Yesterday I discussed a National Gallery of Art collection hang titled “American Painting 1959-2009,” which is mostly notable for the unusual curatorial text attached to the show. Here’s a quick look at the installation that accompanied the salvo.
As an antidote to the National Gallery’s recent blue-chip-names-laden hang of a major gift of paintings and sculpture from Maryland collectors Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, “American Painting 1959-2009″ is a helpful installation. The Meyerhoff trove was top-heavy with Big Names and short on depth or complexity. Apparently the Meyerhoffs were especially fond of collecting paintings by famous white men, mistakes by Frank Stella and, with the exception of Maryland-based painter Grace Hartigan, not much else. The Meyerhoff trove was wildly impressive at the Johns-Kelly-Rauschenberg-Lichtenstein end, but it was also an indirect argument for the importance of curatorial intervention in institutional collection-building.
And so the NGA gives us this, an institutionally-declared response to the Meyerhoff trove. At best it’s a quirky, small, 29-artist installation that fills some space.
There is some top-notch work here. Both Morris Louises — Beth Chaf (1959, above) and Beta Kappa (1961) are commanding. So too Joan Mitchell’s Land (1989), Lee Krasner’s Cobalt Night (1962), and Lee Bontecou’s Untitled (1962, below), which apparently counts as a painting when the NGA wants it to. Edda Renouf’s Random Overtone Piece (1977) is a pleasant surprise and it’s nice to see Mel Ramos included, even if the NGA’s Wild Girl (1963) isn’t a strong example.
Then there are the whys: Richard Lindner, Thomas Chimes, Arnold Mesches, Milton Avery and Alex Katz among others. (Inexplicably, the easy, well-connected, painterly-upscale Katz has become an NGA darling, a member of the gallery’s Jim Dine Club. The NGA has acquired two big Katzes in the last several years and the museum’s curators can’t seem to keep them off view.) Tony Smith, Eric Fischl and Robert Mangold are big names who sit flat here. One way of seeing how certain artists hold up against others is to hang them together. Lesson learned.
Mostly, the installation shows how much work the NGA’s curators and supporters have to do to fill the abundant gaps in the museum’s holdings. The NGA has significant works by Vija Celmins, Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Francis, Robert Irwin, Agnes Martin and Ed Ruscha but chose not to include them. That’s fine. Martin and Ruscha in particular have been on view regularly in recent years.
But there are significant American painters of the last 50 years who aren’t in the NGA’s collection. Their absence from this kind of hang should serve as a clear call to the museum’s acquisitions committees — and I can’t help but think that’s part of the reason for this show. A partial roster of the absent includes: John Altoon, Anne Appleby, Jay DeFeo, Richard Estes, Louise Fishman, Leon Golub, David Hockney, Jonathan Lasker, John McLaughlin, Julie Mehretu, Lee Mullican, Tom Nozkowski, David Park (who died in 1960), Lari Pittman, Dorothea Rockburne, Peter Saul, Amy Sillman, Nancy Spero, Philip Taaffe and David Wojnarowicz. I could keep going. (And readers may in the comments section.)
Ultimately, what’s most interesting about “American Painting 1959-2009″ is what the NGA will do from here forward.