Washington's oldest art tradition, moribund for many years, is showing signs of life. Sculptors here are making statues once again.
Led by Frederick Hart -- he whose metal fighting men, wary and bewildered, stare uncomprehendingly at the inscribed Vietnam wall -- 13 local artists, statue makers all, are now exhibiting together at the Fendrick Gallery, 3059 M St. NW.
A number of these artists -- Greta Bader, John Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Falk, Barry Johnston, Raymond Kaskey, Emily Kaufman, Gordon Kray -- are admirably skilled. And a few of them, like Hart, who has done much work in stone for the Washington Cathedral, have recently been given large public art commissions. Kray has just completed a fine and Michelangelo-esque white marble madonna for St. Matthew's Cathedral. Greta Bader is making a series of portrait busts of "The Men and Women Who Built America" for the National Building Museum. Kaskey is now working on a huge copper figure, "Portlandia" by name, who from kneeling knee to trident-tip is 32 feet tall. She is bound for Michael Graves' post-modernist Municipal Building in Portland, Ore.
"Washington Figurative Sculpture" is a bit of a surprise, though here, in Statue City, perhaps one should have seen it coming. Patriotic pride, red-white-and-blue bunting and ceremonial pomp are, after all, once again in style here. So is art that's of the Right -- bronze heroic soldiers, white marble madonnas, armless torsos, portrait busts and symbolic winged nudes. In Ronald Reagan's Washington, objects that not long ago might have been dismissed as retrogressive, out of step or hopelessly old fashioned feel appropriate again.
The exhibit ought to soar, but it doesn't really. It is an oddly biteless show.
There are three main art traditions in Washington. The first, which owes so much to Duncan Phillips, Chester Dale and the American University art department, is found in Washington's bottomless affection for colorful and freely brushed School of Paris paintings. The second art tradition here, an outgrowth of the first, is built upon the modernist accomplishments of the Washington Color Painters. The third, by far the oldest, is built on the statues scattered in our parks.
Most of them, and all the best -- the somber, seated Lincoln of Daniel Chester French and his Dupont Circle fountain, Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery and Henry Shrady's Grant Memorial just beside the Capitol -- are in spirit Neo-Classical and self-consciously old fashioned. So, too, is this show.
For 145 years -- ever since Horatio Greenough dressed his vast George Washington in sandals and white toga -- Washington has dreamed itself a place of groves and temples, a sort of democratic Rome. Cor-Ten and stainless steel, in consequence, have never looked quite right here. In the city's public spaces, abstract sculptures jar. The statues most agreeable to monumental Washington are made of stone or rain-streaked bronze.
When -- not so very long ago -- we smiled at these objects, we did so for good reason. While those bronze, full-tailed horses earned our amused affection, the generals who rode them often looked a little foolish. They affected false antiquity. And they were utterly, pathetically empty of self-doubt.
The new American patriotism, of which we read so much, involves a certain smugness. A certain smugness, too, pervades the statues in our parks. All those metal warriors, explorers, politicians, sages and inventors seem oblivious to irony. And those half-clad nymphs and goddesses, who, symbolizing this or that, show off their fine breasts on countless public monuments, would rather corrode away to nothing than wink. The lions and the buffalo who guard the city's bridges unashamedly depict pure and guilt-free power. Great art tests the viewer. But the public statues in this city, all except the very best, do not even try.
That lack of edge, of twist, is the crucial flaw that mars the present show.
Almost all the art on view suggests that all is well. H. Reed Armstrong's "Solomon Ibn Gabirol" is a sinless sage. Greta Bader's busts for the Building Museum are images of heroes. Her portait of Sen. Claiborne Pell has all the toughness of a campaign poster. Dreyfuss' smoothed figures (they recall those of Paul Manship) smooth worries from the mind. Hart's torso and his Lucite nudes suggest ideal, sexy beauty. So do Barry Johnston's symbolic winged figures. Kaskey's "Portlandia" is a representation of doubt-free civic pride. Kray's "Blessed Mother" is, quite understandably, a figure full of grace. Emily Kaufman (a young sculptor still in thrall to the example of Frank Gallo, an artist who was once her teacher) makes languid half-clothed women of the sort that might inhabit the Playboy reader's dreams. Wendy Ross' "Sinbad" is a figure of pure fantasy; so is her "Salome" (who wears a see-through bra). Michael Lasell's nudes, and those of James Symons, have perfect bodies, too. It has been a while since an art show in this city displayed so many flawless breasts.
Amidst all this flawlessness, Malcolm's craggy portrait of Amos Judd, and Falk's lonely figures (they're riding escalators and elevators) evoke a harshness, a world-weariness, that comes as a relief.
This show may be timely. It is full of well-made objects. And it is distressingly oversweet.
Many of its artists felt for years neglected by the rulers of the art world, by the curators, critics, dealers and collectors, who sneered, or so it seemed to them, at all figurative art. Rick Hart, for one, still speaks about the "conflict" he perceives between "popular and elitist art."
"Twenty years ago," he says, "I deliberately decided to step outside the mainstream." He refuses now to badmouth the black wall Maya Ying Lin designed for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He immediately acknowledges its poignancy and power. "The wall succeeds," he says. "On its own terms, it succeeds absolutely." But his face and voice suggest that he is still galled by its complete abstraction.
"When I started carving gargoyles at the Cathedral," he says, "Rockne Krebs, Ed McGowin, all those guys, thought that I was nuts."
When Rick Hart talks of "elitism," or of his "antimodernist sentiments," or of those who rule the "mainstream," he is still referring to what he perceives to be the ruthless domination of official abstract art. But that battle is long over. McGowin has for years been making figurative tableaux. Even Rockne Krebs, who has exhibited glass horses, has broken his allegiance to wholly abstract art.
The difference between most local "mainstream" art -- and most of the sculpture at the Fendrick -- is a difference less of subject than of mood.
Completely abstract art, at least for the time being, is here out of fashion. In Washington as elsewhere, figuration is ascendant. What really separates the city's finest figurative painters from the sculptors at the Fendrick is that many of the painters -- Joseph Shannon, Manon Cleary, Rebecca Davenport, Joe White and Fred Folsom, to name just a few -- share a deep distrust of merely comfortable art. So, too, do some of Washington's best figurative sculptors. Ed Love's metal beings, although they skirt abstraction, often scream with hurt and anger. Genna Watson's statues and those of Joe Shannon are also drenched in pain. But they are missing, along with any hint of trouble, from the Fendrick show (which closes Feb. 16).
Hart's work at Fendrick stresses symbolism more than the realism that marks his soldiers on the Mall. Those soldiers may look too pretty to be true, but their prettiness is seasoned by his statue's lifelike details -- the zippers on the flak jacket, the lacings of the boots, the nap of the terry cloth towels, the machinery of the weapons. Hart's realism is fine, but his symbolic art, like most symbolic art today, is not entirely convincing.
The Greeks and Romans believed in their gods and goddesses. The 19th-century's sculptors accepted the contention that victorious generals are heroes. But our century has taught us much. We no longer speak about the fallen or the slain. We now call them the dead. The sight of young women's perfect naked bodies allegorically representing one truth or another is no longer as convincing as it might have seemed a century ago. The politicans tell us that Americans are grand, that our country is number one. Most statues in our parks, and most statues in this show, are just as reassuring. But they are, like the speeches, hollow at the core.