Patterson Getting Her Due

"Viola Patterson: Northwest Modernist" at the Woodside/Braseth Gallery, 1533 Ninth Ave., until Feb. 6. Gallery hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. 622-7243. --------------------------------------------------------------- Take a walk through 20th-century art with Viola Patterson. As the first woman born in Seattle to study art in Paris, she was an eyewitness to the rise and fall of modern art.

When she died in her Laurelhurst home in 1984 at the age of 86, Viola Hansen Patterson had met, known, or studied with many of the giants of modern art: Mexican muralists Pablo O'Higgins and Diego Rivera; French purists Amedee Ozenfant and Paul Bonifas; Russian constructivist Alexander Archipenko; cubists Lyonel Feininger and Andre L'Hote; and Mark Tobey, to whom she provided his first close set of friends.

Painter, sculptor and educator, Patterson is only now, eight years after her death, being given the thorough survey and recognition she deserves, thanks to Gordon Woodside and John Braseth, and guest curator Laura Brunsman, Cornish College of the Arts art history instructor.

Her work has never looked better. For anyone interested in a crash course in all the styles of modern art, this show is a must. She tried them all: Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Constructivism and Abstract Expressionism. She's been called derivative by unkind critics, but this survey demonstrates her discovery and discarding of styles until she found her own late in life. The flower gardens in her own back yard were her favorite subject, and these paintings in the show exude a definite glow.

She was also overshadowed by her far more famous husband, Ambrose Patterson (1877-1966), Seattle's first modern artist. He arrived on a boat from San Francisco in 1919, four years before Mark Tobey. Viola was 20 years his junior and they married in 1922 after she had been his student. They traveled to Europe in 1929 and revisited many of the haunts of her husband's youth, including the salons where he had exhibited with the greatest Impressionist of all, Claude Monet. She also trained in the studio of L'Hote that year.

Viola Patterson's contribution may not outlast her husband's, but we finally have a chance to see just how good she was. Brunsman has carefully selected only her best works; besides the florals, there is a beautiful 1929 self-portrait (the only one she ever painted), several light-filled sailboat paintings set on Lake Washington, three superb nudes, and three Cubist figure groups, tributes to her former teacher in Paris, L'Hote, and to the co-founder of Cubism, Georges Braque.

Her scale was small; her touch was delicate; her color sense was deft and unerring. Quiet rather than showy, she built each painting in traditional manner with sketches and studies, only then proceeding to the oil and canvas. A true midcentury modern as well as a child of the 19th century, Viola Patterson spent her life adapting modern art styles to convey her favorite subjects: the sea, the beach, the still life, the figure, and, above all, the garden at Belvoir Place, Seattle's first modern-architecture home designed by John Sproule and built in 1936.

When she tried "action painting" in the 1950s, the results were unconvincing. These are the weakest works in the exhibition. Viola Patterson was simply incapable of making a messy, drippy painting. Her touch was too confident to let it go wild. But her place in Northwest art is now secure.

Her last retrospective was in 1968 at the Henry Art Gallery on her beloved University of Washington campus. She did not paint much after that.

Warm, witty and wise, she commented on the new post-modern art shortly before her death: "It's a very confused period in art now. It's in between what was and what's to come. Everyone is on their own now. It's terribly hard."

To grasp how rich Seattle's history of modern art has been, there's no better place to start than this exhibition.