Washington

Washington

The end of last season and the beginning of this one have seen a reshuffling––or clarification––in the relationship of Washington’s various museums of American and contemporary art to one another. The National Collection of Fine Arts after a quiet period of preparation opened up its new quarters in the old Patent Office Building last May, and has commenced its first season there. The Corcoran Gallery of Art has followed up the announcement of changes in its staff and the creation of an additional board of governors with the news of a merger between itself and the smaller Washington Gallery of Modern Art. The latter, a bold, adventurous step, dearly sets up the Corcoran as committed to contemporary and experimental art (over and above the historical aspects of its collection), giving it a role quite different from that of the N.C.F.A.

The sense of its national responsibility hangs a little heavily on the N.C.F.A. A government museum from its first founding, dependent on Congress for most of its funds, its choice of what art it should show or support seems motivated by politically “democratic” ideals rather than by critically selective standards. A wish to appear unbiased and to show itself as “representing all of the country” has led it, on the one hand, to shy away from giving one-man shows to living artists (if they are not septuagenarians firmly established in the American art history books) and, on the other hand, to appoint museum personnel from different regions of the country, turn by turn, as commissioners responsible for selecting American art for the international biennials. (It is thus likely, if the Sao Paulo and Venice Biennials continue, that we shall see more shows of provincial, minor American art representing this country abroad.)

Nevertheless, this false democratic ideal (false in relation to art, which is never spread evenly over the globe like frosting on a cake, but always conglomerates in one or two centers, and which is aristocratic in its very nature) should not blind us to some positive merits in the N.C.F.A.’s approach. Its uncritical presentation of this nation’s art lets in good things along with the poor and mediocre: if one looks, there are enjoyable and, at times, exemplary items to be found—in the S. C. Johnson “Art: USA: Now” collection of American painting (mostly of 1959–61), for example, donated to the N.C.F.A., a modestly successful Avery, a good Kelly, a good Stuart Davis, a more recently added Hofmann; in the Neuberger collection, shown at the N.C.F.A. last summer, an excellent small Pollock and 1946 Gottlieb pictograph, good examples of Diebenkorn, Bischoff and Park, a very fresh Dickinson, an idiosyncratic Avery self-portrait of 1941, de Kooning’s Marilyn Munroe of 1954; in the N.C. F. A.’s growing collection of American art of the past, a small treasure trove in its 17 Ryders, the largest holding anywhere of this artist’s paintings.

Both the Johnson and the Neuberger collections well represent the N.C.F.A.’s “all-inclusive” view (much as the Whitney Annuals represent the Whitney Museum’s similar outlook), a view without passion or salt, like an art history written without criticism. This kind of art history is another of the N.C.F.A.’s ideals—and, again, it leads to an approach which has some virtues—as we shall see over the course of the years as the N.C.F.A.’s library and research facilities are built up. Many curious and valuable deposits are likely to find their way there, as well as to the neighboring National Portrait Gallery (along the other side of the same building), whose opening show of depictions of presidents and famous Americans displayed, behind the Baltimore Museum’s Lipchitz head of Gertrude Stein, letters to her from Lipchitz, Picasso and Scott Fitzgerald. Our task is to preserve, the N.C.F.A. seems to say: let the critic or artist or appreciator sort out what is interesting or useful to him from among our various objects, and make head or tail of them. And as a preserver, the museum doesn’t lack enterprise; it steps in where it feels needed, committing itself to responsibility for sending American exhibits to the biennials when that responsibility falls vacant, giving assistance to the Cooper Union Museum when that Museum is in danger of closing. No doubt the N.C.F.A., still very young in its role of a big national museum, envisaged as being at the start of a long-term development by its director, David Scott, will undertake as many more such preservative projects in the future as it is able.

The Corcoran’s re-formation and new image of itself point to an increasing identification not only with contemporary art, but also, more specifically, with Washington art and with “the young generation.” Over the past year, the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, now to be known as the Corcoran Gallery’s Dupont Center, has shown more local art than ever before, giving over its space for three weeks to artist-musician Lloyd McNeill for an art-with-music “Intercourse”; showing local children’s art and plans for the Georgetown waterfront by the young architects Douglas Michaels and Robert Fields; presenting the first-ever exhibition of ·a laser-beam “sculpture without object” by sculptor Rockne Krebs; and organizing (in conjunction with the Corcoran) a refreshingly comprehensive show of Gene Davis’s work of the past ten years. In addition, it inaugurated, under its new director, Walter Hopps, an ambitious program of “Artists’ Fellowships,” obtaining grants for Michaels, Fields, Krebs, painter Sam Gilliam and photographer Joe Cameron, and setting up workshops for them and other interested artists and students to work in. The Corcoran intends to continue these and similar programs in its new Center, and has appointed Hopps its Director of Special Programs, to direct and supervise them.

Other new Corcoran staff appointments are: Aldus H. Chapin, Executive Vice-President of the Corcoran Trustees and Chairman of the New Board of Governors, who will have general charge of the administration of the Gallery and the Corcoran’s Art School (to eventually become a separate entity from the Gallery); James Harithas, Director of the Gallery; John W. Lottes, Director of Planning and Development; Moussa M. Domit, Assistant Director of the Gallery; James F. Pilgrim, Curator of American Art. Perhaps the most important aspect of this new staff is that their average age is 33––that is, they are the same age, or only slightly older than the young generation of post-“Color School” Washington artists now emerging. (All except one of the local art critics are also the same age.) Thanks to this common youthfulness, the general sympathy, interest in, and enthusiasm for local art at the Corcoran and its new Dupont Center are likely to grow in the future: already, Harithas and Hopps have built up an unusually close dialogue between the artists and the museum personnel.

The W.G.M.A.’s Morris Louis show of 1967 possibly marked a turning point in local recognition of Washington art. However, even before then, the Corcoran had taken up local art in a serious, committed way, with a more selective, more importantly staged series of one-man shows, which it subsequently backed up with the creation of a continually changing “Washington Room” made up of loans from the artists along with items from the collection. That the two museums were pursuing a parallel course, and growing toward each other in terms of aims and ideals, became more apparent last season, with their collaboration over the Davis exhibition (the very large paintings were hung at the Corcoran, where they are still on view, and the smaller and earlier works were shown at the W.G.M.A.) and with further collaboration in the presentation at the Corcoran by the W.G.M.A. of the musical groups “The United States of America” and “Sunra.” The present merger has thus happened very smoothly (several trustees of the W.G.M.A. will be elected to the new board at the Corcoran; the members of the one museum automatically become members of the other; the W.G.M.A.’s small collection, largely duplicated at the Corcoran, has been sold to the Oklahoma Art Center to provide funds for the Dupont Center’s activities).

By fortuitous coincidence, the first exhibitions at each museum this season—the last exhibitions mounted independently and on show at the time of the merger—were both of work by younger, less well-known Washington painters. The W.G.M.A.’s show (entitled, misleadingly, “Group Seven,” for the artists do not belong to a group at all) was disappointing, with only two interesting works, Robert Budd’s Mostly Rose, a large, stately color-area painting, almost like a marriage between Frank Stella and Carol Summers, and Tracks, a poured painting with more surging, deeper color by Willem de Looper. The rest—paintings and constructions by Ron Bishop, Edgardo Franceschi, Susan Holland, Breton Morse and George On—fell into gimmickry or remained at the level of expressionless formal exercises.

The Corcoran’s show, “Washington 1968 New Painting: Structure,” of only four artists, fared much better, for two of the artists showed that they were capable of exploring an idea and maintaining inspiration through a group of paintings. These were Robert Newmann, with a group of square-format, hard-edge paintings of arrow shapes interlocking with an ambiguous suggestion of volume—two of which succeeded very well; and Michael Clark, whose smaller shaped canvases that are at one level an isometric rendering of an arrangement of colored boxes suggestive of a honeycomb seemed to me again, on this showing, the most tenaciously provocative and demanding work to have emerged in Washington over the past few years.

Clark’s paintings are at once baffling and remote; their geometric “illusion” gets hard to read, becoming more like a pattern in the middle of the grids, away from the shaped edge, and fades, as one looks at them, before a deeper awareness of them as “all-over” paintings: the “forward” squares begin to hover out front, like Pollock skeins, ambiguously on the same canvas and yet not on the same imaginary plane as the rest of the painting. Clark’s limitation of his colors (to three shades of green, or blue, or yellow) also makes several of the paintings difficult to grasp, at first, especially when the three shades are paler and closer together. (I suspect that his paintings would look better, singly, or in a smaller room, than they did at the Corcoran, where they tended to conflict with each other, and were rather drowned on the large wall.) As for the other two young artists at the Corcoran, Carroll Sockwell’s “minimal” arrangement of two narrow canvases in an upside-down “L” seemed too easily arrived at; and Ken Wade’s very diverse group of zigzag paintings showed him searching around for something to say, with as yet no grasp at all of color.

Faced with these two exhibitions, one might well question the merit of giving important museum coverage to young artists—especially when their work is obviously not up to it, when they have not yet arrived at a way of painting that is expressive, or their own. Should museums try to become talent spotters? Or should this role be left to the commercial art galleries? The answer to these questions has to be, for Washington, yes, and no. For with only two commercial galleries in town committed to new and avant-garde work, the museum exposure of local art fills a large gap. It has brought some artists to the attention of the public for the first time; it has kept the work of others in the public eye, and brought about changes of view.

For the Corcoran, “Washington 1968 New Painting: Structure” fulfills another function: it marks the debut of the newly renovated upstairs front galleries. Now, with white walls straight up to the ceiling, daylight lighting, and additional lighting placed high up inside the skylights, it’s possible to appreciate the space and size of these galleries and their general congeniality to paintings (when the Corcoran manages, as it plans, to install a new heating and air-conditioning system, and remove the central radiators, they will be even grander). This renovation is one new touch in a long series of alterations and experiments at the Corcoran, which are gradually bringing the ambience of the building to life in a wonderful way. Still surviving there from last year’s “Scale as Content” show, Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk points up and is pointed up by the rounded corner of the building’s exterior; Tony Smith’s Smoke fills one vast end of the atrium, while Paul Feeley’s tall, nine-piece Sculpture Court, also on loan, towers in the other; two of the Gallery’s best Sargents now adorn, in a surprisingly effective and imaginative way, the lower walls of the marble staircase (earlier this summer, Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave held delightful court at its foot); most recently, seven Nolands, four Louises, a large Kline, an early de Kooning and a Howard Mehring loaned from Washington collector Vincent Melzac, together with the Gallery’s Rothko and Sander, have been placed around the upstairs balcony in an exhilarating progression that enlivens that space as I’ve never seen it before. With each new change, the Corcoran becomes a more visually exciting place to visit.

Something else also exciting happened in October: the opening show of new sculpture by J. L. Knight at the Jefferson Place Gallery. Having worked through the influence of Baskin, Chadwick, Caro and Tony Smith, among many others, and having, on the way, mastered the craft of almost every sculptural medium, Knight has now come up with something truly original and truly her own. The new works are deceptively simple; and, at first sight, they seem made in the wrong medium. Surely, one thinks, these should be in metal, and painted (à la Caro). It is only later that one begins to enjoy the annoyance of the natural wood grain, and to appreciate the fact that this as much as the quietly wild proportions of their parts, is essential to the sculptures’ character and quirky obstinacy. Where before Knight carved or modeled representations of animals, now she gives us the essence of an animal gesture (the stealthy stretching of a paw) in the laminated curve of the long piece, For Real, that sneaks across the floor. Two other works, bending up from the floor, Pepper’s Piece with its tall vertical and the thicker August, also struck me as remarkable; Knight’s Block One, slightly irregular and with varied grain texture, was much more than “minimal.” Seeing an artist break out like this, in such an inspired way, one wants to cheer.

Andrew Hudson