An article in Wednesday's Style section about exhibits at the Hirshhorn had an incorrect date for an upcoming lecture, "The Sculpture of Joel Shapiro," by Ned Rifkin. It will be Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. in the Hirshhorn auditorium. (Published 12/5/87)
If conceptual art left you cold and postminimalism left you confused, the Hirshhorn today launches two new exhibitions -- focusing on leading practitioners Sol Lewitt and Joel Shapiro -- that could begin to change all that.
Lewitt's richly colored mural "Various Forms" -- now embracing the third-floor escalator landing -- is accessible to anyone who simply takes the time to look at its giant cubes and pyramids, tilting and tumbling into and out of the surrounding space, obliterating corners and reversing themselves in playful illusions.
The piece is the first in an innovative and rather daring series of commissioned, site-specific "Works" to be created in and around the Hirshhorn (artists choose the exact spot), three each year for the forseeable future.
Nearby on the third floor is the handsome new "Directions" gallery, where small, focused shows of work by both emerging and established artists will henceforth be exhibited on an ongoing basis, replacing the biennial theme shows held previously at the museum under the "Directions" title.
The series is off to a splendid start with "Joel Shapiro: Painted Wood," spotlighting a medium in which this influential postminimalist sculptor has worked for 14 years, though the results are less frequently shown than his tiny, intense, cast-iron houses and tumbling figures in bronze.
What comes through in these 14 well-chosen works by the 46-year-old Shapiro -- from early wall reliefs to free-standing figures made from what look like standard 4-by-4s but aren't -- is the sense of empathy, and of an artist working and thinking. Shapiro's great contribution to recent sculpture -- evident everywhere in these tough but often endearing painted wooden works -- has been his softening of the hard edge of minimalism by reintroducing human scale and feelings.
As it turns out, that is precisely what the Hirshhorn Museum's new chief curator for exhibitions, Ned Rifkin, had in mind to do for museum-going when he initiated the two new series.
"Small-scale exhibitions restore the sense of intimacy with art that has been lost in blockbuster shows. We also want to show that art is the result of individual endeavor, not just a manifestation of some superficial 'style,' " says Rifkin, who moved from the Corcoran (where he initiated the "Spectrum" series on themes in contemporary art) to the Hirshhorn just a year ago. He took with him his refreshing, almost revolutionary philosophy that smaller can be better.
With the simultaneous launching of "Works" and "Directions," Rifkin proves how illuminating -- and affecting -- this approach can be. Both series also underscore the Hirshhorn's growing commitment not only to the art of this century, but also to the art and artists of today -- precisely what the Washington museum world needs most. To its great credit, the Smithsonian is supporting both series through a small grant from the Special Exhibition Fund, which bulges with cash from various moneymaking arms of the institution, including the Smithsonian Associates.
One curious aspect of the "Works" series is that after the shows are over, the site-specific pieces will be painted out or destroyed, though they will be documented in photographs that will be published in a "Works" yearbook at the end of 1988. But shouldn't the Lewitt remain? "This was conceived as a series of ephemeral events," says Rifkin. "The murals will be painted out. But for those who've seen that area with the Lewitt in it, it will never be the same."
This is, at heart, a work that is more baroque than minimalist -- except that the subjects are geometric solids, rather than mythic giants or martyred saints. Lewitt, 59, likes to call the piece a "wall drawing" -- "... less weight of history to contend with than 'mural,' " he says in a gallery handout. Those who know Lewitt only as a sculptor of gridlike cubes will be astonished and pleased.
The two shows complement each other in fortuitous ways, focusing as they do on two of the wittier members of their respective conceptual camps. In both cases, color plays an unexpected role, amplifying mood in ways that are often surprisingly romantic.
In the case of Lewitt, the romance is obvious in the use of lavish earth tones, made rich and deep by dappled overlays of colored inks. In the case of Shapiro, it is more subtle: An early wall relief with hidden tomblike spaces, for example, takes a tender aura from a wispy layer of paint, as does a sleeping figure with a lavender head.
Sometimes, however, color is used to make an aggressive statement, as it does in the case of the earliest work by Shapiro on view -- a small 1973 relief of a man sitting backwards on a horse -- which the artist then obliterated with a heavy spritz of green spray paint he called "camouflage." At the time, the work was seen both as a declaration of independence from minimalist shackles and an expression of fear of being caught defying convention. His ideas were nonetheless seen and swiftly lapped up by the art world. Shapiro has said of the way he first displayed his early works -- tiny chairs, houses, bridges shown alone in vast, empty spaces -- that he was doing so to insist on "an intimate experience in a public situation."
That's what his show is -- and so, if Rifkin has his way, will be future shows that fill the "Directions" gallery.
Coming up next, beginning March 9: For "Works," a collaborative installation (site not yet determined) by the team of Kate Erikson and Mel Ziegler, to be organized by Rifkin. For "Directions," a work by photographer/painter Sherrie Levine, organized by associate curator Phyllis Rosenzweig, who also was in charge of the Lewitt project, is planned.
The Lewitt murals as well as the Shapiro show will continue through Feb. 28. Rifkin will lecture at the Hirshhorn on Shapiro Dec. 26.