By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 10, 2008
The Hirshhorn Museum is one of the treasures of Washington, both for its daring building and for the bold works of art inside. Thanks to one of those works, we now learn that the museum almost passed this city by. Our competition wasn't Paris or New York. It was a strip of Canadian wilderness north of Lake Huron.
Terence Gower's "Public Spirit," the latest project in the museum's "Directions" series, tells that true tale: how founder Joseph Hirshhorn, the Uranium King, once had grand plans for a "city of culture" to house his Canadian miners, with his gallery of modern art as its centerpiece.
As one Toronto newspaper put it, across six columns on its front page on July 30, 1955: "Picasso Finds New Home In Ontario Wilderness." Luckily for Washingtonians, he never moved in.
That front page itself is one item in Gower's installation, which, like a lot of his work, is partly documentary. Gower, a 43-year-old New Yorker who was born and trained in Canada, has made his name for what is called "research-based" art. He uncovers facts about our history and culture, then displays them in -- and sometimes as -- his art. In 2007, when a new program of Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowships invited him to dig around in the archives, he hit on a back story unknown even to the Hirshhorn's staff.
Joe Hirshhorn, a child of the tenements, had made a decent fortune on Wall Street in the 1920s and had started using it to buy modern art. But the huge uranium strike he bankrolled in Canada in 1953 -- just in time for the nuclear arms race -- allowed him to think bigger, and to bring several of his interests together. As a mining magnate, he needed a place to house his workers. As an arts patron, he wanted somewhere to showcase his collection, which he now had the money to expand to museum size. And as a new-minted philanthropist, he wanted to help the world, in this case by giving those workers a model town with that art at its heart. That town was called Hirshhorn.
Gower lays out the story of Hirshhorn, Ontario, the model town that never was, in four big vitrines. Two give us background on the uranium enterprise behind the town and on the abstract art that Joseph Hirshhorn owned.
Another talks about ideas for the community itself, conceived as a step up from the gold-rush conditions in most mining centers. Hirshhorn brought in Philip Johnson, a New York hotshot who was head of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, to do drawings and a model for his city. When they presented them to the relevant authorities, they described it as a place "planned towards happy living."
Gower's last display case gives us a look at a country house that Johnson also built for his patron, almost as a kind of prototype for construction in the nearby town. Built in the "international style" perfected by Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe -- plate-glass walls filling a sober grid of metal beams -- the house, and the town, were about a vision of human control and humane order, imposed in a wild place where there wasn't much of either.
Gower's cases do something most art hasn't done for a century or so: present new facts about reality. Viewers are welcome to their own take on these facts. And that take is meant to color, and be colored by, the other elements in "Public Spirit" that more clearly look like art.
Two skeletal grids of welded aluminum reproduce, at one-tenth scale, the essential forms of the model town's buildings. Johnson's 10-story office tower becomes a 10-foot-tall minimal sculpture by Gower. A similar sculpture turned on its side echoes the low-slung museum that was to sit beside the tower on the Hirshhorn town plaza -- art and business as reflections of each other, coexisting in harmony.
And then comes the most impressive part of Gower's installation. Backing up the informative vitrines and the thoughtful sculptures, Gower gives us a dose of fantasy: a wall-size animation, so well rendered it almost looks live, that imagines how the city might have actually turned out. While a plummy female voice gives a sales pitch for the place, we're granted a God's-eye view around the town of Hirshhorn, "a sophisticated culture center," according to the pitch. We fly down the halls of the town's art museum ("its main attraction"), out along Hirshhorn's "extra-wide" main street (Gower imagines a Uranium Bar & Restaurant and the Hirshhorn Hotel, as well as a Mental Hygiene Center), up into the workers' "modern and efficient blocks of flats" (their decor looks like an ad for Design Within Reach) and finally right through a plate-glass window and out into an untouched wilderness sitting quiet under stars. Imagine a townscape in which matching buildings all look like the District's main library (the similarity to that Mies structure is uncanny) and you'll get a good idea of Johnson's -- and Gower's -- urban imaginings.
It would be easy to mock the utopian, paternalistic pretensions of Hirshhorn and Johnson. The notorious failures of modernism have been a target of the avant-garde for several decades now. What Gower makes clear is that such contempt is too simple, and that modernism's good intentions can't be so easily dismissed. Standing in the middle of his installation, he says that his work "is much less about the decay of modernism than about the initial excitement, the project of modernism."
Gower has firsthand experience of that project. His father, a dedicated modernist, was the architect of many of the buildings in Vernon, B.C., the artist's rural home town. As Gower describes it, his father's ideals weren't so much about improbable utopias as aggressive melioration of what was already at hand.
Maybe that's why Gower doesn't set his animation in some 1950s past. And he doesn't set it in a silly Jetsons future. Its soundtrack is newly composed electronica; its voice-over, cast in the present tense, sounds more robo-call than film strip, as it describes a city committed to "reducing the effects of sprawl on this pristine landscape." There's a sense that, with a bit of toning down, the ideals behind Hirshhorn, Ontario, might not be such an absurd model for any planner faced with our current urban messes.
So why didn't the project get realized? Two reasons Washingtonians will understand: money and politics. The town would cost way more than an early estimate of $35 million, and rival townships in the area were dead set against its birth. It's hard to believe, but a decade later, when Joe Hirshhorn was still looking to build a home for his art, there was less in his way on the Mall.
Terence Gower: Public Spirit runs through March 22 at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, on the south side of the Mall at Seventh Street NW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu.