There's no furniture, so you can't sit down and schmooze. But otherwise, "Olga Hirshhorn Collects: Views From the Mouse House," now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, comes as close as a little show could to offering visitors a snoop around the home of one of Washington's best-known art collectors.
Billed as a "preview" of the 700 works Olga Hirshhorn recently promised to leave the Corcoran at her death, this gathering of 176 of them celebrates not only that gift but, inevitably, the inventive, open-minded woman behind it. For this imaginative installation is, in large part, a replica of the living room in Hirshhorn's tiny Northwest Washington pied-a-terre, where small-scale paintings and sculptures by Picasso, Calder, de Kooning, Daumier and O'Keeffe cozily mingle with an array of pre-Columbian, Asian, African and Oceanian art and artifacts.
This show, chosen entirely from the Washington house (one of her three residences), offers surprises on many levels. For neither the house nor the art is what anyone would expect from the widow of wealthy mega-collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn, whose acquisitions fill an entire museum on the Mall.
Olga Hirshhorn's collecting is highly personal and domestically scaled -- a creative hodgepodge that warmly embraces everything from a bronze Calder "Cat" to a betel nut cracker from Bali. Many works, in fact, cost virtually nothing, and were picked up on frequent trips abroad, or in flea markets or antique shops. The Corcoran was wise to realize that to do justice to this first sampling from her collection, the works needed to be shown just as she has arranged them in her home. For that arrangement is itself a work of art.
Her tiny "Mouse House," as she calls it, is a 500-square-foot triplex off Massachusetts Avenue consisting only of a living room and kitchen on the ground floor, a tiny bedroom on the third floor, and a bath in between. And yet it brims over with paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and even signed posters and reproductions that she has somehow transformed into a joyful, harmonious whole.
Airy and bright, the house was ingeniously fashioned from a 19th-century carriage house by the late Washington architect Richard Ridley, and caught Hirshhorn's eye after the death of her husband in 1981. The diminutive Olga Hirshhorn couldn't resist Ridley's little confection and the challenge it posed for a collector.
With great flair and imagination, she has transformed the house into a pint-size showplace with irresistible arrangements and clusters of art tucked everywhere: in bookcases, on kitchen shelves, even in the medicine cabinet, which she recently pressed into service as a display case for new acquisitions.
It is this all-embracing, non-elitist spirit of Olga Hirshhorn's collection that Corcoran curator Jack Cowart set out to capture. And he has succeeded, especially in his re-creation of the bookcase that is the centerpiece of the living room. Its little wonders -- from an elegant 19th-century bronze "Standing Racehorse" by Jean Leon Gerome to two roughly carved wooden saints, source unknown -- suggest the broad range of pleasures to be found on a small scale. And, often, on a small budget.
Being the wife of great collector obviously had its privileges. There are works here from Picasso, once a neighbor on the French Riviera, inscribed "To Joe and Olga," or "To Olga with love." Others, signed "Love, Bill," came from Willem de Kooning, from whose studio floor Hirshhorn admits having rescued a drawing or two. Jean Dubuffet indulged her by autographing a reproduction of one of his paintings of cows. And Georgia O'Keeffe -- not known for her generosity -- gave her the small, oddly traditional flower painting that hangs next to her bookcase.
Cowart has unearthed from this eclectic collection several unifying themes. There are, for example, many animal sculptures -- most important a floppy-eared bronze elephant by Picasso that sits poised on a cabinet under a far more abstract elephant stabile by Alexander Calder.
And there is a wall of nudes: by Gaston Lachaise, Raphael Soyer, John Sloan, de Kooning and Man Ray.
Friendship, too, is a persistent theme. Several Washington artists, pals of the Hirshhorns, are represented here, notably Joe Shannon and Michael Clark, whose "George Washington" was recently acquired from Clark's Georgetown gallery. There are also small examples by Dale Loy, Lolo Sarnoff and Ella Tulin. The sequined mermaid commissioned from Washington artist Noche Crist to conceal the Mouse House ironing board is not here, but a picture of it can be seen among several large photo-murals showing the interior of the house.
One highlight is a fine little cityscape by Abram Lerner, Joe Hirshhorn's longtime curator and the first director of the Hirshhorn Museum. This may the first time -- but not the last, I hope -- that a painting by Lerner has been publicly shown in Washington.
There's a bright red target painting that was a wedding gift from Kenneth Noland, a former Washington artist. And there are several small sculptures by one John Cunningham, who is one of Hirshhorn's four sons from her first marriage, to her high school English teacher.
In the end, like her choices or not, you can't look at this show without being impressed by the collector's voracious eye and refreshingly open approach. She likes what she likes, connoisseurship be damned. "She's not hung up on consistency, or art history, or on proving anything," says Cowart. "Her roaming eye is all that defines the boundaries of her collection."
Some will be -- and already have been -- less generous in their assessment of this collection. One high-profile curator went so far as to wave it off as "a few worthless scraps." Fortunately, the Corcoran has taken a less elitist view.
Hirshhorn, too, appears to have made a wise choice. Last spring, when asked why she had bypassed the museum her husband founded when making her own gift, she replied, "It would have been lost at the Hirshhorn." This show, and this swift and imaginative use of the collection by the Corcoran, prove she was right.
No final assessment of the collection can be made without a more comprehensive look. But whether or not masterpieces emerge, this exhibition points to something beyond connoisseurship -- to Olga Hirshhorn's own remarkable creativity, so long submerged in her husband's obliterating shadow.
Other installations from Mrs. Hirshhorn's collection will continue in the fall. This one will remain on view through Oct 15. CAPTION: The living room of Olga Hirshhorn's tiny "Mouse House." A replica of the room, filled with art she collected, has been installed at the Corcoran.