Man Ray at the Phillips: Surrealism and My Discontent

I need to get something off my chest. Surrealism annoys me a little. It always feels like a cultish charade of midcentury intellectuals: the aggressive anti-rationalism, the unnecessary visual lexicons of the pseudo-Freudian subconscious, the exploration of the mind’s mysterious fissures, the creation of new realities that defy constraints of earthly existence…it’s all just a little much for me. I find its sensibilities much better fitted to a Loony Tunes parody than a deadly serious museum wall (for a good time, Google “Porky in Wackyland,” 1938). This is not to say Surrealism never had its time or place. An evolutionary offshoot of the Dada movement, it was born in France as a retaliation against the societal trauma caused by World War I. All across Europe cities were leveled, communities were displaced and national currencies were tanked by hyperinflation. A flu epidemic had wiped out nearly six percent of the world, and a generation of European men were lost to the trenches. The world was no longer rational, so writers and artists determined to dig beyond their rational intellect to decipher it – perhaps in search of deeper meaning, but likely as much an act of defiance and self-preservation. Surrealism was founded in 1924 by the French writer André Breton. He defined it as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express...the actual functioning of thought.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Surrealism rapidly caught on across Europe, and the outset of World War II found many of its leaders taking refuge in New York City. The wide exposure of their work to American artists was one of the major catalysts in New York’s later development as the epicenter of postwar art and culture. Though Surrealism broadened the boundaries of art profoundly, its arcane ideologies and strange elitism rendered the movement insular and prohibitive – a perception that fine art has never really overcome, and now seems largely to have embraced. (Such vainglorious and esoteric practices arguably foreshadowed the profligate economic culture of today's contemporary art market.) Furthermore, its initial nobility of concept gave way to a hackneyed commercialism by second-rate imitators. All of this, oddly enough, is to say that I had a damn good time at the Phillips Collection’s latest exhibition, “Man Ray – Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare,” on view through May 10. I experienced frustration, complexity, humor, disappointment, apathy, interest, excitement and occasional moments of great beauty; perhaps not dissimilar from a given day inside my head. From the standpoint of Surrealism, this is a smashing success. My fundamental conflicts with the subject matter never waned, but I walked away with renewed – if weary – reverence for the accomplishments of Surrealism, and particularly those of Man Ray, the only true American Surrealist. Working in Hollywood in the late 1940s, Man Ray (1890-1976) created a series of paintings called the “Shakespearean Equations,” which he considered his defining creative vision. They were inspired by a series of photographs he had taken a decade earlier of 19th-century mathematical models and sculptures. The Phillips exhibition displays the paintings, photographs and models together for the first time in history, along with other paintings, photographs and assemblages by the artist. The show illustrates Ray’s conceptual fixation with human/object interrelation: making people that look like things and things that look like people. In many ways it shows how Surrealism has affected our visual notions of the subconscious as much as the subconscious has affected notions of Surrealism. For all his clear ambition, Man Ray was not a great painter. Unlike Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico or Max Ernst, whose eyes for phantasmagoria were on par with their painterly finesse, Ray’s canvases are tedious and inexpertly rendered. However, his photographs are stark, lucid and remarkable. They hold their own against the best Surrealist work, as well as any photography from this era. In Ray’s photographs, the complex intermingling of object and anatomy, light and shadow, atmosphere and geometry get distorted both physically and emotionally. For instance, in two corresponding plates we see the formal juxtaposition of a peach and a deceivingly racy perspective of a woman’s bum, hands and toes. The illusion is so effective that it takes a moment to understand what we are even staring at. In his famous “Le Violon d’Ingres,” a model’s body transforms into a violin, inspired by Ingres’s Neoclassical paintings “Valpinçon Bather” and “Le Bain turc.” It’s impossible not to appreciate the whimsy. To a lesser extent, Ray’s models are clever, but they feel like carnival games: charming, enjoyable, but of little consequence. Ironically, what are always more impressive are his photographs of these models. A great demonstration of this point is the series of “Non-Euclidean Objects” in the corner of the fourth gallery. There is the model itself, a geometric soccer ball of sorts. Then there is a photograph of the object, and a drawing of the object. Even with the object directly before us, its photograph, hanging on the wall behind it, is far more powerful. The way Ray manipulates the gradual value of shadows against the shifting planes of the object’s surface is stunning. He makes the photograph express what reality does not. And I don’t even remember what the drawing looks like. Black-and-white photography was Ray’s greatest achievement; he saw something truly original through the lens of his camera. Using shadows and light, he made images of mundane objects that maintain their essence but exist simultaneously as beautiful earthly abstraction. His silver prints of an egg beater and photographic equipment are notably exceptional. But this is never clearer than in the final gallery, with the “Shakespearean Equations.” (As a point of interest and debate, the arrogance of which I earlier accused the surrealist movement is on full display in the very title of this series, as the exhibit text admits Ray chose it for no particular reason. He just seems to have liked it—and it also happens to be preposterously smug.) Each of the paintings try to wring out its nebulous intrigue like water from a vaguely damp cloth. Meanwhile, the objects on display are interesting to admire in the same way as a Tim Burton movie miniature might be; their intricacies and sheer existence are strange and lovely, if not achieving quite the force of a true sculpture. Then there are the photos of the models, which transcend the objects themselves. All sense of scale, proportion and space are elevated; Ray’s use of composition culls an emotive visual vocabulary of the grandest Roman architecture. They are disconcertingly anthropomorphic, too, drawing us in and pulling us out through their undulating rhythms of shadows and light. The photographs discover an internal logic all their own that never betrays a haunting essence of the unknowable. Looking at them, we don’t even have to try – they take us ever so naturally along for the ride. At its best, this is what the art of Surrealism can do: capture our minds and usher us into its alternate reality. Here, we exist momentarily in a world we can never truly enter, for it survives like a flickering candle in the dark recesses of our minds. “Many Ray—Human Equations” is on view through May 10. For more information visit www.PhillipsCollection.org

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"]

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...

Weekend Round Up April 19, 2018

Filmfest DC gets rolling Thursday, April 19, screening 80 films from 45 countries through Sunday, April 29. And it’s a big weekend at the Folger, which will bring “The Winter’s Tale” to a close and celebrate the Bard’s birthday Sunday.

LAST CHANCE: Cultural Breakfast This Thursday

At the March 7 Cultural Leadership Breakfast, Jack Rasmussen will talk about the Corcoran Legacy Collection, acquired by the AU Museum following the dissolution of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

This Week: New York’s Winter Antiques Show

The loan exhibition from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a treasure chest, but so are the booths of the 70 exhibitors, all of which showcase objects of museum quality.

On the Mall: Armenia and Catalonia

At the 51st annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which runs through July 1 and from July 4 to 8, visitors are invited to engage with the traditional arts and food right on the Mall.

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...

Behind the Walls of Jackson Art Center

Since the late 1960s, the Jackson Arts Center has been a unique haven for artists within the city and Georgetown neighborhood. Without the studio space available in many cities around the country, Washington artists often find themselves without suitable accommodations, working out of their homes or group-leased office space. But when the Jackson School closed its doors as a public elementary school, a colony of artists took control of the Victorian schoolhouse and transformed its spacious rooms with tall, wide windows into ideal studio space for artists of all kinds. Not as commercialized as the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA, the Jackson Art Center is an ideal retreat for serious artists who want to focus on their craft and contribute to the community’s culture. Over forty years later its vision has remained steadfast and the artwork enriching. The Jackson Arts Center, 3050 R St. NW, will be holding their Open House on Sunday December 5, from 12 to 5 p.m. The artists will be in their studios ready to discuss their work, and some is even for sale. And with the holidays just around the corner…you get the idea. The work will speak for itself. I sat down with Simma Liebman, a painter and president of the Jackson Arts Center, for a Q&A about the history of the Jackson Art Center and its importance within the community: What is the history of the Jackson Arts Center? How long has it been with the community? The Jackson School was one of several DC public elementary schools in Georgetown, until the late 1960s when enrollment dwindled. The 115-year-old building stood vacant at the corner of R Street and Avon Lane for close to ten years when a group of local artists inquired about renting the building for use as studio space. DC Public Schools agreed to lease the building to A.Salon, a group of independent artists, as well as to the Corcoran School of Art. After several years, the Corcoran moved out and leased a building at Wisconsin Avenue and Reservoir Road. DCPS allowed A.Salon to assume the full lease for Jackson. When word got out among DC artists that studio space was available in an old public school building, we were inundated with inquiries. Within a month, our A.Salon group grew from five to 30 artists. We are currently operating under a 15-year lease with DCPS and have reorganized as Jackson Art Center. There are now more than 45 artists using the building. Tell me about the space and what you’ve done with it. Jackson was built in the same style as many Georgetown public schools: three floors, four large classrooms per floor, each with a narrow “coat room” outside of it, with bathrooms in the basement, wide staircases, and no elevators. When we moved in, we found quite a few reminders that the building had been designed for young children—rows of coat hooks three feet above the floor, small toilets and sinks and so on. The building retains many features that show its age. There is a massive boiler system (complete with coal bin, although now we use gas) that provides heat to radiators that hiss and clank as steam moves up in them; a predecessor to today’s fire alarm systems whereby if there’s a fire or smoke emergency in the boiler room, a stream of water gushes out of a first floor pipe to the sidewalk in front of the building, to alert any passersby to get help; and electrical wiring designed for light bulbs only. But the space is fabulous for artists. High ceilings, large windows, lots of light. By dividing the large classrooms into as many as four spaces each, we can now accommodate 45 artists, with lots of common areas for members to display their work. When we moved in, about 25 years ago, DCPS provided some maintenance to the building, but our current lease requires that we maintain the building ourselves. So far, with rent credits provided by DCPS, we have been able to repair the roof, install a new boiler, repair an outside wall and perform some mold abatement. How long have you personally been with the center? I joined A.Salon in 1988. At that time, the Corcoran was occupying most of the classroom space. At first I shared a basement studio with another painter, but when the Corcoran moved out in 1990, we both moved up to the top floor. We are basically a volunteer organization. Since I’ve held a studio in the building since 1988, I’ve been involved in the organization of the membership in various ways. We established a seven-member board as well as three operating officers. I am the current president. What was it like when you first got here? Has it changed? Jackson is a registered historic building. With its position on R Street across from Montrose Park, it has great views from every window. When I moved in, the Corcoran had already made some improvements in some classrooms: wood floors, updated wiring for computers. But basically, it was an old building with great windows and light. In the early 90’s, the city performed some asbestos removal, and, as I mentioned before, over the years we have had to repair the roof and gutters. Physically, the building is showing its age. But we are determined to preserve it as best we can. What makes Jackson Art Center such a commodity to the city, from the perspective of the artist as well as the patron/public? There is a dearth of affordable studio space in this city. There are no old “factory” buildings like you find in New York or Philadelphia that can be easily converted to studios. Many area artists tend to work either at home or in small retail spaces scattered around the city. We are very grateful that DC has allowed us to convert the Jackson School building into shared studio space, and we try to take every opportunity to reciprocate by being good neighbors and opening up our doors to the community. Are all the artists members of the Georgetown community? 21 Jackson artists live in Georgetown. Most of the rest live elsewhere in DC and a few in Virginia and Maryland. Has the city been helpful in supporting and maintaining your efforts? Is there anything you would like to see change? We are most appreciative of the city’s support. Likewise, we hope to continue to be able to offer studio space to DC artists as well as preserve this historic building. The only change we would like to see is no change. Do you guys often involve the community with yourselves and what you’re doing? Part of our mission is community involvement. While our building is accessible only by members, we open our doors twice a year—in May and December—for the public to see the building and visit artists in their studios. Periodically, we hold “Art Talks,” inviting the public to attend a lecture or presentation. What are your hopes for the future of Jackson Art Center? It seems that in the 22 years I’ve had a studio at Jackson, the consistent concern has been for our future in the building. Since there are really no art studio buildings in DC like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, it would be terrific if the city and Georgetown could help establish Jackson as a permanent art building. I believe the neighborhood would appreciate having the building used for purposes other than another condominium. And there are endless opportunities for us to interact with the community, such as providing meeting/event space, art classes and lectures. Any projects in the works now? Yes! Our Open Studios will be held on Sunday, December 5, from 12 to 5 pm. As always we invite everyone to stop by and see what we’re doing. Most of our members will be there in their studios, happy to talk to you about their work and, of course, to sell you a piece or two. It’s a fun afternoon with music and refreshments. And children are welcome, too. And always, our biggest project is preserving the Jackson building. Now that our roof is fixed, we need to address the windows, which are in bad shape and in desperate need of replacement. And there are a lot of them. We’re presently in negotiations with the DC Realty Office to do this major repair. After that, we hope to repaint the common interior spaces. Visit the Jackson Art Center online for more information. [gallery ids="99566,104794,104820,104816,104799,104812,104804,104808" nav="thumbs"]

A Golden Passion: The Art of Bill Adair

Nestled like an egg in a courtyard of high-rises and apartment buildings just off Dupont Circle sits Gold Leaf Studios. A 10,000-square-foot carriage house built in 1903 by Evalyn Walsh McLean, the building stands as an urban anomaly — one of those small architectural wonders that momentarily suspends reality when first seen. Its stucco walls and adobe tile roof recall something of the Old West, as if at any moment a cowboy-capped young stablehand will swing open the heavy wooden door and wonder aloud what sort of business a confused looking man in strange, foreign clothes has with the boss. But the traditions at Gold Leaf Studios date much further back than the old west. And the boss, William B. Adair, a master gilder, frame historian and catch-all depository for aesthetic and historical idiosyncrasies from here to Byzantium, knows a little more than your average rancher. 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 (Martha Stewart did it to pumpkins — Adair taught her how). 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. His eyes look not into a work of art from the outside, but out from the artwork into the world it reflects. Walking into the studio, you are greeted by a flurry of activity and projects, which it becomes clear is a reflection of Adair himself. His five studio assistants occupy every dimension of the crammed and cavernous workshop, wielding brushes, cotton swabs and an arsenal of unidentifiable tools that date back to the Renaissance. Indeed, the gilding techniques employed at the studio are of an age-old craft that has remained unchanged since the Late Middle Ages “Man has worked with gold as long as it’s been around,” says Adair. “Gilding, in fact, is the third oldest occupation in history — behind prostitution and advertising.” As with the other two oldest professions, there are varying techniques for gilding. But the oldest and most common form is a process called water gilding, which Adair employs exclusively at Gold Leaf Studios. 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. “The National Gallery is resplendent with examples of Renaissance gilding,” says Adair. “There’s really nothing like it in the area.” The collection’s few paintings by the Italian master Duccio (about 1260 – 1319) illuminate the ethereal splendor of gold leaf, as well as the sweep of humanist philosophy at the heart of Renaissance. (But that history is for another day.) Adair began his long tenure with framing and gilding rather fortuitously. After studying fine art at the University of Maryland, he found work with the National Portrait Gallery. “I was hired to work in the exhibits department,” he says. “And they put me in charge of framing. Of course, one thing led to another, as it goes, and in 1982, I left to found Gold Leaf Studios.” He tells the story like a shrug, undermining the inevitable mad passion that evidently took him over. This is not an occupation one just happens to fall into, like business administration. Adair’s multifaceted work requires him to be a historian, anthropologist, diligent researcher, tedious craftsman and sharp intellectual — usually all at once. He can distinguish periods and demographics in history from the geometric flourish on a strip of wood lining a painting that most of us would entirely disregard. “But that is precisely the job of the frame,” he says. “If the frame jumps out at you or feels incongruous to the artwork, it isn’t doing its job. It’s a little bit like God — if it’s doing everything right, most people won’t even notice that it’s doing anything. In the Middle Ages, it was said that an empty niche in a cathedral is where God dwells. They were often left empty intentionally — like an empty frame can stand for an unspoken wonder otherwise within its borders.” His history with gilding began in 1975, when the Smithsonian awarded him a grant to travel to Europe to learn about tools and techniques from the few remaining master gilders working in the Renaissance tradition. Working back and forth between these interwoven ancient crafts, Adair found his calling. The year after he founded Gold Leaf Studios, Adair mounted the first ever exhibition of American frames, titled “The Frame In America, 1700 - 1900.” Along with the exhibition, which was sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, he produced a catalogue that is still regarded as an invaluable reference for American frame history. (The book, titled after the exhibit, is available at Blurb.com.) In 1995, he curated a follow-up exhibition, “The Frame In America, 1860 – 1960,” which traveled around the country through the Mid-Atlantic Arts Alliance for five years. In 1991, the American Academy in Rome awarded Adair’s achievements with the Rome Prize in Design, wherein he spent six months further immersed in the elusive study of the origins of frame design. He is a founding member of the Society of Gilders and a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The list of accolades, acclaim, professional anecdotes and associations stretches on like the scrolls of Ancient Alexandria, but talking to him, all that seems to matter is the craft and the history. “Back in the 13th and 14th centuries,” he says, “as much time and money was spent on the frame as the artwork. They were custom designed to fit each individual painting.” A well-designed frame is integral to illuminating a sound work of art. And Adair has made it his life’s work to preserve these traditions, while reintroducing them to the cultural market. At his studio, Adair develops new frame designs and reproduces period frames. Each frame is handmade to enhance and relate to the work it holds. Through the years, he has amassed a repertoire of frame designs that pays homage to historical periods and styles around the world. Meanwhile, in his conservation department, he preserves and repairs antique frames, gilded objects and furniture better than any in the trade. Since its founding, Adair has held his studio to museum standards of conservation, and it has long been a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic Artistic Works. “We’re committed here to combining contemporary techniques with age-old and proven methods,” he says. “Nothing is more important than preserving the historic and aesthetic value of each piece, whether we’re working with an old family portrait from the turn of the century or a Cézanne watercolor.” Adair also hosts regular seminars throughout the country and internationally on gilding, finishing techniques and frame history. Instructing students, hobbyists and field professionals, he is a regular at the annual Frame Convention in Las Vegas, and is frequently booking classes at the Washington Design Center, just off L’Enfant Plaza. For several years, Adair has been in partnership with Montgomery College in Silver Spring, holding seminars for educators on gilding practices. “My goal right now is to train the trainers,” he says. “I want teachers to be familiar with the art of gilding so that it can be reintroduced as a viable art.” Through these seminars, he hopes to combat the decline of trade skills in education in the U.S. But despite what Adair calls, “a lack of artisanship in the world,” he has begun to notice an increasing interest in these forgotten arts. “Along with the digital revolution,” he says, “there has been a parallel movement in homegrown craft revival. It has taken many forms. You see it in the local food markets and in the growing interest in vintage and custom goods. People want to know where their products come from, their histories, and they want to know that they are made well.” Adair has found a unique companion for championing this cause in Prince Charles. The Prince of Wales has long noticed this cultural and utilitarian deficit and called on Adair to consult in his international mission, The Prince of Wales Foundation’s Artisan Training Program. “From tiles, to woodwork, to gilding, The prince has a keen interest in reviving lost arts,” says Adair. “When he found out I was teaching those things here, he contacted me.” Adair’s last seminar took place at the Intersections D.C. American Arts Festival, through Atlas Performing Arts Center, on U Street. On the weekend of Feb. 27, Adair’s staff hosted two free interactive seminars, demonstrating and teaching the application of gold leaf to mirror frames. If you missed that one, there are always more to come. Adair’s latest exhibition is currently on view at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, the museum for the College of William in Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., which he will accompany with a lecture and gilding seminar on Friday, March 16. Invited by Scholar-in-Residence John T. Spike, a noted art historian, author and lecturer specializing in Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, Adair has put together a show of “The 20 greatest frames from my private collection, representing the history of frames from Byzantine to modern.” Accompanying the exhibition are the paintings of artist Kay Jackson, Adair’s wife and collaborator. An acclaimed painter whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including a commission by President Clinton for the official White House holiday card in 1997, Jackson’s work has a long history of addressing environmental concerns such as endangered species, pollution and loss of habitat. Jackson frequently employs gold leaf techniques in her work, which she learned through her husband, and for the coming exhibition she has created gilded icons of endangered species, drawing parallels to the endangered craft of gilding. A technically brilliant artist, Jackson has made more than just paintings in these gold leaf works. She has constructed intricate, cryptic, glowing panels and boxes, encasing the endangered animals — from crayfish and salmon to the spotted owl — in armatures of gold and surrounded by symbols that span eras 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 entirely contemporary. Her pieces depict both the fragility and resiliency of our ecosystems and species, and connect the vulnerability of our planet with the delicacy of our artistic culture. “Creating art is an act of faith,” says Jackson. “With each passing year it takes an increasing commitment to continue what most people think is a spontaneous and blissful activity.” The sentiment is echoed in the work of her husband. Adair works daily to pull a near-extinct art form back from the fate of obscurity, just as Jackson puts her artistry to work to combat environmental threats. It is a bond that, in many ways, must move beyond love and into a commitment that bridges more than just the distance between two persons. They are committed to eight centuries of artistic traditions, the preservation of cultural heritage, life and ideas. As a gilder lays each feather-like sheet of gold leaf delicately to the frame, they approach their work with a focus that must be narrow and unwavering, but with a vision that sees into and beyond the picture as a whole. For information about William B. Adair and Gold Leaf Studios, visit www.GoldLeafStudios.com. To get information on Adair’s exhibit and lecture at the Muscarelle Museum of Art and to sign up for his gilding seminar, visit web.WM.edu/Muscarelle. For information about other workshops hosted by Adair on gilding, frame history, or inquiries regarding framing or consultation, call Gold Leaf Studios at 202-833-2440. [gallery ids="100519,119175" nav="thumbs"]