Saturday, September 18, 2010

Close-ing Time: The Corcoran

It was Labor Day Weekend (that's the one at the end of the summer, yes?) It meant the end of all kinds of things: super-cooled office environments,  tank tops, and free Saturdays at the Corcoran. If there was ever a time to gather rosebuds while I might, this was it.

On the steps of the neat square Beaux-Arts building, an artist was crouched.  Earbuds in his ears, he was laying out blocks of color for a portrait of George Washington, riffing on Gilbert Stuart's classic. 

The Corcoran is a college as well as a gallery, and the atrium has an elegant, intimate feel.  A group was sketching from a model in one half; the other was taken up by a cafe.  I had just biked in from Arlington, so went to get some water before art. It was blood-warm from the fountain and as I raised my head a burst of song rang out through the atrium.

Really, there's only one thing to do when you hear a distant strain of music.  I followed.  Upstairs I found two choirs in handsome black and magenta.  The Washington Revels were presenting their program of America music: Ren-fest-sounding songs of the American Revolution, spine-tingling spirituals, and apocalyptic shape-note hymns.

I hunkered down to watch the singing beside a striking sculpture, all feathers and claws in black metal.  As soon as I saw the comical sculpted eye, though, the figure of a bird flying through reeds leaped out, and the effect was ruined.

After the concert I wandered around the upstairs level, which was entirely dedicated to Chuck Close.  He's the one who does those portraits made of multicolored squares ("Hey, that's so derivative!" I though, before realizing it was the opposite). Close has been around for a while - long enough to have anticipated in mindboggling manuality the techniques that were to become standard in computer printing technology. I didn't think to check the dates, so I don't know if he was deterred or discouraged by the fact that Photoshop made it possible to do in microseconds what he accomplished with so much labor, but the labor did seem to be at least half the point of the exhibition.

The information labels left a lot to be desired.  Poorly placed, they jammed visitors trying to read them into corners, and took a weirdly reverential tone toward Close himself.  They referred to one work (according to my somewhat illegible notes) with the statistically improbably phrase "typically important." In all, I came away respectful, but strangely unmoved.

All of the other upstairs galleries were closed, but my tour of the permanent galleries downstairs began with a really delightful exhibition of early American art.  This kind of exhibit is one of the real strengths of smaller galleries, showcasing not beauty or even importance but sheer overflowing personality. Rembrandt Peale's portrait of Joseph Outen Bogart resembles an early Photoshop disaster, Charles King's deadpan Artist's Cupboard (including the book "On a Vegetable Diet" and a stack of unpaid bills) is as accurate as ever, and Joshua Johnson's portrait of Grace Allison McCurdy and her daughters is stop-you-from-across-the-room beautiful. A Light On the Sea appears at first glance as being a portrait of a sailor cross-dressing on shore leave.  And the final standout, to me, was Cecilia Beaux's Sita and Sarita, which is possibly the most subversive thing I've ever seen.

For the most part the paintings had the immediate presence of being in someone's home rather than the occasionally clinical feel of museum works.  But why were some hung so high on the walls?  One Sargent painting appeared curiously elongated, as it were meant to be hung above eye level - but that was right there in front of the viewers.

The European galleries weren't quite as engaging as the American ones, although I did enjoy hearing a mother telling her enrapt six-year-old daughter what was so cool about impressionist art. "The farther away you go, the more detail you see." The daughter backed away from the painting, squeezing her eyes shut.  "I see it!  I see it!" she yelled joyfully. The Dutch room was very dark, the English painters got carried away with sfumato, and although I usually don't give a damn about French art, Jean-Jacques Henner's "Standing Woman" was so notable that it doesn't appear to have any images online.

The other galleries included a claustrophobogenic little closet with what appears to be the sweepings from the desk of Olga Hirshhorn and a collection of bronzes which, though varied and intriguing, weren't really a medium that spins my wheels. Lachaise's massive female torso, though, made me realize something.  Women's rights were set back millennia when Venus popped up in Milo missing her hands.  Seriously, how is this trend of depicting women from the neck to the thighs anything but gruesome?

Place: The Corcoran Gallery of Art
Pros: The really kick-ass American art collection
Cons: Ten bucks!
Definitely Check Out: Sita and Sarita
Rating: 7/10 chalk drawings of Washington


  1. I'm feeling really dense, but how is Sita and Sarita subversive? I see the woman's got a wry sort of smile and that the cat is looking boldly at the painter, but is there something obvious that I'm just not getting?

  2. After googling, I see that the cat is an allusion to Manet's Olympia. Huh. I'm still not quite sure I grasp all of the subtleties there.

  3. Well, you have a portrait of a young lady in a white dress sitting on a sofa. Nice society, right? probably good family. Hang it in the living room! Aww, and she's got her pet with her! But look at the way she's got her hand crooked - that's the "Come here!" gesture, and all of a sudden that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, jet-black cat takes on another meaning. Coupled with the placement of her other hand, and I thought "Good Lord! They put that on the wall?!"