- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

“Seascapes” at the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery offers a smattering of works by an unlikely pair of artists: contemporary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, a current darling of the art world, and American painter Dwight William Tryon, who was highly regarded in the early 1900s and is now forgotten.

Both depict moody, uninhabited landscapes, but neither is well served by this thin, summer-themed show. One expects more profundity from the first exhibit to combine works from the collections of the Sackler and Freer galleries.

Only six of Mr. Sugimoto’s appealing black-and-white photos of sea and sky, shot during various times of the day and night, are on view. Their similarities to the more conventional paintings by Tryon in the next gallery turn out to be superficial. Where the Japanese photographer is site-specific, capturing the differing waters of Lake Constance and the Yellow Sea, for example, the American painter generalizes his seascapes in painting them from memory.

For those who missed the 2006 retrospective of Mr. Sugimoto’s work at the Hirshhorn Museum, the exhibit serves as a short introduction to his “Seascapes” series, intended to capture the world’s oceans and lakes. In these almost abstract pictures, the photographer shoots the water from a high vantage point so the beach and human activity are absent. He creates the feeling of being out to sea. Each image is distinctive in its changing weather and time of day.

The results come close to painting. In “Black Sea/Ozuluce,” the horizon disappears within a gradated field from dark to light as if the photographer had air-brushed the frame. The night scene, “Ionian Sea/Santa Cesarea III,” stacks blocks of dark charcoal and black like an Ad Reinhart abstraction. Blurry rectangles in “Boden Sea/Utwill” are as meditative as a Mark Rothko canvas.

In the larger adjoining gallery, Tryon’s “Sea Moods” are far from being as fresh and direct. They were completed in the artist’s studio after fishing trips to Ogunquit, Maine, in 1915 and 1916. In creating these 22 pastels, the artist applied layer upon layer of chalky colors to build up shimmering, opaque surfaces on cardboard.

The resulting beach scenes, with their consistent horizon lines, have the studied effects of finished canvases. Comparing these drawings to the one oil painting in the exhibit, “The Sea: Evening,” reveals few differences between the two mediums.

In all of the works, Tryon repeats the same basic format of breaking waves banded by sand and sky that he filters through different moods of day and night, but without the dramatic contrasts favored by Mr. Sugimoto. The pastels called “Sunrise” and “Afternoon” mainly differ in their treatment of the sky with sunny yellow streaking across the early morning clouds. A quartet of corny moonlit water scenes seems tailor-made for the tourist trade.

The cyclic series recalls the French Impressionists’ use of a repeated scene to reveal the changing effects of light, but without their spontaneity and verve.

With their pale moons and wispy clouds, Tryon’s seascapes are often described as “tonalist.” This approach was influenced by the atmospheric, shadowy landscapes of the French Barbizon school, which the American artist studied during a Paris sojourn from 1876 to 1881.

After returning to the United States, Tryon became part of the art establishment in New York. From 1886 to 1923, he taught painting and drawing at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where an art gallery was established in his name (since razed for a fine arts complex).

His reputation for muted, often melancholy landscapes drew the attention of Detroit railroad-car manufacturer Charles Lang Freer, who became a major patron of the artist. Freer even commissioned Tryon to create paintings for his home. The pastels on exhibit are only a sampling of the 72 works by the artist that are now part of the Freer Gallery’s collection.

Too bad more of Tryon’s filmy nature scenes aren’t part of this exhibit to relate them to his seascapes. This small showing of the painter’s “Sea Moods,” the first since 1924, isn’t enough to explain why Freer was so taken with his tranquil landscapes - or why the viewer should care about this obscure artist.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: “Seascapes: Tryon & Sugimoto”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: Through Jan. 25, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.asia.si.edu

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