Does the current boomlet in Western art exhibitions suggest a pandering to presidential predilections?
When asked if the Corcoran's current show, "The American West," was designed to win over the new neighbors at the White House (who've made known their special interest in the subject), Director Peter Marzio answered: "Now you know we'd never do anything like that!"
The same question also got a "no" from gallery owner Kathleen Ewing, who says she organized her new show of photographs of the Southwest -- including some by Barry Goldwater -- without even thinking of the presidential connection. Cliff Krainik, of Graphic Antiquity, insists he wasn't even aware of the president's interest, but hopes that someone from the White House will come to see his show of early Western photographs.
Coincidence or not, you don't have to be president to like "Photographs of the American West" at Graphic Antiquity, 1214 31st St. NW, a bonanza of early vintage images from "Buffalo Bill" and his traveling troupe of Sioux to the scenic wonders of Yosemite, Yellowstone and burgeoning downtown San Francisco in 1870.
There are rare albumn prints, photogravures, collotypes and orotones (goldtone photographs) by early masters William H. Jackson, Carleton E. Watkins and Edward S. Curtis. And for the budget-minded, there are dozens of anonymous stereo photographs (most around $25) that allow an intimate glimpse into turn-of-the-century America, from Los Angeles in 1890 to San Francisco after the earthquake and the Alaska gold rush. This show continues through July 1.
The big excitement in "Southwest Photography 1890-1980," opening today at Kathleen Ewing, 3020 K St. NW, is in the new work, not the old. Santa Fe photographer William Clift's contemporary images of the rocky Western landscape -- "White House Ruins -- Canyon de Chelly" is one classic example -- are nothing short of breathtaking in the awesome sense of scale they first convey and then toy with. The exquisite clarity of these prints inevitably recalls the work of Ansel Adams.
Robert Adams from Colorado, like Clift, was included in the Museum of Modern Art's landmark "Mirrors & Windows" show of several years ago and has been similarly festooned with grants, all richly deserved. But while Adams also focuses on the western landscape, he seeks not only to make poetic images but also to document man's intrusion upon the land. In the best works, this intrusive human presence is both mysterious and barely discernible, as in a night desert landscape that only gradually reveals that its source of illumination is a pair of off-stage headlights. In the most provocative and beautiful image, a series of tree branches lie at regular intervals along a dirt road.
Joan Myers of Sante Fe is showing an admirable series of desert images, as is well-known conceptualist photographer Eve Sonneman of New York. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) holds his own in this illustrious company, particularly in a fine image of winter in Grand Canyon. The show continues through May 27.
Very different is the rarefied world of high fashion that envelops the work of renowned fashion photographer Irving Penn, now 63. Whether he is photographing denizens of the art world (Cocteau, Colette, Marin and Giacometti), angular models to decorate the pages of Vogue (where he has worked since 1943) or the poor Indians of Cuzco, he isolates each figure from its natural habitat -- much as an entomologist pins a butterfly to velvet -- to better take a long, hard look at it through a lens.
Whatever his subject -- with the exception of some awful nudes -- Penn's results have usually been strikingly dramatic, sometimes transfixing (as in several portraits and the splendid "New York Still-Life") and on rare occasions unforgettable as in his famous "Cuzco Children." This distillation of pride perceived in a pair of doll-like, miniature adults is still Penn's masterpiece and one of the great photographs of the 20th century. It can be seen through May 9.