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.”

Underlying such thinking is the cynicism of an egoist and an intolerable arrogance. On what basis of sound critical appraisal had Hirshhorn reached the conclusion that the abundance of art objects he had purchased were of such exceptional aesthetic significance and beauty en masse that in future it was his duty to hand over to the public, that is to say to some national Treasury, the burden of preserving and displaying them? Furthermore, what had led Hirshhorn to think that he had “a special responsibility” to ensure that not one item would be disposed of, because any such transaction would diminish the status of the collection as a whole?

These are vital questions, though no one seems to have asked them. Had they done so, the costly tragedy of the Hirshhorn Museum as it exists today might never have been perpetrated. For, as a result of their not being asked, when Hirshhorn set about negotiating the disposal of his collection widely around the world to interested governments, he was able to do so at his own inflated estimation of its inherent artistic worth. No doubt he was aided in this by the fact that he made it difficult for the various officials with whom he negotiated to discover the truth about what he really owned.

Lerner presents himself in this book as having been Hirshhorn’s confidant and principal adviser with regard to the disposal of the contents of his overloaded art deposits. Presumably he also encouraged his boss to indulge in the vainglory of thinking about future fame and remembrance. On this score, the list of cities with which Hirshhorn negotiated reveals a lot about the extent of his ambition. For Hirshhorn discussed the establishment of his private collection as a museum with official personalities in Tel Aviv, Florence, Zurich, London, and New York, where then Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller proposed to set it up on the campus of the State University at Purchase. Only after all these negotiations had come to nothing did Hirshhorn finally reach an agreement with Washington. But we must not imagine that in handing over his immense collection to the federal authorities Hirshhorn was making either an unusually generous gesture or even a personal sacrifice. He was getting his cumbersome art mountain out of his own way and dumping it in a new museum building, the cost of which would have to be borne by the federal government. And on top of that, Hirshhorn was clever and immodest enough to prevent his “gift” becoming in formal terms an impersonal National Collection by insisting that the future museum should bear his name.

Washington’s decision that it could and should accept the Hirshhorn collection, in the name of the American people, “intact” and establish it in the federal capital as one of the great museums of modern art in the world was a disastrous miscalculation. Both parties to the deal, the takers as well as the giver, were status-seekers and opportunistically inclined, so both were happy (though for different reasons) to see it successfully concluded. But the federal authorities must have been innocent and blind if they really believed that it is possible to turn one man’s hotchpotch collection into a coherent display worthy of a great museum without ruthless pruning. Yet that was never done.

A true museum is the outcome of careful planning and slow growth. For the essence of its aesthetic and educational importance lies in the display of well-rounded collections, which are carefully ordered and illustrate, as fully as possible and with works which are not only typical but also of the finest quality available, either a special technique or a category of art objects or the cultural ambiance of a historical epoch or the art of some country or continent at a specific period in its history.

The Hirshhorn collection fulfills none of these desiderata. To begin with it embraces indiscriminately any art work which has appealed to Joseph Hirshhorn during the past forty years, irrespective of whether its artistic quality is good, bad, or downright lousy. Admittedly it contains, perhaps fortuitously, a limited number of fine works by some of the greatest artists of the past 150 years. But they are lost amid the far greater number of works which have not only no permanent value as art but also no significance as examples of the best or most interesting types of art which have been produced in our own time. So in the last resort they do not even have a sociological interest to commend them. Many artists who today enjoy “smart” reputations are heavily represented, but so are many others, of very minor status, who have never enjoyed any reputation at all.

As one turns the pages of this monumental catalogue the eye falls upon reproductions of a marble bust by Houdon, of a bronze Horseman by Meissonier, a terracotta by Rude, plasters by Carpeaux, bronzes from Benin (twenty-four in all), and bronzes by Rodin which have been very recently cast and are of inferior quality. After that one finds a group of bronzes by Degas, two unauthentic bronzes attributed incorrectly to Gauguin, major and minor bronzes by Matisse and Picasso, some little decorative bronzes by Braque, counterfeit bronzes after plaster or wax sculptures by Daumier which were cast and recast up to fifty years after the artist’s death, a bronze cast of 1961 made from a plaster executed by Dantan in 1834, a molded loaf of French bread in blue plastic by Man Ray, a sheet of black glass with some flickering neon tubes by Chryssa, a burned and shattered violin in a polyester casing by Arman, optical teasers painted by Vasarely, lacquered wooden panels with holes in them by Fontana, a painting by Ruscha of an architectural model of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with smoke pouring from its windows, cheap sex-shop art in two or three dimensions (New Realism this!) by Red Grooms, Ramos, and Pearlstein, and a great number of very large, and usually inferior, specimens of Pop Art, Op Art, Minimal Art, and Word Art.

Joseph Hirshhorn was certainly an ardent purchaser in his time, but the collection exists to prove that he never showed perception or discrimination. It is therefore a pathetic fallacy to talk about his art amassment as though it represents in any true or honorable way the serious, the best, or the path-finding achievements in art as practiced by the leading artists in Europe and America during the past two centuries. The museum’s collection may appear to be all-embracing, and in a superficial sense that is undeniable. But it certainly does not illustrate comprehensively either the stylistic evolution or the historical development of the modern movement in art. And that is a large part of what it is supposed to be about.

Let me for a moment consider some of its anomalies and deficiencies. First of all, a list of significant artists whose work is not represented at all in the Hirshhorn collection: Boccioni, Carrà, de Chirico, Hodler, Kandinsky, Klee, Marc, Macke, Rivera, Vlaminck, and Vuillard. Gris is represented by one drawing, Morandi by one painting. There are no paintings by either Braque or Picasso, and two insignificant bronzes but no painting by Bonnard. Maybe Joseph Hirshhorn has never been interested in or does not like these men and their works. But a collection that lays claim to having the importance of one of the great modern collections of the world, and of being worthy of a museum, in which the above named major artists are not represented is something of a sham. Indeed, the Hirshhorn collection is not better than a superficial sampling of several aspects of the art that has been created in the past 200 years.

What then does Dillon Ripley mean when he writes that the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum represents “an appropriate panorama” of what he chooses to call “the mercurial, sometimes quixotic art of the twentieth century”? This statement is wholly unfounded. The “quixotic” element seems to me to lie in Ripley’s patronage being extended to a museum and collection about the nature of which he seems to be largely ignorant. Though of course Joseph Hirshhorn’s assaults on the art market were also nothing if not “quixotic.” To quote an old adage: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Ripley, I think, might profit by a little serious study of modern art and would be well advised not to commit himself further on the subject until his education has improved.

Ultimately, therefore, one has to ask oneself the question: What is the Hirshhorn collection? What does this new museum represent? The writer of the blurb on the cover of this initial catalogue claims unblushingly that the 1,019 reproductions (290 in color) which it contains and the six verbose essays by L. Nochlin, A. Frankenstein, J.I.H. Baur, M.W. Brown, I. Sandler, and D. Ashton, devoted to different phases of the museum’s collection, provide “an ideal introduction to the history of art in modern times.” Personally I would never recommend this book to any student of mine on that score, not least because it offers no historical outline, contains pages of hollow verbiage, and provides no acceptable factual matter or critical evaluations. These essays are superficial, fawning, and to a great extent ill-informed and misleading. Let me quote a few of the illiterate and irresponsible statements which arrest the informed mind on page after page:

[Rodin’s] sculptures are tangible assertions of the nonliteralness of sculptural marks, of the vital inventiveness of plastic equivalences. [P. 55, Nochlin]

Neither Rodin nor Rosso represents the future direction of the sculpture in the Hirshhorn Museum…. Yet…understood at a deeper level, Rodin’s achievement can be seen as one of the generative forces behind twentieth-century sculpture in its insistence on the independent properties of the language of sculpture itself. [P. 64, Nochlin]

Despiau is especially well known for his quietly elegant portrait heads…which are reminiscent of the sculptured portraits by Francesco Laurana, Desiderio da Settignano, and other fifteenth-century Florentines. [P. 106, Frankenstein]

Delaunay in certain of his Eiffel Tower pictures…fragmented Cubist forms to create an essentially Fauvist dynamism. [P. 203, Baur]

Another artist who owed a clear debt to French painting was the young Walt Kuhn, whose early work…was influenced by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. [P. 207, Baur]

One other movement, peculiar to sculpture because of its nature…was known as “direct carving.” [P. 245, Baur]

Not only the collection itself but also the essays in this book will befuddle and mislead an average but inquiring reader. So it is in order, on this account, to issue a timely warning to anyone who is asked to take seriously the contents of this volume that he will soon find himself in difficulties. For not even the supposedly professional catalogue—printed like the Bible in small type on India paper at the end—has been compiled with that care, intelligence, and scientific method which one has a right to expect in a volume of such intellectual pretensions. Many entries, in fact, are both incomplete, deceptive, and unreliable in the information they give. There is very rarely an account of the number of known casts of an individual bronze, with the date of its casting, nor (more important still) is any information given about subsequent recastings, re-editions in other materials, or copies; and nothing is said about the quantity or identification marks, in the form of a caster’s monogram or signature. These are essential requirements for any researcher.

For example, the catalogued cast of the well-known portrait-bust of Coypel by Lemoyne (c. 1730) is described simply as “terra-cotta,” whereas it is in fact a terra cotta painted (original) with a bronze patina and waxed. Moreover the reader is left to imagine that this is a unique example, because there is no mention of the other known examples in various museums and collections. Again, the casting dates (readily available in published catalogues, here not listed) of the bronzes by Matisse have been omitted, while more curiously there is no discussion of the appearance of some of these bronzes in paintings by the artist, nor of the evolution over the years of Matisse’s treatment of the Head of Jeannette or of The Back (1909-1930).

One finds the same casual treatment in the cataloguing of the bronzes by Picasso, where there is no mention in the bibliography of any of the three standard catalogues of his sculpture by Kahnweiler (1948), Penrose (1967), and Spies (1972), or any discussion with appropriate cross-referencing of the innumerable connections, stylistic and otherwise, between Picasso’s sculpture and his paintings and drawings. The few examples I have singled out here are far from being exceptional, for alas they are characteristic of the intellectual laziness which invalidates so much of this catalogue.

What then, when the chips are down, is a fair judgment on the Hirshhorn Museum and its collection as we know it today? First of all, it seems to me incredible that any one man could have acquired so much art material in half a lifetime, for the quantity is even greater than that acquired by J.P. Morgan or William Randolph Hearst, though the quality and artistic worth is of a considerably lower order. The Hirshhorn collection is an expression of one man’s lavish spending to gratify his “greed for art,” but through its own inner incoherence it is more of a motley hoard than a real collection. I would describe it as eccentric though not personal, rich in specimens but not collectively informative, nonexclusive yet not encyclopedic, abundant and eclectic but not choice or noteworthy. The Hirshhorn collection represents neither the natural, the informed taste of one man, nor the taste of a period or of a generation, nor even of a historically oriented art-lover, because no sort of taste or knowledge of any kind has played a part in its accumulation. Here only money speaks.

One cannot find in the Hirshhorn Museum either all the best sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or even one or two representative examples of, or a progressive selection from, the sculptural work of every known artist of the period. If the collection offered that sort of documented evidence, it would have a long-term value as a reference collection. As with the sculpture, so it is with the paintings: a small percentage are good, characteristic examples, while the greatest number are of inferior quality.

The light is good inside the galleries, but the way the objects are displayed succeeds in making an impression of overcrowding, vulgarity, and chaos. One wanders through four floors—the best paintings by Eakins, incidentally, have been relegated to the malodorous basement—in double circular orbits, until the mind boggles and the eyes go out of focus trying to concentrate on all that is on view. The confrontations of objects are unrevealing, while many are disadvantageously placed. Thus after due consideration of all the factors involved, one’s ultimate impression is that Hirshhorn’s vast outlay of dollars has brought only a very small return, either for him or for us.

Nor does the building itself offer an ennobling framework for showing the collection. From the outside it looks like a lunar blockhouse. One imagines vast rockets emerging from its hollow center, while a battery of cannons loaded with atomic missiles might at any moment silently emerge from the vast gash above the entrance. The sculpture garden, approached from within down a long, pitch-dark, underground tunnel—a perfect setting for rape or murder—is as mean and cramped as a municipal flower-bed, while the sculptures have been planted out in such an artificial way that they look like cut-out substitutes for plants and shrubs. However, it is those sculptures which have the misfortune to have been placed outdoors on the terrace, either in the hollow central court or around the periphery of the building, that suffer most. For these works are dwarfed by the proportions of the architecture, neutralized by the dark color of the concrete, drained of their own color, whether wood, stone, paint, or metal, and rendered ridiculous and pathetic by being set among the lumpy pilotis on which the building stands.

And now as I come to close Abram Lerner’s monster tome, I find myself wondering whether, one or two generations hence, that is to say in some fifty years, visitors to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—if they still exist—or readers who fetch down this publication from the library shelf will not be asking themselves why, in 1975, it was thought to be so remarkable and important. And the more I think about this, the more certain I become that they won’t feel the least gratitude toward us—any more than we do now to our Victorian ancestors—for having saddled them with this ollapodrida full of debased cultural material in an unpleasing and offensive building on Washington’s Mall. For the equal of any of the really good works in the Hirshhorn collection can be seen in several other museums around the world, where they are also more elegantly displayed.


Taken for a Ride September 18, 1975