1967, the Year the Pieces Began to Come Together
Sunday, October 7, 2007
I was a cub of a reporter when they sent me out to cover the art museums of Washington, a city desk assignment then, better than cops, better than the District Building, a neat beat, but a small one. That was 40 years ago. Washington's museums were not then what they are now.
By the standards of today they were meager institutions, their energies were tepid and their exhibitions scant. We didn't mind. You could smoke at the Phillips Collection. If you necked among the smiling Buddhas at the Freer Gallery no one else would see you because no one else was there. There were cobwebs on the stairs to the back rooms of the Corcoran. Their installations changed seldom, if at all, so that the regulars you met there had mostly come to see art they'd seen before.
I used to bound up the red steps every time I found myself walking by the Phillips to check out once again the melting browns and golds of "Woman Sweeping" by Vuillard, which hung just inside the door. The museums felt like clubs then, semi-secret refuges for the self-selected few.
"In those days," remembers the painter Willem de Looper, "you could still hide in the Rothko room, and if you weren't alone you were probably with someone who loved the stuff, and wanted to be there, and that was all right, too."
The feast that museums offer now hadn't yet been set. The ceaseless flow of masterworks -- the walls of Leonardos, Titians and Vermeers, the giant Olmec heads and Sri Lankan bodhisattvas, the telephone-book catalogues and theatrical displays -- hadn't yet begun.
The Mall was mostly grass. Though J. Carter Brown already was at work in the National Gallery of Art, he wasn't yet director, and nobody could guess what a showman he would be. "King Tut" had not yet happened. I.M. Pei's East Building hadn't yet been built. Nor had the Hirshhorn with its modern art, or the Sackler with its Eastern. The Washington Project for the Arts, the Goh Annex at the Phillips, the Kreeger and the Katzen, and the Indian and African and women's national museums, didn't yet exist. There was no Portrait Gallery either. No Smithsonian American Art Museum. When the Smithsonian in those days ventured to show art it did so behind the elephant, in Natural History.
Still, something was stirring. You could sense it. Pop art was popping. The Washington color painters were getting attention. I still supposed that high art was progressing toward some glowing abstract future. I hadn't yet grown jaded. I was too young. But being young felt cool in the forward-forging '60s, it attached you to the times, and, anyway, I wasn't all that young. I was older than the National Gallery of Art.
And I was lucky in my timing. I got the beat the year the industry took off.
That October, "Smoke," by Tony Smith, made the cover of Time magazine. That great big plywood space frame, which looked something like a cross between a minimalist sculpture and a spider, had been constructed at the Corcoran, where it took up half the atrium and put Washington on the map.
In 1967, farseeing Walter Hopps, who may have been the sharpest art scout in the country, moved to Washington from California.
Though William E. Gerdts, the big-brained Americanist, was already here, Washington in those days boasted few other distinguished art historians. Others would soon come.
In 1967, young Carter Brown was put in charge of planning a daylight-drenched new building, with a center for advanced study, at the National Gallery of Art.