Faculty I Envy

February, 2013

Washington -- It's nice to know one's place and occasionally be put into it. That's the treatment I get from Professor Luciano Penay of American University. Mr. Penay, a retired professor of art, knows I am good for hauling around paintings, prints, and installations in my ten year old van; he knows I am good at following instructions when doing a hang; he knows I am good with a hammer and picture hooks; and at cleaning up.

Mr. Penay is a curator and master of the hang. No one can juxtapose art works, to get the most from them, better than he. But he also has good (and occasionally great) art to work with: the creations of many of his own students. And lest you think these "students" are youngsters, many of them go back decades with him.

Which is why I admire and envy him. What faculty can say they still have a following, over decades, that meets as often as weekly? The followers are known as Group 93.

I am not an artist, just someone who helps, observes, and admires. And who smiles inwardly when some of the students and my fellow helpers (who may in other lives be foreign service officers, diplomats, engineers, or who knows what) are put in their place by Mr. Penay in the process of hanging or taking down a show.

One student is shown deference above the others. She paid for the building in which the group meets, the Katzen Arts Center, a magnificent gallery and museum on Ward Circle. It stretches along Massachusetts Avenue longer than the Kennedy Center stretches along the Potomac. It is a treasure in a city of great galleries such as the Corcoran, the Phillips, and the National Gallery of Art. Myrtle Katzen is a member of Group 93. Her love of painting inspired the building.

Myrtle wears the deference lightly. She welcomes criticism of her works from Mr. Penay and the other Group 93 artists. In group shows, her works are interspersed with others. Sometimes they sell, sometimes not. Collectors at the last Group 93 show, buying works for their quality as much as their name, selected from (among others) Michael Graham, Joan Birnbaum, Claudia Vess, Lucy Blankstein, ...and Myrtle Katzen.

The Washington Post in the past year has finally discovered great art locally, and great stories that go with it. Good for them. The Group 93 story is yet untold, but overdue. And it's not just a local story: this building, this professor, this benefactor, and this group link the local to the global. Some Group 93 artists also show internationally.

When not hanging, Luciano Penay and I have some good conversations about Lincoln, Nebraska. He came from Chile (where he still spends part of each year) to study in Lincoln in the late 1940s. Luciano lived in the YMCA at 14th and P Streets and washed dishes at a Greek cafe to earn tuition money. He loved the autumn weather, until it turned to winter. Then he sought less extreme climes. At AU he is in his element.