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For the first time in umpteen years, the Kreeger Museum looks brand new, inside and out. Of all the people who need to visit it—of all the people who have likely never stepped foot inside—the person who needs to see the Kreeger most may be Utah Senator Orrin Hatch.
Late in 2015, the Senate Finance Committee issued letters to 11 art museums scattered across the country. Private art collections in Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and other cities received the inquiry, signed by Sen. Hatch, which asked for details about museum attendance, outstanding loans, acquisitions, and other figures. Two letters arrived in the D.C. area: at the Kreeger Museum in Foxhall and Glenstone in Potomac, Maryland.
“[R]ecent reports have raised the possibility that some private foundations are operating museums that offer minimal benefit to the public while enabling donors to reap substantial tax advantages,” reads the letter.
Since then, Sen. Hatch seems to have let the matter drop. Nevertheless, Glenstone has since taken pains to ensure that its growing museum—which shares a campus with the home of Mitchell Rales, a billionaire and trustee for the National Gallery of Art—runs more like a legitimate art institution than it has in the past. That was never much of a problem for the Kreeger, an above-board museum that got caught in a dragnet for alleged tax shelters.
Yet a number of changes at the Kreeger make it more accessible—and a better destination—than ever before. On September 19, the museum opens the first phase of its renewal, a rehang of half of the museum space. Harry Cooper, the National Gallery of Art’s senior curator for modern art, has reinstalled the Kreeger’s turn-of-the-century permanent collection, finding new places for old favorites and promoting several lesser-known gems from the archives.
First, though, an introduction may be in order. Tucked away in transit-inaccessible Foxhall, the Kreeger is unknown even to self-professed D.C. art lovers. Arguably, the museum’s most formidable asset is its building. The former residence of Carmen and David Kreeger, this jewel-box house museum was designed by Philip Johnson in 1963. That same year, the famed architect designed the museum pavilion for Dumbarton Oaks, another lesser-known art museum in Georgetown. Both buildings mark a transitional moment in Johnson’s shift from International Style severity to Postmodernist pomp. Built in hand-selected travertine, the Kreeger expresses itself through a series of cube-shaped galleries, each one capped by ribbed ceiling vaults. From the outside, the building looks like a series of linked modular domes. The style is orthodox mod.
About a third of the late-19th century and early-20th century paintings going on view are hanging for the first time in years—or even longer. Cooper has teased out new pairings in the collection, including Pierre Bonnard’s “The Bay or Landscape, the South of France Le golfe ou Paysage du midi)” (1921) and Max Beckmann’s “Sunny Beach with Bathers or Green Sea with Yello Skiff (Grünes Meer mit gelbern Kahn)” (1937), beach scenes recently retrieved from storage. Kreeger habitués will notice that the Great Hall looks all new: It’s now home to a suite of six shimmering stunners by Claude Monet, including “Bras de Seine près de Giverny, brouillard (Arm of the Seine near Giverny in the Fog)” (1897). Five of the seven remaining paintings in the Great Hall are new arrivals.
Where the Monets used to hang, in the Kreeger’s Terrace Gallery, visitors will find a wild and woolly selection of Surrealist and Cubist paintings by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, and Arshile Gorky. This room is animated, a crash course in mid-century funk. The highlight is “The Easel (Le chevalet) or Vase, Palette and Skull” (1939), one of Braque’s most metal paintings, an edgy cousin to his masterpiece run of Cubist paintings before World War One (and maybe the sickest depiction of a skull in art history).
In the Atrium Gallery (formerly the Salon) hangs a set of paintings that, taken together, make up a puzzle. On one side of the gallery’s central fireplace, viewers will find two floral still-life paintings by Vincent van Gogh from 1886. On the other, two similar still-lifes by Paul Cézanne (1907–09 and 1879–82). Hanging between them over the mantle is Picasso’s “At the Café de la Rotonde or L’Hippodrome” (1901), an early work that appears to neatly combine aspects of both the other painters’ brushstrokes. (If there were a fan formula for this hard-to-place Picasso, it would be CZ + VG = PP.)
Cooper is also curating phase two of the Kreeger’s reopening, planned for this fall or next spring. The lower-floor galleries will showcase the museum’s 20th-century holdings. With any luck, the museum will rehang its paintings by Elmer Bischoff and David Park, two Bay Area figurative painters whose works are hard to find in D.C. anywhere but the Kreeger. One Washington Color School trophy is already on view in the stairwell: “Universal Joint” (1967), a shaped rainbow chevron by Thomas Downing.
The newest addition to the Kreeger Museum family is Richard Deutsch’s “Against the Day” (2007), an outdoor sculpture set that previously occupied the Chevy Chase Center plaza in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The piece comprises five white granite benches that surround three Isamu Noguchi–inspired sculptures in white, red, and black granite. It’s a leftover and a let-down, a piece made to serve as a public gathering place—the kind of public art that often goes as an afterthought. As a sculpture, “Against the Day” doesn’t stand up to a smart triptych of outdoor works by Wendy Ross, George Rickey, and Foon Sham. Kendall Buster’s “Garden Snare” (1998)—an enclosure of two intersecting torus forms made in steel and shadecloth, a quietly sinister object that looks like a trap sourced from a hardware store—is the best contemporary work in this sculpture garden or anywhere else in the city.
While it falls short of other outdoor works here, “Against the Day” is a respectable reuse for the Kreeger’s north lawn, which used to be home to the family’s tennis courts. Over the last few years, the Kreeger has made moves to convert the last vestiges of the Kreegers’ house into the future of the Kreeger Museum. This includes filling in the swimming pool to make it a reflecting pond and enlisting the courts as an extension of the sculpture garden.
The last parcel is the old family garage, which D.C. sculptor Dan Steinhilber used to great effect in 2012. For “Marlin Underground,” Steinhilber repurposed all the crap that was still stashed in the garage to create a ballet mécanique: an automated soundscape arising from things like smoke alarms, garbage cans, and space heaters.
The Kreeger’s self-reinvention over the last few years has involved a surprising amount of contemporary art. In terms of space, there’s not much left that still needs repurposing (although that garage would make a great kunsthalle, or an hermitage for an artist residency). But if Sen. Hatch still needs any convincing, then he should keep a watch out for the Kreeger’s future plans—which are in keeping with the house-museum’s history. Back when it was the Kreegers’ home, it was always a venue for lively experiments in art and sound, set against a stately backdrop of patronage and prestige.
“We’re going to continue our focus on contemporary exhibitions,” says new museum director Helen Chason. “It’s part of what the Kreegers wanted to do. It’s exactly what I want to do.”