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Haul Casts Pall on Mall

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

edited by Abram Lerner
Abrams, 770, 1,019 illus. pp., $40.00

Culturally, Washington has been until quite recently one of the most underprivileged of the world’s major capital cities. But during the last ten years, and especially since the opening of the Kennedy Center, Washington’s cultural amenities have increased in volume with a rush. Nor has the art life of Washington, hitherto so quiet and provincial, failed to respond. The National Gallery is being enlarged and its collections added to, especially in the field of twentieth-century art. The Phillips Collection, select, staid, personal, and predominatly European in outlook, maintains an honorable activity. The National Portrait Gallery and the National Collection of Fine Arts, both wholly American, have taken hold of the public’s interest. Admittedly the so-called Institute of Contemporary Art folded, but a number of newly installed dealers now offer frequent exhibitions of assorted contemporary wares.

This is really not a bad state of affairs, more especially when one considers the importance of the various collections in the National Gallery and of the Chinese and Japanese collections in the Freer Gallery. Yet not content with the admirable representation of the modern movement in the Chester Dale and Phillips collections, as well as the modern American paintings in the National Collection, bureaucratic Washington has long been casting jealous glances at the growing modern collections in other cities all over the United States and aspiring to set up an unsurpassable National Museum of Modern Art in the federal capital. For official Washington has a curiously high opinion of the city’s standing in the cultural sphere, and until six months ago suffered from an unjustified sense of inferiority, of lagging behind the rest of the continent, of not being “with it,” because it had never found room for a museum devoted exclusively to modern art among its major “sights.”

S. Dillon Ripley, secretary to the Smithsonian Institution, who has written the foreword to this monumental first catalogue of the newly established Hirshhorn Museum, makes official Washington’s views abundantly clear. “Washington,” he writes, “can take satisfaction in having here on the Mall, and in adjacent sites close by, perhaps as significant a sampling of human creativity over the centuries as has been assembled in one place. And this is true of all the arts, including the art of politics, for from Archives to Congressional Library, to the great galleries and museums, it is, appropriately enough, all here for those who seek to find.”

We live and learn, as they say. Personally, it would not have occurred to me until this moment to think of Washington as a city of great architecture. And I am shocked to discover that one of America’s foremost cultural administrators believes that the “sampling of human creativity over the centuries” to be discovered in Rome, London, New York, or Paris is perhaps less “significant” than that offered by Washington. Of one thing, however, I am sure: until now I have never experienced the least regret over the absence of a Museum of Modern Art in Washington, not least because far too much importance nowadays is attached indiscriminately to any sort of art created during our century. At least in Washington it was hitherto possible to look with pleasure at select groups of modern works of art—many of them great examples—which had been picked by men with flair, a trained eye, and serious discrimination. But by bringing the Hirshhorn Museum into existence, Washington has tarnished its cultural record and done a major disservice to numerous artists whose works are on view. The museum building is in itself banal, ugly, and impractical, while the collection it has been built to house is nothing but a farrago of aberrations, among which certain undeniably great and well-known works of true art try desperately to proclaim their unhappy yet still living presence among corpses in a morgue.

Quoting once again from the sententious foreword to this bombastic volume by Dillon Ripley, I feel obliged to record that it was “thirty-six years ago that the United States Congress enacted legislation designed to create on the Mall in Washington a museum to illustrate trends in contemporary art and to encourage thereby the growth as well as public understanding of such art.” It was not, however, until 1966 that this legislative decision took effect, when the late President Lyndon Johnson, on the urging of Roger L. Stevens, his adviser on the arts, and Dillon Ripley, a newly named, adventurous impresario at the Smithsonian; decided to accept, sight unseen and in the name of the federal government, the heteroclitic amassment of several thousand art works which the king of uranium, Joseph Hirshhorn, had haphazardly assembled during the preceding thirty years.

On November 7, 1966, Congress at the president’s request passed a special act in which Mr. Hirshhorn’s proposed “gift to the nation” was gratefully accepted, while at the same time it allotted a large land area on the Mall for a building to house the future Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The official groundbreaking ceremony occurred in January 1969, construction began in 1970, and the ceremonial opening of the new museum took place in late September 1974. Since then I have spent several hours studying the place at all levels and in all its aspects, therefore what I write in reviewing this volume is as much the outcome of actual experience as of an intellectual appreciation of its contents.

This bulky (800 pages) and enormously expensive volume, compiled under the supervision of Abram Lerner—an erstwhile painter, who has been Hirshhorn’s private curator for almost twenty years and is now the museum’s first director—assisted by six American art writers, is the first installment of what should ultimately become the official catalogue of the Hirshhorn Museum’s artistic holdings. One thousand or more items are here inventoried and reproduced, as well as being superficially commented upon within the text of one or another of the six historico-critical essays that introduce the different sections into which this extract from the collection has been artificially divided.

It is reliably reported that the Hirshhorn’s total complement of art objects amounts to 6,000 items at least, and these fall, generally speaking, into three wide categories: American painting from 1870 on, European painting since 1930, and finally European and American sculpture from c. 1800 to now. But Lerner has rejected such broad generalizations and has invented a far more complex scheme of presentation which defies any reasonable attempt at study or research. His scheme is to cut slices out of time as though it were a cake, and thus he confronts readers with the following divisions: French Nineteenth-Century Sculpture (which includes Clodion, Houdon, and Lemoyne!) and American Art; 1900 to 1913; 1914 to 1929; 1930 to 1945; 1946 to 1960; and 1961 to the Present.

In our inaugural exhibition and in this book,” writes Lerner, “it has been our purpose to indicate the nature and scope of our collection in a manner that would delight and inform. We have chosen to summarize its essential character and profile, to reveal the influence of its creator, and to set it into a meaningful framework. Without attempting an encyclopedic approach, we have divided our selection into periods or epochs which we hope will add interest and structure to a variety of works too often seen out of their historical context. Our determination to retain the historicity of artistic production allows artists to appear and reappear in relation to their contemporaries within each epoch. The contrasts created by such confrontations are intended to reduce the homogeneity which frequently accompanies large surveys….”

Primarily this is a gratuitous flow of empty verbiage, though it raises in my mind several questions. How, for example, does one “summarize” a “profile”? What does Lerner mean when he refers to “the influence” of Hirshhorn? And above all what has he in mind when he thinks that his temporal divisions will add “structure” to some of the works they embrace? The museum’s collection itself has no “structure,” while Lerner’s artificial divisions make it, if possible, still more incoherent. For Lerner’s divisions correspond to nothing, either in terms of style or of art-historical evolution. But they do introduce a powerful degree of confusion, notably in the intellectual processes of the various art writers. However, since confusion—especially confusion of artistic values—was the keynote of Joseph Hirshhorn’s whole purchasing activity and has inevitably led to the muddled assortment of objects out of which others must now try to make a valid museum, this volume merely reveals in its own way how contagious confusion can be, and how disastrous the consequences when it attacks the thinking processes of those concerned with setting up and presenting such a museum.

Washington’s desire for an “instant” Museum of Modern Art nec pluribus impar to enhance the prestige of the nation’s federal capital has led to the city being used as a prestigious but convenient dumping ground for a bulk handout of cumbersome and frequently meaningless art works. Indeed, the transformation of the Hirshhorn Collection into the Hirshhorn Museum is one of the biggest hoaxes and extravaganzas in the history of art collecting.

In the first flush of excitement at finding itself the recipient of the biggest-ever modern art haul, and then of having produced a museum which overnight became a major attraction for tourists of every nationality, Washington overlooked the colossal confidence trick which has been performed. For while the collection of art objects acquired by Joseph Hirshhorn may be numerically one of the greatest amassments ever made by a single man, it cannot, in artistic worth and cultural significance, be described as a major collection. Numbers do not in themselves signify quality. The fact is that the Hirshhorn collection has never been other than a haphazard piling-up of art works bought on impulse, without method, knowledge, understanding, or even true artistic sensibility, by a very rich man for his own amusement and satisfaction.

Abram Lerner says that Joseph Hirshhorn has had an “inspired greed for art,” and goes on to give a graphic description of how he would satisfy this greed. Hirshhorn, writes Lerner, “would leave a business meeting and rush to an exhibition or an artist’s studio, or would suddenly descend on a gallery and buy several works” in short order, and then depart “as suddenly as he had entered.” There’s nothing wrong in that procedure so long as Hirshhorn was buying exclusively for himself, because it was no concern of anyone else whether he was buying bad or good art. Moreover Hirshhorn’s prodigality must have encouraged and helped a considerable number of artists, while also enriching many dealers. So the effects of his purchasing bouts were in some respects beneficial.

Thus, so long as the fruits of Hirshhorn’s purse-happy spending sprees remained in the private domain no harm was being done. Harm only begins to be done by such a harum-scarum collector when he gets ridiculous ideas into his head about his artistic taste and discrimination, and the importance to the world of his personal collection. This is just what happened to Joseph Hirshhorn, as Lerner—who was deeply involved—explains. For there came a moment when Hirshhorn could not any more cope with the embarrassing problems of accommodating the uncontrollable number, size, and mass of the multifarious art objects which he was continually purchasing. Apartments, houses, storage vaults, and gardens were full of the stuff, far more being concealed than was ever visible. At that point, to quote again from Lerner, “Mr. Hirshhorn realized that his collection had outgrown its private status.” But that was not all, for at the same time Hirshhorn decided that “its size and importance imposed a special responsibility on him to preserve it intact and to eventually give it to the public.”

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