Arts & Entertainment

Northern Virginia Art Beat

 'American Impressionism'

Through Sept. 16, at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street NW, Washington, D.C. Museum Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. – 8:30 p.m.; Sunday Noon – 7 p.m. 202-387-2151, or see www.phillipscollection.org.


American Impressionism” is essentially a landscape show providing an overview of the American response to the French Impressionist movement. Culled from the Phillips Collection, these canvases are slated to travel to six museums in the hinterlands of America. After seeing this third floor exhibit, be sure to check out the French masters on the second floor.

The American style of impressionism offered a more sober view of the world than the sometimes phantasmagorical French practitioners. Keeping in mind that Paris was the epicenter of the art world at the time, and as such, many American artists spent at least some time there.

Hazy views are common enough here you almost want to rub your eyes to clear your vision. Fret not, no adjustment to your viewing apparatus is necessary. Conversely, other canvases are so roughly hewn and sparsely painted, they expose quite a bit of raw canvas. While a looser and freer style, they come off as the preamble to the painting that normally would have followed.

There are no architectonic spatial constructors a la Cezanne. No vibrantly bold and impassioned impasto painters a la Van Gogh. But let's be honest, how many art shows featuring the same half dozen French impressionist masters can you really endure in one lifetime? Before you stand in another line that circles the block, you really should see a show like this one. Weaknesses aside, there are plenty of strengths here.

Besides, how are you going to discover new artists and new work if you don't get off the beaten path from time to time? None of these artists are household names, and few, if any, are likely to be familiar to the average museum goer. That means you're likely to find some real gems in here and discover some great artists you weren't aware of before you walked in the door.

Virtually all of the canvases shown are fairly straightforward landscapes. Two canvases are definite exceptions and, as such, almost seem out of place. Childe Hassam's “Washington Arch, Spring” (1890) shows a boulevard promenade with the lowly street sweeper (horse drawn buggy era) on the far left side and a lone society lady walking towards us on the far right side of the image. It seems a somewhat subversive commentary about the distance between castes, and the personal isolation it causes. The boulevard, set on a diagonal, its sole compositional grace. Stylistically speaking, it's so antiseptically bourgeois I can hardly stand to look at it, which also might be part of the effect. The human pooper-scooper remains faceless as he works away with his back to us. It quietly shows the lack of respect and recognition for the dirty hands that make the lily-white lives of others possible. In such case, it's so bad it's good — or so good it's bad. Either way, the target audience would likely miss that spin on it anyway.

Gifford Beal's “On the Hudson at Newburgh” (1918), also offers us a tableaux with significant psychological weight. Beal's canvas is something special to be sure. Featuring the juxtaposition of maternal warmth and duty versus the masculine duty to defend and protect. A mother and her two children stand in front of their home on a crisp early spring morning, watching as soldiers march towards a troop ship awaiting them at the dock. Richly colored, it has a festive yet somber feel to it.
It's a masterfully composed image, filled with diagonals — sidewalks, street, hillsides, steam and especially the rifles carried on soldiers' shoulders. All of which draw and direct the viewer's eye through and around the image. Very nice work to be sure. The fact that this was painted in the year of the Spanish Flu seems all the more ominous and heart wrenching. Wait as she will, most likely her man isn't coming home.

Let's be honest, all in all landscapes can be fairly banal subject matter. You have your tree, a hillock, a little grass, a few clouds, maybe a little water, give it a seasonal spin with snow/leaves/flowers, and sign it. Boom, you're done. It's all pretty straight forward as far as subject matter is concerned. It serves a purpose as far as giving you a pleasant view of the world when the view out the window is less than ideal. They don't challenge you; they aren't going to offend anybody. They don't make you think much beyond the “mmm … that's nice” level. They are what they are, and not much more — usually.

Aside from the strict confines of this particular show, there exists a far greater talent to discuss, namely one Augustus Vincent Tack (1870-1949). Four Tack canvases are included in this show, but by far the best of all is a fifth canvas that hangs in the stairwell between floors. That canvas, an abstract, titled “Time and Timelessness” (1943-4), has been on my radar screen for at least a year, having noted the name and title several times. Each time meaning to research it, never getting around to it. Again taking notice of it en route to the American Impressionist show. Imagine my shock upon seeing Tack's name pop up repeatedly when I approached my favorite canvas in a room. Turns out this Tack guy is a world class sleeper, and a former Washingtonian to boot.

Tack was an accomplished portrait and landscape painter. Working in several styles, he did tight, straightforward, representational work. He also did a form of pointillism, using short dashes rather than dots. Atmospheric mountain sides were also a part of his repertoire. A snow covered one, titled “Windswept” (1900-02), being one of the four canvases in the American Impressionist show. Then a wonderfully magical thing happened — Tack went abstract.

Tack's abstraction evolved organically from paintings of craggy rock face formations. It's a similar path to that taken later by Richard Diebenkorn in his Ocean Park series abstractions (one example is on the second floor). It's not the landscape, it's what you do with it.

By 1930, Tack had cropped his imagery to the point that it danced on that magical fence between representational and abstraction. Tack's images were often able to operate in both realms.

Duncan Phillips, a staunch Tack supporter, was an avid collector of Tack's work. Some 79 examples are in the collection, the most numerous holdings of any artist in the collection (as of 1985). Tack was on the original board of trustees when the Phillips gallery opened to the public in 1921. At Phillips' behest, Tack moved to Washington, D.C. in 1941. That “Time and Timelessness” canvas in the stairwell — it's a study for the mammoth curtain that was to be installed in the then-new Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University.
To see Tack's work and realize what he was doing with these abstract color field paintings, and when he was doing it, it's just dumbfounding. Working with an infinite space abstraction, such as Pollock would come to use, when Pollock was still learning to drink and paint from Thomas Hart Benton. That Tack was doing full-on color field paintings when the much later, and far more famous, colorfield artists were still in diapers is amazing. That Tack did work far superior to anything Clyfford Still would ever do, decades before Still even started, is astounding. That Augustus Vincent Tack began doing some of the best, no-holds-barred abstractions ever done in the history of art — some 80 years ago — is staggering. Folks, we're talking full-on “towering artistic genius” here — so far ahead of his time that he's lurked in relative obscurity ever since. This is just plain wrong. How can this be?

Duncan Phillips' dedicated patronage of Tack's work allowed Tack to create the abstract work, but in the end gave the Phillips Collection a near lock on his significant works. With rare exceptions, today you can't see a Tack abstract outside the Phillips Collection. Which makes the Phillips Collection not only the repository for the physical works, but also the de facto caretaker of Tack's legacy in the overall pantheon of art history.

Augustus Vincent Tack is, to my eye, the true and proper father of the Washington colorfield painters, if not colorfield painters period. That no Tack retrospective of any sort has been offered up in this year of celebrating all things ColorField in Washington must have Duncan Phillips spinning in his grave. Like a knee high fastball over the center of the plate that reaches the catcher's mitt with the bat still resting on your shoulder, all you can do is wince, because that one had home run written all over it. The Phillips Collection tends to show Tack's work every decade or so. The last I can find was 1993, so hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer before a significant showing of the work is seen again.

A 1931 Duncan Phillips quote sums it up best: “This is an art not so much for today … as for tomorrow when science and mysticism meet … Tack will be looked back upon as one of the major prophets of progress in painting.”
And it all started with landscape.
Forty-one examples of Tack's work can be found at www.phillipscollection.org/american_art/collection/collection-artist_t.htm.

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