Washington, D.C.

Corcoran Biennial

Corcoran Gallery

The 31st Corcoran Biennial abandoned its traditional juried selection this year under the direction of James Harithas, who limited both the number and choice of participants according to his unilateral decision. Congratulations are due Mr. Harithas for the administrative triumph of the Biennial—he organized the show around younger artists, mostly abstractionists of differing persuasions, and practically all unknown in the Washington area. Few of the 22 painters have been seen in one-man or even group shows, although several of the older participants have had previous exposure on a limited basis. The installation (one room to each artist’s group of works) provided ample space and opportunity to review each artist. Money for prizes will now be used for direct purchases. Harithas aimed for a general cross section of contemporary abstract painting among its lesser known practitioners; the geographical center of gravity was still New York and California, however.

Despite the boldness and courage of the organizational intentions and achievement, the Biennial was a rather oddly moderate esthetic and qualitative mélange, containing many fine works, but an equal amount of tentative, unresolved, or just pleasantly good-looking (though superficially impressive) large scale canvases and projects. This is the admitted, though often necessary danger of banking on young artists whose thinking may undergo radical transformations over short periods of time. But the show actually traversed quite a range: from the utter vapidness of Jo Baer’s bordered triptychs and blank dark-edged panels, to Bruce Nauman’s eccentric neon wiggles (extensions of his name and body parts), to the environmentally affective setups by James Van Dijk, Ben Berns, Angelo Savelli, or Richard Tuttle. Also featured were the hard-edged geometrics of Dean Fleming, Nassos Daphnis, and Clark Murray, as well as Ron Davis’s plastic paintings, the Monet-like misty color phenomena of William Pettet, Dan Christensen, and the more Expressionist colorism of Larry Poons, Darby Bannard, and Tom Holland. Fluid, particularized abstractions, ambiguously sensuous or atmospheric, were among the difficult, attractive, or challenging entries by Mike Goldberg, Lee Lozano, David Budd, and I. Rice Pereira, while color explorations in dots and grids by Peter Young and Bob Swain were also notable. Invitational or juried shows in the past have traditionally drawn from a wider range of styles and viewpoints, but both Pop, Op, Figurative, or anti-formal works were conspicuously absent from Mr. Harithas’ selection—avoiding the usual pall of mediocrity resulting from such democratized arrangements, but also risking the possibility that the young artists chosen are not really as innovative as they might seem in the specific esthetic context of the Corcoran’s Biennial or its customary audience.

Contextual, political, and administrative considerations aside, however, I found an array of absorbing and promising works to look at. Bob Swain, a New Yorker, showed two equilateral triangles and a vast rectangular assembled grid (180 x 360”) of spectrum gradations which advance his current experiments with expansive color volume. The blocks of luminous, saturated colors, rising and extending in channels of pure hues and intersecting admixed tints and tertiaries (olive, russet, blue-green and ochre in addition to his usual choice of brilliant magentas, oranges, yellows, blues and greens) form an utterly overwhelming rain-bowed wall which envelops the viewer in a total color space. From a distance a fluttering, delicate bending of the surface is apparent, an effect derived from the chromatic intervals between the abutting, joined blocks of different colors. David Budd’s three all black paintings were a marvelous contrast to Swain’s work, and in a curious way they are sensuous to the same extreme that sheer accumulations of saturated color can be. Far from the monkish purism of Reinhardt, Budd etches a graceful notched arabesque across a wide rectangular panel in his November 22, 1968, a kind of art-nouveau decadent elegance which is emphasized by the textural offsetting of the upper and lower zones of the field, indented with small strokes of shiny, glittering mars-black oil above, and with matte ivory-black below. Like some smoldering dark gem, the thick coatings of black reflect or absorb light and create a genuinely haptic sense of temperature change within the lateral flow of short, knifed strokes. Lee Lozano’s aerodynamic abstractions in steely greys, umbers, ochres, and comb textured rusts are made with separate panels, either spread broadly over a huge wall (Untitled, 1968, with four ring bands in fragmented rectangular sections) or bolt-assembled closely, but with the actual segments arbitrary to the painted forms (rotating sectors, projectile cone shapes, jet-stream channels). Tonal gradations add a note of unexpected softness and volume to these otherwise rigidly geometric, patently constructed paintings.

Dan Christensen’s free-wheeling loops, strands, and cloudy pastel mists sprayed with an air gun often give the impression of greatly magnified microscope slides of fibrous or atomized cellular substances. Random structures (bars, rectangles) float like hard-edged hallucinations across the hazy field of LOO-EE (1968), while a pearlescent aerated drift of suspended colored loaves and trails is the almost imageless trace of CB (1967–68). Christensen’s paintings are particularly interesting in the way that they suggest fleeting after-impressions of what once may have existed more intensely or more visibly within or upon the pictorial field . . . and they almost disappoint or elude, to that extent.

Even more seriously disillusioning for me were Ron Davis’s fiberglass and polyester multi-perspective structures. The gloppy blotted color embedded in the complex illusionistic systems of Cone (1968) or Lift (1968) encroach upon the ambiguity and complexity of the paintings to a point beyond a mere challenge to taste. There is something short of mystifying about their hideousness.

Richard Tuttle sets up some fascinating variations of the environment in which his work was exhibited. Tuttle’s dyed crinkled octagons and erratic polygons in outrageously lovely hues like chartreusey lime green, cerise pink or heliotrope violet are tacked onto the walls and ceiling like cocky, humorous nebulas or squashed, strung-out starfish above and below eye level—an unsettling, wryly haunting, but tough roomful of colors, pure shapes, spatial hijinks, and visual delectation.

If the collection of works exhibited seems less adventurous in sum than the esthetic and organizational shakeup which Mr. Harithas and curator Jim Pilgrim were aiming at the Washington public, I would still applaud their efforts and hope for a practical continuation of their attitude: that young, unpublicized, experimental artists deserve the kind of recognition and showcase which the Corcoran can provide for them. In this sense, it hardly matters whether or not all of the works were of the absolute, utmost quality (debatable criteria anyway) since the notion of masterpiece art implied by juried selection is and already has been outdated by a good deal of the art and attitudes of the participants in this year’s Biennial. That the Washington public has been called upon by the gesture and esthetics of such an exhibition to enlarge their awareness and perception of some very individualistic and untouted young artists’ work is the most modest, but important measure of the success and challenge of such a showing.

Emily Wasserman