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)
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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