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When asked to explain abstract painting, the kind of artwork that is often a punching bag for criticism along the lines of “My toddler could paint that,” Eric Key tells people that the work is already achieving its purpose.

“If you’re asking me that question, you’re already beginning to think, and that’s what education is about,” said Key, Arts Program director at University of Maryland University College (UMUC.)

If the person asking persists, Key recommends dwelling on a single painting. “Just stand there and look at one piece. If it triggers you to say why this, or what’s that, or any of those kinds of questions, you’re automatically beginning to understand what abstraction is.”

Looking closely in that way is just what viewers will want to do as they contemplate the 40-plus paintings in the exhibit, “The Language of Abstraction: Ed Clark, Richard W. Franklin, and Kenneth Young,” on display through June 24 at UMUC’s Arts Program Gallery. Clark and Franklin, who are living, hail from New York and Bowie, Md., respectively, while Young, of Washington, D.C., passed away a year ago at age 83.

Young was, the “Washington Post” reported, one of the first black exhibit designers at the Smithsonian Institution, and he exhibited his art at the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Young was the subject of a “Washington City Paper” profile last year that noted  he “is finally getting his due.”

The exhibit as displayed—with some of Clark’s, Franklin’s and Young’s paintings hanging side-by-side and the rest grouped in designated sections by the artist—affords viewers both the opportunity to compare and contrast this trio’s works and to chart their individual artistic progression and evolution. It’s coincidental, Key said, that the exhibit comes at a time when many museums across the nation are exhibiting and addressing abstract art.

Also, Key added, some of the decisions that artists make when it comes to creating their work are incidental to the exhibit. For example, in the 1960s Clark began to use a push broom to paint on canvas and is credited with being the first to do so. He enjoyed his ability with the broom to achieve a specific texture while also controlling the movement of the paint across his canvasses.

Like renowned artist Jackson Pollock, who accidentally dripped paint on a canvas before harnessing that technique and inspiring an entire movement, Clark, too, turned to the broom accidentally, according to Key.

“I’m just imagining that one day he happened to be sweeping up in his studio, and he had a push-broom, and he saw something, and it clicked,” Key said. “He tried it. That’s the creative process. You never know what clicks.”

Clark’s works in the exhibit, which contain bold and broad bands of color, are largely untitled, which draws the viewer into the work in a way that titled works do not and opens the possibility of different kinds of dialogues between viewer and artwork. “It gives you the opportunity to explore and see what you see,” Key said.

Young’s works, which often appear kaleidoscopic or like butterflies in the ways that the bright colors stain the canvas, reflect the artist’s prior training as a chemist. Young knew about the mechanics of mixing colors, and his work deals with astrological themes. “They [his paintings] look like starbursts and stars and movement,” Key said.

Franklin was an artist Key didn’t know as well as the other two, until he was drawn to a painting a few years ago at a UMUC Biennial Maryland Regional Juried Art Exhibition. “It caught my eye to the point where I wanted to see more of his work,” Key said.

He visited Franklin’s studio—a detached, rustic building in the woods set on about five acres—and got to know both the artist and his work. That planted the seed for the entire exhibit and its focus on abstract art’s different languages.

“His language was different from my understanding of Ed Clark’s and Kenneth Young’s languages,” Key said, “but they were all speaking through their artwork.”

Franklin’s “Pentimento” series, which is represented several times in the exhibit, seems quite different at first blush from the rest of the abstract works. Franklin, who was an exhibition designer, includes various tightly-drawn architectural elements in the paintings: parts of columns, ceiling portions, and various other architectural embellishments. But it’s a kind-of tease for viewers who think the works are realistic drawings of buildings.

“When you dissect it, you see more of the geometrical patterns,” Key said. “The squares and the shapes and the placements of those shapes and the lines.”

At stake in the broader show is the question: What is abstract art? Clearly, Key said, there is much more to it than just colorful paintings but in fact a whole visual language of abstraction.

The Language of Abstraction: Ed Clark, Richard W. Franklin, and Kenneth Young

Exhibition Dates: March 4–June 24, 2018

Hours: 9 a.m.–9 p.m. daily

Location: UMUC Arts Program Gallery, Lower Level, University of Maryland University College, College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, 3501 University Boulevard East, Adelphi, MD 20783. Directions