The first Washington Color School painting I see at Bethesda Fine Art’s Washington Color School: Fifty Years Later exhibition is “Popsicle” by Gene Davis.
Bethesda Fine Art Gallery Director Lori Rappaport tells me “Popsicle” is not so much one-of-a-kind as it is one of 50. The piece comes from the Gene Davis Giveaway, where Davis and a team of artists made 50 exact copies of the same work in 1969 and gave them away for free in a raffle at the Mayflower Hotel. The piece is in characteristic Davis style: columns of color file across an unprimed canvas. I see so much lavender and columns that recall Argentina and Gryffindor, but taken together the work feels like so much cake.
There are two more Davis works on display at Bethesda Fine Art, a space that boasts a collection one would think to sooner find at institutions like the National Gallery of Art or the Portrait Gallery. The collection includes works from Andy Warhol and Joan Miro, among others.
But the gallery specializes in the Washington Color School, which refers to group of loosely affiliated artists that came of age in DC in the 60s. Inspired by color field painters like Helen Frankenthaler, they focus on the experience of color. A handful of Color School painters can be found at Bethesda Fine Art, including Willem De Looper, Sam Gilliam, Kenneth Young, the aforementioned Davis and several others.
Gilliam and Young are both African-American artists who came out of the Washington Color School; Gilliam saw success early on in his career and is on display at museums around the city, but Young has only recently become more well-known.
He worked as an exhibit designer for the Smithsonian for 40 years and when Rappaport tracked him down, “He was spending his days listening to jazz and relaxing.” Rappaport says that the gallery encouraged him and told him that, “It’s not too late to see if we can do this.” They were able to bring him out of retirement and, though he passed this March, Rappaport hopes Young will now get the recognition he deserves.
Washington Color School: Fifty Years Later is on display through December 15, but Bethesda Fine Art makes a point of putting Washington Color School works on display throughout the year. In addition to their Color School work, however, Bethesda Fine Art is additionally home to a great many works which make it truly unique to other area galleries.
Bethesda Fine Art: 4931 Cordell Ave. Bethesda, MD; 240-800-3628; www.bethesdafineart.com
Update: In a previous version of this article we incorrectly stated that Lori Rappaport and Kenneth Young were curators, instead of gallery director and exhibit designer, respectively. Corrections to their titles are now reflected.