- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

Linda Lichtenberg Kaplan, a Washington art curator, historian, collector, writer and appraiser, first saw a Francis Criss painting in 1984. Seventeen years later, she has curated the Corcoran Gallery of Art's exhibit on the largely forgotten painter, titled "Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss."
"I was visiting 'Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography' at the Baltimore Museum of Art and came upon his 1939 'Rhapsody in Steel.' The painting knocked me out, and I wondered why I hadn't heard of him," Mrs. Kaplan, 62, says.
She liked his clear, crisp lines and bold colors inspired by synthetic cubism. Mr. Criss' hard-edge, geometric style also placed him with the American precisionists Charles Demuth and George Ault.
Mrs. Kaplan also was intrigued by his psychologically charged subject matter, reminiscent of the Italian surrealists.
She became so interested in the artist that she doggedly tracked down his family, read the Criss papers donated to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and followed museum and private-collector sales. The exhibit is the result of her resourceful and imaginative sleuthing.
Dorothy Moss, Corcoran assistant curator of American art, who worked with Mrs. Kaplan on the show, says she admires the curator's ability to find so much information and turn up so many objects. "Linda's still finding more facts about Criss that, combined with the exhibit, will place him in his rightful place in the history of modernism," Miss Moss says.
Mrs. Kaplan points to "Rhapsody in Steel" (1939) as she begins a fast-paced, informative tour of the show. She's a snappy dresser with short, streaked brown hair who is wearing a designer jacket, slim black trousers and simulated silver-and-gold twisted rope necklace.
"Rhapsody" was the first Criss painting to catch her interest. She initially liked it for its strong graphic and decorative qualities.
"There're little signs on the red pillar that predict pop art and doors leading nowhere. The artist always signed his name in funny places. Here it's on a signpost," she says.
"At first the lack of shadows bothered me. The painting didn't seem real. But I was drawn to his 'askew-ness.' For example, Criss didn't place poles and towers solidly on the pavement," she says.
Mrs. Kaplan says she doesn't have a favorite among the exhibit images, but she calls "Rhapsody" the keynote piece. She placed it to introduce the exhibition. A group of Mr. Criss' friends — he had many admirers in New York in the 1930s — gave it to the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts.
"Astor Place" (1932) is a painting Mrs. Kaplan finds typical of Mr. Criss' precisionist works. The artist painted two starkly dressed nuns at center stage in a still plaza. She says their simplicity and classicism predicted the Mediterranean surrealism the artist later found in Italy.
The artist was exhibiting extensively in New York when he traveled to Italy on a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1934, Mrs. Kaplan says. He stated on his fellowship application that he intended to study the Italian primitives, Renaissance masters and fresco painting.
"Fascism" (1934) clearly shows Mr. Criss' fascination with Italian surrealism, especially the work of Giorgio de Chirico. The faceless people and the unsupported scales of justice are spinoffs of the Italian master.
Mrs. Kaplan emphasizes that this is the first exhibition she has curated. "I'm not an academic. People in the arts don't realize they can be creative and not be a scholar," Mrs. Kaplan says.
She should know about careers in the arts because she has had several. After earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Boston University in 1960, she held lower-level assistant-to-museum-director positions and jobs in public relations and special events.
The native Washingtonian brought certain talents that propelled her into better jobs. She calls herself "driven and a self-starter."
"Linda is the most focused person I've met, and she's not afraid of new things," says her husband, Louis, a retired dentist and teacher.
Mrs. Kaplan put together two other Washington collections before she curated the Criss exhibit. In 1968 she selected original contemporary prints that included works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg for Cafritz Co. She also created a collection of works by local artists such as Sam Gilliam, Leon Berkowitz and Mark Clark for the Artery Organization in the 1980s.
Her involvement with Cafritz Co. was something of an accident. "They had redesigned their offices, and I asked President Calvin Cafritz, 'How come with all these good-looking offices, there's nothing on the walls?'" The chance remark resulted in the company's amassing the first private corporate art collection in Washington.
Cafritz also was the first to collect contemporary prints. "Prints were just beginning to achieve a renaissance. Major painters such as Frank Stella, Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol became intrigued with the new experiments in print processes," Mrs. Kaplan says.
"The prints cost all of $50 to $550 then and have increased many times over," she adds.
Mr. Cafritz, now director of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, says, "Thirty-three years later, I still get excited about them."
Mrs. Kaplan collects art herself. Her main focus is on 20th-century American art between the world wars and sculptors' drawings.
She became interested in copper jewelry when she moved from Chevy Chase to downtown Washington in 1988. She had decided to sell off her collection of paperweights and was looking for something new.
Mrs. Kaplan went to Carol A. Burke Ltd. in Bethesda and said, "I have to collect something. What can I buy that's cheap?" Company representatives suggested copper jewelry, and Mrs. Kaplan became hooked. Since then she has built her collection mainly from flea markets in New York.
In 1991 she met Matthew Burkholz, a specialist in antiques and copper art and jewelry. They collaborated on "Copper Art Jewelry" (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1991). It became the standard reference on the subject.
Mrs. Kaplan also has worked as an art appraiser since 1979. "I had young children and wanted to be there at 3 when they came home. I happened to hear an ad on the radio placed by the American Society of Art Appraisers," she says.
Two years later, after a required job in sales and six months of study for the eight-hour exam, Mrs. Kaplan became an appraiser. She is an accredited senior appraiser of the American Society of Appraisers and a certified member of the Appraisers Association of America.
"It's held my interest for 24 years. Every job is different and usually fascinating," she says. Among her many clients are donors who give works to major Washington collections.
She also manages the Lichtenberg Foundation, a family foundation that supports health care issues, education and the arts.
Six careers would be enough for most people, but not for her. "My big worry is what I'm going to do after the Criss exhibit," she says with a laugh.

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