- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2001

Painter William Scharf's exhibit at the Phillips Collection astounds viewers.

Surrealism and dream imagery were popular when Mr. Scharf, 73, started as a painter in New York in 1952, and they've stayed with him.

Abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Hans Hofmann were seminal influences for Mr. Scharf. He also was a friend and a studio assistant of Mark Rothko's.

The artist's "The Night Is in the Middle" is a mural-scaled painting that thrusts an open-mouthed fish or hawk at the visitor to the exhibit "William Scharf: Paintings, 1984-2000." The work is a menacing opener for the show.

The image impresses not only through size but also with its strange shapes and brilliant, off-key colors. What is it?

A ladder, curved staff, cell-like circles and crown of thorns form the right section. A jagged white shape rams to the left and is accented by the midnight black around it.

Mr. Scharf continues the cells in the brilliant red and gold shapes in the left section. A purple form — perhaps a cloud — quivers around the red.

Queries about meaning continue in the second gallery with works at once meltingly beautiful and gratingly strange. The reds, purples, blacks and whites of "Sphynx Cloud" relate to the "Night" painting, but the shapes are different.

The artist floats a lobed cloud across the center and the black oval background. A red fulcrum-like form seems to support the whole. While Mr. Scharf brushed the lines of "Night" almost brutally, his touch in "Sphynx Cloud" is light and delicate. A thin red element delineates the oval, green squiggles that run in and out of the red area, and tensile arrowlike shapes push through the cloud. The artist creates organic worlds of liquids — they could be either water or blood — and airy substances.

Color always mesmerized Mr. Scharf, as is evident in this show. Exhibit curator Eliza Rathbone writes in the catalog, "Scharf's knowledge of the power of color and composition to evoke mood and meaning can equally well remind us of such key figures in the Phillips Collection as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Arthur Dove. His sense of the mysterious and the elemental forces in man and nature makes him their ally."

Mr. Scharf looked to Mr. Rothko in his work, of course. The two had become friends in the 1960s, when Mr. Scharf still was new to the New York art world. Mr. Rothko would introduce him "as my young colleague." They remained close until Mr. Rothko's suicide in 1970.

The younger artist also helped Mr. Rothko with his murals for the De Menil chapel in Houston. In the 1970s the New York attorney general named Mr. Scharf to the board of the newly created Rothko Foundation. Kate Rothko Prizel lent a significant Scharf painting to the Phillips exhibition.

The painter-teacher Mr. Hofmann also was an influence. Mr. Hofmann had run a successful art school in Munich from 1915 to 1932 and continued teaching when he settled in New York in 1934. He taught the most advanced theories of European painting in his new country. The painter said, "Creative expression is … the spiritual translation of inner concepts into form… . Painting is forming with color."

Mr. Scharf did not study with Mr. Hofmann, but the German set the ambience in which Arshile Gorky, Mr. Pollock, Mr. de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler and Mr. Scharf would flower.

Contrast Mr. Scharf's dark red and black hues of "Night" and "Cloud" with the luminous, lighter ones of whites, pinks, oranges and violets he painted. The "Pink Annunciation," "Cerebration" and "By Mirrored Meaning" show the artist's extraordinary use of them through thinly applied veils of color.

The 9-foot-long "Pink Annunciation" resembles "Night" in its expansive, laterally extended format. Its pinks, also, are stronger than those of "Cerebration" and "Meaning." Mr. Scharf uses the biomorphs and cells he favors to project inner and outer organic universes.

The colors of "Pink Annunciation" are more acerbic, even grating. Reds vibrate against hot pinks, veinlike lines trickle down in gold clumps over whites, and an acrid blue jumps from red. This is the closest the painter comes to showing the veins, blood and cells of the human body.

Critics liken Mr. Scharf's shapes to those of Mr. Gorky and his colors to those of Mr. De Kooning and Miss Frankenthaler. This is misleading.

Juxtapose the awkward, sometimes downright ugly forms in "Cerebration" to the elegant ones of Mr. Gorky's iconic painting, "The Liver Is the Cock's Comb." Mr. Scharf is not afraid of the unpleasant and awkward while Mr. Gorky strove for sinuous elegance.

The same goes for color. Miss Frankenthaler's sometimes astringent color combinations verge on the repellent — but only verge. She always adds just a touch to make them right.

Like Mr. Gorky, she's interested in elegance and beauty. Miss Frankenthaler never would juxtapose the pinks, lavenders, oranges, blues and reds of Mr. Scharf's "By Mirrored Meaning."

Mr. de Kooning also was fond of pink. His, however, was an in-your-face cotton candy pink unlike the subtleties of Mr. Scharf's pinks.

Miss Rathbone included 43 of Mr. Scharf's works, most of them his smaller paintings, in this long-deserved exhibition. The acrylics on board measure 111/2-by-147/8 inches, and the works on paper are 9-by-4 inches. Whether big or little, they express Mr. Scharf's compelling and unique vision.

Critic Hilton Kramer writes in the catalog, "The paintings of William Scharf offer two distinct orders of pictorial experience. One is exuberant, expansive, even operatic in its sweeping gestures, effulgent color, and bold painterly structures. The other is a kind of chamber music in which the same vocabulary of feeling — a lyricism tending toward the exotic — is concentrated in a smaller, more intimate space."

This concentration gives the smaller works a power and interest different from the larger pieces. Miss Rathbone clustered 12 acrylics-on-board together in the second gallery and grouped 18 works on paper in the first. All invite the eye to roam over the varied patterns, designs and colors.

Mr. Scharf brushed the acrylic-on-board "Hate Lifter" with muscular strokes. By contrast, the acrylics-with-pencil-on-paper such as "From Blind to Broken" and "Chronic Wile" are delicate and dreamily evocative. Both are from 1999.

The artist never ceases to surprise. His art is as unusual as his life. Born in Media, Pa., in 1927, he showed his drawings to the prominent illustrator N.C. Wyeth when he was 10. Wyeth responded enthusiastically and gave him art supplies.

Mr. Scharf studied at Pennsylvania art schools and universities with time out for the U.S. Army Air Corps. He later worked as a seaman on a tanker and clown diver in a Florida aquacade.

While beginning his career in New York in 1952, he worked as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art. He set aside his lunch hours to read to artist Abraham Walkowitz, who was going blind.

His career has been as unorthodox as his life. He worked quietly and apparently never sought fame. The painter taught at the San Francisco Art Institute, the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Art Students League, also in New York.

Mr. Scharf exhibited comparatively rarely, but major museums acquired his art.

The Phillips Collection, which owns "The Night Is in the Middle" and 10 of its preparatory studies, deserves praise for recognizing this unusual and imaginative painter.

However, the show very much needs a panel introducing him and his art. Catalogs reasonably priced at $14.95 are available in the show and at the volunteer desk, but they are not enough. Oversights such as lack of dimensions in the title panels and catalog are minor irritants.

The exhibition runs just eight more days, through Jan. 21. Don't miss it.WHAT: "William Scharf: Paintings, 1984-2000"WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8:30 p.m. Thursday, noon to 7 p.m. Sunday, through Jan. 21TICKETS: Weekend admission costs $7.50 for adults, $4 for seniors and students, and is free for members and students younger than 18. Weekday admission is by suggested contribution at the same levels as the weekend.PHONE: 202/387-2151

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