“Reuben Nakian:

Centennial Retrospective”

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art

to April 4

Why Nakian? Why now?xxxxx

The second part’s easy. Had he lived, the sculptor would have been 102 this year. We may be a little late tying the balloons to the mailbox, but after all, Nakian died in 1986. He hasn’t exactly been waiting for us.

The first question is a little harder to answer. Bowing to natal numerology is one thing; finding a place for Nakian’s crusty, craggy bronze mythologies in today’s artscape is more problematic. Joseph Hirshhorn carried a torch for the artist, and in 1974, he gave the Smithsonian two of Nakian’s best-known pieces, Goddess of the Golden Thighs and The Rape of Lucrece, but you don’t see the collector’s namesake museum playing host.

Having given Nakian his first museum show 64 years ago, the Corcoran apparently feels an institutional obligation to the artist—and also seems to want to be done with it. In a brief catalog note, Corcoran Deputy Director and Chief Curator Jack Cowart writes, “If our 1935 exhibition was the alpha in Nakian’s public artistic journey, this new 1999 exhibition must be the omega, bringing closure and perfect symmetry to our long relationship.” If “omega” means we won’t have to be looking at another Nakian show several decades down the line, I’m all for it. I just wonder why we have to weather the present one.

Let’s get this over with. Nakian, born in 1897 in College Point, N.Y., got his start in the big city as a Philip Morris and Century magazine errand boy, studied at the Independent Art School and the Beaux Arts Academy, and eventually scored an assistantship with Paul Manship, who also had Gaston Lachaise in his employ. There followed much derivative but agreeable animal sculpture. Nakian moved into federal-style portrait heads and won a commission to immortalize National Recovery Administration head Gen. Hugh Johnson. The sculptor independently undertook a series of heads of the rest of Roosevelt’s cabinet, and the Corcoran displayed them. Lachaise died in 1935, and Nakian voided their me-beasts/you-babes compact. A few years later, he got all mythological on us. Then he had his “globby” breakthrough, wherein his modeling went “abstract expressionist”; he deployed his new technique in an uncomprehending homage to Marcel Duchamp. He did some slashed terra-cotta “stone drawings,” which are pretty nice in a Lucio Fontana sort of way. “Anxious to work on a more monumental scale, Nakian initiated a new series of work using steel armature with wire and plaster substructure….Continually experimenting with methods to translate his work into monumental form, Nakian began to weld steel plate and pipe into abstract compositions,” notes the catalog. Moderately successful with such welded works as Lucrece, but realized this was not his way….Knack for massing evident in such modeled monumentals as Goddess of the Golden Thighs, but heft undercut by the imprint of burlap and chicken wire….Goddesses, nymphs, plaques, plates…Thanks, Henri….Go briefly biblical, à la Dylan…bigger, bigger…Can’t move ’em here, photos will have to do….plaster over Styrofoam…reasonably dynamic trifles w/ extruded-looking limbs…lotsa brushy drawings…lotsa terra-cotta trinkets…Exeunt.

The closest Nakian ever got to Duchamp’s thinking was in his inadvertent adaptation of the idea of the readymade to subject matter. Myth came easy to Nakian. It looks as if he rarely had to think about it at all. And the ancillary benefits of the off-the-shelf mythic view are significant. If it’s concupiscence you crave, there are many pretexts for putting pulchritude on parade: Venus, Helen, Leda, Europa, any of the other lovelies for whom Zeus felt an animal attraction. And you get that instant gravitas, not to mention the allusive wealth—rape Lucrece, and Shakespeare comes along for the ride.

I’d like to think that nowadays we don’t need highfalutin excuses to get women naked. (Pens down, PC police. I think men should be sex objects, too. But only good-looking ones.) And we certainly don’t require classical myth’s high seriousness.

Throughout much of the 20th century, artists and intellectuals thought otherwise. In the absence of rigid old religious verities, they turned to still older, more malleable tales. Freud had Oedipus; Camus had Sisyphus. The Jung-struck New York crowd Nakian allied himself with got on board. Pollock had his She-Wolf, Gottlieb his Oracle, Rothko his Olympian Play. The subsequent untitling of American “heroic” painting signaled a move beyond the need for the grand ordering schemes of classical myth. But Nakian never tired of his nymphs and satyrs.

It doesn’t help matters that the show’s catalog screams bush-league. The graphic layout of the slim and underedited volume suggests a cross between a vanity Festschrift and an ARTnews advertising supplement. One full-page photo of the aged artist comes complete with fulsome all-caps pull quote: “The incredible fervid creativity of Reuben Nakian lives in the rich legacy of images he has left behind, and serves as an inspiration to several generations of younger artists to whom he is both legend and tangible force.” Accompanying a show of questionable relevance, the book suggests a provincial attempt to enlighten the masses at cut rates.

Museumwise, D.C. is no longer the jerkwater it once was, so why hop into the curatorial way-back machine and dredge up the spirit of the erstwhile cultural Podunk on the Potomac? Perhaps our local outlet is grudgingly acting out of duty, but who is acting out of love? Last week, looking to fix some blame and willing to log some miles to do it, I lit out for the stomping grounds of show organizer Robert P. Metzger, Ph.D. (who doesn’t like his name to appear without its trailing honorific and who doesn’t understand that emphasizing a quality that should be taken for granted calls that very thing into question, an observation that won’t be lost on Red Line riders familiar with the much-tagged Sanitary Grocery Co.). As the director and, yes, CEO of the Reading Public Museum, one of Berks County, Pa.,’s premier cultural facilities (and proud bearer of American Association of Museums accreditation), he is responsible for a soup-to-nuts collection of everything from Egyptian antiquities to the stuffed fauna of eastern Pennsylvania.

There are valid reasons for a place like the RPM to try being all things to a few people. If, like abstract expressionist William Baziotes, you were a son of Reading with a certain measure of talent, souvenirs gathered by the region’s more well-heeled tourists would convince you that the world was indeed a vast place—and that you needed to leave town if you wanted to see it. But you’d probably be ill-prepared for the riches you’d find out there. Regional museums, charged with presenting party-line accounts of art-historical development but lacking access to expensive canonical works, have an affinity for the second-rate. So it is that a student-grade work by Ann Chernow “signal[s] to us the condition of 20th century angst.”

Audience pandering and undisciplined corporate sponsorship further muddy the waters. The RPM’s current big, outdoor-bannered temporary show is “Warm, Soft & Fuzzy: The Faultless Starch/Bon Ami Corporate Collection,” which consists of 51 paintings depicting the family life of the scratchless cleanser’s mascot and one photograph of the hard-at-work Ben Austrian, the talent behind such masterpieces as Chicks in a Basket, Chicks, Gathering of Chicks, Chicks With Mother Hen, A Hen and Chicks, Ten Chicks and Hen, Hen With Chicks, Puppy and Chick, Chick With Bulldog, Chick, Twenty-One Chicks and a Bug, Just Hatched, Chicks in a Straw Hat, and White Hen With Chicks. You’d think Austrian would know his way around a chicken after all that, but he seems to have preferred working from life, a full-grown bird regarding him from its roost on the back of a chair.

This crowd-pleasing exhibition may be enough to get the sensitive viewer to switch to Comet (it’s rumored Nakian himself preferred Ajax), but it is merely the most egregious of the museum’s offenses, not all of which are limited to its interior. Passing a couple of Nakians installed on hastily painted plywood and cinder-block plinths, I came to a small patch of duck-shit-strewn grass (in another ill-advised display of avian affection, the RPM has a duck pond opposite its entrance) that I took to be the “sculpture garden.” There was Charles Cropper Parks’ 1975 Boy With Gulls, a tender bit of seashore realism involving a piling-perched youth and a couple of friendly scavengers, and Nakian’s blessedly bird-free Sea Rhapsody. Alas, this work, which translates Parks’ interspecies mingling to the familiar turf, er, surf of Nakian’s beloved Nymph and Dolphins series, dates from the artist’s late, Styrofoam-carving “blind” period. What scruple, I ask, prevented Metzger, Ph.D., from a little merciful pruning of Nakian’s waning efforts?

Nakian himself could be merciless. According to Frank O’Hara, who was killed by a beach taxi during the 1966 run of the Nakian show he organized for the Museum of Modern Art, “the number of works [he has] destroyed because they didn’t ‘work out,’ including several large sculptures, is staggering.” But like the efforts of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Gottlieb Theodor Pilz, whose “contribution to the history of Western civilization was expressed in the nonexistence of works which never came into being thanks to his courageous, self-sacrificing interference,” Nakian’s literal iconoclasm will probably never receive its due—if only because occasions such as the present one remind us of all he left undone.CP