Reynolds Center: Full Coverage

What's There . . . and What's Not

James Hampton's
James Hampton's "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millenium General Assembly" is in the museum's Folk Art section. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

PRESENT: A pioneering collection of folk art, including James Hampton's wild "Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly." The tin-foil covered monument was living in a Washington garage until the museum stepped in to save it after the artist's death in 1964.

ABSENT: The country's decorative arts, which for years were better than anything made here in painting and sculpture. The museum has borrowed several rooms of superb federal-era furniture from private collector Linda Kaufman, and some arts-and-crafts ceramics and glassware from other Smithsonian museums. That may show it's got ambitions to move further into this domain.

PRESENT: Works by lesser-known African American artists such as William H. Johnson and abstractionist Norman Lewis, who until recently might have been left out of the story of American art.

ABSENT: The probing, tough works of more recent black conceptualists, who've challenged our standard notions of race.

PRESENT: Selections from the museum's growing collection of American photography, installed in a corridor near the gift shop and floor-to-ceiling in a first-floor gallery meant to introduce visitors to "The American Experience."

ABSENT: Examples of important photo-based art, for example by Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin, in the contemporary galleries on the third floor. Or any fine-art photography at all in the chronological account that spans the second. (There are photographs in a display on the Civil War, but they're mostly presented as documents rather than art.)

PRESENT: A handful of portraits, of varying quality, by figures such as Charles Willson Peale, Gilbert Stuart, John Trumbull and Thomas Sully.

ABSENT: More and better works by these early American masters -- and anything at all by artists like Martin Johnson Heade and William Harnett -- to take the full measure of the first American accomplishments in art.

PRESENT: The world's greatest collection of paintings of Native Americans, made by George Catlin in the 1830s.

ABSENT: Art works of the period by Native Americans, as well maybe as early photographs of Indians, to balance the view of things presented by the white man's paintings.

PRESENT: A beautiful Whistler from 1866 called "Valparaiso Harbor," one of his very first poetic blurs.

ABSENT: Anything else of note by this most influential of American artists.


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