The Washington Wives School

You start pulling on a thread, and you never quite know what starts to come out. For some great stories about the Washington Gallery for Modern Art and "The Popular Image Exhibition," reader JA suggested, I should really check out Nina Burleigh's 1998 book, A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer. So I did, and wow. No kidding. But I'll get to that.

In addition to conducting an affair with JFK and getting killed soon after his assassination, Mary Pinchot Meyer was also one of Anne Truitt's best friends, Kenneth Noland's lover for a fairly extended period, and a very serious painter herself.

As Burleigh describes it, Georgetown and DC's insular, faux-hemian postwar art community--including the members of the nascent Washington Color School--provided the havens for Meyer's emotionally rocky life. [There are no images in the book to support it, but Burleigh repeatedly hints Meyer's own painting was central, if not formative, in the development of the Color Field School generally, and in Ken Noland's adoption of his signature bulls-eye specifically. Timing and other people seem to disagree with this idea, but I can't immediately find any images of Meyer's work. (see new post above) I'll have to come back to this.]

New art, whether it was Abstract Expressionism in the 50s or Pop Art in the 60s, was met with criticism and suspicion from even the most politically liberal of Washington's fundamentally conservative, power-anxious, ruling class. And art and culture were strictly gendered at a deep level almost unimaginable today--or maybe not.

A couple of brief excerpts really captured the character and challenges of Truitt's environment in a very unfamiliar way. For me it makes her creative and career accomplishments all the more remarkable to see more of the very specific local culture in which she was working.

Often the main ties between art and power were through the wives, many of whom either sat on gallery boards or were amateur artists themselves. For at time it seemed every other wife in Georgetown was either taking painting lessons or setting herself up in a studio, though most remained firmly in the dilettante class. Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was linked romantically with one of the Washington women who painted, Sarita Peet, who went on to marry artist Robert gates, one of Mary [Meyers'] teachers at American University. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson's wife was a painter. Helen Stern, wife of lawyer Philip Stern and one of Mary's closest friends, painted. The wife of Estes Kefauver, Nancy Pigot Kefauver, was a painter. [she was the one tapped by the Kennedys to create the Art In Embassies program. -ed.] Tony Pinchot Bradlee, Ben's wife, eventually had her own show of sculptures. V.V. Rankine, the wife of a British speechwriter, shared studio space with Mary for a time. In a few years, Mary herself became one of the links between Washington artists and power politics.

Portraitist Marian Cannon Schlesinger, then married to Arthur Schlesinger, recalled that most Georgetowners were not all that interested in art but liked having artists in their midst to buttress their cultivated sensibility...

Marital ties between politics and the arts brought support to real artists who were struggling without money or personal connections. Having a cabinet secretary as a guest on the opening night of one's show was all to the good. Better yet, the women's husbands often had the money to buy the work...

Among serious artists, the capital was ruefully regarded as a backwater. New York was where they'd rather be. Washington did not provide much of a market for modern art, recalled Alice Denney, who handled the work of many of the big New York abstract artists in Washington. "I couldn't sell a Jasper Johns then." [p.154-5]

Whaddya know, the assistant director of the WGMA and the curator of "The Popular Image" had previously been a dealer. [Founded Jefferson Place Gallery, in fact, the Deitch Projects of its time and place.]

DC's spirit of suspicion, amateurism and of dismissing artmaking as a wifely diversion reached a zenith/nadir in an event that sounds so much like a script for a Paul McCarthy video, I want to see it re-enacted:

By the late 1950s modern art was not regarded as subversive; rather it was just silly, or at best baffling. In 1961 the Washington wives of a group of scientists and diplomats won fifteen minutes of fame [sic] when they decided to become abstract artists during their regular bridge games. Those who took breaks from the card tables went into the kitchen and splattered canvases with kitchen items--flour, syrup, ketchup, house paint, and anything else that would stick. After a few months they showed their "paintings" to their husbands, who found them amusing, and to a few Washington galleries, who showed interest and offered to buy them. Then they broke the story to the Washington Evening Star, which covered their stunt with tongue-in-cheek glee. "An Artistic Slam," said the headline. "Ten suburban bridge club women have pulled a fast one on modern art...Among them they have 37 children." [p155-6]
Is it really that far off from Clement Greenberg's description of Anne Truitt a couple of years later in Vogue?

update: Thanks to DC arts veteran and expert John Anderson for insights and corrections.

Since 2001 here at, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting that time.

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first published: January 21, 2010.

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