Friday, February 29, 2008

Conquer and Consume: The American Evolution in Pictures, and Pieces, at the Corcoran

Since other writers will comment on the Corcoran’s endeavor to re-present its diverse treasures in a five-chapter narrative of “American Evolution,” we’ll just mention a few pieces that caught our eye.

Warhol’s cheery, cheeky portrait of Mao so overpowers the Gilbert Stuart’s oil dignification of our first president that “pop art” seems too trivial a term in retrospect. This opening salvo reminds me of the Corcoran’s exhibition a couple years back that proved Warhol was more than a clever opportunist. Among other things, he was a social commentator who exposed ideology as a marketable product.

This art history of America, brief as it is, manages greater fidelity to the truth than both popular and scholastic texts on which most of us were raised. Those colonists and settlers didn’t survive savage beasts; they were the savage beasts. The great nation was built on the backs and blood of native Indians, imported slaves and animals, with entire species exterminated within decades. The land wasn’t tamed; it was trampled.

The American credo: Conquer and Consume.

The American Dream was more about “freedom to” than “freedom from.”

Albert Bierstadt knew the truth, and illustrated it in his colossal oil paintings: nothing is gained without something lost. Indians were displaced, and animals sensed an end to their free-roaming days. In his 1869 “The Impending Storm,” Bierstadt depicts buffalo moving anxiously under threatening skies. One of the Corcoran’s most affecting pieces is “The Last of the Buffalo.” Men on horses decimate a herd, whose fallen members bear red eyes, gaping wounds, blood-matted fur. Life seeps from their ravaged bodies. Sun-bleached skulls of previous victims litter the western landscape. The buffalo stand not a chance; the gored horse and rider piled in foreground illustrate a will to survive – but will is no match for man and his appetites.

As the American Evolution continues, let’s hope the strong will help the others survive.

Take Home the Collection – Book Worth Buying

The opening of “The American Evolution” gave us a chance to revisit the Corcoran’s 2002 catalog of its masterworks, “A Capital Collection.” On first glance, it seemed dated – the Corcoran’s evolution has spanned from its leadership to its zeitgeist – but the timelessness of the works transcends.

Frederic Edwin Church’s ever-popular 1857 “Niagara,” a mighty monument on canvas makes for a conservative, conventional cover choice. But it also foreshadows the powerful force of page after page of works of every kind, accompanied by concise, immensely readable narrative that multiplies appreciation of each creation.

The book kicks off with a futurist panorama that represented Frank O. Gehry’s vision for a new wing. That plan bit the dust; mostly due to money, though not entirely; Mr. Gehry gave me a quick earful during an interview at an awards ceremony at the National Building Museum a few months back. But back to the present ....

The dozens of finds include Guiseppe Croff’s 1860 marble sculpture of “The Veiled Nun.” Excellent photography of the work enables us to see the Italian master’s astonishing sculted veil – a diaphanous piece one would think impossible to render in marble. Beneath it are the gentle eyes and soft skin of the model, who we learn is not a nun.

This alone is worth the price of the volume, which brims with such moments of epiphany. Such as Andrea di Vanni’s portable triptych from the plague-plagued 1300s ... American George Inness’s sublime “Sunset in the Woods” that beckons you to follow the light ... Albert Bierstadt’s power play as bold as his painting style for display of “Mount Corcoran” (which was originally title “Mountain Lake”) ... how D.C. watercolorist Lucian Whiting Powell found his “Afterglow” out west in the Grand Canyon a century ago ... insight into Robert Colescott’s satirical homages, and a tour through his 1981 “Auvers-sur-Oise (Crow in the Wheat Field)”, a bizarre reinterpretation of Van Gogh’s “Crows Over a Wheatfield” that turns on superficiality. See the exhibition; buy the book.

Corcoran details at:

Andy Warhol’s Mao. 1973 synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink on canvas