James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room is a ready-made allegory for the art market, a perennial cautionary tale. Here’s how the story goes: A prominent shipowner in Victorian London named Frederick Leyland commissioned Whistler to paint his dining room. Thomas Jeckyll, a renowned British interior architect, designed the room, and Whistler recognized its importance right away, or so it seemed; he was seized by a grandiose vision in gold and blue, which he executed during the summer of 1876.
Leyland did not share Whistler’s vision—quite the opposite, in fact. The falling out that followed between them is one of the saucier disputes in the well-heeled history of art. Whistler continued work on the Peacock Room after Leyland suspended payment, even incorporating his disagreement with his patron into a mural that pictured the two of them as piqued peacocks. Leyland fired Whistler; Whistler denounced Leyland. Though their friendship was broken, happily, Leyland never replaced Whistler with another decorator.
The opulent Peacock Room is now the core of the Freer Gallery, unchanged today except by location. (The industrialist Charles Lang Freer moved the entire room first from London to Detroit, then again from Detroit to D.C. to serve as the cornerstone for the museum in 1916.) Now, thanks to a new installation at the Sackler Gallery, the catty history of the Peacock Room—as the bitter artifact of a contract turned sour—is once again at the fore.
“Filthy Lucre” is a tip-to-tail recreation of the Peacock Room by painter Darren Waterston. During a residency at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass., the artist doubled every aspect of the original in a room-sized installation that’s now on view at the Sackler. Every detail is there, but nothing’s been preserved: Waterston’s piece is a careful wreck.
The installation is a ruin-porn reinvention of the Peacock Room, as if it had been abandoned in London in the 1870s and only just reopened today. The allegory here is blunt: The notion of the artist, itself a Victorian-era creation, has been spoiled by the market. The art world is a corruption to rival anything that has come before it.
That’s at least one of the meanings that Waterston intends to convey with “Filthy Lucre,” a project that is narrative to the point of condescending. The divine Asian pottery that graces Whistler’s Peacock Room is shattered in Waterston’s version. Haphazard paint spills in the Sackler installation mimic and mock the precise embellishments of the Freer original. Where Whistler painted his peacocks squabbling for dominance, Waterston imagines them ripping each other’s guts out.
“Filthy Lucre” is ruined in more than one way: Specifically, it presents a Peacock Room that’s been visited by more than one type of ruin. Stalactites grow from the furniture, suggesting that the whole thing sank into the Atlantic, or maybe the Detroit River. The detailing of the room is disheveled, as if the dining room is due some deferred maintenance—but it hasn’t exactly suffered the ravages of time.
Waterston, it seems, has pulled his punches. While “Filthy Lucre” is blighted, its colors aren’t faded in the slightest. The Peacock Room’s distinguished chandeliers are twinned here without any signs of distress. The wood’s not rotted and the mouldings aren’t molding. There’s a paradox at play—the artist means to create an installation that reads as both Whistler’s extravagant dining room and as a long-forgotten ruin. “Filthy Lucre” is more decadent than decayed.
Other artists might’ve pulled it off better. Kristen Morgin, a sculptor, has used to clay and wood to depict a bygone Americana, and I mean bygone: a burned-out Mighty Mouse statue, a wrecked roadster, the savaged shell of a cello. Charles Long, another sculptor, uses weathered texture for slightly more abstract ends. Waterston’s noble abstract paintings wouldn’t seem to put him in the same quadrant as a critique like “Filthy Lucre.”
To be fair, there’s more than enough to Waterston’s installation to suggest that “Filthy Lucre” isn’t meant to be read so literally. The alien glow behind closed window shutters and moody soundtrack suggest some supernatural significance to the apocalypse visited upon the Peacock Room. Maybe “Filthy Lucre” is the physical manifestation of the moral decay of the relationship between the artist and collector.
I wish there were more to that. To capture the truly fraught dimensions of today’s art market, Waterston would need to rebuild something the size of the Titanic. Earlier this month, Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” sold at auction for $179 million—exactly what it cost (in 2015 dollars) to build the greatest ship the oceans have ever seen. The commodification of the art market today exceeds the wildest reaches of the Gilded Age.
That goes for installations, too. A few years back, the installation artists Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman built an entire immersive slum in Chelsea’s Marlborough Gallery. By comparison, the Peacock Room itself barely registers as exaggerated. To make a statement about the exuberance of this art market would take something even more dubious than its richest excesses—or perhaps something a lot subtler. On any score, “Filthy Lucre” is untidy at best.
1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. asia.si.edu