Years ago, Eric Key, director of the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Arts Program, and artist Paul Reed agreed to put on a one-man show of Reed’s work at the university. Key had visited the painter, one of the founders of the Washington Color School, in his Virginia home to discuss the exhibit, and planning for the solo exhibit had begun. Then Reed called to tell Key that, unfortunately, he didn’t have time for the one-man show.
“I found out that he wanted to spend the time taking care of his wife,” Key told the audience—a full-house—at the opening reception for “Paul Reed: Washington Color School Painter,” on view through Sept. 16 at the UMUC Art Gallery.
“As disappointing as it may have been not to have the show when he was still with us, I could appreciate the fact that he wanted to take care of his wife.”
Key had gotten to know Reed and his wife Esther and sensed how important they were to one another. She died in 2012 and Reed followed in 2015 at age 96. “I could tell by his expression that their love was very strong,” Key said.
A “New York Times” obituary for Reed noted that the artist “created luminous fields of color by letting the paint bleed into, or stain, untreated canvas.” These qualities also drew Key to Reed’s work.
The story, as far as the UMUC one-man show was concerned, could have ended with Reed’s passing. But then, Jean Reed Roberts discovered a letter that Key had written to her father about the exhibition and a donation of artworks to the UMUC arts program.
“After several conversations, Jean decided to honor that wish,” Key said. “Today, we have a large body of work that makes up the Paul and Esther Reed collection—approximately 200 works. For that, Jean, thank you.”
“Paul’s favorite thing was teaching. Maybe painting, but he really loved having students,” Roberts said of her father. “Right until the end, he was teaching. He would be pleased to know that the work is available to students.”
The 200 works gifted to UMUC makes it undoubtedly one of the most extensive and important repositories of the artist’s work, which is also represented in other major collections. The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington acquired “Coherence” (1966) in 2011, and the artist was thrilled to have his work in such an important collection. The NGA now owns three more Reed works, an acrylic and two silkscreens, which came from the Corcoran collection.
Reed, who graduated in 1936 at age 16 from McKinley High School in Washington rode his bicycle every day past the National Gallery site. When the gallery accepted “Coherence.” Reed said “‘I used to ride by here every day, and now I’m one of the big boys. They’re all here, and I’m with them,’” Roberts said.
And one of the “big boys” he certainly was. “He was a prolific artist, producing hundreds of paintings and sculptures over the course of his career, which spanned more than 60 years,” wrote UMUC Arts Program Curator Jon West-Bey in an essay for the exhibit catalog. “His work is as diverse as it is inventive.”
Reed’s work appears not only in the National Gallery’s coffers, but also in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Dallas Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, West-Bey added. The Phillips Collection was the first to acquire a Reed work in 1965.
Following remarks at the exhibit ‘s opening event from Key and West-Bey, Roberts spoke about her father’s life and work, nearly without pause for the better part of half an hour. “I’m just the artist’s daughter now,” she began, before revealing an extraordinary grasp of her father’s history, aesthetic approach and the broader significance of his work. Roberts also said she was considering being brave and taking up an easel and paints, herself, despite having never painted before.
Her father, Roberts said, was the son of two gin bootleggers who owned a Richmond farm that is now part of Robert E. Lee Memorial Park. “They had a fleet of souped-up Hudsons. My grandmother always packed heat. She said she could outrun any sheriff from Virginia to Georgia and apparently enjoyed doing so.”
It was amid these humble southern, Scotch-Irish beginnings, that Reed and his sister, also an artist, grew up.
Esther, Reed’s wife of 73 years and an artist as well, was born into a Russian Jewish family. Roberts said that her mother’s family disapproved of the intermarriage and likely “sat shiva” for her—implying that the marriage to Reed likely made Esther dead to the family,. “Paul never forgave them,” Roberts said. “But they forgave her.”
Jobs were hard to find during the Depression so Roberts said her parents moved around. In Florida, Reed landed a job as an illustrator. After briefly returning to the Washington area, the couple moved to New York, where Reed worked for prestigious advertising agencies; they subsequently returned to Washington.
Reed designed the American Automobile Association logo—the iconic three A’s in an oval. He received the commission “from Gene Davis for $50,” Roberts said. Davis was a fellow artist and close friend who went on to become the first Peace Corps art director—a job he held until, according to Roberts, President Richard M. Nixon fired him.
Roberts related that, even early on, Reed experimented a great deal but he always did so with great color. His works are on canvas, paper, and Masonite board, and they include enamel, lithographs, oil pastels, and collages. “Just whatever he could find to express himself,” she said.
Reed painted in an old two-story carriage house—lacking heat and air-conditioning—behind the Jefferson Hotel. He used to say that he felt safe walking around the area at night, since there were always CIA cars lining the alleyway behind his studio after dark, monitoring the adjacent Russian embassy, Roberts said.
All the while, as he made all kinds of art, Reed remained a lifelong learner. He didn’t have geometry coursework on his high-school transcript and he never went to college. Even so, his work is so mathematical. “He would always ask us for our textbooks, and I believe he read everything we studied,” Roberts said of herself and her husband, Thomas.
“He [Reed] just always kept learning and kept changing,” Roberts said. And, as the audience filed downstairs to the gallery for wine, hors-d’oeuvres, and to view dozens of Reed’s works, his thirst for lifelong learning became clear very quickly.
Acrylic on canvas pictures like “AMAG” (2001) and “CHO” (2003) evoke the bold, parallel lines of the Bank of America logo, while oil pastels on paper from 1979 juxtapose powerful seas of bright color with whimsical black contour drawings. Others, like ‘Upstart XXXIX” (1966) are much more minimalist and graphic.
If one didn’t know better, one could be forgiven for assuming that this show was a group exhibition reflecting the works of many artists, rather than the product of decades-long experimentation on the part of one very curious and playful painter. But as Roberts pointed out about her father, the tie that binds all was his fascination with color. Reed proved whatever the opposite is of a one-trick pony.