We wander the museums searching for the best. But what about the worst?
There are many masterworks in Washington's museums, and like most museum visitors, especially the greedy ones, I have a list of favorites. Of late I've made a second list, a dark twin of the first. All the objects on it, although signed by masters, qualify as dogs.
Choosing winners is a snap. One proceeds through the galleries waiting for that telltale tingle of the spine. Picking losers is more difficult. The beauties on display, like the Sirens of Ulysses, do their damnedest to seduce you. Steel yourself against them. Ignore all works of art that sing. Watch for those that bark.
* In the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art is a painting signed by Paul Gauguin, called "The Invocation," and dated 1903. It is ripe with island foliage and naked nut-brown maids, those hallmarks of the master. They are usually beguiling. Here they make you squirm. What makes this work so painful is the way that it humiliates the fine Gauguins beside it. Its crudely outlined figures have hands that look like mittens, and skin that looks like concrete. The landscape in the background is a blotch of greens and purples. This thrown-together picture, made of bits of other Gauguins, quickly falls apart.
* Vincent van Gogh's "Girl in White," another National Gallery picture on display nearby, is not quite so bad, but is bad enough. Its ectomorphic figure, awkward as she is, is not as poorly painted as the meaow that surrounds her. The forgiving viewer may accept those little orange dots, those blobs squeezed from the paint tube, as fresh field flowers, but what is he to make of those harsh scrawls of blue? Are they blossoms or mistakes? They look like broken hearts.
* "Still Life (Composition No. 7)," a little Arshile Gorky canvas at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, seems one of those pictures that would stay in storage if it did not bear a famous artist's name. It was painted sometime between 1924 and 1936. It looks as if the painter, attempting to design an abstract stained-glass window, found his colors botched, his lead lines far too thick, and gave up in disgust.
* Perhaps the silliest of all the paintings at the Hirshhorn is Joseph Stella's "Serenade, A Christmas Fantasy" (circa 1937). It includes singing birds and stars, a pointed Gothic window, holly leaves, the works. Its music is the music piped into department stores. The viewer who explores this work feels that he is drowning in Christmas decorations. The style of the painting is Greeting Card Grotesque.
* One of the chief losers at the National Museum of American Art (formerly the National Collection of Fine Arts) is "Spiral" (1966), which Alexander Calder made and gave to the museum. One suspects that Calder was glad to see it go. "Spiral" sits abandoned in the museum's court-yard. Its motorized silver spiral is supposed to turn, but almost never does (and when it does, it howls). "Spiral" has a bright blue foot, now littered with dead leaves. It also has a bright red door (motors demand maintenance) and an unsightly socket for an electric plug.
* Pierre Auguste Renoir, that most uneven painter, may be seen at his worst in a small still life titled "Peaches" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The fruits are merely daubs. The tablecloth is gray, as if, by mistake, it had just been washed with a hamper of black socks.
That's enough. These objects, and their peers, ugly though they are, are easily ignored. That is one of the nice things about museum works of art. Bad movies and bad plays, bad records and bad books, waste your money and your time. But paintings are no problem. Seeing them costs nothing. Blink and they are gone.
Good art and bad art, Marcel Duchamp said, are both art, as good emotions and bad emotions are both emotions. He who makes a painting makes a thing of consequence, and even when he botches it, he does little harm.
Liking art is easy, hating it is hard. If you ask an art specialist, a curator, a dealer, for his list of dogs, his usual response is not vehemence, but bafflement. Kenneth Clark had just produced his "Civilisation" series, when an interviewer asked him what art he liked least. Lord Clark paused a moment. "Eighteenth-century French," he said. "I find paintings of that time frivolous and saccharin." Then he paused again. "However," he continued, "I own a beautiful Fragonard."