"The Washington Show" is here at last. It goes on view this morning at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It isn't a triumph. It isn't a failure. It is a little bit of both.
Hurray for its best works of art, its illustrated catalogue and its good intentions. Hurray, too, for the work put into it by artists serving artists. But boo for its unfair methods of selection, and for the pain that it has given to too many of the artists' peers, and for the exhibition's themelessness -- the viewer sees at once it was chosen by committee -- and for the gallery's inexplicable decision to break its installation into two.
Six artists chose the show. Three of them -- Rockne Krebs, Simon Gouverneur and Martha Jackson-Jarvis -- were nominated by the Coalition of Washington Artists, a loosely knit, insistent group that's been telling the Corcoran to do more for local artists since 1981. The other three -- Polly Kraft, Kevin MacDonald and Rebecca Crumlish, a Coalition member -- were picked by the museum.
They wanted to call attention to the ambition and the seriousness of deserving local artists, and their celebratory show does feel like a party. But it is not wholly happy. Angers and resentments swirl around its fringes. And the guest list is the subject of considerable dispute.
They wanted to help unify the local art community, but their show has helped divide it.
Anyone can make a list of highly accomplished artists who, for some reason, are missing. And anyone can question some of the inclusions in the present exhibition.
"The Washington Show" includes 79 artists who work, or so it seems, in nearly as many media. They paint, they carve, they weld, they scavenge and they quilt and piece together lengths of colored yarn; they make prints, drawings, books, photocopies, videos and photographs. There are first-rate pictures here -- by, among others, Patrice Kehoe, Rebecca Davenport, Tom Nakashima, Fred Folsom, Leslie Kuter and the late Gene Davis (to whom the show is dedicated). There are sculptures as impressive by Jennie Lea Knight, V.V. Rankine, John D. Antone, Genna Watson, Ed Love, Peter Charles and Jeff Spaulding. It includes serious photographs by Allen Appel, Stephen Lee Szabo and John Gossage.
But the Corcoran's exhibit has been put together awkwardly. Artists known for small works, Gayil Nalls, for instance, are here represented by big pieces, while others, known for working large, are showing objects that are small. Far too often here one has the suspicion that artists -- rather than objects -- were chosen for inclusion. This exhibition is scattered. There is much imposing work here, but any show so varied is bound to leave a blur in the viewer's mind.
That blur is half familiar. "The Washington Show" recalls the giant, scattered area shows, with paintings good and lousy from floor to ceiling, that the Corcoran used to offer many years ago. That the present exhibition was picked by artists also calls to mind the past. Juror Crumlish writes that the show, as "a direct collaboration between artists and art institutions in Washington," is "the first" of its type in town.
But she's wrong. Three of the artists showing -- Gene Davis, Joe Shannon and Ed Love -- have picked shows for the Washington Project for the Arts. Sam Gilliam, a fourth, has curated a show for the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Museum shows selected at least in part by artists have been seen at the Corcoran since the days of former director Walter Hopps.
The committee's selection process, not at all surprisingly, irritated many. At first the word went out that the committee would look at everything, and in response 840 local artists submitted works of art or slides. But then it was learned that perhaps a third of the exhibiting artists -- among them such senior painters as Davis, Jacob Kainen, Leon Berkowitz and Tom Downing -- weren't required to enter. They were invited anyway. "Our rationale," explains juror Rockne Krebs, "was to allow emerging talent to surface and be seen beside that of artists who had already established the quality of their endeavors." Is it any wonder that many of the artists who had had their work rejected believed that they'd been had?
Nearly 200, in protest, have paid $25 each to have their art displayed in an alternative exhibit, the "All Washington Show," which fills six floors of a nearby office building at 512 Ninth St. NW. It includes clown pictures and hobby art and much that is not grand, but its best art is as vital as much now at the Corcoran. Other Salons des Refuse's are scheduled for June. The "All Washington Show," sponsored by A Salon Ltd., will be on view afternoons through May 19. It opened yesterday.
The Corcoran's show is bright and bold, but its brightness covers sadness. It is tougher than it's ever been for artists in this city to make a decent living. Washington artists are sick of being dismissed as merely "local." Many, remembering better days, feel that the Corcoran, and other museums here, now give the city's artists inadequate support. Without shows in their own city, they ask, who will mount them elsewhere? They know that art sells relatively poorly here. And they keenly feel the awesome pressure from Washington's museums. There are, for instance, 53 Leonardo drawings on temporary loan to the National Gallery of Art. How many are going to pass them by to see the Corcoran's area show?
No one who saw the Corcoran's celebrated "Gilliam, Krebs and McGowin" show of 1969 and who remembers the high hopes it engendered can see the present exhibition without some disappointment. Gilliam and Rockne Krebs, as much as anyone, provided the self-confidence -- and the exasperation -- that have served to weld the artists' coalition. But McGowin has moved to New York. And though Gilliam is prospering, Krebs, whose accomplishments are many, has not seen his career flourish. What then is to happen to the many other artists, few of them as gifted, many less well known, included in this show?
Group surveys such as this, although large and entertaining and probably quite harmless, cannot be the whole answer. A dozen monographic shows -- a Downing or Ed Love -- could grow out of this one, but who is going to pay for them? And, if not the Corcoran, who is going to organize those well-considered exhibitions -- of Washington abstraction since the heyday of the Color School, or of Washington figuration, or of Washington wood sculpture -- for which this show makes one long? This exhibit, finally, reminds us there is much more to be done.
One aspect of the current show will make its artists grind their teeth. Viewers who cross the atrium bridge to the skylit gallery beyond see what seems to be a group show of contemporary art. "The Washington Show?" No. It is the Corcoran School of Art's senior exhibition, which has bumped one-sixth of "The Washington Show" to a gallery downstairs. It isn't a bad student show, but it's as if the Corcoran is saying that student art and art by Washington's professionals is essentially the same. Many artists have said that the Corcoran does not take them seriously. The presence of the student show will not change their minds.
To commemorate the opening, Mayor Marion Barry has proclaimed today "Washington Artists' Day." The Washington Post Co. has helped pay for "The Washington Show." So has a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. It closes July 14.