What's There . . . and What's Not
A Sampler of Smithsonian American Art Museum Hits and Misses

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.

PRESENT: Deluxe multimedia installations made in the 1990s by prominent naturalized Americans David Hockney and Nam June Paik.

ABSENT: Examples of the works these two figures made when they mattered most, in the 1960s and 1970s. The recently acquired pieces have less substance than expensive surface flash.

PRESENT: A wonderfully brushy picture of an elegant, elderly man with his still more elegant cat, painted in 1898 by Cecilia Beaux. She's one of several women artists whose reputations have been rising.

ABSENT: A decent spread of works by Beaux's great rival, John Singer Sargent, to show him at his very best across the full range of his accomplishments. And by Mary Cassatt, to show how a daring woman artist could outdo him.

PRESENT: A fine assortment of paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose gloriously eccentric works came out of New York in the 1880s and 1890s.

ABSENT: The best works of his contemporary Maurice Prendergast, who had an unusually inventive take on post-impressionist French art.

PRESENT: An expansive suite of Gilded Age pictures by Abbott Thayer and Thomas Dewing, both of whom were collected in great depth by the museum's early benefactor John Gellatly.

ABSENT: A more selective display of their works, leaving out some of their more saccharine efforts.

PRESENT: A few notable pieces by American modernists including Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Morris Louis. Also an exuberant 1952 wall construction, symbolizing "communication in the Atomic Age," made by sculptor Harry Bertoia for the headquarters of Zenith Radio Corp.

ABSENT: Any significant paintings by their notable contemporaries Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman -- other than a handful on temporary loan from the Hirshhorn Museum, to help fill these holes in SAAM's collection.

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