Washington City Paper

Dec. 26, 2003 –
Jan. 8, 2004



Arts in Review 2003

Tightening the Beltway

By Glenn Dixon

This was the year the lousy economy caught up with the museum world—or so it seems from the perspective of someone trying to apply an arbitrary time tag to trends that lap over a 12-month span. This was the year the attendance-hungry Corcoran Gallery of Art went desperately vaudeville: Figuring that if the public likes impressionism, it’ll love impressionism that it can climb on like pigeons, director David Levy & Co. gave a major exhibition to Monet remodeler and Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson Jr., art’s most eloquent argument for a truly punishing estate tax.


Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik took flak in some quarters for writing, “This is the worst museum exhibition I’ve ever seen.” In private, he challenged me to come up with one to top it. Well, it’s been three months, and even though I summered in Santa Fe back in the mid-’80s, I still haven’t cracked that nut. Worst? Worst, although if the Corcoran ever gets around to its tabled celebration of the art of Paul McCartney, the discussion will be reopened, I’m sure.

Later in the fall, the Corcoran attempted to mend its image with Jim Sanborn’s Manhattan Project homage. (I know, I know: These things have been in the works for years, but this is how they look in viewer time.) Am I alone in thinking that Sanborn’s “Atomic Time” and Johnson’s “Beyond the Frame” were essentially the same show? Each started with a grabby subject guaranteed to draw eyeballs, then gussied it up with next-best-thing-to-being-there theme-parkery and stage-managed it all to within an inch of its life.

And each signals a growing museum interest in entertainment, which, you’ll recall, was a significant subtheme of “Fantasy Underfoot,” this year’s uneven Corcoran Biennial. All year, the Corc never quite got a handle on it. Either the entertainment was fine but the rigor, illumination, and complexity of good art were lacking (Johnson, Sanborn), or art got up to its usual navel-gazing tricks and entertainment products just happened to be inspiring its insular little reverie (the biennial).

The show that came closest to getting the balance right was the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “Work Ethic,” a lighthearted examination of art’s shift from object-production to experience-provision in light of similar developments in the larger economy. The survey was well-selected and -installed, especially given the tight quarters curators had to work with, but a themed group show lives or dies by its catalog, and failing to address the institutional support that skews art-world economics was unforgivable in this context.

Still, “Work Ethic”’s Erwin Wurm is a curatorial dream date in these straitened times, a possible ideal for the artist of the future. Thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” video, he’s got pop-culture name recognition and skews young. His rather friendly One Minute Sculptures don’t exist without audience participation. His materials—plastic bowls, rubber bands, etc.—are so cheap that they defy insurance. And with the cash you save, you can fly him in for a lecture—though be sure to schedule enough time or he’ll bitch about it from the podium.

Also using cheap materials, though in large enough quantities that a corporate donation of 2-liter sodas was welcome, was local sculptor Dan Steinhilber, who landed a “Directions” slot at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. If upon its announcement, the opportunity seemed somewhat premature, an assured installation dispelled initial doubts. Add in a show-stealing turn in Numark Gallery’s summer group exhibition, and Steinhilber has begun to deliver on his promise.

As that Hirshhorn outing demonstrated, siting a show in the lobby is a good way to draw viewers inside, and the anointment of local luminaries is a solid cost-cutting measure. You don’t have to fly anything in, and you can schedule the artist’s talk any time you like—it doesn’t have to coincide with the opening. (There was some grousing, however, about the Corcoran College’s artist-in-residence gig going to Sanborn, who normally resides across town.) Another way to go easy on the budget is to put your curators to work on stuff you already have on hand. After costly Gerhard Richter and Arte Povera blockbusters, the Hirshhorn retrenched with the museumwide “Gyroscope.”

The gimmick was that the show was always a work in progress—and it worked. Every visit brought new surprises. It was great to see the Giorgio Morandi room before it was marred by wall text, and where else can you scratch your head over why Pavel Tchelitchew was ever taken seriously? A few days ago, the blotchy walls behind some terrific late-’50s/early-’60s Ellsworth Kellys hadn’t yet been painted over, and it was also possible to watch the installation of a couple of Sol LeWitt wall pieces. At the Hirshhorn, there’s always something I try not to miss, however brief my visit. (Count your blessings, Washington; lines and fees rule out brief visits in other towns.) It used to be the Robert Irwin disc painting in the basement; now it’s Enrico Castellani’s tautly stretched White Surface 2 in the black-and-white room upstairs.

The National Gallery of Art’s spring Vuillard retrospective, by contrast, was a bungled, bloated affair (owing, I suspect, to catalogue raisonné shenanigans I never got to the bottom of), but lovely where it mattered. (“Vuillard, Intimiste: The 1890s” would have been near the top of my best-of list.) And in the fall, the NGA proved it could mount a brilliant small show by a big name: “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier” was all the stronger for its tight focus. As museums step away from the blockbuster, it could serve as a model of a smart way to cut back. The only liability is that viewers trained for the long march are reluctant to linger in just a handful of rooms.

Next year should be a big one for a bunch of local galleries, as Hemphill Fine Arts, Conner Contemporary Art, and G Fine Art move into roomier digs diagonally across 14th Street NW from Fusebox, and Numark grows into its new E Street NW space. But this year belonged to Fusebox. If in 2002, the gallery as a whole seemed somehow better than what was inside it, the exhibitions have since caught up, with shows by abstract painters from New York, L.A., and D.C., and a four-night collaborative projection-performance ranking among the year’s most exciting art-scene events.

“CENSUS 03,” the Corcoran College of Art–organized summer survey of rising and mostly local talent, was far too spotty, but it included three young artists—none a Fuseboxer, it should be noted—I agonized over leaving off my top 10 list. Maggie Michael and Graham Caldwell stole the show, she with large new paintings that took her “cloned” paint pours as points of departure, he with expansions on ideas he explored in an Addison/Ripley Fine Art solo that suggested glass may soon be leaving its craft associations behind for good. Steinhilber seemed to be coasting at “CENSUS,” saving his energies for the Hirshhorn.

Some of the very best things I saw this year—the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Philip Guston retrospective, the Guggenheim Museum’s “Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism,” Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West at Dia:Beacon, James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Mattress Factory—were out of town and thus ineligible, but here’s the cream of 2003 in D.C.:

1. “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting,” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. According to Richard Wilbur’s “Epistemology,” “We milk the cow of the world, and as we do/We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’” The cow here was painting itself, the dairy hand contemporary art’s foremost aesthete/agnostic.

2. “Thomas Gainsborough, 1727–1788,” at the National Gallery of Art. Gainsborough had been one of those canonical painters I figured I didn’t need to delve into, but there’s no gainsaying the elegant etiolation of his portraits. It’s in the enchantingly unconvincing fantasy landscapes that he tips his hand, however, revealing that he has minimal interest in deceiving his audience, being pleased simply to delight it.

3. “Joseph Mills: Inner City,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Some years ago, I criticized Mills for street photographs of drunks and cripples that seemed exploitative, almost predatory. But in the appropriate context, his purpose seems almost devotional, the infirmities and deformities of his subjects like stigmata, outward signs sought in kinship by an artist inwardly touched.

4. “Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828): Sculptor of the Enlightenment,” at the National Gallery of Art. From Washington and Jefferson to Molière and d’Alembert, the political and culture heroes of two nations came to life beneath Houdon’s calipers and chisel. Three busts of the aging Voltaire found him to be the embodiment of the era’s intellectual ideal: skeptical, rueful, witty, and wise.

5. “W.C. Richardson,” at Fusebox. The self-effacing Richardson says he’s content to keep doing the same thing he’s always done: figure-ground push-pulls brought about by color-pattern competition. But he’s doing it better than ever, in canvases of startling, musical intricacy.

6. “Colby Caldwell: [still life],” at Hemphill Fine Arts, and “Alpha-Arvonia,” at Fusebox. With heavy stretchers and digital traces, Caldwell positions his memory-obsessed Super 8 photography somewhere between painting and new media. Video shot through a boxcar door similarly situated the moving image as Chessie propelled it through four nights at Fusebox that passed all too quickly.

7. “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier,” at the National Gallery of Art. It’s a little horrifying to see Picasso holding his lover up to the light as though she were a rough gem he could cut a thousand different ways. You quickly grasp how someone in the grip of such genius comes to be an artist first, a human being second.

8. “Directions—Cecily Brown,” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Rauschenberg just wanted to erase de Kooning. Brown wants to replace him entirely, reanimating he-man, woman-hating action painting with forceful feminine erotics.

9. “Sylvan Lionni: Shine,” at Fusebox. Geometric abstraction cold, clean, and beyond pristine—until you notice the sociology and autobiography creeping in.

10. “Patrick Wilson: 1:00 P.M.,” at Fusebox. Finish fetish holds Light and Space in a smoggy, blissed-out luminist embrace.

Plus one ringer from the lecture hall:

Fred Tomaselli at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Not a show but a slide talk—funny, sharp, and a little crispy around the edges—that conveyed perfectly who Tomaselli is and where he comes from. I still think there’s a good chance his labor-intensive psychedelia is overrated, but his Floydian slip conflating “oblivion” and “the sublime” was a happy accident that yielded a thoroughly apt idea: “the oblime.” CP

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