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by Sidney Lawrence

Washington exhibitions are varied and plentiful this fall, embracing art from elsewhere and past times as always, but there’s also a strong local focus. Are we finally waking up to ourselves?

It all started at a steamy mid-August opening at Flashpoint’s downtown gallery on G Street, where revelers became increasingly boisterous gazing at Mary Swift’s art-world portrait photos from the 1970s and ‘80s. No wonder -- many of the viewers were looking at pictures of their own younger selves. Swift, the no-B.S. founding editor and chief photographer of the now defunct Washington Review (1975-2001), perfectly captured the manic small-town charm of D.C. art’s mutton-chop era. Here, in jarring detail, were a radiant, impossibly young Martin Puryear in his studio, art-world guru Walter Hopps (with two sets of glasses on) sweating through yet another curatorial crisis, and grand dame of the avant-garde Alice Denney. Oh, what a time it was.

Another, nearly identical exhibition depicting more or less the same people caused a similar ruckus in September, during the mass gallery openings on 14th Street. At the 1515 14th building’s storefront space (now open as the hip Veridian Restaurant), Joe Cameron and Paul Feinberg had installed their stagy, large-format portrait photographs of painter-draftsman Carroll Sockwell and conceptualist Yuri Schwebler (both lost to suicide), the well-rounded backside of dealer Diane Brown, Color School stalwart Gene Davis’ bald head and light-show maestro Rockne Krebs, looking as cool as cool can be. At least 15 “honorees” of the photo homage turned up in person, amid many more who had no idea who these people were, then or now. Creating delayed-reaction chuckles, art-friendly developer Giorgio Furioso, who curated the show, titled it “Wrinkle Free.”

The “keep it local” leitmotif continued elsewhere. Upstairs at Hemphill Fine Art, a long-awaited exhibition of work by D.C. assemblagist Renee Stout (paired in 1995 with Minkisi sculpture at the Museum of African Art) showed her newest transformations of Victorian artifacts of black America into dense, nostalgic, subtly political tableaux. Across the street at Fusebox, localite Kendall Buster, going strong internationally since her inclusion in a Hirshhorn Museum group show in 1983, created a disorienting, tilted tent city that had to be crouched under to be fully grasped. The interpretive buzz for Buster’s latest: Bush-era militarism on a magic carpet ride.

Everyone in town has been happy that Sam Gilliam, D.C.’s dean of abstraction, has a Corcoran retrospective, on view Oct. 15, 2005-Jan. 22, 2006. The beleaguered museum near the White House, which recently bid adieu to director David Levy and his proposed Frank Gehry addition, has smartly paired its Gilliam exhibition with “Warhol Legacy,” a show of Big-Apple-bold, A to Z Andy Warhols from the artist’s foundation in Pittsburgh, Sept. 24, 2005-Feb. 20, 2006. Warhol’s Madison Avenue finish is just different enough from Gilliam’s studio-messy, experimental angst to give a charge to both sides of the brain.

My Gilliam favorites include the charred-looking abstractions of crusty purple-black pizza-paint on tight, beveled-edged stretchers. Plus, who can resist his loopy, playful, draped pieces from the late 1960s? They ensured Gilliam’s place in the transition between Color Field Painting and Postminimalist process-based art, but they’re also flat-out fun.

Gilliam, whose African good looks, booming voice and moody brilliance keeps you on your toes, is always primed for something new as an artist. A group of works from 2002-03 that end the retrospective bear this out. Richly monochromatic color compositions of lacquered paint on irregular vertical panels, they seem lifted from tiled walls in Mexico or Morocco. Over at Marsha Mateyka Gallery on Dupont Circle, a show of Gilliam’s fresh-out-of-the-studio “Sunshine” paintings (Oct. 8-Dec. 10, 2004) blasts those vertical shapes with marbleized color.

William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888), another homegrown talent, opened his namesake museum in 1869. A native son who never left Washington, Corcoran was a firm believer in American art and bought such signature, over-the-top paintings of the Victorian era as Frederick Edwin Church’s Niagara (1857) and Albert Bierstadt’s compellingly fake Mount Corcoran (1876). “Encouraging American Genius,” a survey of the collection currently on view at the museum (Aug. 27, 2005-Jan. 2, 2006, with a national tour to follow), includes these and some 80 other works, many of which came to the museum via America-focused Biennials launched in 1907. It’s a great show, full of gems by Eakins, Hopper, Hartley and others, and through it we see how a Washington patron laid the foundation for one of the country’s top collections of 18th to early 20th century American art.

As for D.C.’s other contemporary museum, the drum-shaped Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall, it can’t claim a local collector as its raison d’etre, but the museum’s 1974 launch, a grand gesture from New Yorker Joseph Hirshhorn (1899-1981), turned Washington’s trickle of contemporary art viewing into a flood.

I worked at the Hirshhorn for nearly 28 years, and the latest collection reinstallation (“Gyroscope,” Nov. 3, 2005-Jan. 31, 2006) may be its best ever. Zingily creative historian-curator Valerie Fletcher has devised groupings of interrelated 20th-century graphics and sculpture -- Matisse, Picasso, Bontecou, González, Calder, Brancusi -- that are uniformly arresting and educational.

There are hum-dingers among juxtapositions of recent works, too. In one group, concoctions of castoff clothing by Petah Coyne, Yayoi Kusama and Michelangelo Pistoletto get you into body mode, and in another, obsessive grid systems by Anne Hamilton and Leonardo Drew -- the former using scribbled notes and wax (Palimpsest, 1989), the latter rusted-out steel (Untitled (no. 49), 1995) -- beg for ruminations on time.

Yes, the old Hirshhorn sparkle is back, with surprises and revelations galore in the spirit of Joe Hirshhorn’s core donation of 6,000 artworks. Many outside donations also enliven this Adventureland. But now more than ever, D.C.-based collectors are part of the mix.

Examples of gifts I saw (“partial,” “promised” or otherwise) include a suite of Lorna Simpsons (from Barbara and Aaron Levine), a knockout medicine-cabinet piece by William Kentridge (from Robert Lehrman), a hefty Bill Woodrow sculpture (from Marc and Jacqueline Leland), mixed-media pieces by Renee Stout and fellow localite Patrick Wilson (from Frederick Ognibene, M.D.) and a zigzagging construction of interlocking coat hangers by another local, Dan Steinhilber (from Mario Cader-Frech and Robert Wennett). Good going, Hirshhorn!

Back at the 1515 14th Street building, tuned-in Washington collectors Heather and Tony Podesta are showing off a small selection of their own holdings at the Curator’s Office, a micro-gallery and research hub run by the talented Andrea Pollan. “Me Myself, and I” (Oct. 29-Dec. 17, 2005) is a juicy, salon-style show of 15-plus photo-works by women, the Podestas’ primary focus, ranging from the dreamy-gorgeous, as in Marzia Migliora’s Ophelia-like video still Ortiche (Nettles) (2001), to in-your-face sleaze like Nikki S. Lee’s Exotic Dancer Project (#19) (2000), a self-portrait as a stripper wrapped in a topless French kiss with one of her pals from work.

Although only one Podesta artist, wry performer-videographer Katherine Cornelius, is local, she has plenty of company nearby. G Fine Art across the hall has a highly engaging show of ink-on-mylar abstractions by D.C.-based artist Linn Meyers (Oct. 29-Dec. 10, 2005); these crazily wavy and colorful compositions are part Agnes Martin, part Joseph Yoakum, part Bridget Riley. David Adamson Gallery down the hall shows D.C.-based William Newman’s sci-fi surreal fast-motion video and video-based paintings (Oct. 29-Dec. 3) tracking the life cycles of birds at “home” in a pipe at his own house.

Scientific undercurrents also characterize a wire-and-plastic, igloo-like bouquet of an installation with interactive sound elements by underrated D.C. artist Yuriko Yamaguchi at Penn Quarter’s Numark Gallery, on view Nov. 4-Dec. 7, 2005. Local talents often make appearances at Dupont Circle’s Conner Contemporary and Irvine Contemporary, and Georgetown’s Addison-Ripley and Strand on Volta.

But wait. There’s more -- a full-fledged museum opened in town this past July that is very Washington-friendly. The American University Museum at the Katzen is a three-story-tall, 36,000-square-foot space with a 6,000-square-foot sculpture garden that is the centerpiece of an arts complex named for local collectors Dr. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen. This streamlined, architecturally emphatic structure (rather like the Hirshhorn but friendlier-looking) rises above one of Washington’s most traveled rotary parks, Ward Circle, atop Embassy Row, away from the other museums in town. Its director is Jack Rasmussen, a longtime local arts figure who returns to Washington after a stint at the di Rosa Preserve in California.

And you know something? It may turn out to be the best darned art museum in the whole wide world.

Just kidding. You see, I have been helping the A.U. Museum’s PR efforts for seven months, and thus can get carried away. But consider these facts: to get D.C.’s first full-fledged university and public arts facility up and running (it has a concert hall, black-box theater and dance studio, too), the real-estate rich Katzens donated $20 million and a 500-piece art collection worth an estimated $15 million -- no small change. The Katzen art has joined A.U.’s 4,500-piece, 60-years-in-the-making Watkins Collection, named for the art department painter-founder (C. Law Watkins) who modeled it after D.C. patron Duncan Phillips’ school. The focus is largely on Washington and regional artists, including such big names as Kenneth Noland (looking very strong in his Abstract Expressionist mode), but also embraces Milton Avery, Arthur Dove and others more in the Phillips Collection vein. Curator Jonathan Bucci rightly calls the Watkins a “barometer of Washington’s cultural history.”

OK, I realize Bruce Conner isn’t local, but if you’re a fan of this maverick San Franciscan, high-tail it to the A.U. Museum at once. There’s a show of his inkblots there right now, continuing, with William Allan’s watercolors, localite Emilie Brzezinski’s wood sculptures and selections from the Katzen and Watkins Collections, through Dec. 17.

Director Rasmussen (looking less and less “wrinkle-free” in comparison to images of him at the season-starting photo shows) intends to encompass “art from everywhere” in exhibitions to follow, but at least one will be local. From Jan. 17 to March 19, the richly eclectic holdings of Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi, the recently deceased partner-owners of Washington’s Gallery K, will be showcased. Walter Hopps presented a Corcoran exhibition from this trove in 1969.

To delve further into Washington’s art scene, including what’s going on in street art, not-for-profit art spaces, and local criticism (scrolling down recommended), see Lenny Campello’s blog (

SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and critic living in Washington, D.C. His show at District Fine Arts closes on Dec. 3, 2005.