Corcoran Gallery highlights the best works from its 44 biennials. It's informative, though limited by gaps in the museum's collection.


September 03, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

About two thirds of the way through the painting biennial exhibition at Washington's Corcoran Gallery, there comes a sight as refreshing as a jump in the ocean on a hot day.

The show is devoted to 20th-century works that have entered the gallery's permanent collection from the Corcoran's previous 44 biennials of American painting. It starts well, but by the time the viewer arrives at mid-century, he has seen a progression of representational paintings that grow increasingly repetitious and boring.

Then, at the turn of a corner, there are three bracing abstractions: the dramatically placed rectangles of Burgoyne Diller's "First Theme" (1962), the calm authority of Josef Albers' "Homage to the Square: 'Yes' " (1956) and the exhilarating multicolored vertical stripes of Gene Davis' "Black Popcorn" (1965).

The juxtaposition of these works has an immediately exciting effect. But it's short-lived, for they turn out to be superior to much of what comes after them. Unfortunately, the Corcoran often failed to acquire works by the finest artists in its biennials.

That's not simply due to poor judgment. The reasons are more complex, involving what the works cost, changing patterns of giving and other factors. Nevertheless, the show does not contain works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and many other American giants.

Their absence doesn't exactly make the show a failure. As a history of the biennials and their effect on the Corcoran's collection, the show reveals as much through its absentees as through its inclusions. And as a show of 20th-century art, it has enough distinguished works to argue for a visit, from early ones by Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer to recent ones by Joan Mitchell and Sean Scully.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art, a privately funded institution founded in 1869 by collector and patron William Wilson Corcoran, was Washington's first art museum. In 1907, it inaugurated a biennial exhibition of contemporary American painting, and now, as the century comes to a close, it has decided to pause and look back through the gallery's biennial acquisitions. Of 230 in all, about 130 form the present show.

The show, says deputy director and chief curator Jack Cowart, provides an opportunity to take stock.

"It's a chance to buy good intellectual reflection time and decide where to go from here," he says. And especially to decide whether to broaden the show's scope from painting. "In light of media technology, with digitalization and laser printing and the Web - all unexpected vehicles of art-making in 1907 - maybe it's time to decide which to adopt or not. We want to be where the best of the action is."

The biennial has adapted itself to changing times in the past, notably in the 1960s. It began as a part-juried, part-invitational show, which allowed the gallery to invite eminent artists who didn't want to submit their work to the jury process. The early biennials were huge surveys of current American painting, with up to 400 works included.

By the mid-1960s, with the explosion of the American art world, such attempts at comprehensive surveys had become impractical. Since then, biennials have been invitational, organized by curators and often themed (regional, for instance, or all abstract and then all figural). They have also been smaller, including from five to 50 artists.

Changing times

The reasons behind the collection's lapses have changed, too. In the early years, as Corcoran curator Linda Crocker Simmons indicates in her catalog essay, conservatism prevented the inclusion of many avant-garde artists. "The conservative nature of the selections is apparent in the treatment of such developments as American impressionism, the 'Ash Can' school, regionalism or the American scene, abstract expressionism, pop and op art - even the Washington Color School - which often were recognized years after they first emerged."

Since the biennials became curator-driven in the late 1960s, the selections have included most of the great names of the second half of the century. But by then, the best-known artists couldn't be bought. "Some artists were just too expensive," Cowart says. "By the time they were showing here, their works cost hundreds of thousands of dollars."

That doesn't mean none of them are in the collection. Works by artists such as de Kooning, Kelly, Rothko, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Richard Diebenkorn and Frank Stella came to the collection in other ways, often by gift. But if they weren't in a biennial, they can't be in this show.

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