and head of research at the Corcoran. “Diebenkorn investigated the tension between the real world and his own interior landscape... These are not landscapes or architectural interiors but topographically rooted abstractions in which a sense of the skewed light and place of that time emerges through the painting process.” A lifelong inhabitant of the west coast, Diebenkorn (1922 – 1993) served in the U.S. Marine Corps after attending Stanford University and afterwards took advantage of the G.I. bill to study art at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Among his teachers was Mark Rothko, the acclaimed abstract expressionist who doubtlessly effected his perception of modern art. A look at Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series leaves no doubt that Rothko influenced his sense of composition and color palette. (And as The Georgetowner’s Gary Tischler often points out, “Washington is the Rothko City.” All the more reason to welcome this show to our town.) As a young painter in the 1950s, it was no small feat to reckon with the wild assault of abstract expressionism on the contemporary art scene. To come into your own at the tail end of one of art history’s most explosive, brazen and contentious periods was a considerable strain on many emerging artists. But with that pressure came a certain liberation for Diebenkorn. Willem De Kooning later would say that the abstract expressionists (and Jackson Pollock, specifically) “broke the ice”; afterwards, art could go anywhere and be almost anything. During this time, however, Diebenkorn did a rather unusual thing: he pioneered a representational movement, at once a gesture to the tradition of art history and an outright rejection of modern art critics like Clement Greenberg, who argued for “advanced art” that renounced subject matter and representation for the “purity” of abstraction. Along with fellow artists such as Wayne Thiebaud—most recognized for his over-saturated paintings of cakes and patisserie treats— they together founded The Bay Area Figurative Movement, which pioneered an expressive, representational style that brought together the thick, lustrous brushwork and wanton impasto of abstract expressionism with the earthy romance of the Impressionists. Though a far cry from his later work with the Ocean Park series, Diebenkorn began in his early paintings a pattern of weaving the threads of familiar people, family members and California landscapes with a grand intimacy that connected his quiet, precise observations to the collective subconscious of postwar America. It was a mutual search for peace, balance and beauty. He learned what it meant to be a modern painter as the world around him learned to see as a modern audience. His work was met with acclaim from critics, viewers and patrons alike. In the mid 1960s, Diebenkorn took a teaching position at UCLA, moving from San Francisco to Santa Monica. It was during this time that he moved away from his figurative style, for which he had by now become quite popular, and began work on his Ocean Park paintings, a pursuit that would last him the rest of his life and become one of the most influential bodies of work in the second half of the 20th century. Named for the beachside community where he set up his studio, the Ocean Park series cemented Diebenkorn at the forefront of his generation as an artist dedicated not just to his own work, but to the history and future of his medium. The shift happened gradually but surprisingly, according to the artist, and in a way he always had trouble explaining. “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen,” he said in an interview in the late ’60s. “But I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again... I did about four large canvases—still representation, but, again, much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.” But looking at these paintings, what we see in fact is an unprecedented balance of abstraction and representation. These paintings are not just shapes that resemble things, like looking up at the sky and seeing a cloud shaped like a poodle. They are distillations of whole environments from which they are born. Within the canvases are the layouts of suburban neighborhoods, the aluminum siding and split-level houses of mid-20th century America, power lines and clotheslines, interstates and parklands, oceans and shorelines, even the great frontiers of the Wild West. But while these visual tropes are tangible and intriguing, no one theme sits within any particular canvas. You will not find a painting in this exhibit titled “House by the Sea.” Diebenkorn named each piece in this series with a number in the order by which he made them. The numbers become markers of the passage of time that denote the changing and shifting of the artist’s environment as he lived it. Just as Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral in different lights of day and Matisse evoked the emotional sentiments of his era with the wild, dissonant color palette of Fauvism, so did Diebenkorn acknowledge his time and place by sweeping his brush across his own physical and cultural landscape. He captured the grand, clean-shaven, perhaps diluted idealism of his time in wash- worn, infinitely expansive color fields, cut up with arbitrary vanishing points and the stark measurements of clean, straight lines. Still, the paintings impose almost nothing upon us as viewers. We are free to explore the pictures in our own way and at our own pace. Diebenkorn’s postwar American abstraction offers glimpses of harmony and calm, a generalization of that “American Dream,” the sincerity and earnestness of which has not really been seen since. I still wrestle with the same issues as I did when I was first introduced to Diebenkorn’s work, but he helped me to learn that these artistic dilemmas are not just equations that you solve and move past. These issues are themselves the pursuit of art. Diebenkorn’s work inspired me beyond myself. When that happens, you cannot help but to believe in art. ? [gallery ids="100901,128322,128315,128302,128310" nav="thumbs"]

100 Years of Quiet Wonder: Harry Callahan at the NGA

This fall art season has brought a number of heavy-hitting exhibits to the Washington stage. Edgar Degas’ dancers arrived en masse to the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery’s 30 Americans exhibit has ignited racial and social discourse through the work of internationally acclaimed contemporary African American artists, and Andy Warhol has all but taken over the National Mall, with concurrent shows at both the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn. Looming on the near horizon are major exhibitions of Picasso, Annie Leibovitz and George Bellows. But with all the sweeping, florid grandiosity of these major retrospectives, Harry Callahan at 100 stands out for just the opposite reasons, and in all the right ways. Tucked away in the basement floor of the National Gallery, the collection of work on view, commemorating the renowned photographer on the centenary of his birth, brings us perhaps the most intimate, utterly immersive show of the season. Throughout his career, Callahan proved himself a discerning and incisive observer of the American subconscious, exploring a diverse range of visual ideas and concerns. He was also a fine teacher, as head of the photography department at the Institute of Design in Chicago and then a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. A college dropout with no early artistic ambitions and almost no formal training, he grew up “not being able to do anything that I felt good about,” until he picked up photography as a hobby. Five years later, he was a professional photographer. Callahan’s first major influence as a photographer, and someone who had a profound effect on his career, was Ansel Adams, who he met through a photography club while living in Detroit in his 20s. Later in life, Callahan said of Adams: “There was something about what he did that hit me just right… He had pictures which were what I felt was photography… And I don’t think they were the great pictures, or the ones that were considered great of his, that really made me excited. It was the close-up pictures, near the ground, which I felt from then on I could photograph anything. I didn’t have to go to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, I could photograph a footprint in the sand and it would be like a sand dune. And I think this was probably the most freeing thing that could have ever been for me.” The grandeur of the ordinary and the limitless scale of the intrapersonal are ongoing themes in Callahan’s work. And while he was also well known for his bold and constant visual experimentation (he was, among other things, one of the first fine art photographers to experiment with color), what stands out in this concisely curated show, which spans work throughout the course of Callahan’s entire career, is the status to which he raises our most basic surroundings and occurrences. You will see trips to the beach. You will see trees throughout the season. You will see parked cars. You will see weeds and grass and junk. You will see buildings, storefronts and houses the same as you see when you look out your front door. And all of these images are engrained with a restlessness and fascination, as if the artist, having forced himself to evaluate the world immediately around him, demands that we too consider our world and come to a quiet understanding. However, the most powerful series of images are of Callahan’s wife Eleanor. A photographer’s portrait of a loved one is hardly uncommon. Alfred Stieglitz, a seminal founding figure in fine art photography, famously photographed his wife, Georgia O’Keefe, with brazen sexual charge. Photographer Edward Weston’s portraits of his wife Flora are stark, severe and contemporary. But Callahan’s portraits of Eleanor are love songs in thin, black frames, and that sincere vulnerability is what makes them so engrossing. They show woman as woman, lover, mother and daughter, and speak of a more encompassing relationship based in profound trust, love and respect. Whether wrapped in a coat outside a bleak apartment building or lying naked in their bed, Eleanor becomes a symbol of a husband’s perception of his wife’s beauty, strength and fragility. And Eleanor does her part, looking into the camera, saying everything and nothing with her gaze, like she is looking right into her husband’s eyes. Callahan’s photographs work on a level that comfortably serves dual, perhaps opposing functions. On the one hand, you can evaluate the socially critical, the autobiographical, the theoretical, the experimental and the technical nature of his work and walk away with your brain tingling. At the same time, and with equal bearing, the photographs are plainly beautiful. They are nice to look at. Like a Rothko or a Rockwell, there is a peaceful and satisfying presence about the work that washes you over inexplicably. Anonymous building facades of endless brick; cold, leafless trees reaching their draconian fingers into the ever-cloudy skies; the pensive, lovely faces of women, their downcast eyes distracted by the very matter of life, wherever it may be. Callahan’s images are beautiful because they are made up of that which we balance just outside of our daily attention. These are the ever-present backgrounds—emotionally and physically—of our own stories. It feels like Callahan just chose to tell them. ‘Harry Callahan at 100’ is on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 4, 2012. For more information visit

Kay Jackson at Addison/Ripley

Kay Jackson is a local artist whose paintings have garnered national and international acclaim, including a commission by President Clinton for the official White House holiday card in 1997. Working in an inspired sunroom-studio on the third floor of her Dupont Circle home, she has long focused her work on addressing environmental concerns, such as endangered species, pollution and the loss of animal habitat. Her current exhibition at Addison/Ripley Fine art, running through March 3, continues her decades-long pursuit and calls upon the near extinct artistic tradition of gilding to help communicate her vision. Jackson has long employed gold leaf techniques in her work and for the exhibition has created gilded icons of endangered species, drawing parallels to the endangered crafts she employs in the work’s creation. Jackson learned the art of gilding through her husband, William B. Adair, a master gilder, frame historian and owner and founder of Gold Leaf Studios in Dupont Circle. Adair is among a small handful of international authorities on frame fabrication, conservation and the nearly extinct art of gilding: applying fine gold leaf to the surfaces of paintings, wood, frames or anything else you could possibly conceive. He has employed his expertise extensively with every major museum in the city and consults with gallerists, architectural firms and private collectors throughout the world. The oldest and most common form is a process called water gilding, Jackson explains. After first applying layers of gesso to linen or wood — for a painting or a frame — the gilder then applies a layer of clay and glue, called bole, to help the small thin sheets of gold leaf adhere. The applied gold is then burnished and can be lightly manipulated. For a textured, dynamic surface, such as embossed vines wrapped about a picture frame, warm gesso can be carefully ladled upon the surface to create the patterns before laying the gold leaf, a process called pastiglia. Examples of gold leaf abound in museums and buildings around the District, perhaps most prominent displayed in the National Gallery of Art’s permanent collection of 13th and 14th century Italian paintings, which is all but overrun by brilliant gold leaf altarpieces. But rarely is gold leaf seen employed in contemporary settings, and in these gilded icons of endangered species now on display, Jackson has drawn a remarkable and fitting parallel to the ancient, endangered craft of gilding. A technically brilliant artist in every sense, Jackson has made more than just paintings in these gold leaf works. They are intricate, cryptic, glowing panels and boxes that Jackson has constructed entirely, encasing the endangered animals — from crayfish and salmon to the spotted owl — in armatures of gold and surrounded by symbols that span multiple time periods and iconologies. Jackson custom designs the frames for each work, inspired by 14th century panel paintings. She herself observes that her boxes are like 16th century cabinets of curiosities, those assembled by wealthy European collectors to celebrate and catalogue their knowledge of the world. Yet despite these callings upon the past, the works look completely contemporary. Her pieces depict both the fragility and resiliency of our ecosystems and species, and they connect the vulnerability of our planet with the delicacy of our artistic culture. This is also echoed in the act of creating the work itself. “Creating art is an act of faith,” Jackson says. “With each passing year it takes an increasing commitment to continue what most people think is a spontaneous and blissful activity.” More of Jackson’s series of gilded endangered icons will be on display at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, the museum for the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., accompanying a historic frame exhibition by husband Adair on the history of frames from the Byzantine to modern period. For information on Kay Jackson’s Addison/Ripley exhibit, visit For information on her Muscarell Museum of Art exhibit, visit [gallery ids="100470,115891" nav="thumbs"]