Lukewarm Reception for Chilly Modern Art
The Corcoran’s Ambitious Show Has Drawn Praise But Not Big Crowds
“Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art has already proved itself — in every way but one. In terms of scale and ambition, critical reception, quantity of masterworks and panache of installation, that enormous exhibition — a version of the show that was organized last year by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London — has already succeeded. Not in many years has the long-troubled Corcoran offered its viewers a show as good as this one. But it has yet to draw big crowds.
Not for lack of trying. In an effort to revive his museum’s reputation, Paul Greenhalgh, the Corcoran’s new director, who brought the show to Washington, has pulled out all the stops.
“Modernism” has not been shoved into a corner. Its 450 modern objects — its paintings, lamps and movie clips, its architectural models, its chairs of many kinds, its kitchen and its car, its radios and cameras and machinery and dinnerware — nearly fill the museum. Its scholarship is deep. Its catalogue is hefty (477 pages). Critics from afar (Philadelphia and Boston, New York and Los Angeles) have covered it approvingly. Very few exhibits attract the attention of national television, but this one has been covered by “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS. The exhibit has been widely praised but, at least so far, only lightly seen.
In its first month on exhibition (the show runs through July) “Modernism” has drawn 17,184 visitors. Greenhalgh calls those figures “robust but not great.”
Some sure-fire, pop-culture, easy-onthe-brain exhibits at the Corcoran have drawn bigger crowds than that. In summer 2002, “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” (which ran from April to September) brought in 153,000; in 2004, “Norman Rockwell’s Four Free- doms: Paintings That Inspired a Nation” attracted 110,000. The clothes of Jackie O and Rockwell’s propaganda may not have a lot of art-historical significance, but they aren’t difficult to sell.
“Modernism” has proved tougher. Its attendance may be due to three converging factors — the old art bias of Washington, the cost of getting in and, not least, the art itself.
Decorative-arts shows seldom thrive in our museums. Washington’s a picture town. This has been the case for decades. Until rather recently the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran and the National Gallery of Art focused most of their attention on two-dimensional images, not on car fenders or dishes or other threedimensional objects. The Corcoran, for instance, built its national reputation on its Biennial Exhibitions of American Painting— no sculptors need apply. The Phillips Collection has always specialized in oils. So, too, has the National Gallery of Art.
Sure, Washington has statues, but most are outdoors in the parks. Here sculpture seems the province of a selfapproving government. Indoors, in museums here, paintings tend to stand for art.
This is not the case with “Modernism.” It does include good pictures (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 1921 rendering of a skyscraper sheathed in glass has to be among the century’s great drawings) but many feel peripheral. The exhibit on the whole stresses 3-D things.
An additional discouragement may be the high price of admission. It costs $14 to get in — though nearby on the Mall the museums all are free.
Greenhalgh understands how such costs subdue attendance. When the V&A in London, where he used to work, dispensed with its admission charge, “attendance went through the roof,” he says. “We also sold,” he adds, “many more cups of tea.”
Cups of tea are comforting. “Modernism” isn’t. Its art shuns decoration. Much of it approves the chilly, the utopian, the impersonally machined. “A great number of people feel that modernism has desecrated the great Victorian past. And that it’s sort of communist,” says Greenhalgh. “It’s a hard sell.”
Much of the art in “Modernism” is curiously familiar. Many older viewers greet it with undisguised nostalgia. Lore Ross, a visitor from New Jersey, says she used to own “a whole set” of dinnerware designed by Russel Wright, and that she well remembers the frocks of Claire McCardell from the 1940s. “I grew up with all of this,” she said. But she is 86.
Younger viewers find that much of what’s on view is familiar in another way, for it powerfully resembles what they know already from Crate and Barrel, Target and Ikea. Visitor Edward Fixler, a 15-year-old from Massachusetts, put it this way: “It’s kind of weird that people consider this stuff art.”
An exhibit in “Modernism: Designing a New World” has only a security guard to keep it company on a recent afternoon. The gallery’s director calls attendance “robust but not great.”