The art museum at American University's Katzen Arts Center, which launched last month with five new shows, is the closest equivalent in Washington to the famous Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Pity its curators.
As with Frank Lloyd Wright's space in New York, with its soaring rotunda and spiraling exhibition ramp, the Katzen's new gallery has such pungent modernist architecture -- tightly curved walls, polished concrete floors, cathedral ceilings and grand picture windows -- that most art, of most periods, can barely compete with it.
In the Guggenheim's current survey of 800 years of Russian art, even grand 18th-century oil paintings look like puny decorative postage stamps glued at odd angles into a modernist collage. Based on this first round of Katzen shows, Washington's new venue presents some of the same problems.
The Katzen's museum, like the Guggenheim, has a basically cylindrical floor plan, with various subsidiary arcs and angled walls that divide the room outside the central core. That means that most of the biggest, least-interrupted display walls are sharply curved. The arcing shadows cast on the walls by big paintings make the canvases themselves seem warped -- a design flaw that Washington architects should have been doubly aware of, since it has always made the Smithsonian's cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum a misery for paintings curators. There are also lots of beautiful views out through glass. Lovely, except that they compete with the scenes that artists have decided to show us in their works, and make it hard to show any art that's sensitive to light. No video in the main galleries, that is, or works on paper without elaborate efforts to block up that glass. Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey described the museum building as "interesting, even exciting." There are, he pointed out, "dramatic stairwells, surprising overlooks, intriguing cul-de-sacs." And as he also pointed out, all of these make it "architecture that tries to be art rather than be for art."
The Katzen's first five exhibitions seem to bear his judgment out. The art they show fights the Katzen's signature architecture, and is almost never strong enough to blow it away.