The National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution's dullest art museum, has installed yet another uninspired exhibition. One wonders how they pick them. Though countless are the artists worthy of exposure there, look who they've come up with now: George Elbert Burr.
If you do not know his name, do not be surprised.
A century ago, George Elbert Burr (1859-1939) earned a modest living producing illustrations for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and other magazines. It might be nice to see them, but not one is on display. Instead the show includes the artist's travel sketches, his drawings and his prints. The museum owns 291. Almost all of them arrived as gifts -- from Carolann Smurthwaite in memory of her mother, Caroline Atherton Cornell Smurthwaite. There are 70 on view.
None of them is ugly. Most are finely made. Burr was highly skilled, especially at etching. But his imagery from first to last was numbingly conventional. In 1899, in unquestioning obedience to the dogmas of John Ruskin, Burr made closely observed drawings of maple leaves and grasses. He drew babbling brooks as well. When he went to Florence, he made drawings of the duomo. In Rome he sketched the Forum, in Wales, Caernarvon Castle.
As a young man he developed an instinct for the post-card view, and it never left him. In 1924, after settling in Phoenix, where he earned his reputation as "the etcher of the American desert," he began depicting views just as unexceptional. The scenes that there attracted him -- rainbows over buttes, gnarled pines against the sky, dust devils on the Mojave -- are much like those that later appeared with regularity on the glossy covers of Arizona Highways magazine.
His little watercolor seascapes are luminous and lovely. His night views of the desert are also very nice. These are sweet, unthreatening, decorative objects, one should give him that. But even at his best, Burr made minor art.
His little exhibition, in the museum's ground-floor corridor, has been casually installed. Its chronology is full of gaps: a scene of Oxford's High Street in the rain, dated 1900, is followed immediately by an image of a desert pine dated 1922. No catalogue accompanies Burr's tepid little show. It closes May 11.
The National Museum of American Art also is exhibiting "Conversations With Another World: Romaine Brooks," a show of 37 eerie drawings and half a dozen oils by the American expatriate who died in France in 1971 at the age of 96. This show baffles, too. All the objects in it -- they are owned by the NMAA -- were included in another Romaine Brooks show held at the museum in 1971.
That impressive exhibition then traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Later, many of its oils were on permanent display in the National Museum's Lincoln Gallery. In 1980-1981 a number of Brooks' pictures toured numerous college galleries, including one in Lynchburg, Va.
Yet here they are again.
This seems a rather curious, though surely inexpensive, way to run an art museum. Why fiddle with new shows? Why bother with new scholarship? Why not just recycle all the worthy exhibitions held there in the past?
A possible explanation is that the museum is republishing a revised edition of Adelyn D. Breeskin's 1971 catalogue. It would be nice to take that book through the present exhibition, but, alas, that is not possible: Although the present exhibition opened in November, the new catalogue will not appear until the New Year.
Its publication, and the touring exhibition it will accompany, writes Charles C. Eldredge, the museum's director, "are intended to allow a new generation to listen in on Brooks' remarkable conversations with another world."
That new generation, the one that missed the many previous displays, will be able to see this one here through March 23.