PRINT December 1967

Scale as Content at the Corcoran

THE CURRENT EXHIBITION OF Scale As Content at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is more important for what it promises and signifies than for what it actually is. It seems to be necessary to distinguish between the intention and attitude behind the show and the quality of the exhibition itself.

Eleanor Green, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran, who conceived the idea of the exhibition after discussions on scale acting as content with Al Held in the summer of 1966, states in her catalog introduction that “this is the first time that an American museum has requested three major artists to create an exhibition of works made especially for the museum’s space.” While I would myself ascribe the term “major” to only one of the three artists (Ronald Bladen, Barnett Newman and Tony Smith) who put aside other work to carry out the Corcoran’s commission, that the Gallery has helped these artists to execute large-scale works that would otherwise probably not have been realized, strikes me as a worthy undertaking. Practical as well as financial assistance was given the artists, with the Corcoran’s maintenance staff (praised by Bladen as being “thoroughbred carpenters”) helping Bladen and Smith put their pieces together. The Corcoran is to be commended for all of this, and also for bringing to Washington a unique view of the work of three of the most-discussed artists of today’s avant-garde.

However, when it comes to the results of the commission, my enthusiasm is qualified. For two of the sculptures, Smith’s Smoke and Bladen’s The X, seem to me too obviously designed to fill up a certain space, and limited by being, as it were, “outer-” rather than “inner-directed.” While impressive in scale (so much taller than human height), their actual size and actual proportions seem flat, deadpan, and somehow arbitrary; holding true, through readjustments and compromises, to a mere idea, shaped by this and this alone, the final form of these sculptures lacks the kind of precision and conviction that’s bestowed on a work of art by an emotion which declares “exactly this much and no more.”

Both pieces were in fact altered to better fit the Corcoran’s atrium. Bladen’s X was enlarged in width and depth; Smith’s sequence of eight-sided wooden struts, which could be extended indefinitely, is stopped short on one side because of the problem of fitting the struts between the atrium’s pillars. Neither piece seems to have a definite, convincing beginning or end (it strikes me that here there may be a similarity between “minimal” and “kinetic” art). Smith’s piece in particular, with its unconcealed hinges and the obvious gaps between the wooden triangular sides of its struts, came across to me as a nice, neat, clever exercise in basic design blown up to become a temporary “environment”—much like the type of construction one might find decorating a pavilion at a fair, or at an architectural convention. The same could perhaps be said of Bladen’s X, though it’s less satisfactory in terms of design: its upper arms seem so chopped off, and the relationship between the arms of the X and the central box which joins them is as timid and inert as that between Ad Reinhardt’s various red or blue rectangles.

This is not to say that Smith’s and Bladen’s sculptures at the Corcoran are not pleasing, or that they cannot be experienced in an interesting way as curious phenomena: they are, and they can be. However, for me, they are not very effective as works of art, and this inexpressiveness appears to me to stem from lack of feeling, from inexpressive design and unfelt proportions.

While at the exhibition, I recalled a remark I once heard a famous French Dominican liturgist make during a lecture on art and the liturgy: “Proportion is a spiritual thing.” Whether or not the word “spiritual” helps, proportion does seem to be of the utmost importance in art. The relative success or failure of a Kenneth Noland “hanging chevrons” painting seems to depend on exactly how much bare white of the canvas is left beneath the parallel Vees of color, on exactly how much color there is, to how much white (a problem that Noland escaped from, in changing to diamond-shaped canvases). And the strength of a good Newman painting seems to depend on a robust, earnest, felt relation between color-area and color-area. Proportion, relation of part to part, make or un-make the work as an expressive “thing in itself.”

In the light of all this, I think a significant comparison can be made between the way in which the Smith and Bladen sculptures came into being, through a compromise between the idea of the piece and the physical space of the Corcoran building, and Mrs. Green’s description of New-man’s involvement in the making of his welded metal piece, Broken Obelisk. “Although the work was roughly designed as a small cardboard maquette,” Mrs. Green writes, “the final adjustments of size and proportion were made during construction in a collaboration between the artist and the fabricating firm who engineered and executed the work. The critical decision of where the obelisk should be truncated was made by Newman himself when the sculpture was in process. This delicate cutting away to exactly the right volume determined the balance . . .” In other words, in the making of this piece (not executed in situ, not designed to fill a space), esthetic decisions by the artist came first, and practical or mechanical considerations came afterwards. The proportions of the final work were specifically decided upon by the artist in relation to that final work alone; they were not—like those of Smith’s Smoke or Picasso’s monumental Head at Chicago—merely an enlargement of the proportions of a much smaller model.

Newman’s Broken Obelisk fares much better in Washington than in New York (where the second copy of an edition of two is on show in the New York Park Department’s outdoor sculpture show). On Park Avenue, it’s dwarfed by the Seagram Building; on the corner of New York Avenue and 17th Street, it asserts itself effectively against the rounded corner of the Corcoran. Besides, only at its site in Washington does one “get the point” of its little joke—as one suddenly catches Newman’s inverted obelisk in abrupt juxtaposition with the peak of the Washington Monument over the trees.

While I would venture that Broken Obelisk is Newman’s most successful sculpture to date (the piece seems more solidly unified, the vertical monolith more tellingly related to its pyramidal base, the “ragged” edges less conspicuous and better subordinated to the whole, than was the case with Here I (To Marcia) and Here II), I have the feeling that its light-heartedness and good humor make this a piece in a minor, rather than a major vein. It’s a little bland, easy, comfortable, something of a relaxed, indulgent jeu d’esprit; its success as a work of art seems to happen at a slighter, lesser level than, for instance, Newman’s painting of 1951, Day One, now in the Whitney Museum.

However, Broken Obelisk has a positive aspect: like two immediately cheerful Newman paintings shown last season—Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow & Blue at the Sidney Janis Gallery, and the large vertical painting at the Expo pavilion—this sculpture seems indicative of a new, more optimistic mood in Newman’s work. It’s welcome news that this artist has gotten past the tragic, terrible aridity of his Stations of the Cross; one looks forward to future developments.

A change has also come over the Corcoran Gallery’s exhibition program during the last year; I had this in mind when I described the Scale As Content exhibition as signifying something over and above itself. Last season a new mood or attitude came to the fore in the Corcoran’s well-presented 30th Biennial Exhibition of American Painting, its large Jules Olitski show, and the establishment of a more selective “Washington artists” series, together with a new, carefully chosen “Washington Room” made up of acquisitions and loans. (Some enterprising exhibitions have also occurred, from time to time, in the new “Children’s Gallery.”) The Corcoran today is using far more discrimination and imagination in what it chooses to show, particularly in regard to contemporary art, than it did two years ago.

This adventurous change of tone is bodied forth in another current exhibition at the Gallery, of Recent Acquisitions. An interesting experiment has been tried here, and has come off: paintings of all periods have been hung together, in a way that surprisingly enhances all the work. The intermingling and juxtaposition of “unlikes“ brings out similar or contrasting good qualities; paintings that looked dull and weak when hung chronologically in the permanent collection become colorful and more individual here. A Richard Anuszkiewicz in oranges and greens brings out the sunset glow in a Washington Allston; brown, varnished 18th-century portraits by Charles Willson Peale and Robert Feke make the powdery colors of a Richard Pousette Dart dance and sparkle; a Marsden Hartley Berlin Abstraction and an early colonial portrait look superb together. The imaginative hanging makes all the difference—and here, as in Scale As Content, the Corcoran is to be saluted for its enterprise and initiative.

Andrew Hudson