Arts Desk

What Should Go in the Corcoran Legacy Gallery?


Heaven help the curator who’s asked to assemble works for the post-mortem gallery of the soon-to-be Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art. If a plan is approved for the Corcoran to be absorbed by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, the institution’s Beaux-Arts building will contain something called the “Corcoran Legacy” gallery, a room containing works closely associated with the museum’s history.

What a daunting task, to summarize an institution’s history, meaning, and purpose through a selection of its works. (One made all the more difficult by a Corcoran collection—part local, part encyclopedic, part photography—that has always struggled to tell a story about itself.) Does picking over the bones begin with the Corcoran’s masterpiece American paintings—“Mount Corcoran” by Albert Bierstadt (1876–77) or “Niagara” by Frederic Edwin Church (1857)? Or is the Corcoran’s final testament better registered in its holdings of contemporary photography, in works by Sally Mann, Alec Soth, William Eggleston, and Carrie Mae Weems?

Arguably the Corcoran’s truest legacy—the significance that is most likely to be lost as its collection is vacuumed by the National Gallery of Art and partially redistributed to museums in the Washington area and beyond—is the role the museum played for local artists. Here are four works from the Corcoran collection that tell how the Corcoran served as a bridge between the local art scene and the federal institutions along the National Mall. Which isn’t a bad legacy, wherever these works end up.

Anne Truitt, “Insurrection” (1962) (above)

Kristen Hileman, a former curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, gets credit for organizing a retrospective on this D.C.-area Minimalist sculptor in 2010. The Corcoran gets credit for showing her work first.


Martin Puryear, “Blue Blood” (1979)

The Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibit of the D.C. native’s elegant modernist sculpture that traveled to the National Gallery of Art in 2008. But it was the Corcoran that began collecting his work early.


Sam Gilliam, “Light Depth” (1969)

Gilliam’s draped paintings blaze a trail leading from the Washington Color School through Minimalism. While few artists followed where he led, the Corcoran documented his journey, culminating in a career retrospective in 2005 and 2006.


Rockne Krebs, “Ice Flower” (1969)
Krebs’ Plexiglass sculptures were an important part of several shows the artist mounted at the Corcoran. But he was best known for projecting Robert Mapplethorpe’s work on the museum building in a 1989 protest following the museum’s decision to censor that artist’s show.

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  • Carol Harrison

    While I enjoyed reading the article, "What Should Go in the Corcoran Legacy Gallery?"
    Posted by Kriston Capps on Feb. 27, 2014.
    I completely object to Capps' assertion that "But he was best known for projecting Robert Mapplethorpe’s work on the museum building in a 1989 protest following the museum’s decision to censor that artist’s show." Rockne Krebs was a leading, internationally renowned artist, who had an extraordinary vision, and created a whole new way of working with lasers, light, space and dimensions, as sculpture. Please see for the accurate description of Rockne Krebs' multi dimensional legacy in the art world. Thank you, Carol Harrison

  • William F. Stapp

    Although it is inarguable that Anne Truitt, Martin Puryear, Sam Gilliam and Rockne Krebs should all have places of honor in any eventual Corcoran Legacy Gallery, they can hardly be characterized as mere "local artists." They have all won national and international recognition for their work, and are represented in major collections that are well outside the boundaries of the National Mall. Kriston Capps may remember the late Rockne Krebs for his projections of Robert Maplethorp's images on the Corcoran's wall in 1989, but those of us who saw his laser pieces remember innovative, conceptually daring works of extraordinary beauty and lasting power--albeit constructed purely of light and inherently transient. Krebs' multifaceted contributions as a highly innovative, pioneering artist who embraced and explored the aesthetic possibilities of new technologies are detailed on the website devoted to his career: