Major architectural statements are not encouraged here in Washington, D.C. But don't tell the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which earlier this summer selected Frank O. Gehry as architect for its long-planned, often-delayed extension to Ernest Flagg's landmark 1897 building. The 140,000-square-foot Gehry addition will house the Corcoran's school and museum staff, leaving the art where it belongs in reclaimed and renovated galleries.
Changes to historic buildings like the Corcoran must run the gauntlet of the Fine Arts Commission, where success often means surviving death by a thousand cuts. Initial responses to Gehry's presentation, which shrewdly included a "concept" but no finished plan, have been uncharacteristically positive. Perhaps Corcoran director David Levy has timed it right, and the town is finally ready for its first architectural innovation since I. M. Pei signed on for the National Gallery's East Wing.
The Corcoran also faces that other, more predictable hurdle -- money. At least $40 million needs to be raised, and probably more. But the prospect of a Gehry design seems to have stimulated the attention of some of Washington's largest and most generous donors. Among them is Calvin Cafritz, chairman of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation (which contributed $10 million to the National Gallery of Art's new $13-million sculpture garden), who was in attendance for the many Gehry launch events.
The Corcoran hopes to break ground in fall 2001. In the meantime, the museum continues to pursue a bifurcated curatorial program: search constantly for the next blockbuster while attempting to fill nooks and crannies with smaller, populist modernist or historical shows.
The institution is also in the midst of a search for a replacement for chief curator Jack Cowart, who resigned this summer to become director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. His swan song, an exhibition of Lichtenstein's sculpture, has foundered at the box office, ostensibly because most visitors have refused to pay the special $6 entry fee for the Corcoran's two summer exhibitions. (They usually suggest a $3 donation.)
But people have been flocking to see "Progaganda and Dreams," a provocative contrasting of Soviet and American "official" photographic viewpoints in the 1930s. Fall pairs the touring "To Conserve A Legacy" with the homegrown "Annie Leibovitz: Women." Leibovitz's glam photographic style is no stranger to D.C. -- she enjoyed a Portrait Gallery survey in 1991.This exhibition claims to break ground with the singularity of its focus and by interspersing the famous with the anonymous. Anyway, the Corcoran has always done well with photography.
Adventure at the Hirshhorn
The Corcoran seems to have ceded the avant-garde territory to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which has seized the initiative with venturesome programming, assiduous cultivation of collectors and community outreach to area artists unheard of by a Smithsonian museum. Summer sees a traveling show of Brice Marden's stylish, overly decorative recent paintings paired with "Noli Me Tangere" -- a recently opened exhibition by the hot British artist Sam Taylor-Wood.
Taylor-Wood's installation consists of a solitary, enormous video projection of a man who appears to hold up the world. For those familiar with Taylor-Wood's dialogue-heavy, setting-specific personal dramas, this simple work involving a circus acrobat may seem to be little more than a sight gag. As a rule, circuses and contemporary art haven't coexisted well (except in Bruce Nauman videotapes), and this work is no exception.
This fall the Hirshhorn celebrates its 25th anniversary with a much more ambitious and risky survey exhibition. Featuring more than 40 artists, "Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century" verges on the Chinese menu approach of shows like the Whitney Biennial. While the title testifies to a reassertion of notions of "beauty" in today's art world, the rather mainstream, European-inflected roster of artists, ranging from the dead and famous (Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein) to younger and more recently emerged artists like Jim Hodges and Pippilotti Rist, seems problematic. In other hands this early entry in the millennial shows would be the Whitney Biennial -- a hodgepodge -- but co-curators Neal Benezra and Olga Viso promise to make it an interesting argument.
Expansion Pains at the NMAA
As recently reported in these pages, the National Museum of American Art, along with its Siamese sister, the National Portrait Gallery, is also preparing to enter the next millennium with a top-to-bottom renovation (see Artnet News). To this end, the NMAA has also been busy in the real estate market. These two Smithsonian museums are located off the Mall, in a downtown corridor that is finally booming after decay that has lasted since the riots following Martin Luther King's assassination.
Since all feasible sites for NMAA expansion are already under development, the Smithsonian Institution, after several false starts, has decided to pay retail -- $86 million -- for someone else's gut renovation, purchasing the 1909 Victor Building, now being modernized just one block from the NMAA. Like the Corcoran, the Smithsonian plans to create extra exhibition space by subtracting staff offices (and the Archives of American Art) from the existing building and depositing them across the street.
The NMAA and its Portrait Gallery closes Jan. 3, with plans to reopen in 2003. It is winding down with "Edward Hopper: The Watercolors." This scholarly bang features 50 works, most privately held and rarely exhibited. To keep its artistic profile intact, the NMAA is organizing the cream of its collection into "Treasures to Go," eight separate exhibitions that will visit over 60 venues while the museum is closed.
The Phillips, the NGA
The Phillips Collection celebrates both its founder and the millennium with "From Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips." A decade in the making, this overgrown show of 250 paintings and sculptures from the collection coincides with a scholarly look at the role of Duncan Phillips as a pioneering modern art museum founder. It is worth remembering that at the beginning, Phillips' only peer was Alfred Barr of New York's Museum of Modern Art. But long gone are the days when the Phillips and MoMA would jointly purchase works by living artists, as they did with Jacob Lawrence's series, "Migration of the Negro." If the survey of work by Georgia O'Keeffe, which closed July 18, is any indication, "From Renoir to Rothko" will be pretty, predictable and comfortably retrospective.
Finally, the National Gallery of Art. The NGA is taking a breather after its breakneck, new-show-a-day late spring agenda that included the must-see Ingres exhibition, which travels to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and a ho-hum traveling show of Mary Cassatt's paintings. Both exhibitions remain on view for most of the summer.
Open for two months, the NGA's lushly appointed sculpture garden has clocked over 427,000 visitors -- about 7,000 a day, many of whom mistakenly inquire as to when the next sculpture exhibition will open.
Fall is dominated by two big deals. "The Drawing of Annibale Carraci" promises 95 of the Italian master's studies, finished drawings and large mural cartoons, a presentation that brings to mind the breathtaking "Michelangelo Draftsman" of 11 years ago. But if chock-a-block is your thing, "The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology" is the show for you. Striving to outdo last year's one-of-a-kind "Edo: Art of Japan," this arrangement of over 200 masterpieces, many borrowed from the People's Republic, will try to make esthetic sense of the Five Dynasties of China (5000 BC to AD 960).
CHRISTOPHER FRENCH is Artnet Magazine's Washington, D.C., correspondent.
Exhibitions mentioned in D.C. Diary: Corcoran Gallery of Art
"Roy Lichtenstein: Sculpture and Drawings," to Sept. 30.
"Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US," to Oct. 3.
"Annie Leibovitz: Women," Oct. 27, 1999-Feb. 28, 2000.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
"Brice Marden," to Sept. 6.
"Sam Taylor-Wood: Noli Me Tangere," to Oct. 17.
"Regarding Beauty: A View of the Late 20th Century," Oct. 7, 1999-Jan. 17, 2000.
National Gallery of Art
"Portraits by Ingres: Image of and Epoch," to Aug. 22.
"Mary Cassatt," to Sept. 6.
"The Golden Age of Chinese Archeology," Sept. 19, 1999-Jan. 2, 2000.
"The Drawings of Annibale Carracci," Sept. 26, 1999-Jan. 2, 2000.
National Museum of American Art
"Edward Hopper: The Watercolors," Oct. 27, 1999-Jan. 3, 2000.
The Phillips Collection
"Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips" Sept. 25, 1999-Jan. 23, 2000.