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Back to Reviews 98

  d.c. diary

by Lewis Kachur  

Alexander Calder
Apple Monster

Mark Rothko
Street Scene XX
ca. 1936-39

Mark Rothko
Rites of Lilith

Mark Rothko
No. 2
While the elite art world is accustomed to shutting down for the summer, our more populist museums know that June is the time to gear up for the summer tourist season. In Washington, D.C., a town rich in museums, blockbusters abound this month.

At the National Gallery a visitor can sample 100 years of modernism via three major exhibitions, ranging from Degas' racetrack studies of the 1860s to the last works of Rothko and Calder in the 1970s. The two Americans attract notably different audiences. The Rothko show, "entombed" in the East building's lower level, is populated by a hushed few, while the more expansive Calder installation on the mezzanine draws talkative crowds of families and school groups.

Mark Rothko
"Mark Rothko" (May 3-Aug. 16, 1998) begins with his strange figural paintings of the 1930s. Street Scene (ca. 1937) is unfamiliar and has a hint of de Chiricoesque mystery. Two-thirds of the picture is occupied by a massive architectural element. Off on the right side is rabbinical-looking man who seems to be escorting two young girls. They're all rendered in chalky whites to look as much like statutes as people. Or is the composition a staging of two dimensionality versus sculptural illusion?

What to think about the fact that most of these early works are not very good? The newly seen Rites of Lilith (1945) (shades of Anselm Kiefer!) is a big effort which falls short. The '40s watercolors seem to have impacted the oils, and are somewhat better, in fact, yet many are derivative of Surrealist motifs. Even the first abstractions of the late '40s -- blurry, fuzzy forms -- are tentative. One concludes that Rothko's classic format was not only a distillation but also a necessary constraint.

The works of 1950-51 are very strong, and wash away earlier reservations. No. 2 (1951) is superb. The show nicely clusters groups of works in a single room, as Rothko seems to have wanted, which heightens their impact. A later gallery is able to evoke the somber effect of the Rothko Chapel with an installation of large, black rectangles. According to the catalogue, Rothko used assistants at this point, somehow a surprising revelation.

Another surprise is the group of acrylics on paper of 1969, in lighter, terra-cotta tones. These mitigate the sense of gloom in the well known grey and blacks of 1969-70. In all of these, the taped edges, redolent of "hard-edge" paintings, give a different, more bounded effect.

To me this well-installed show confirms Rothko's stature, which places him in the pantheon with de Kooning and Pollock. The exhibition benefits from the large 1986 gift to the National Gallery from the Rothko Foundation. And it comes at a timely moment when the issue of beauty has been raised by the Las Vegas critic David Hickey as well as others. The aura of "tragic" seems to be subsiding, while sheer optical pleasure remains. This shift dismays Gerhard Richter, according to his comments on Rothko in one of the interesting catalogue interviews with contemporary artists.


Alexander Calder
Vertical Constellation
with Bomb


Alexander Calder
Circus Scene

Alexander Calder
Calvin Coolidge
Alexander Calder: 1898-1976
The National Gallery's Alexander Calder retrospective (Mar. 29-July 12, 1998) offers an abundance of works of the same type -- here, the generic mobile, a now familiar form that Calder basically invented. As with Rothko, the consistency of format offers a curatorial challenge. In this case diversity has been emphasized throughout, and variants or eccentric sculptures are highlighted, to good effect overall.

The installation shows off the large group of World War II era "Constellations," with their art moderne feel and biomorphic carved wood elements. In other cases, the effect is less felicitous. The monumental works and wall reliefs of the early 1930s, for instance, suggest a clunkier Calder. Yet among these is the wonderfully zany Apple Monster (1938), an "assisted ready-made" made of a painted, forked apple tree branch with two carved pieces attached. Unfortunately, fragility precludes the operation of motorized pieces. A film of them in action is a pale substitute.

Especially noteworthy are a large, early circus painting and two small canvases that directly vouch for the legendary impact of the Mondrian encounter. The beady-eyed early wire portrait of Calvin Coolidge suggest a possible origin of this series in political caricature.

After a fairly detailed progression through about 1960, the show suddenly empties out to a handful of stabiles scattered around the NGA terraces. Probably some of Calder's larger commissions are immovable, but those on view here are swallowed up in NGA architect I.M. Pei's atrium. The single exception is the building's permanently installed mobile, which I've always found graceless and elephantine. (Note the delicate model for this commission in the show, to gauge what was lost in the gianting up.)

The two stabiles outdoors are better, a good idea. Still, they were overwhelmed by the monumentality of Pei's 20-year-old building. That anniversary is marked by a small, interesting display tucked away beside the auditorium.

Check out the National Gallery's website {} for a great online tour of the show.


Edgar Degas
Scene from the Steeplechase:
The Fallen Jockey


Edgar Degas
Alexander and Bucephalus
Degas at the Races
"Degas at the Races," housed in the National Gallery's old West Building (to July 12), is off the starting line with surprisingly primitive examples of the artist's work from the early 1860s. Degas adhered to a pictorial plane of strict classical profile, as in the drawing from the Pan-Athenaic procession. Here also are several unfamiliar works, including upper class hunt pictures and more awkward ponies in the park. A large canvas of a fall from a horse, an astonishing subject, was exhibited at the Salon of 1866 and later reworked by Degas, but never resolved to his satisfaction.

The heart of the show shifts to a much smaller scale, in the little racetrack gems of the 1870s. By and large these are familiar pictures from Washington, Boston and Paris museums. Later works include quite a few vivid pastels, and themes and variations on the same motif, such as a grouping of jockeys. Unlike Manet, Degas does not focus on a full-fledged race in action, but rather those more marginal moments before or after.

If you can wait till next week, the National Gallery opens still another blockbuster, "Manet, Monet and the Gare Saint-Lazare" (June 14- Sept. 20, 1998). This clever focus on artists who painted in and around this train station also includes some of Gustave Caillebotte's best works. The show arrives from Paris.

For what it's worth, the axis of exhibition exchange between New York and Washington continues to thrive. The Whitney Museum's Richard Diebenkorn retrospective is on view at the Phillips Collection, while the NGA's Rothko show will leapfrog back to the Whitney next September. The Hirshhorn Museum's George Segal retrospective has opened at the Jewish Museum in New York. Yet there is enough that is uniquely D.C. to motivate a visit from New Yorkers.


Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith at the Hirshhorn
If you hurry you can still catch a room installation by New York artist Kiki Smith at the Hirshhorn. Titled "Night" (Mar. 19-June 21, 1998), the show fills a darkened space with four long black plinths and one wall-sized photo-etching. The plinths hold sculptures of animals and natural forms, done in bronze, glass, paper and other mediums. They're mostly colored black.

Many of the animals, such as the Jersey crows, are stretched in rigor mortis. Her owl etching struck me as Baskin-like, a reminder that Smith freely roams through realist and avant-garde modes. The whole tenebrous setting might be considered as part of the current wave of the "Gothic," yet there is also a curious leveling quality to the blackness. As Smith told curator Phyllis Rosenzweig, "Night equalizes everything."


Archibald J. Motley Jr.

Winold Reiss
Countee Cullen
ca. 1925
Harlem Renaissance at the Corcoran
At the Corcoran Gallery, "Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance" (Apr. 11-June 22, 1998) provides a more catholic swath through this familiar subject, presenting it as "an international dialogue." Included are non-black artists who happened to work in Harlem during its golden age, such as Edward Burra and Winold Reiss, and black artists who didn't, such as the Chicago-based Archibald Motley.

While upping the visual ante, their inclusion blurs the concept. Motley is a good case in point. His rather illustrational images perpetuate old stereotypes of blacks -- the jazzman, the criminal, the religious fervent -- yet there is some charm in his admittedly slick, streamlined style. The graphic artist Reiss was new to me, although he produced portraits of many of the major figures of the era. His pastel of the young Langston Hughes (1925) is a rather academic rendition of the figure, juxtaposed with a swirling, evocative, Cubo-Futurist background.

Film and musical clips are effectively incorporated to broaden the subject to the arts, plural. The whole offers a sometimes messy yet welcome antidote to the monograph mania that prevails. The Corcoran is also showing a ten-year survey of Ida Applebroog. Admirable painter, but this truncated version makes one want to see a fuller career overview.


Stuart Davis

Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis at the National Museum of American Art
Speaking of jazz, "Stuart Davis" at the National Museum of American Art (May 22-Sept. 7, 1998) presents a distinctly different profile than the large retrospective seen at the Metropolitan Museum in 1991-92. At one-third the size with 50-plus works, it aims to provide a clearer focus on his best easel paintings rather than a detailed accounting of his long career as a modernist and muralist. It happily includes the Museum of Modern Art's new acquisition Odol (1924) which recently set an auction record for the artist. (But, alas, the show does not feature its partner on the auction block, Rue Lipp (1928), likewise out of the Andrew Crispo Collection.)

"Stuart Davis" is especially fortunate in its pairings of dual related motifs, beginning with the excellent Place des Vosges pictures as early as 1929. Dialectical duos became highly prevalent in the 1950s, as Davis developed the related "diad" concept in his writings. It is especially striking to notice that the red, white and blue blocked forms of Ready-to-Wear are the same as those united by the uniform deep red monochrome in Cliché (both 1955).

There are interesting related materials displayed in glass cases, including correspondence and the original "Champion" matchbook that offered Davis one of his renowned motifs, a subject from his pocket.


Robin Rose
Center of Center
Robin Rose at Numark
To step out of the museum context for a moment, Washington does offer about half a dozen worthy contemporary galleries. One of these, Numark, recently exhibited new work by the well-known local painter Robin Rose. Rose's technique is rather unusual: He makes his paintings with encaustic wax on linen mounted to a hard, honey-comb aluminum support. Rose is a master of using the melted wax to suggest liquid waves of color, or allowing it to harden into a seemingly metallic skin. A new motif for Rose, and an effective one, is the circular splotch. In Center of Center it opens up new metaphors of biological, bodily and cellular associations, which only enhance the range of reference within abstraction.

After its debut at the National Gallery, "Mark Rothko" travels to the Whitney Museum, Sept. 10-Nov. 29, 1998, and the Musee d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Jan. 8-Apr. 18, 1999.

"Alexander Calder: 1898-1976" appears at the National Gallery, Mar. 29-July 12, 1998, and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sept. 4-Dec. 1, 1998.

"Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance" premiered at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco; its subsequent stops are at the L.A. County Museum, July 26-Oct. 19, 1998, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Nov. 22, 1998-Feb. 14, 1999.

"Stuart Davis" originated at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in 1997 and appeared in Rome and Amsterdam before traveling to Washington, D.C., May 22-Sept. 7, 1998, its final stop.

Robin Rose, "Equilibrium," appeared Apr. 16-May 29, 1998, at Numark Gallery, 406 7th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20004.

LEWIS KACHUR is New York art historian and critic who teaches at Kean University.