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Vital Works Refute Ageism in Art

A touring exhibit features older artists, bucking cultural trend toward youth

ENERGETIC, lively, vital: These are words that are often used to describe a particular piece of art. They are also words that imply youthfulness of the artist.

But ``Still Working,'' an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, demonstrates that this description isn't exclusive to a particular age group. The exhibit is a collection of works by 32 artists from the United States who are 60 and older. It exudes energy, life, and vitality.

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The artists range in style - from expressionistic to abstract - and in form - from small oil paintings to painted stone to sculpture from discarded pieces of metal.

Accompanied by insightful photographs of most of the artists by Larry Fink, the exhibit aims to refute the idea that only young artists create good work.

``It's a show about art, not about age,'' says Stuart Shedletsky, curator and project director of ``Still Working'' during a telephone interview. Mr. Shedletsky spent three years traveling across the United States, seeking out older unrecognized artists for the exhibit. ``Age is simply not an encumbrance,'' Shedletsky says. As these artists have experienced more in life, they are more prepared to take on larger themes of life in their work, he observes.

Looking primarily to young artists for good art is a trend that has become more pronounced in the last half century, Shedletsky says. ``We're a very youth-driven society.'' While we take very good care of our children, we tend to overlook older generations, and value them less, he says. As a result, ``maturing artists find it difficult, if not impossible, to enter or re-enter public view in spite of their originality and present achievement,'' Shedletsky notes.

The idea for the exhibit came partly from Shedletsky's own experience: At about age 35, he found that ``galleries were interested in much younger artists ... the most successful artists are snatched at a very young age.''

Oli Sihvonen - one of only several artists in the exhibit whom Shedletsky knew - also inspired the ``Still Working'' project. At 60, Sihvonen was ``too experienced and self-aware to re-enter at the bottom and too proud to undersell himself ... mostly he put his disappointment aside to begin a new series of paintings that were burning to become,'' Shedletsky writes in the exhibition catalog. ``I resolved ... to seek out for exhibition other mature artists for whom continuous self-invention served to keep their minds and spirits rising to a level of ever-higher curiosity and rising as well above despair.''

For some of the artists in ``Still Working,'' lack of national recognition (though some are well known locally) has led to a kind of independence from art trends. ``Some artists are uncompromising,'' such as Miriam Beerman, he says. ``She doesn't make art that hangs well in your living room.... Fame really works against art; it doesn't work for it.''

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Other artists seem somewhat anachronistic: Jack Boul paints small oils on wood of his Maryland surroundings in the French romantic landscape tradition. These dreamy paintings seem out of place, and yet they speak of an age-old quest to express. ``I am interested in painting that cannot be explained with words,'' Mr. Boul says.

Though some older artists have become bitter because of lack of widespread recognition, Shedletsky says that some of the artists he selected have perhaps felt ``frustration, but not so much bitterness that it stopped their work.... People have different ideas about success.''

Many artists find validation within their own communities and families and among their colleagues, Shedletsky says. Part of these artists' success is that they are indeed still working and have not given up their lifelong callings. They are ``engaged in the strongest work of their careers. They have each found the means to invent themselves creatively in a cultural milieu antagonistic to late self-discovery.''

There is an atmosphere of ``if only...'' about the exhibit: if only the timing had been different, if only art trends had not made one work seem blase or another unfashionable. And yet it seems that for some of the artists, now is the perfect time for recognition. ``Some felt a kind of vindication in the sense that `finally, this has happened,' '' Shedletsky says.

* After closing in Washington on Aug. 21, ``Still Working'' will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center (Oct. 22 to Dec. 23); Parsons School of Design/The New School for Social Research, N.Y. (Jan. 25 to March 15, 1995); The Virginia Beach Center for the Arts, Va. (April 8 to May 27, 1995); The Fischer Art Gallery, University of Southern California, Los Angeles (Sept. 6 to Nov. 8, 1995); and the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Ore. (Jan. 24 to March 27, 1996).

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