Back to Basics: Line, Color, And Light

There are summer arts festivals all over the country, but Washington is special. It's the museum capital of the United States, and boasts - with justifiable pride - more first-rate museums than any other US city, including New York.

Moreover, the museums roll out the red carpet for families on summer vacations and kids out of school.

Many mount some of their best exhibitions during the warm months, and several will travel to museums near you. For example, the National Gallery of Art is presenting five - yes, five! - major shows: the playful, often humorous sculpture of "Alexander Calder: 1898-1976" (through July 12); the lusciously colorful painting of "Mark Rothko" (through Aug. 16), the first major show in 20 years of this major Abstract Expressionist painter; "Degas at the Races" (through July 12), the only exhibit ever devoted exclusively to Degas's horse paintings and sculptures; "Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare" (through Sept. 20), devoted to paintings of the great train station; and "A Collector's Cabinet" (through Aug. 9), which shows how 17th-century Dutch merchants collected items from the Far East.

Over at the smaller, private Phillips Collection, there are the luminous paintings of West Coast painter Richard Diebenkorn (through Aug. 16). Among other outstanding, and varied, museum offerings are the ceramics, lacquerware, and calligraphy of Koetsu, the Japanese 17th-century master, at the Freer Gallery of Art (through Jan. 3, 1999); a showing of black American women sculptors at the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building (through Sept. 30); a survey of the works of Cuban-born American artist Carlos Alfonzo, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (through Sept. 13); and an overview of Stuart Davis, one of America's first modernists, at the National Museum of American Art (through Sept. 7).

During the summer months, museums sometimes extend their hours. As part of Art Night on the Mall, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Freer, Hirshhorn, National Museum of African Art, and S. Dillon Ripley Center's International Gallery are open until 8 p.m. Thursdays through Labor Day.

Family-friendly museums

In addition, many museums have special tours and programs especially designed for families. Usually, no reservations are required.

For example, at the "Manet, Monet" show, visitors can see films on the exhibition. One movie invites both adults and young people to see the Saint-Lazare station and its environs through the eyes of these 19th-century painters. And on Aug. 2 and 9, younger children with an adult can visit the exhibition followed by a studio activity.

The three groundbreaking exhibitions of Calder, Rothko, and Diebenkorn are major efforts on the part of the curators and museums. All offer new material and innovative approaches to presenting the artists.

The Calder show, featuring more than 260 sculptures, works on paper, paintings, and jewelry, is the first important US Calder retrospective since his death in 1976. The exhibition marks the centenary of the artist's birth and, also, the 20th anniversary of the National Gallery's East Building where it's displayed.

Never before have so many Calders, especially sculptures, been shown in one place. And never has such a complete view of Calder's development been presented.

Curator Marla Prather, who also heads the National Gallery's department of 20th-century art, chose to emphasize Calder's mastery of line. He began his mobiles by "drawing" in space with wire in the 1920s. His conviction, at the time, that he could best express his art by using wire challenged the accepted notions that sculpture always involved solidity and mass.

Calder's great contribution

Calder's invention of the mobile, or sculpture that moved and changed into many different sculptures as it rotated, is his great contribution to 20th-century art. Miss Prather wisely decided to include mobiles from all his different periods and styles, concluding with the giant East Building mobile of 1976 that Calder designed especially for the museum's ceiling.

The approach to Rothko's work is somewhat different and less encyclopedic. Although this showing is also a large retrospective, of more than 100 paintings and works on paper, curator Jeffrey Weiss has chosen to concentrate on Rothko's "classic period" of the 1950s and 1960s. The artist had simplified and distilled his previous style of floating geometric shapes into two or three intensely hued, vertically stacked rectangles floated in fields of color.

While Calder's work is essentially lighthearted and playful, Rothko's art is more of a spiritual journey. He was a central figure in New York's Abstract Expressionist painting movement and helped direct American postwar abstract painting from the 1940s on.

It was in the "classic paintings" of the 1950s, with their increased size, simplified forms, brilliant luminosity, and broad swatches of color, that he hit his stride. He made the works life-size, as he wanted the viewer to literally "enter" his paintings.

Scenes from California

The Diebenkorn exhibition at the Phillips is the most comprehensive to date. Independent curator Jane Livingston, a longtime friend of Diebenkorn, worked closely with his widow, Phyllis, to organize the visually beautiful show.

The painter spent most of his life working in California, and his work is suffused with its light - whether it was the foggy luminosity of San Francisco, the limpid glow of Sausalito, or the crystalline light of Santa Monica. Throughout his career, he went through periods of working with landscapes and figures, and these are well-documented in the show.

The painter also alternated the more representational work with purely nonobjective images, such as the justifiably famous "Ocean Park" series of the 1960s. They're distillations of the freeways and beaches near his Santa Monica studio, painted with glowing color, but also with a rectilinear geometry of rectangles and diagonals.

Here's a wonderful opportunity to see how three major 20th-century artists used the tools of art - Calder, with line; Rothko, with color; Diebenkorn, with light - to create lasting art masterpieces.

* The Calder show travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sept. 4-Dec. 1. The Rothko exhibition is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Sept. 17-Nov. 29, and the Muse d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, starting in January. The Diebenkorn show travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oct. 9-Jan. 19.

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