This year seemed to bode ill for the future of contemporary art in D.C. In September, blogger Tyler Green lamented that the city was bleeding an awful lot of curatorial talent. Among the notable defections: Jeffrey Weiss, head of the National Gallery of Art’s modern and contemporary department; Olga Viso, director of the Hirshhorn Museum; and Jonathan Binstock, curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s contemporary department.
The Corcoran in particular had a rocky year. It took a stab at relevance—and missed—with its bloated modernism survey. The show boasted plenty of handsome objects throughout the building (filling nearly all of its galleries) but offered little historical perspective or insight. Of course, as Kriston Capps noted (“Painting by Blunders,” 10/19), nothing has ever gone smoothly for the Corcoran. There’s the never-built Gehry addition, the sacking of David Levy in 2005, and, back in 1989, the infamous cancellation of a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition—an act that light artist Rockne Krebs protested by projecting some of the banned photos onto the side of the building.
For ColorField.remix this past spring, the city’s galleries and museums decided to celebrate their ’60s glory days. Maybe we didn’t need to dredge all that up again. Back then, influential critic Clement Greenberg swept into town and tapped a group of colorful abstractionists as the Next Big Thing—ensuring they’d forever be thought of as the city’s Last Big Thing. To this day, Washington still suffers from a sort of late-modernist hangover. (Full disclosure: In May, with the help of collaborator Meg Mitchell, I had a little fun at the expense of the ColorField.remix festivities by staging a retrospective at DCAC for a faux D.C. art movement, the Washington Body School.)
Yet despite all that doom and gloom, D.C.’s museums offered a handful of terrific shows this year. The most memorable showed how and why great artists can move the broader discourse. There were career-spanning retrospectives of painters steadily paring down their images while still creating rich, rewarding stuff. There were also shows embracing fearless artists known for shifting, protean practices. And at least one show offered a welcome antidote to the Color School fever as well as a primer on how some artists made a clean break—or maybe a messy one—with the values of traditional gallery culture.
The retrospectives of Edward Hopper and J.M.W. Turner, still on view at the National Gallery, are astonishing in their breadth. The Turner show is a beast—at 146 pieces total, it’s the largest collection of works this country has ever seen of the British master at once, and it demands a certain amount of stamina. The Hopper show, with 96 paintings and prints, is slightly more manageable, though it’s still the largest retrospective of the artist’s work that D.C. has ever hosted.
Neither show suggests much in the way of new discoveries or upheavals. But by providing so many works all in one place, both reveal how their subjects occupied exceedingly narrow patches of artistic terrain. Each evoked only a handful of moods and returned again and again to a specific kind of idiosyncratic, disconnected image. Both proved either uninterested in or totally unable to address many aspects of human experience—a fact that strangely fails to detract from the power of their achievements.
Neither Turner nor Hopper was much good at depicting people. Hopper’s figures often look half-invented, with masklike faces; Turner’s human heads look like eggs with black dots for eyes. His figures only seem remotely plausible when they appear as a shadowy, indistinct mass—as they do in the background of Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps or in parts of either version of The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons. Invariably, Turner’s people are relegated to the lower and outer margins of his compositions to make room for his real subjects.
As both artists grew older, these tendencies were exacerbated. By the end of his career, Hopper managed to dispense with humans altogether, painting on at least two occasions an empty room filled with slanting light, defined by simple geometric shapes. Turner seemed most pleased showing a blurry maelstrom at sunset, which could either be a disaster at sea or some cataclysm in heaven itself. But for both, the essential problem was a changing sense of space, lived and pictorial. Turner envisioned a world not of fixed perspectives and geometries but of atmosphere taking reason to pieces—people tossed about by an unkind natural world or chewed up by maritime combat. Hopper, by contrast, illustrated the dehumanizing effects of the new constructed urban environment, which compartmentalized lives and offered strange opportunities for voyeurism.
Jasper Johns and Wolfgang Tillmans, by contrast, were restless tinkerers. The Johns retrospective in January served as a reminder of just how much we’ll miss curator Jeffrey Weiss at the National Gallery. For the show, Weiss examined 10 crucial years of Johns’ career, breaking down the artist’s works by specific devices and motifs: Targets, names of colors, mechanical implements, and direct impressions of the body. No matter that Johns’ famous flag pieces were absent; Weiss convincingly argued for Johns as an artist positioning himself delicately between representation and abstraction, systematically testing and rejecting most of the assumptions underlying avant-garde art at the time. The Johns that emerged in the show built an indispensable bridge to art as we know it now.
The Tillmans retrospective at the Hirshhorn showed another artist equally unwilling to be bound by stylistic conventions. Throughout his career, Tillmans has attempted to cultivate the appearance of offhand execution and irreverence, even if he is quite in earnest about his choice of subjects and his relationship to his chosen medium, photography. His portraits typically use available light; he eschews art-historical reference and instead seeks out the look of journalism or snapshots. The artist personally installed his show, employing unconventional floor-to-ceiling hangings with pins and tape and featuring work ranging from celebrations of club culture to homoerotic images of soldiers to experiments with abstraction and color that manage to be both beautiful and a sort of mockery of the values of heroic abstract art.
But perhaps the most important show this year was “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” which arrived at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in September from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Mind you, “WACK!” was wildly uneven. There were sharp videos and collages by leftist rabble-rousers like Martha Rosler and witty abstractions by Mary Heilman, but there were also slightly goofy nude free-for-alls by Carolee Schneeman and clumsy paintings of hirsute male bodies by Sylvia Sleigh. It was both noble and bold to bypass the standards of manicured, universal cool embodied in most of the canonized white male art of the ’50s and ’60s. But for many of these women, that meant creating self-defeating works—earnest, sloppy, and un-cool. The overall effect could be either thrilling or embarrassing—or both.
Nonetheless, it’s startling how many of the pieces in “WACK!” are echoed in the work currently coming out of art schools; at grad programs across the region—say, Virginia Commonwealth University or Maryland Institute College of Art—a younger generation of artists is studying the ’70s. Look at New York’s performance art biennial, Performa, or the offerings of homegrown performance artists like Mary Coble and Kathryn Cornelius, and it’s clear that contemporary art remains heavily indebted to these adventurous women. All of them, to their credit, seemed to have a strong sense of themselves as a community, occupying a definite, pivotal art historical moment together. So many of the objects in “WACK!” have aged badly, thanks to unconventional materials or simple neglect. But so much of the show still feels fresh, like an unanswered challenge—one that D.C. definitely needs.