On Wednesday afternoon, Clair List was pacing the halls of the Cororan Gallery. It was getting close to the opening of the first show that the new curator had selected, hung and put together all by herself. Upstairs at the Corcoran, workmen were still painting wires and lifting Michael Clark's framed painting of George Washington off the plastic sheets on the floor.
But across town in Adams-Morgan, a number of Washington artists were so furious at Clair List's choice of nine realists that they banded together to open their own counter-Corcoran exhibition in protest -- even before the workmen could pull their ladders out of List's show.
"I knew when I took this job I would be put in a difficult position," said List, 26, sitting at her desk in a stark, white-walled high-ceiling room in the Corcoran. "But when Washington artists see this is the first of many different shows, some of the controversy will ease up. . . .
"On, who am I kidding," she said, matter-of-factly, almost in the same breath. "It will never ease up. You're always going to excite or offend people. That's the nature of the job." She leaned back in her chair and took a sip of her Tab.
Her first show is called "Images of the '70s: Nine Washington Artists."
It opens today and runs through March 16. Her position is associate curator of contemporary art for the Washington region. And catching flak might as well be part of the job description.
For a local artist, a few weeks in a show at a museum like the Corcoran can catapult a carrer and reputation into years of fame.
So it is not surprising that some of those not chosen for the Corcoran show would have harsh words.
"I think artists don't know her well," said one artist about List, who commutes to her job from Baltimore. "The feeling when she first came here was 'Who is she? Where'd she come from? Why doesn't she live in Washington?'"
But whoever has the job of picking artists for exhibitions will never be universally loved in a competitive city full of ambitious, struggling, and highly individual artists.
"That came out in the very first interview," said Corcoran director Peter Marzio of the interviews for the position, created last year. "If she was going to go home and cry because two people said they didn't like her, this wasn't the job for her."
But Clair List is tough. Her voice is high but firm.Short, with blond hair tucked behind her ears and a ruddy complexion, she counters with a firmly set jaw that says This-is-my-show-and-that's-the-way-it-is.
But all week long, she said, she had dreamed about the installation of the show, about moving the works two inches over, three inches up. "I want everything to be just right. There's a lot of pressure," she said without showing it.
The tight jaw loosened a little. "Sure I feel scared," she said, smiling ruefully. "This is a lot of responsibility. I've just tried to work as hard as I can. But it's done. I've done the best job that I can. You have to have something to motivate you past that. I have to come in here next Monday."
The protesting artists had complained about both the numbers and the individual choices for List's show.
"I picked nine artists because that was what would fit in the space upstairs," she said. "I picked people on the basis of who could fit under the generalized heading of representational art. And I wanted to exhibit a substantial body of work for each person.
"If I did it again, maybe I could put in more than nine," she said matter-of-factly.
But why, how those nine?
"You do this by your own sensibilities," she said. "That's why there's so much controversy. Those are my nine. Someone else might have a different nine." She shrugged and smiled.
List was graduated in 1975 from the University of Pensylvania, after four years with undergraduate and master's degrees in American Studies and museum training. For a year she worked in the publications department of New York's Whitney Museum.
In 1976, she became curatorial coordinator in the department of exhibits for the Guggenheim. She lives in Baltimore -- her hometown -- with her husband, a doctor.
There, she grew up "surrounded by art," as she put it. "I always liked looking at it." So did her parents. They collect contemporary American prints. Her father, Calman J. Zamoiski Jr., is chairman of the board of trustees of the Baltimore Museum of Art, something she hesitates to mention. t
List "struck me as being visually sensitive, yet she had a kind of strength that's necessary for someone who's going to spend most of their time going literally from studio to studio, looking at work," and Marzio. "She looked like she could keep a clear eye, as opposed to getting caught up in a clique or brow-beaten by anyone."
Inevitably, she is a surprise when she shows up at a stuido. "People always say, 'I didn't think you'd be so young,'" she recalled, grinning.
"Artists do respond to her being young," said one artist. "They get disgruntled."
List responds cooly to criticism that she's picked the "same old" people, frequently shown, and neglected other good Washington realists.
"Genna Watson hasn't shown a lot," List said. "This is more a survey of the last 10 years. We needed a lot of work. This isn't a show of emerging talents."
She points out that she's doing another series of one-man shows, starting with two -- Ed Mayo and John Dixon -- in May. "That's pretty much all new faces," she said.
About her choice of Michael Clark, who lives in New York most of the time, List said, "He spends a great deal of time here in Washington. I don't know why he wouldn't be considered a Washington artist.'"
"I'm just really at the tip of knowing what's around;" said List, who makes about two studio visits in an average day. "When I go into studios I find the artists as pleasant as can be. Having your work looked at can be a very difficult experience -- it's a very personal experience someone is sharing with you," she said, her voice softening. "I love going -- I love seeing and being surprised."
The counter-Corcoran show opened Wednesday night at a former Chinese laundry in Adams-Morgan. Dubbed the "laundry show," it is a move reminiscent of a group of artists in 1913 who, neglected by the establishment, held a show in an Armory.
"I'll go and look at it," said List with aplomb, about the Laundry Show. "I think if the Corcoran can generate other exhibitions, that's exciting."