Luke­warm Re­cep­tion for Chilly Mod­ern Art

The Corcoran’s Am­bi­tious Show Has Drawn Praise But Not Big Crowds

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Paul Richard

“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.”

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