Great museums have their own identity. For example, the Metropolitan Museum is the world's cultural warehouse. The Barnes Foundation and the Phillips Collection are testaments to the building of wealth in America and the collecting of modern art by two men with extraordinary taste.
For many years the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a part of the Smithsonian museum empire, has been identity-free. The Hirshhorn has never equaled the National Gallery of Art's prestige and has never become as beloved as the Phillips. It's long been a humdrum museum bunkered in an abominable Gordon Bunshaft building, with a so-so collection and a so-so exhibition schedule. Still, the Hirshhorn has always had great promise. Thanks mostly to its location, the Hirshhorn places most of its shows in the Top 50 of the Art Newspaper's annual worldwide exhibition attendance list. In the United States, only the New York museums are visited by as many people from as many places as the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn.
Now, quietly, the Hirshhorn's identity is emerging. Eighteen months into the reign of director Ned Rifkin, the Hirshhorn is becoming the American museum most interested in re-establishing contemporary art as an important part of cultural discourse. As the national museum of contemporary art -- as the only contemporary art museum on the National Mall -- the Hirshhorn has the potential to make contemporary art a part of popular conversation.
Enter "Gyroscope," a calendar-filler exhibition of rotating mini-shows from the Hirshhorn's permanent collection. In concept "Gyroscope" is similar to the Museum of Modern Art's "MoMA2000" series, that infamously bungled jumbles of curatorial gobbledygook that closed out the museum's 20th century. Fortunately, the Hirshhorn curators learned their lessons from MoMA's mistakes -- "Gyroscope" contains virtually no wall text, no grandly titled galleries, no series of exhibitions grouped around arbitrary years -- and the result is a show where the art speaks, not the curators.
Best of all, the show gives visitors an art experience that they will talk about and think about long after they've left the museum. The Hirshhorn has created a show that will create conversation.
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Once upon a time, contemporary art was an important part of American cultural identity. During the Cold War, federal agencies promoted American artists, mostly Abstract Expressionists, as examples of the kind of artistic freedom possible in an individualism-driven society. Within the realm of pop culture, contemporary art became part of fashion spreads in magazines and living artists were profiled and discussed in newsweeklies such as Life.
More recently, the discourse surrounding contemporary art has been reduced to a niche academic discipline in which obscure points of art theory are discussed by academics and virtually no one else. Contemporary art has only broken through into the mainstream when it has done something outrageous: Witness the Chris Ofili elephant dung absurdity from a few years ago (headline in Salon: "Modern Art is a Load of Bullshit") or the mini-scandal of the recent IRS investigations that made New York art dealing front-page news.
This is sad not just for the art world but for our culture at large. While it is probably ridiculous to expect contemporary art to compete with the publicity machines of Hollywood and celebrity culture, why shouldn't contemporary art be an important part of enlightened cultural discussion? Of the major magazines read by the culturati (the Atlantic, the Weekly Standard, the New Republic, Slate, Harper's, etc.), only the New Yorker features writing about contemporary art.
Even high-minded television outlets like PBS or 60 Minutes feature little on the visual arts. Cable channels that focus on the arts, such as Bravo or Arts & Entertainment (A&E), pay no heed to contemporary art. Museum shows are part of the cultural discussion only when long-dead titans such as Matisse or Picasso are featured in an exhibition.
Into this difficult climate steps Ned Rifkin and the Hirshhorn, determined to re-establish the relevance of contemporary art and by so doing create an identity for itself. I suggest that there are three ways a museum can create a presence: with the programs it schedules, with its exhibition schedule -- especially the exhibitions it originates-- and in acquisitions for its permanent collection.
The easiest (and cheapest) way to declare identity is with the programs the institution produces. In the last year the Hirshhorn has hosted talks by Catherine Opie, whose recent work engages the not-as-dichotomous-as-you-might-think subjects of gay leathersex and the gay family. Another recent artist lecturer was Fred Tomaselli, who uses illegal drugs in his work. What better way to provoke discussion about the drug war than with a Tomaselli painting, full of hemp leaves and other intoxicants, hanging seven blocks from the Capitol in the country's national museum of contemporary art?
The next layer of identity creation is a museum's exhibition schedule. The most flexible exhibition slot at the Hirshhorn is its Directions series, originally started by Rifkin when he was a Hirshhorn curator. Directions shows are held in one large gallery, and the series is devoted to shows of works by early-to-mid-career contemporary artists. The Hirshhorn's choice of Cecily Brown for a recent Directions show is stunning and laudable. Brown's paintings are about humankind's most timeless cultural topic: sex. Next month the Hirshhorn will open a Directions show of Dan Steinhilber, whose art creates beauty from the same seemingly dreary mundanity that Seinfeld mined for sitcom laughs.
Having been at the Hirshhorn only 18 months, Rifkin hasn't had a chance to create an exhibition schedule beyond Directions. He brought the Gerhard Richter show to Washington, an important exhibition that raised questions about beauty, representation and what painting could be in contemporary art. Another earlier exhibition was the traveling Arte Povera show organized by the Walker Art Center and the Tate Modern, which had been scheduled before Rifkin re-joined the Hirshhorn.
The final area in which a museum can craft its identity is in its acquisitions. Under Rifkin's predecessor, James Demetrion, the Hirshhorn barely collected photography. Photography is the most accessible medium in art, the medium in which most Americans have some level of personal experience. Under Rifkin and chief curator Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn has been especially active in addressing the staggering gaps in its photography collection. Rifkin has acquired works by Sam Taylor-Wood, Chan Chao, Terry Evans, Matthew Barney, Thomas Ruff, Roni Horn, Raghubir Singh, Thomas Struth and Richard Barnes. In addition to building a photography collection, the Hirshhorn has added several other pieces that speak to contemporary culture: a drug-filled Tomaselli painting, for example.
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Recent acquisitions are especially relevant in "Gyroscope," which includes 14 of the 53 works the Hirshhorn has acquired under Rifkin. (More are likely to cycle into the show before it closes.) As a whole, "Gyroscope" soars and flops in similar measure. At a museum show a viewer can roll one's eyes at lousy work, wonder why on earth some curator thought this was a good idea, take a deep breath and move on to the next gallery. The "next galleries" at the Hirshhorn provide plenty enough rewards to make Gyroscope a good show.
First, the problems. Too many galleries are over-stuffed. A third-floor gallery, titled "Modern Melancholia" is crammed with a mish-mash of ten works and artists (including Eric Fischl, Carroll Cloar, Walt Kuhn, Edwin Hopper, George Grosz, Ernst Barlach and Thomas Eakins) forced together by a "MoMA2000"-esque theme.
The same problem resurfaces in another gallery dominated by Anselm Kiefer's The Book, a monumental work that, like so many Kiefers, overwhelms all the other art around it to such an extent that it requires its own space. Other galleries are filled with third-rate works so as to complete a theme. The first gallery on the second floor addresses the way art museums display images of women. A clever Michelangelo Pistoletto, Venus of the Rags, is partnered with Martial Raysse's Made in Japan, and Masami Teraoka's AIDS Series/Tattooed Woman and Flying Saucers.
The Pistoletto is an artistic example of a crossover hit; it is true to its Arte Povera origins while appealing to other audiences. The other two works mostly serve to demonstrate that while some museum acquisitions are great ideas, many more are not. On their own, the Pistoletto, the Fischl and the Kiefer are each compelling pieces that touch on interesting issues and experiences in beautiful ways. Unfortunately a viewer's ability to address them is adversely affected by the way they are presented.
In other rooms the Hirshhorn's collection looks sadly dated. On the third floor a gallery of works includes a strong Constantin Brancusi, but is dominated by maudlin geometric abstraction, including works by Ilya Bolotowsky, Charles Biederman, and Ben Nicholson. In the third floor window room, the room with a view of the National Mall, a Zoltan Kemeny brass wall relief looks like something left behind by a time machine. Not surprisingly, many of the dated works are from one of several Joseph Hirshhorn bequests that form the foundation of the Hirshhorn's collection.
But in its best spots, "Gyroscope" provides both thoughtfulness and plain ol' fun. Most notably, "Gyroscope" features the best gallery currently installed in any Washington art space, a precious room of three Giorgio Morandi still-lifes. Curator Judith Zilczer installed this Morandi room with the restraint I wish was present in other places in "Gyroscope": the three Morandis, none much bigger than a couple pieces of paper, benefit from having a full-sized gallery all to themselves. One painting is on each of three walls. The remaining walls are left naked, but are lit. It is a perfect room that allows great paintings to look like great paintings. Similarly blissy is the entire gallery devoted to Wolfgang Laib's shimmering Pollen from Hazelnut.
Lots of works in the show provoke thoughts about the culture outside the Hirshhorn bunker and do it with beauty and grace. Henry Moore's Falling Warrior with its uncomfortable, pained body positioning reminded me that every day Americans are dying in Iraq. The shield held by the weaponless warrior made me think about how we've fought a war of aggression and occupation, rather than the kind of war of defense and preservation. Works by Jeff Wall, Alfredo Jaar and Chan Chao make me think about how we as first-worlders see people in less fortunate countries.
No work impacted me more personally than Fischl's The Funeral: A Band of Men (2 Women): Abandonment!, a film screen-proportioned painting that addresses the experience of loss, mourning and saying goodbye. In the painting a family gathers to scatter the ashes of a woman, presumably the wife of the man in the painting and the mother of the younger people in the painting. I lost my mother when I was about the age of the boy in the left-hand side of the painting. This painting completely absorbs me into its events -- it provokes memories of feelings and experiences. The body posture of the boy on the left? It was mine. His air of disconnection and distance from everything else going on around him? Also mine. The look on his face is one I carried around for months when I was his age. The three times I've stood in front of The Funeral I've felt like it was my painting.
When "Gyroscope" works, that's why -- it gives us art that we're able to make ours, experiences that we're able to mentally take home with us. This is when "Gyroscope" and the Hirshhorn are at their best, when they're able to make contemporary art a part of our lives. Again.