When the Phillips Collection announced that it was organizing a small retrospective of works by Nicolas de Staël, the New York artists I talk to all the time believed that this would be a show well worth the trip down to Washington, D.C.1 De Staël—who was born in St. Petersburg in 1914 and committed suicide in France, where he'd spent his adult life, at the age of forty—was an international star in the art world of the Fifties. Then his star faded fast. Anyone who arrived on the scene after his last retrospective, which came to the Guggenheim in 1966, has only a fragmented view of the oeuvre that he produced in just over a decade. Yet many of us have seen paintings of quality here and there: the earth-toned abstractions, with their basket weave of trunk-like forms; the later landscapes, with their flat areas of bolder, sometimes high-keyed color. And seeing a few paintings could make one want to see more of the work of...


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