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Heaven help the curator who’s asked to assemble works for the post-mortem gallery of the soon-to-be Corcoran Contemporary, National Gallery of Art. If a plan is approved for the Corcoran to be absorbed by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University, the institution’s Beaux-Arts building will contain something called the “Corcoran Legacy” gallery, a room containing works closely associated with the museum’s history.
What a daunting task, to summarize an institution’s history, meaning, and purpose through a selection of its works. (One made all the more difficult by a Corcoran collection—part local, part encyclopedic, part photography—that has always struggled to tell a story about itself.) Does picking over the bones begin with the Corcoran’s masterpiece American paintings—“Mount Corcoran” by Albert Bierstadt (1876–77) or “Niagara” by Frederic Edwin Church (1857)? Or is the Corcoran’s final testament better registered in its holdings of contemporary photography, in works by Sally Mann, Alec Soth, William Eggleston, and Carrie Mae Weems?
Arguably the Corcoran’s truest legacy—the significance that is most likely to be lost as its collection is vacuumed by the National Gallery of Art and partially redistributed to museums in the Washington area and beyond—is the role the museum played for local artists. Here are four works from the Corcoran collection that tell how the Corcoran served as a bridge between the local art scene and the federal institutions along the National Mall. Which isn’t a bad legacy, wherever these works end up.
Anne Truitt, “Insurrection” (1962) (above)
Kristen Hileman, a former curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, gets credit for organizing a retrospective on this D.C.-area Minimalist sculptor in 2010. The Corcoran gets credit for showing her work first.
Martin Puryear, “Blue Blood” (1979)
The Museum of Modern Art organized an exhibit of the D.C. native’s elegant modernist sculpture that traveled to the National Gallery of Art in 2008. But it was the Corcoran that began collecting his work early.
Sam Gilliam, “Light Depth” (1969)
Gilliam’s draped paintings blaze a trail leading from the Washington Color School through Minimalism. While few artists followed where he led, the Corcoran documented his journey, culminating in a career retrospective in 2005 and 2006.
Rockne Krebs, “Ice Flower” (1969)
Krebs’ Plexiglass sculptures were an important part of several shows the artist mounted at the Corcoran. But he was best known for projecting Robert Mapplethorpe’s work on the museum building in a 1989 protest following the museum’s decision to censor that artist’s show.