So. The Hirshhorn's been in business for nine years now, how's it going over there?
The answers are great, so-so and ennnh, according to what you're looking at and who you're talking with when going through the current exhibition of the 157 works that the museum has bought since it opened in 1974.
"How do you characterize a museum, especially one devoted to modern art?" a Hirshhorn staffer shrugged. "There are pieces here any person of taste would kill for. And there are some things, you put them out at the curb, the trash man wouldn't think twice."
While the exhibition represents but a tenth of the 1,438 works acquired since opening day, it should be a telling display because these are the works that the Hirshhorn has wanted badly enough to go after; the others came as gifts. What it tells is that the museum is going backward and forward at the same time: reaching for 19th-century works, particularly sculptures, that are becoming recognized as classics, but also investing heavily in a fairly wide range of recent works. More than half the pieces are younger than the Hirshhorn.
But it doesn't tell much more. If there's a Hirshhorn Museum style, bent, leaning or theme, none emerges here (except perhaps that the workmanship of the recent pieces tends to be more skillful and the materials more lasting than those of the works on display in most of the private modern-art galleries around town). The collection is as eclectic as the thousands of works Joe Hirshhorn left us; he would no doubt be pleased.
Anyone will no doubt be pleased by such wonders as Ron Davis' heroic ceramic bust "Blue-Black" (1968), or the small 1892 wood carving of a Polynesian goddess with attendants that Paul Gauguin sent home to be sold so he could keep on keeping on in Tahiti.
The exhibition is arranged chronologically by date of creation, which imposes a certain order on items that range from an 1828 portrait medallion by French sculptor David d'Angers to a painting just off the easel of American Robert Zakanitch. Some pieces of comparable date resonate with each other and some clash; here a piece shrills beside one bland as suet.
But you can't get through this huge gallery without being attracted and/or repelled, again and again. What more could we ask?
PURCHASES BY THE HIRSHHORN -- Through November 13 at the Hirshhorn Museum.