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This year’s Corcoran Biennial has turned into the Corcoran Confessional. The museum seems to be admitting its declining influence: We’re strapped. We’re confused. Our show has been eclipsed to the point of being irrelevant.
Years of internal ambivalence toward the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s biennial exhibitions have turned to institutional agony. In the event’s 45th incarnation, which opened last week and runs through Sept. 28, the public shares the pain. The Corcoran Biennial has traditionally offered a lens to the present and future of art, much like its counterparts at the Whitney and in Venice, but this show instead provides a rearview mirror on the museum’s past glories.
Spanning nine of the Corcoran’s second-floor galleries, the show burrows into the basement to assemble 133 hits from the 223 paintings the museum has acquired from 44 of these shows since the first, in 1907. It’s supposed to provide a short course on the exhibition’s curatorial history and help the gallery define future editions. Throughout the biennial’s history, the Corcoran has held firm to its identity as a show dedicated to painting (even in the ’70s, when art began including video and audio), but curatorial staff changes in the late ’70s and ’80s, not to mention the prudish cultural politics surrounding the aborted Mapplethorpe show in 1989, undermined the museum’s confidence.
Today, the gallery’s curators see that their show is no longer a bellwether of artistic expression, so they’re rethinking its agenda. They can bolster its dedication to painting, invite works in new media, or kill the money-draining biennial altogether. The curators haven’t decided which it will be.
The current biennial traces the gallery’s tastes in painting through the years, from Childe Hassam’s impressionistic interiors to Edward Hopper’s anomie to Stuart Arends’ oil-on-steel-cube minimalism. But it doesn’t show how, over the past 20 years, its taste-making power has waned.
The 1907 Corcoran Biennial of American Art drew 2,000 people a day. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, Corcoran biennials were national art events, when painting was big and the gallery’s shows still had the clout to anoint new talent. The 31st Biennial, in 1969, curated by then-Director James Harithas, featured works by Bruce Nauman, Richard Tuttle, Robert Swain, and Dean Fleming. Harithas’ successor, Walter Hopps, brought in Edward Ruscha, Alex Katz, and Wayne Thiebaud for the 32nd. “Major people came out of those shows,” recalls D.C. art dealer Jean-Pierre M. de Andino. The artists included, he says, “weren’t the stars they are now.”
The biennial gathered momentum around 1969 under Harithas, who ended the show’s juried selection process and instead relied on the vision of individual curators. The show’s profile rose dramatically. “In New York City, the Corcoran Biennial used to be considered a major event…[and] an exciting show,” says M.V. Clark, a D.C. painter and owner of the Museum of Contemporary Art here, whose 1976 canvas San Francisco Chinatown Window was acquired by the Corcoran from its 35th Biennial and hangs in this year’s retrospective. However, Harithas left the Corcoran in 1969, and the gallery went through several more disruptive directorial changes that hurt the show.
In 1977, Director Roy Slade hired Jane Livingston to the newly created position of chief curator. Livingston would remain at the gallery until 1989; she resigned in the midst of the Mapplethorpe episode. But even before that fiasco, under Livingston’s aegis, the biennial’s reputation had begun to unravel: The four shows from which the Corcoran did not acquire work occurred during her 12-year tenure.
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Livingston mounted a quartet of unsuccessful regional shows starting in 1983. The 38th Biennial, subtitled the Second Western States Show, was organized in cooperation with the Western States Arts Foundation with money from Philip Morris, Dayton Hudson, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The show was curated by then-Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Clair List, who was panned for relying on entertainment over substance. After the Western show came biennials dedicated to the Midwest, New York, and the South. Terrie Sultan, the Corcoran’s current curator of contemporary art, acknowledges that List’s geographical fetish cost the show cachet: “I think it was the regional biennials that put it back a bit.”
While the Corcoran’s curatorial infrastructure crumbled, the Hirshhorn Museum in 1979 began its Directions series, thematic group shows that could be assembled quickly with up-to-the-minute work. The Directions shows’ extreme currency overshadowed that of the Corcoran Biennial. The Directions shows “were very contemporary and very hip,” says D.C. painter Judy Jashinsky. “The hipness of the Corcoran Biennial…lost some of its power.”
The Corcoran hired Sultan in 1988 from the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York for a fresh take on the contemporary art scene. Sultan organized three biennials, beginning with “Abstraction” in 1991 and “Figuration” two years later. Her 1995 show, “Painting Outside Painting,” expanded the Corcoran’s definition of brushwork, featuring pieces that moved off the walls in sculptural forms. The materials list for Jessica Stockholder’s three-dimensional pieces included a couch, a blanket, and plastic sink legs. It was the closest the Corcoran had come to breaking its vaunted tradition of painting.
The Corcoran Biennial’s mandate to present painting, the dominant art form in 1907, has stunted the show’s growth. Other media occasionally sneaked in: Sue Fuller strung nylon threads under plexiglass in 1967; Bruce Nauman brought neon tubes to the 1969 show. But when art went multimedia in the ’70s, the Corcoran remained largely true to its turn-of-the century edicts. Meanwhile, biennials at the Whitney, established in 1932 with no such mandate, freely reflected changes in the art world. “People started to look more toward the Whitney [Biennial] than the Corcoran” in the ’70s, Sultan explains, because “it was more broad-based in terms of media.”
Despite critical infatuation with alternative media, painting remains a vital part of the art world. “Painting will outlive all of us,” notes Neal Benezra, the Hirshhorn’s assistant director of art and public programming. “At a certain moment there may be more interest in photography, sculpture, video, or performance,” he says, but “those are passing fashions.” Painters, like District artist Robin Rose, whose work was included in 1995’s Painting Outside Painting Biennial, naturally tend to agree: “As long as poetry is relevant, painting is relevant.”
Biennials as the Corcoran has conceived them, however, may have outlived their purpose. The idea of biennials came about in the 19th century as outlets for American painting when collectors and curators prized European art above all. But the art world’s focus shifted from Paris to New York after World War II, and the exhibitions no longer drew fuel from necessity. Images were everywhere: Independent galleries popped up across the country; television (and now, the Internet) offered broad access to contemporary art. Then there is the problem of emphasizing “American” art. “I’m not sure how much sense it makes for something to be described in a national way,” Benezra posits. The global art scene, he says, is “not about chauvinism anymore.”
The Corcoran is planning a public forum for September to help decide the fate of its biennial. The gallery proposes a Saturday program convening artists, curators, and the community to talk about the exhibitions’ value. “We would like to engage the public in a dialogue about the nature of biennials, whether it’s here, Pittsburgh, New York, or Venice…[to] come up with a consensus or at least survey informed opinion,” says Corcoran Deputy Director and Chief Curator Jack Cowart.
Some may argue that the show’s problems boil down to money. M.V. Clark argues that paying more to hire a high-profile curator would boost the biennial’s reputation. “You won’t get a mover and shaker in the art world for chump change,” he says. The Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, Germany, rely exclusively on guest curators; they are not sponsored by specific art institutions. But the Corcoran Biennial bears the museum’s signature to reaffirm its programming power. “I don’t think it has so much to do with not wanting to spend the money as it [does] with wanting to make it an institutional project,” explains Sultan. “When the Whitney organizes their biennial, their lead curator is a staff curator. It would change the institutional responsibility if we were to have a hired gun.”
The Corcoran Biennial doesn’t have the entrenched institutional patronage enjoyed by the Whitney or the Carnegie. Philip Morris helped underwrite regional shows like the 38th Western Biennial; thematic shows like those helped secure funding from the Woodward Foundation and the Baby Bells, too, although the gallery was criticized for sacrificing standards for money. “It’s indulgent of the art community to imagine that the Corcoran should continue to do unfunded exhibitions in perpetuity for somebody else’s amusement,” insists Cowart. Biennials are “self-funded enterprises,” and they “cut deep into the muscle of this institution,” he says. “These shows cost us dearly.” One way or another.