The District of Columbia is a cultural melting pot, with few markers of local accomplishment. The visual arts movement known as the Washington Color School is rivaled only by Go-Go music in local pride and national importance.
The first major exhibit gathering Color School paintings in Washington, DC occurred at the Washington Gallery of Art (WGA), a briefly influential museum and gallery. The WGA opened in October 1962, at 1503 21st Street NW, with a show of artwork by Fritz Kline and three nights of star-studded parties. The gallery was an early project of local arts champion Alice Denney, and Denney served as founding assistant director. The new museum’s first director was respected Baltimore-based curator Adelyn Breskin, and the WGA’s board chair was physicist Julian Eisenstein.
The WGA was founded as a home for new and adventurous artwork, and in its first year the gallery produced one of the earliest performance “happenings” in the region (by Robert Rauschenberg) and the influential exhibition of Van Gogh paintings that went on to form the core collection at the Van Gogh Museum (in the Hague.) From before the opening the WGA forged connections to the Kennedy administration. President Kennedy directed his Special Consultant on the Arts to attend and speak at the black tie opening, which was also attended by Defense Secretary McNamara, Labor Secretary Wirtz, President Kennedy’s mother-in-law Mrs. Auchincloss, and Dean Acheson (former Secretary of State).
The WGA’s founding Director (Breskin) left after just two years in a tussle regarding control and direction, and the trustees quickly hired critic, curator, and art historian Gerald Nordland to succeed her. Nordland stayed at the WGA for just a single year, departing to lead the new San Francisco Museum of Arts, but in that year he organized arguably the most important show of DC artists ever: The Washington Color Painters.
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A grant provided to Day Eight by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC supporting the fifth annual DC Student Arts Journalism Challenge supported research and analysis regarding the impact of arts journalism on the cultural history of Washington DC. The project culminated in a public conversation on the future of arts journalism and the role of arts journalism in creating the Washington Color School between project scholar Philip Kennicott (Washington Post), Michael McCarthy (DC Magazine) and project director Robert Bettmann held in partnership with the Washington Project for the Arts October 27, 2014, at the Capitol Skyline Hotel. This paper was prepared for publication in the Digital Museum of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC.
For interview inquiries, or copies of the Bibliography associated with this article, email Robert [at] DayEight.org.