Washington, DC

“34th Biennial of Contemporary American Painting”

Corcoran Gallery of Art

While the Whitney fails in both intention and execution, the Corcoran Gallery of Art's “34th Biennial of Contemporary American Painting” with fairly justifiable and workable plans is still a disappointment. It does everything you wish the Whitney would do, but badly and with flair.

The size and installation are manageable. Fifty artists in seven spacious galleries and the two-story atrium gives almost everyone enough spate. And 50 works seems like the limit; it is a number you can think about. In addition there is a fairly sensible selection process (if such a thing is possible): 25 artists have been chosen from previous Biennials (the Corcoran looks after its own); 25 are new to the Biennial (but is not afraid to try something new). For the most part, guest curator (and former director) Gene Baro was responsible for selecting the first group, while current director Roy Slade chose the new artists.

Slade takes complete charge of things in a lengthy catalogue essay which might nave served as some sort of explanation for the show, but which reads more like a class letter cum autobiography. He states about six times that the Biennial is a “celebration of painting.” In between these statements he makes a few pronouncements about painting: the painting-is-dead issue is a dead issue; Picasso is not as important as Matisse because he was involved with Renaissance space; the bigness of America has influenced the bigness of its art (“a brave new wodd which encourages a brave new art”). He mentions his youth in Wales, his arrival in the States. He quotes former directors' introductions to previous Biennials, his own introduction to last year's and excerpts from other articles he has published. There are a few flourishes about the joys of painting: “Painting will continue to surprise and stimulate. Painting today is diverse and many styles abound. Painting reflects the artist's joy of painting, the magic and the myth of the mark. . . . Painting is mark, magic, myth and so much more.” Slade is eager, unlike the Whitney, to take full, personal responsibility for the selections, if not to align the Corcoran with the very survival of American painting, I mean Painting, itself. But finally he never establishes the premise for the artists chosen, except for generalizations about their commitment and their “fond associations” with the Corcoran. Slade's enthusiasm is, in its less egocentric moments, sort of appealing, but he needs an editor in the worst way. As it turns out, his prose seems to match a lot of the painting in the exhibition, which is also vacuous and extravagant.

It is a crazy, colorful show, which someone characterized as “strictly General Motors.” Eleven of the 50 artists, mostly repeaters, are from the Emmerich Knoedler (neé Rubin) orbit, which is something of a high percentage, conglomerately speaking. Their painting seems de rigueur for every American painting show from Boston to Houston and it is a depressing kind of monopoly. I often felt particularly with the several works extending over 15' in length, that I was looking at the latest models in opulent, unabashed bad taste and that esthetic judgment was simply inappropriate—the way it is' inappropriate when you see a magenta Cadillac with exceptionally high fins. This show seemed to have a lot of magenta and a lot of fins. Paintings which seemed particularly finned or magenta were those by Frankenthaler, Wofford, Dzubas, John Walker, Alvin Loving, Poons, and Albert Stadler. Ron Davis, whose space is nothing if not Renaissance, is in something of a decline; his painting was mainly pink. Stella (who probably did the last interesting thing with magenta) and Held were represented by weak paintings when they needn't have been. There was the requisite Olitski which looked like German chocolate cake icing on top of which blue marks seemed to indicate where it should have been cropped. Motherwell's black, modest Plato's Cave was a welcome relief to all this; I didn't particularly like it but it looked relatively dry and thoughtful. Diebenkorn and De Kooning looked the best among the returning set, while Joan Mitchell looked mediocre and Hartigan and Brooks worse than that. Nolan was well represented by a mostly solid stripe painting from 1970, one of the few large paintings in the exhibition which didn't seem inflated.

Gene Davis and Sam Gilliam, both asked back, executed special commissions for the exhibition and contributed to the preponderance of magenta. Davis painted the Corcoran's rotunda with wide candy-colored stripes, an interesting but unsuccessful experiment which lookedsomething like an ad agency. Gilliam filled an entire gallery with three immense loops of painted canvas, each of a slightly different color combination. Gilliam's painting has improved; it looks less like tie-dye, but, to paraphrase Frank Stella, all that canvas gets me down. Because even though Gilliam uses paint, it's still the droopy material which remains most assertive and it doesn't assert, it just droops.

Ed Moses also built a large piece in situ, more a structure than a painting. It was a large plasterboard wall painted pale green held 8' off the floor by 2“ x 4” wall studs. A section 4' square was notched out of the upper right corner and a piece of white plywood of equal size was attached to the wall, in line with the notch. As with Davis, this didn't seem too successful, but at least it was intriguing and made me wonder what Moses was after and what his next piece might be like.

Like Motherwell, some realists provided dry, thoughtful relief to the general thrashing around. This was particularly true of Lindner, Nesbitt, Close and Pearlstein. On the other hand, Paul Sarkisian's black-and-white life-size painting of a country store front looked sentimental, like Norman Rockwell without people. Warhol exhibited a terrific and large Mao. Sol Lewitt covered four walls of upper atrium with one of his better drawings and widened the Corcoran's concept of painting. Jennifer Bartlett and Joan Snyder both exhibited extremely interesting pieces which indicated important shifts in their work. I preferred Dorothea Rockburne's Neighborhood from 1973 to the work she showed at the Modern lastfall. Marilyn Lenkowsky's painting was even better than the one at the Whitney but was not given enough room to show what it can do to a wall (without being 20' across).

Other artists included in the exhibition were Robert Indiana, Tom Wesselmann, Ann Truitt, Michael Heizer, Jack Tworkov, Alan Cote, Ludwig Sander, Robert Hudson, William Wiley, Alan Shields, Tom Holland, Terence La Noue, William Conlon, Gary Hudson, Jake Berthot, Richard Anuszkiewicz, William Dutterer and Steve Sorman.

This show is more fun and much better than the Whitney, but it is not nearly as interesting as it should have been. And while some of Slade's choices are more adventurous than Baro's they tend in toto to stick to the old guard or those who imitate it. American painting is livelier than this. There are obvious omissions: why look at Indiana or Wesselmann when Lichtenstein still paints up a storm every fourth painting or so? Ellsworth Kelly's geometry is much more significant than Anuszkiewicz's or Sander's. The younger artists should have included Marden and Swain (who has shown here before), and could have included painters like Joe Zucker and Elizabeth Murray. But the main failure is that of rethinking and revising the older artists, the failure to include people who have been working for awhile, anywhere from 15 to 40 years, and who are not so “de rigueur.” If Tworkov and Mitchell are included, much less Hartigan and Brooks, why not Philip Guston, who is doing his best paintings now? Other possibilities are Ralph Humphrey, Alex Katz, Al Jensen.

There are plenty of others, both among previous Biennial exhibitors and artists who are new to the Corcoran, whose work would have greatly improved this exhibition and truly revealed, as Slade put it, that “many styles abound.”

Roberta Smith