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The Colorful, Blossoming D.C. Arts Scene In The 1950s, '60s


Nearly 50 years ago in an art show in Washington, D.C., launched a movement that announced there was more to the nation's capital than politics. The exhibition featured the work of six local D.C. painters at the now defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The work of those painters now hangs in major museums. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg tracked down one of the artists at his home and studio in Arlington, Virginia.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Ninety-seven years old, handsome still with blue eyes and abundant white hair, Paul Reed, is rangy, looks too tall for his house.

PAUL REED: I'm sort of low man on the totem pole of that group of six.

STAMBERG: You're the low man on the totem pole, but you're also the last man standing.

REED: (Laughter) Right, right. I've lived to tell the tale.

STAMBERG: The others were Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Thomas Downing and Gene Davis.

REED: Gene and I were boyhood friends. We lived out in Northeast in the same neighborhood.

STAMBERG: Famous worldwide now for his strict stripes of bright color, Gene Davis and Paul Reed hung out together as kids, grew up, got jobs, started painting and looking at art.

REED: We'd go to the Phillips Gallery and the National at lunch time.

STAMBERG: In 1950s and '60s, they began showing their art.

What was Washington like? What was the art scene like here in Washington?

REED: Nothing, zero.

STAMBERG: But somehow D.C. artists found one another. Reed and Davis met Noland and Louis. They were all working with vivid colors, abstractions, but not the drips and ropes of paint that Jackson Pollock was wrestling in New York. Clement Greenberg took notice. Greenberg was the art critic of the day and endorsed the Washington color painters also known as the Washington Color School. Greenberg was a big Pollock promoter, but he saw in these painters a shift from abstract Expressionism to color field painting. Greenberg brought important attention to Reed and the other D.C. artists.

REED: The bomb went off here, and I was in the middle of it.

STAMBERG: Washington insulated the six from the competitive pressures of the New York art scene. They could flourish here, concentrating on art, not commerce. Paul Reed never left.

REED: The studio is downstairs, and I start at the top. It's a little easier.

STAMBERG: His basement studio is covered with canvases, rolls of painted and stained cloth, looks like a fabric store. Paint dribbles down the side of the old washer and dryer. Every surface is swamped with artworks or their makings. Jars of crayons, pencils, brushes, paint - Paul Reed uses unprimed canvases and acrylic paints. You can dilute acrylics with water and bleed luminous color into the campus.

When you first used that paint, after so many years of oil, was it like a revolution for you?

REED: Oh, absolutely. The painting blossoms in front of your eyes, and it's just absorbed in and spreads and sits there.

STAMBERG: He wants to show me or teach me. He taught at the Corcoran Art School for years. He dips a brush into some paint.

REED: You see if we start light, here's a yellow.

STAMBERG: Wipes the paint into a small sloppy dish - then.

REED: Just put a drop of something in there and - water, and you're ready.

STAMBERG: Another brush jams into blue paint. Reed mixes it with the yellow, cuts a piece of muslin off a roll with a razor blade. Are you a lefty?

REED: Yes. All great artists are left-handed and blue-eyed. You didn't know that?

STAMBERG: But it explains my inability to make an art.

REED: Leonardo, Cezanne. Yep, you have to be left-handed. It comes with the territory.

STAMBERG: Now he pours the watery mixed acrylic paint on to the piece of cloth. He moves the color around by lifting one corner of the fabric, then another corner. The paint stains the cloth, soaks into it. Transparent veils of color appear. He turns to me.

REED: You want to pour it?

STAMBERG: Oh, no, you're the artist.

REED: Well, how artistic is this? You could close your eyes and do it.

STAMBERG: Well, how does that make you an artist?

REED: Nothing makes you an artist. You is or you ain't, I tell you. But it's in the judgment. The materials and process moves out of the way, then you're free. It's a sensibility situation.

STAMBERG: Paul Reed, the last of the original six Washington Color School painters has been trusting his intuition for almost a century. His work can be seen in collections at the Phoenix Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, the National Gallery of Art, among others. In Washington, I am right-handed Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.