Playing It Safe; Art Museums Fall Back on the Usual Suspects

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

Playing It Safe; Art Museums Fall Back on the Usual Suspects


Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Ansel Adams again? The photographer of Yosemite National Park and Big Sur is such a regular subject at area museums that you'd think they were lobbying for donations from the Sierra Club.

The latest exhibition to feature his landscapes opened at the National Gallery of Art earlier this month, after last year's survey of his career at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The one-room Oceans, Rivers and Skies compares Mr. Adams' oceanscapes to works by Robert Adams (no relation) and Alfred Stieglitz. It coincides with an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Mr. Adams' images are compared to paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, who was Mr. Stieglitz's wife.

Repeating the same artists and the same themes is a hallmark of the art exhibits this season, one of the most unimaginative in recent years. Few of the city's art museums are showcasing new talents or themes but instead are relying on familiar names and predictable subjects to secure sponsorship and boost attendance.

At the impoverished Corcoran, Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power is anything but powerful. This exhibit of more than 200 photos reduces famous artists and politicians to glum, cookie-cutter figures. It's as celebrity-driven as last year's Annie Leibovitz exhibit but without any sense of the sitters' personalities. There isn't much new here except for some faces of ordinary folks - part of a project called Democracy - and they undermine the whole point of the show.

The most tedious exhibit of the season also promotes

celebrity, in this case a pair of art-world darlings drumming up support for an environmental artwork. Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, A Work in Progress at the Phillips Collection documents the husband-and-wife team's ongoing project to elevate metallic fabric panels over a 34-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado.

The huckster-artists, who promote their public art through lectures, films and shows such as this one, are best-known for The Gates in Central Park. They are still negotiating the permissions to create the temporary Colorado artwork, which they hope to install in 2012.

In gallery after gallery, drawings and collages repeat views of the proposed canopies from every conceivable angle. In one room, a partial mock-up of the anchors and cables required for stringing the silvery fabric over the river looks borrowed from a construction site.

More boring still, numerous photos show the artists meeting with various federal and state governmental agencies to secure their approvals. With all these representations of red tape, the exhibit comes across as an homage to Kafkaesque bureaucracy - it even displays an Environmental Impact Statement.

It's refreshing to find examples of contemporary art at the Phillips - just not this show. The proposals and documents required of the site-specific installation not only are dull to look at, but run counter to the formalist tradition of the intimate museum with its emphasis on visual comparisons between works.

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Playing It Safe; Art Museums Fall Back on the Usual Suspects
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