A Bad Impression
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2003
Don't you hate the way it feels when you've had a couple of rotten-egg-and-sardine milkshakes, and then you get stuck going backward on a roller coaster for an hour or two, and the only music you've got for your Walkman is an accordion version of "Carmen"?
You know that feeling?
Then go see "Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited: The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr.," which opens Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The exhibition provides the most mind-numbing, head-spinning, belly-flipping experience you're likely to come across.
But let's not mince words: This show is really, really bad.
In fact, thinking back over my years as an art historian and critic, and cross-checking those memories against my notes and archives, I can assert with a fair degree of certainty: This is the worst museum exhibition I've ever seen.
Where to start in on it?
How about at the beginning, with the exhibition's premise. Sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr., 73 years old and heir to a chunk of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, has taken 18 great 19th-century paintings by the likes of Manet, Monet and Renoir, and translated them into full-color sculptural dioramas whose figures and accessories and settings are just over life-size.
One Johnson installation presents Renoir's iconic "Luncheon of the Boating Party," from the Phillips Collection, as a series of figures gathered around an outdoor table, as in the painting. They are set on an ugly imitation-wood patio, with a digitally rendered backdrop that fills in all the parts "beyond the frame" -- the parts that we don't get to see in Renoir's more tightly cropped painting. There are also various bits of "comic" sculptural detail added by Johnson in other areas Renoir forgot to tell us about: Behind the table, we see one of the men trying to slip cash to one of the belles (who, in the painting, is not meant as a loose woman at all, but is recognizable as a famous Parisian actress); further back, Johnson has put in a second cafe table, where he and some of his artist pals are shown whooping it up.
Another Johnson installation lets you greet and touch and wander around the nude from Manet's revolutionary "Olympia," now placed in a fully detailed brothel setting that Johnson has imagined for her.
Or you can experience 3-D adaptations of various courting couples from other impressionist paintings -- though I have no idea why you would want to.
If impressionist paintings were about anything at all, they were about a certain kind of everyday, 19th-century reality, and a novel way it could be translated into paint, mostly in small-scale canvases designed for intimate contemplation.
Johnson's bloated sculptures don't give us that reality, or say anything about how the impressionists chose to turn it into paintings.
Johnson doesn't make highly realistic, waxworks-style renderings of the real world that the painters might have had before them. That might have been a weird but vaguely interesting exercise in re-imagining, at least. (In fact, wax museums around the world have done just that for many famous pictures.) Instead, Johnson makes strange, three-dimensional versions of the paintings' stylized impressionism: He doesn't give us the real world seen by the impressionists, but treats impressionist pictures as though they were photos of some alternate universe full of blurred forms and blotchy surfaces, which he then gives us in the round.
Where Renoir uses dabs of paint to render evanescent light and color in his "Boating Party," Johnson transfers those same dabs onto the surface of his sculpted figures, so that they look as though they've been caught in an exploding paint depot.
Where an umbrella viewed from an angle is appropriately skewed on the surface of Monet's "Garden at Sainte-Adresse," in Johnson's 3-D version it becomes a grotesque, awkward object; delicate impressionism becomes swollen surrealism.
Where impressionist pictures are gorgeous painted renditions of things seen in the world, Johnson's sculptures are coarse, ugly things that unfortunately occupy the world alongside us.
If Johnson's dioramas capture any aspect of impressionist art, they capture what overexposure and misunderstanding have turned it into. Challenging, revolutionary art has become twee, sentimental, Hallmark card stuff that's easy on the eye and so familiar that it hardly passes through the brain at all.
Johnson's sculptures remind me most of oversize knockoffs of Royal Doulton figurines. But at least a schlocky ceramic ballerina has the virtue of being small and easily lost among other knickknacks; with luck it might even tumble off the mantel in a year or two. Johnson's room-size installations, cast in durable bronze and aluminum and colored with automotive paints, will be wasting space in warehouses and landfills for centuries to come.
Johnson's dioramas aren't even as well crafted as a real Doulton figurine. The backdrops have ugly seams running down them. The fake-grass lawns Johnson ordered up show seams everywhere. Even the line where Olympia's naked legs are supposed to cross looks more like a badly caulked joint than like flesh meeting flesh.
Looking at this show, you start to realize that none of this must matter to those involved in it. The whole thing doesn't have the kind of commitment to detail that you get in truly dedicated art, which doesn't leave the studio until it's absolutely right and worthy of posterity. Johnson's art doesn't get all that attention because it's not conceived as anything more than a big, dumb prank. A rubber chicken, after all, doesn't have to be well made to do its work.
This show, with its thin patina of art history, feels like rampant condescension. "You're too dumb to come for real artworks," says the Corcoran to the mass audience it hopes to attract with this show, "so how about we give you a funfair instead, and call it art?" But who ever noticed the public steering clear of shows of true artists like Vermeer or van Gogh or even Jean Antoine Houdon?
I could go on and on, pointing out inanities and uglinesses in this show -- I've got a notebook full of them -- but what would be the point? Bad art is made every day, by tens and hundreds of thousands of well-meaning people, and this is just more of the same. It's not shameful; it just happens to be hideous and dumb.
I don't blame Johnson for this train wreck of a show. If anything, I feel for him, since his money, and the splashy art it lets him make, get him public scrutiny that an Ohio butter sculptor doesn't have to face. (I also respect him as a patron of the arts: His Grounds for Sculpture public park in New Jersey displays major works by serious artists.) And there's no point blaming the Corcoran's curators or David Levy, its director. We all make mistakes. Of course, they might have noticed that not a single other American museum has ever seen fit to give Johnson a show -- despite the prospect of pleasing an art-loving millionaire and potential benefactor -- and thought twice about taking the lead.
No, the blame here has to lie squarely where the buck stops -- at the Corcoran's board of trustees and its current chairman, Otto Ruesch. If anyone is in charge of guarding the integrity and reputation of this important Washington institution, it is the board. In allowing this stunning mistake to be made, it's failed in its duty.
Once upon a time -- as recently as the '70s and even later -- the Corcoran was a significant force on the national art scene. That reputation has slipped badly over the last few years; when I'm on the road, people often ask me, "What's with the Corcoran these days? Is it still around?"
And now, thanks to the prankster art of J. Seward Johnson, the Corcoran has fallen even further. It has tumbled all the way from nobody to laughingstock.
Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited: The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr. is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW, until Jan. 5. The gallery is open Wednesday to Monday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until 9 p.m. on Thursday. Adult admission is $5. Call 202-639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.