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Masters, Old and New

From Ter Borch to Flavin, Shows Shed Revealing Light

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page N09

I hear a lot of griping about Washington's cultural deprivation compared with the world's other famous cities. And it's certainly true that the District doesn't have the urban vim -- or the shopping -- of such cities as New York or London or Madrid. But for a town of only 500,000 or so inhabitants, we do absurdly well. When it comes to art museums, we get about as much culture as your typical working aesthete can take in. In 2004 alone, the exhibitions on view in Washington would have done any megalopolis proud.

As usual, the National Gallery has taken Washingtonians and our guests to places we have never been. Few museums anywhere can rival the range and depth and interest of its special-exhibition schedule.

Douglas Gordon's "24 Hour Psycho," one of the artist's video and film instal- lations that riff on classic movies, brightened (or darkened?) the Hirshhorn. (Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Photo Lee Stalsworth -- Hirshhorn Museum)

I've spotted pictures from Diego Rivera's cubist period here and there over the years, and always thought a larger sampling of them might reverse my otherwise dim view of his art making. A choice survey of pictures painted by Rivera in Paris from 1913 to 1915, put together in April by National Gallery curator Leah Dickerman, did just that trick for me. It showed that by coming late to cubism, Rivera got the chance to put a novel spin on it. He used his brilliant color sense to give a kind of cheerful energy to a style that was sometimes grim.

American "light artist" Dan Flavin is hardly an unknown figure in the world of modern art. But given how tricky any installation of his fluorescent-tube sculptures can be, how many of us can say we've really had a chance to get a sense of the whole scope of his career? It spanned more than three decades, from the early 1960s right to his death in 1996.

Washington's ambitious Flavin retrospective, organized by the Dia Art Foundation in New York but brought here through the efforts of National Gallery curator Jeffrey Weiss, at last let us come fully to terms with this important artist. It made clear that there is a conceptual backbone to the best of the work that transcends our first impression of it as a bunch of pretty glowing lights. But now that Flavin has shown in an institution full of all the greats of Western art, the exhibition also made clear how fully a part he is of that distinctly visual tradition.

In the hands of National Gallery curator Arthur Wheelock, even that Old Master tradition is less static than you might have thought.

In November, Wheelock's major survey of the paintings of Dutchman Gerard Ter Borch, with their exquisitely rendered silks and cryptically conveyed emotions, had me claiming that Ter Borch was a better artist than his young colleague Vermeer. I'm still half-inclined to believe that I was right.

Across the Mall, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, as usual, picked up where the National Gallery left off, bringing the story of great Western art forward to the present day. In February, it helped us explore the last 10 years of art by Scotsman Douglas Gordon, one of the most interesting and promising artists working today. His video and film installations, which often riff on classic Hollywood movies, kept me glued to them for longer than most paintings do. (But not, I have to admit, for the full 24 hours that his slowed-down version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" takes to run. For a single night only, the Hirshhorn stayed open so a few hardy souls could watch the piece from end to end.)

More recently the Hirshhorn has given us a thorough survey of the art of Cuban-born American Ana Mendieta. Mendieta died young in 1985, a decade before Flavin, but represents the following generation of artists, the so-called post-minimalists who turned away from abstraction to reengage the world. I'd had my doubts about Mendieta: Before seeing the show, I'd thought of her as hopelessly wrapped up in outdated essentialist feminism, making art that was all about Earth Mother goddesses and affirmation of the anti-phallic womb. The Hirshhorn show, curated by Olga Viso, managed instead to present Mendieta as a hard-nosed visual thinker up there with the best of her conceptualist contemporaries.

Viso's retrospective made Mendieta's works seem more about complex artistic experimentation than wishful-thinking platitudes.

And still more recently, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, one arm of the Smithsonian's Asian art division, gave us the kind of little show with a huge punch that Washingtonians can count on from the smaller Mall museums.

"Iraq and China: Ceramics, Trade and Innovation," organized by visiting scholar Jessica Hallett, dug deep into the prehistory of one of the touchstones of human art making, the blue-on-white Chinese pottery we think of when we say "Ming vase." Hallett's new research suggests that such wares were first developed by potters in 9th-century Basra, were then copied by the Chinese for re-export to the Muslim world, and then only much later became a form popular at home in China. Who'da thunk it?

Of course, none of the aforementioned successes means that Washington can be complacent in its cultural enterprise, or that art lovers here can afford to ignore the outside world.

The first-ever survey of the full, breathtaking span of Spanish portraiture could have happened only at the Prado in Madrid -- so many treasures could never leave home at once.

The mammoth shows of photographs by Diane Arbus, which I caught in January in San Francisco, and by August Sander, which launched in New York at the Metropolitan Museum in July, were stunning things that aren't typical Washington fare. (Though with the National Gallery's new rooms dedicated to photography, that could be on its way to changing.)

And Washington still lacks a venue devoted only to what's most current in contemporary art -- something that some even smaller towns have managed to support, and that would do our local artists lots of good.

But all things considered, 2004 wasn't a bad year for Washington's art lovers.

Not bad at all.

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