The Corcoran Gallery of Art has never mounted a more pointed Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting than the 37th, which goes by on view today. Pluralist this show is not. Intentionally exclusive and intellectually demanding, it's less a survey than a probe.
There is no New Image painting, no photography or video, in this exhibition . Organized by associate director Jane Livingston, it introduces no new talent. Abstract painting is its only subject. There were 288 artists in the first Corcoran Biennial. It tried to include everything. In this one there are five.
One of them -- Frank Stella -- is the most relentlessly inventive abstract painter now alive. The other four -- Richard Serra, Agnes Martin, Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Mitchell -- are also known as painters of unusual integrity. Each has been assigned one of the skylit galleries on the Corcoran's main floor.
This Biennial in many ways is a sequel to the last, which Livingston devoted to five famous painters, all still going strong -- Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Willem de Kooning. This show is more rigorous, more severely edited.
It five components question one another. How is mastery maintained? What happens when it tires? Has abstract art exhausted the luscious and the brushy traditions of the French? Must painting obey boundaries? How far can it go when it departs the wall for the domain of sculpture? It is the force field between these ambitious abstract pictures -- and the challenges they throw, one object to another -- that gives this Biennial its resonance, its bite.
Of the many confrontations here, the one between Stella and Serra is the most compelling. Their exhibits clang.
If abstract painting still has an avant-garde, then Stella is its point man. His attack is unswerving: He starts by making a radical decision -- to use only black, say, and to make no image that does not obey the edges of the canvas -- and once that choice is taken, nothing holds him back. He will exploit its every premise, probe it, test it, beat on it, until it starts to crack and another pathway opens. His exuberant constructions have long since left the wall. Nowadays he makes them of steel and aluminum, of lightweight space-age panels whose surfaces he paints. No one admired his black canvases of the '50s could possibly have predicted the woven metal tubings, the glitter and the voids, the odd and complex colors, the Euclidian eccentricities of the amazing objects that he exhibits here. In some ways Richard Serra confronts him at his source.
Serra's all-black art is made with painstick -- a kind of oil crayon applied to Belgian linen -- but it too seems to be sculpture of a sort. Serra has applied two black 40-foot-long rectangles high above the floor on two opposite white walls. The effect is threatening, his art has often threatened. One of his steel sculptures once collapsed and crushed a man at a show in Minnesota. His black paintings here carry comparable weight, but they do not fall; they press against the molding as if fighting toward the ceiling. They are so severe, so serious, they do the near-impossible: They make the nearby Stellas, those dead-serious works of art, appear almost playful.
In the gallery between the Stellas and the Serras, Livingston has placed the radiantly restrained works of Agnes Martin. If those long black bands of Serra's may be read as stripes , then the Martin-Serra contrast demonstrates how far, both spiritualy and technically stripe painting may be pushed. Serra's stripes oppress. Those of Martin liberate. They seem at first glace silvery, so subtle are their pale hues. The color scheme they follow -- red above yellow, yellow above blue -- is explored with such great delicacy that her paintings seem to glow like moonlight in the mist. Agnes Martin lives in near-seclusion in New Mexico. The Serras and the Stellas could not be more urban; the Martins are landscapes of a sort.
So, too, in very different ways, are the Mitchells and the Diebenkorns. Joan Mitchell who, for years, was foolishly dismissed as a "second-generation Abstract Expressionist," here shows a debt at least as great to the water lily paintings of Monet. "It is no accident," writes Livingston, "that Mitchell has chosen to live and work not in New York but near Paris." Her calligraphics oils with their big-brush scrawlings are huge and raw, life-filled and spontaneous. They're as airy as they are active; they suggest horizons. Their tall abutted panels may, perhaps, suggest the last dark works of Mark Rothko, but while Rothko glimpsed the tomb, Mitchell sees the sky.
The Diebenkorns, though just about as French, and at least as masterful, seem peculiarly tired. They are paintings #117 through #123 of the "Ocean Park" series that he began in 1968. Their format is, by now, abundantly familiar, and Diebenkorn seems caught in it. He is a Californian, and California's painters have for many years been tempted by what one might call a kind of transcendental constructivism. In the upper reaches of those oils Diebenkorn does test the severe lessons taught by Mondrian and John McLaughin, by Art Deco and De Stijl, but his testings have not freed him. His sponged and scumbled surfaces, with their countless subtle colors, are as lyrical as ever; he still adjusts his details with remarkable refinement. Livingston, in praising him, writes that these new oils are "excruciatingly deduced," and one senses a nagging pain within them. The old song seems exhausted. Stella punches through his bonds, Martin dissolves hers. Serra seems to welcome his, but Diebenkorn seems trapped.
Grants from the Ford Motor Company Fund and $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts helped pay for this Biennial. Livingston's thoughtful catalog includes many reproductions, most of them in color. The 37th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting closes April 5.