News & Politics

Five Washington Artists

Sam Gilliam, William Christenberry, Manon Cleary, Jim Sanborn, and Yuriko Yamaguchi are five renowned Washington artists better known elsewhere than here at home.

Painting the Town

Entering Sam Gilliam's U Street studio–so discreet that the only entrance is an unmarked loading dock off a narrow alley–is like walking into a kaleidoscope. There, the painter is putting finishing touches on the splashy finale for a retrospective of his career that opens this month at the Corcoran.

Uptown, in a sun-drenched Cleveland Park studio with a fishpond out front and a garden out back, fellow artist Bill Christenberry is preparing for an exhibition of his work for the grand reopening of the Smithsonian's American Art Museum next Fourth of July.

And above an old paper warehouse in Northeast DC, warmed in the winter by only a rickety space heater, sculptor Yuriko Yamaguchi unpacks amoebalike pieces that have just come home after shows in Japan and New York.

Washington's established artists are earning commissions, retrospectives, and awards–national and international recognition. But tucked away in quiet corners of the city, often overshadowed by the big museums and blockbuster shows, most are little known here outside of art circles.

"They may be called upon to do things halfway across the world and may not be known to their next-door neighbor," says Alan Fern, former director of the National Portrait Gallery.

It wasn't always so. In the 1960s, a group of abstract painters working here, most notably Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, broke new ground by letting color and composition, as opposed to imagery and content, define their canvases. The Washington Color School, as their style came to be known, gave artists here cachet and put the nation's capital on the art world's map.

Well into the 1970s, says artist and teacher Manon Cleary, "everybody had to have an artist at dinner."

Nothing since the Color School has energized the Washington art scene as much. Artists who have built their lives here and made their peace with not living in the center of the art world–New York–have found their own path, whether through teaching, feeding off the rich museum landscape, or just becoming intimate with the place, its streets, and its faces.

"Artists must, or generally do, have a connection–either spiritual or economic or personal–to living here," says Ned Rifkin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for art. "And they draw something into their art from this place."

For Gillam, one of Washington's most successful painters, the city has been a sort of "hideout," he says–comfortable, familiar, less complicated than New York. "It's not just the canvas," Gilliam says of making art, "it's the environment. It's about discovering something all the time through a place that you know. Most artists really groove off where they are."

But some artists find it a challenge to compete for attention with the big museums and the King Tut and Vermeer shows often mounted here and not be described with the dreaded "L" word: local.

"To be a real Washington artist you have to be so eccentric and so self-motivated that, regardless of what comes your way, you'll still be able to wake up in the morning and, if nothing else, not kill yourself," says Robin Rose, a painter who has a dramatic way with colors and words.

But even those who complain say the Washington art scene is healthier than it's been in years. "We're finally getting back to where we were in the '60s," says Stephen Bennett Phillips, curator at the Phillips Collection. "There's a fair amount of life–a lot of young life, and those who've achieved a certain level are exhibiting around the country and the world and are in important private collections."

The new enthusiasm is driven in part by the clustering of a half dozen or so contemporary galleries on 14th Street around Logan Circle, where art dealers have converted large spaces originally built as auto dealerships into sprawling galleries.

"We now have a critical mass on 14th Street," says Sarah Finlay, who opened Fusebox there in 2001 with a partner. She says part of her mission has been to court DC collectors who have generally gone shopping in New York and bring them back home.

"Keep your fingers crossed," says Bill Christenberry, whose work is represented here by Hemphill Fine Arts, which moved from Georgetown to 14th Street at the end of last year. "Washington needs a district."

Several new awards have helped enliven the scene, among them a $10,000 prize given for the first time last year by the Kreeger Museum to celebrate the area's midcareer artists.

Although the art being made here reflects trends happening all over, such as greater use of digital techniques, some still see vestiges of the abstract, color-dominant painting style for which the nation's capital became known. Washington is still considered a painter's town. Artists such as Rose as well as W.C. "Chip" Richardson and Steve Cushner, both longtime teachers and mentors, are considered descendants of the Color School.

Even in a city dominated by politics, says Stephen Phillips, art tends to be "more about picture-making than political statements."

The late Anne Truitt, one of the best-known artists to have worked in Washington in the last half century, once marveled that though she mixed with influential figures, her art and inner life remained uninvolved. Instead, as she swapped figs from her tree for tomatoes from Christenberry's garden, she lived a quiet life, concentrating on her work and delighting in the distinctive light she found here. "Anne Truitt was very well-known around the world," Alan Fern says. "I'm not sure how many people here knew who Anne Truitt was."

In just about every medium, there are scores of established artists who have built their lives and their livings here. There are sculptors like Jeff Spaulding, John Dreyfuss, Lisa Scheer, Nancy Samsom Reynolds, Wendy Ross and, until she moved to Richmond several years ago, Kendall Buster. There are painters by the dozen–abstract artists like Rose, Cushner, Richardson, Andrea Way, William Willis, and David Driskell, and representational artists like William Dunlap, Martin Kotler, John Winslow, Charles Ritchie, and watercolorist Patricia Tobacco Forrester. There are mixed-media artists like Renée Stout and Michael B. Platt, printmakers like Lou Stovall, photographers like Joseph Mills and Susan Eder, and many more.

For starters, here's a look at five fixtures of Washington's art scene whose reputations extend well beyond the city. In future issues, we'll look at other legends of the Washington art scene, as well as up-and-comers worth watching.

Doing Things With Paint That No One Else Can

Studying art at the University of Louisville in the 1950s, Sam Gilliam was intrigued by the works of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. He studied prints of paintings on the walls of the library where he worked. But he was a reluctant painter. "One of my professors said I had too much respect for what a painting was."

Everything changed in graduate school–with the aid of lots of parties, Gilliam jokes. He started to paint, first with watercolors. "All hell broke loose," he recalls, "and I said, 'I'm on my way.' "

By the mid-1960s, Gilliam, a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, had moved to Washington and become part of the Color School of artists emerging here. Although his lyrical abstract work, like that of his contemporaries, emphasized color and shape, Gilliam distinguished himself by introducing texture, dimension, and theatricality into his art. Before long, his work was being shown at the Phillips Collection.

Gilliam loved pop art, mainly for its shock value. In 1969 it would be his turn to shock. He took his large canvases, soaked them with colors and, discarding the stretchers, hung them from the walls so they flowed and swung like a room full of modern dancers.

Now after four decades of living and working in Washington–teaching at DC public schools, the Corcoran, the University of Maryland and other colleges, and earning a place as arguably the city's most celebrated artist–the 71-year-old Gilliam is looking forward to his first major retrospective at the Corcoran from October 15 through January 22. The exhibit will span his career from the drapes that earned him early praise to more recent works, also sculptural and color-drenched, built with plywood and piano hinges–"a more permanent form of the drape paintings," he says.

His constant experimentation with process has resulted in a varied body of work–stage sets for the Washington Ballet, commissioned pieces for airports and train stations, and works that hang in museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Tate Gallery in London.

Jonathan Binstock, the Corcoran curator putting together the Gilliam retrospective, says the artist "can do things with paint that no one else can." Even the professor who once theorized about why his painting student didn't want to paint came to believe that. Included in the Corcoran show is an abstract painting on loan from the University of Louisville. Gilliam's former art teacher had bought the work in 1969–and hung it in the university's art museum next to a Pollock.

The Importance of Being 800 Miles Away

In the one year that he lived in New York, the lanky kid from Alabama would always bow his head and extend his arm with a polite "after you" as crowds hurried on and off the subway trains. And then the trains would take off without him.

He toughened up a lot in that year, says William Christenberry some 44 years later. But he never did shake his Southern sensibility.

The romantic landscape of his youth–the country churches, weathered barns, barbecue shacks, and Coca-Cola signs; the sweet memories of summers on his grandparents' farms punctured by the racism that crackled all around–all of that still moves him, lays claim to his heart, and has fueled a career's worth of evocative, at times haunting images.

"As I get older, those feelings do not diminish, they gain strength," says Christenberry, 68, whose early work in photography evolved into an oeuvre of drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture that is exhibited and collected worldwide.

As he gets older, he says, he realizes that his work is about the passage of time. A Washington resident since 1968, when he started teaching at the Corcoran School of Art, Christenberry returns to Alabama every summer. It is the only place where he makes photographs, and he shoots the same places–from the same vantage point and at the same time of day–year in and year out. Through his lens one watches Woods Radio & TV Repair of 1964 morph into the Bar-B-Q Inn of 1971, show the scars of a fire in 1989, and then disappear from the landscape in 1991. "I don't think one can capture time passing, but this comes pretty close to it," he says.

In 1974, feeling a need to connect with the images of his youth even more intimately–a yearning almost to possess them–the artist started building small versions of the structures he had photographed. Lately, the structures have become less literal and more stylized, more apparition-like in their drippy coating of white encaustic, more about memory.

After serving as artist-in-residence last spring at Auburn University Montgomery, Christenberry is back at the Corcoran teaching drawing and painting. He is preparing for an exhibition of his works in July for the reopening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum that will be accompanied by a new book–the sixth–of his work.

Working in the studio attached to his art- and book-filled home in DC's Cleveland Park, Christenberry says there is something just as important to him as his beloved Alabama: distance from it. "The 800-plus miles gives me perspective," he says. "I need the distance."

Washington is "just the right place in terms of all that I'm about," he says. It is not too far from his homeland, his roots. And it is not too far from New York, where his work is shown in museums and a gallery that represents him, and where, these days, the trains don't leave the station without him.

"Figuring Out Me Versus Her"

Gallery owner Ramon Osuna took down Manon Cleary's nude self-portrait–a realistic drawing in graphite powder–from a show at his Pyramid Gallery in Dupont Circle and replaced it with a new painting by Cleary, the first of a series of rat paintings the eccentric artist did in the 1970s. But Osuna forgot to change the title on the wall beside the work, so it still said "Self-Portrait" by Manon Cleary.

Nearly 30 years later, Cleary laughs at the memory. But she also thinks there was some accidental truth in the episode. "All of my work has been about self–even the rats," she says. "I do have a rat nose and rat hands."

Cleary, 62, who still lives in an Adams Morgan apartment building that was a haven for artists in the 1970s, has been one of the stars of Washington's art scene for decades. She taught drawing and painting at the University of the District of Columbia for more than 30 years, and her representational work–which ranges from photo-realistic drawings of naked men in plastic bags to sensuous oil paintings of flowers–is in museum collections all over the country.

Cleary, who grew up in St. Louis and attended Washington University there, is a twin. Her sister, Shirley Cleary-Cooper, is an artist, too, but works on a miniature scale doing fishing art and landscapes for Western art galleries. Their work couldn't be more different. Still, Cleary says the narcissistic quality of her work, the fact that it is all about her, "has to do with being a twin and figuring out me versus her."

Her work, at times responses to traumas in her life such as divorce, the death of her parents, and a sexual assault in 1996 when she was teaching in Kazakhstan, has been described as scary and dark as well as sweet and lyrical.

As the Color School came and went, Cleary stayed true to figurative art. She is perhaps best known for her soft black-and-white drawings, often mistaken for photos and often renderings of herself, created with graphite powder and a kneaded eraser. The Waddell Art Gallery in Sterling is showing her graphite drawings through October 14.

In 1999 her body, long her model, began to fail her. Cleary was hospitalized with pulmonary failure, a condition, she says, caused by years of working with toxic fixatives and paint solvents and layer upon layer of graphite powder. "Each thing that I worked with began to be my enemy," says Cleary, whose long, honey-blond hair dominates her frail frame.

These days, with only 18 percent of her lung capacity, she keeps oxygen tanks nearby. But she is still working, learning to paint with water-soluble paints. She recently finished a painting of a deep-red bromeliad flower. On her easel: a canvas of a large white rat with bulging red eyes.

"I always go back to rats when I'm experimenting with a new medium," says Cleary, who has a rat as a pet, "because I know them so well."

Invisible Forces of Nature and Other Secrets

Jim Sanborn says his faithful re-creation of the Los Alamos atomic-bomb laboratory, an installation that made its debut at the Corcoran Gallery of Art two years ago and last year was exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, is more about science than politics. He didn't want his strong antinuclear feelings to show up in the work. He didn't want to come off as a Michael Moore-style agitator.

The 59-year-old conceptual artist says his intent was to show people how simple it is to make an atom bomb. "I think it's important for people to know it's that easy," says Sanborn, whose "Critical Assembly" replica includes lab equipment he acquired from retired scientists, widows of former lab workers, and souvenir collectors.

Sanborn's four decades of work have always been about science and the invisible forces of nature–the mysteries, the secrets–that affect our lives.

As a kid growing up in Alexandria–his father was director of exhibitions at the Library of Congress, his mother a photo researcher for books–Sanborn was always blowing things up or messing up TV reception in the neighborhood with his science projects. "I was the ultimate inquisitive kid," he says.

In college he studied archaeology, paleontology, and anthropology along with art history–a combination reflected in a body of work ranging from desert photos of light projections onto mountain surfaces to sculpture with magnetized lodestones to perhaps his best-known work, Kryptos, a piece commissioned for CIA headquarters at Langley in 1988.

An S-shaped copper screen perforated with an encoded text that has yet to be fully deciphered, Kryptos has been a source of intrigue for years. The subject of Web sites and articles, and referred to on the dust jacket of The Da Vinci Code, the work is what Sanborn calls the "Energizer Bunny" of his career.

After spending six years on his Los Alamos installation, a work hailed by Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik as possibly "the most significant work of art to come out of Washington" since the early 1960s, Sanborn is now focusing not on an exhibition but on moving. He recently bought a 15-acre island in St. Mary's County, where he built a studio and plans to build a home. "I just wired the island for projection work," he says.

Recipient last year of the first award given to a mid-career Washington artist by the Kreeger Museum, Sanborn says he's been able to support himself as an artist without having to teach, a sideline that he felt derailed his art.

"For the last 20 years, all I've done is make art," says the artist, whose works can be seen in places as varied as a subway station in Baltimore, the new DC Convention Center, and the Kawasaki International Peace Park in Japan, "so I consider myself very lucky."

108 Earthly Desires and a Good Piece of Advice

As a young girl in Japan, Yuriko Yamaguchi's favorite moment of the year was the first one–the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. Her mother always prepared the children to meet the coming year with everything new–new clothes, shoes, underwear. Yamaguchi remembers the bells ringing out from temples all over Japan–108 chimes, based on the Buddhist belief that there were 108 earthly desires that must be cast away.

There was something about what she calls that "transitional moment," that sense of renewal and a fresh start, that captivated the young girl.

In her DC studio above the Capitol Paper Company warehouse, the 57-year-old sculptor recently completed a project about change inspired by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She started the work in 1990 and recently created the final sequence–the 108th–of organically shaped objects.

In recent years, Yamaguchi has constructed massive hanging webs of wire with pods wrapped in wet flax-paper pulp. The egg-like objects are suspended throughout the web, caught "like a spider's prey," she says–as she herself has sometimes felt. Her latest web, on exhibit at the Numark Gallery in November, will have computer chips implanted in the pods, each with the sound of a different person's heartbeat. It is to show the "common ground" of all humanity.

Yamaguchi came to the United States in 1971, following her father. She studied art in California and then, after marrying, attended graduate school as a painter at the University of Maryland. There she met two important figures: Martin Puryear, whose sculptures in wood "changed my life," she says, and the sculptor Anne Truitt, who became her adviser.

Truitt, who had lived in Tokyo, told the painting student to start thinking in Japanese and to record her memories. Noticing that her student's canvases were increasingly three-dimensional, she gave Yamaguchi one other bit of advice: Throw away your paints. By her thesis show, Yamaguchi had become a sculptor, one whose work would be exhibited in museums and galleries all over the United States and Japan.

Yamaguchi has devoted much of her life to teaching, most recently at George Washington University. It is a part of being an artist that she loves. "To me," says the artist, wife, and mother who lives in Vienna, "it's another connection." And with each student, another chance for a fresh start.

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].