American genre art, depicting slices of everyday life, is more emotional than history books and every bit as bent on populist ideals. It's democratic, idealistic and proud of an emerging national identity, peopled by slaves, Indians, Fifth Avenue's elite, working-class heroes and immigrants. The subjects jump out of the melting pot and into the frontier. From there, it's on to the urban nightmare.
The 75 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and sculptures in the show "Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery" chronicle 160 years, evoking commmonn themes through innocents on the farm and shuffling Miami Beach retirees, dogged by shadows on the sidewalk. There's that universal malaise visible on the faces of Depression-era unemployed, in Raphael Soyer's 1939 oil "Waiting Room." Impossible tedium is similarly captured by Walker Evans' camera in "Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Miss.," 1936. Is the dread outweighed by the strength of the human spirit, apparent in dignified stances of cotton-pickers and asphalt workers? The hope and hopelessness seem to cancel each other out.
Human elements seen in the context of cultural and historical events lend these paintings an air of realism. Taken as art or history, the exhibit shows that there are lessons to be learned. Rockwell Kent's lithograph from 1945 "Wake Up, America (It's Later Than You Think)" is still unnerving today.
A handout helps with chronology, starting with the Jackson to Lincoln presidencies, 1828 to 1860. Artists of the period reflected the values of hard work and simplicity that won the wild west.
Next, the American psyche went cosmo. Post-Civil War pictures touch on the recognition of foreign-born citizens, and with industrialization, the philosophy of art for art's sake takes hold. Melting-pot scenes emerged, along with beautiful images that weren't necessarily morally instructive. Artists still idealized the female, but observed the compartmentalized role of the second sex: Winslow Homer's "Woman Sewing" is both beautiful and sad next to portraits of macho exuberance, like Horace Bonham's cockfight scene, "Nearing the Issue at the Cockpit."
The next grouping, 1900 to 1945, centers on the Ash Can School's depiction of New York City life. John Sloan's young working- class women ("Sunday, Drying Their Hair") and George Bellow's "Forty-two Kids" diving into the East River, are typical. This was the urban experience the way Robert Henri and his progressive disciples found it, with more attention to the feeling than the details of a scene. Other signs of the times include Paul A. Hesse's "Studebaker Car Advertisement" from 1938, which pictures a servant carrying golf clubs, the car owner in snappy pleated pants in front of a huge home with the block-long blue car obviously fit for the upper crust though affordable by all. Another social statement, Philip Evergood's "Sunny Side of the Street" (egg-oil- varnish emulsion with marble dust and glass on canvas), explores the harsh living conditions of blacks in Brooklyn.
The last group chronicles our collective stress in "the age of anxiety," 1945 to now. Aliens all, Americans are threatened alternately by the bomb and by existential thoughts. In response, artists like Richard Diebenkorn and Joseph Shannon plumbed the unconscious and introduced Freudian symbols in their works, envisioning the mechanization of society. Photographers Bruce Davidson and Helen Levitt examined Jewish and Puerto Rican minorities, respectively, in tune with the emphasis on social and political concerns of the '60s and early '70s. In the end, if genre artists get a bad rap, it's only due to their proximity to the times; get a generation or two away and their work seems to gain significance.
OF TIME AND PLACE: AMERICAN FIGURATIVE ART FROM THE CORCORAN GALLERY -- Through November 15 at the Corcoran, 17th & New York Avenue NW. Tuesday through Sunday 10 to 4:30, Thursday evenings until 9.