Washington/Baltimore Museums move into ‘NOW’: Showing Today’s and Just-Yesterday’s Art

It can be argued that the Washington/Baltimore metropolitan art scene has always been characterized by a spectrum of positions vis-à-vis the present.  At one end were the commercial art galleries, non-profit or alternative venues, and university-affiliated exhibition spaces, all primarily focused on Contemporary art; while at its other extreme were located the museums of the nation’s capital and “charm city,” many of the former directly or indirectly financed by the federal government, which have for been predominantly devoted to exhibiting the art historical objects of the past.

That previous spectrum has been even further extended at one end in the past five years or so, to include a whole range of Contemporary phenomena paying yet more attention to (or in that process actually participating in producing) the art of the present. These new appearances on the scene include: “events” (party-like one-nighters), so-called pop-ups (shows curated from outside a given venue, sometimes appearing in non-art spaces such as unoccupied buildings), other interventions in the urban fabric involving art (like the installation of sculptures in residence yards in Foggy Bottom that took place last May), and artists exhibiting in as well as selling their work out of their studios or out of non-art retail businesses (cafés and restaurants, furniture stores, and so forth.)

These developments place themselves,  or can be placed, at the present-tense extreme of the spectrum just referred to, increasing the distance between its Contemporary-oriented and its art-historical “wings” to an even greater extent. That is, with the appearance of  “new” ways in which the art being made now is presented, the gap separating the display and consumption of the art of today from the art of yesterday in Washington/Baltimore widened. This highlights the interesting alteration that has subsequently begun to take place: a significant number of museums, whose emphases were previously art historical, have increasingly shifted their focus to showcasing Contemporary art (moving towards the opposite chronological end of the spectrum described above). Prominent examples from the past six months or so support this assertion, even as this transformation is continuing to evolve.

To begin with the Corcoran Gallery of Art ran “Spencer Finch: My Business, with the Cloud” from last Sept. through late Jan. of this year, the first in that museum’s new “NOW” series of exhibitions on Contemporary art. Although the Corcoran was well-known within this field due to its famous Biennial devoted to present-tense artistic production, its permanent collection is largely pre-20th century and its most recent previous temporary shows (for example during the tenure of its last Director Paul Greenhalgh) have had at the most a classical Modernist orientation.

Last fall, the Phillips Collection presented specific segments of the oeuvres of Abstract Expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart and Minimalist Robert Ryman: specifically the former’s “Predominantly White Paintings,” based on a 1955 show at Betty Parsons Gallery but also including works dating from as recently as the 1970s-90s; and “Variations and Improvisations” by the latter– all small-format pieces, spanning a period from the late 1950s to the present, some on canvas stapled directly to the wall or enameled kiln-fired copper plaques, making them seem more current in orientation. The Phillips has also now initiated a new series of installations of Contemporary art called “Intersections,” placed in public venues outside the museum building.

The National Gallery of Art’s West Wing mounted its “Beat Memories” in the second half of last year, an exhibition of photographs, manuscripts and period quotations documenting that pivotal literary-social movement of the 1950s, presenting it as a forerunner to—or the originator of—some Contemporary textual-artistic strategies or practices, as well as sociopolitical opposition. At the same time, until Jan. 2, our nation’s flagship museum’s East Wing was displaying some of Mark Rothko’s infamous “Black Paintings” from the mid-1960s onwards: again, late Modernist works out of which one way into the conceptual future of Contemporary painting emerged.

Washington’s Textile Museum showed “Art by the Yard: Women Design Mid-Century Britain” last May through Sept, an exhibition about the products of female fabric-weaving during the 1950s: a period not well known within the history of decorative arts, and a recent one for that institution (which in the past more frequently presented shows of, and whose permanent collection is mostly made up of, things like Medieval tapestries and earlier fragments).

May through September of last year, the Hirshhorn Museum’s new curator Terry Brougher organized a retrospective of the work of Yves Klein, an artist influential during the 1950s-60s (he died in 1963) and beyond, “With the Void: Full Powers”.  While the museum is devoted to Modern art in general, with a permanent collection focused on sculpture in particular, the Yves Klein show fit in at the most recent end of their usual time-span, and was interpreted by the exhibition in a conceptually-oriented and pronounced forward-looking fashion.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibited “Body of Work: New Perspectives on Figurative Painting,” up through Sept. 12, 2010. Within the larger metropolitan area, the Baltimore Museum of Art (an institution that has admittedly paid attention to present-tense developments) this past year exhibited “On the Mark: Contemporary Works on Paper,” which likewise closed last Sept 12, even its title especially stressing the “today” relevance of its contents.

The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, known (largely if not solely) for showcasing Medieval and Classical-period art, showed “Walter Wick: Games, Gizmos & Toys in the Attic” late last year (Sept. thru this Jan. 2), displaying models upon which the 57-year-old illustrator based his photographs for children’s books over a 30-year career, shifting its usual emphasis in this instance to focus on a contemporary.

What do these chronological shifts within the Washington/Baltimore museum landscape tell us? Obviously there are a number of implications, and while it has always (perhaps deleteriously) been habitual to reference New York City as a measure of the art scene here, I believe a recent article in the Sunday New York Times suggests what are probably the most important. In its “Arts & Leisure” section of Jan. 2, Roberta Smith published “Hold that Obit: MoMA’s not Dead,” discussing the “new” Museum of Modern Art’s redefinition of itself, signaled by its construction of a replacement for its former signature building, on the same West 53rd Street lot, in 2004. This revision has been taking place via an incorporation of Contemporary artistic phenomena (mainly descending from Conceptual art) into a previous exhibition program largely based on its relation to the museum’s Modernist permanent collection (descending for the most part from Cubism).

Self-evidently this has something to do with Modernism’s having become a “past” art historical period by now, so that MoMA has to redefine its focus in order to remain “modern.” And although there are already at least three other museums in New York concerning themselves with Contemporary art (the Whitney, the New Museum, and P.S. 1), in order to continue being relevant in a post-PostModern “era of the spectacle,” even such a prominent artistic institution as MoMA apparently finds it necessary to appeal to an ever-younger public. Which is to say, possibly, one characterized by an ever-shorter attention span, a more-limited knowledge of the past, and more emphatically pronounced preoccupation with anything’s relevance “NOW.”  Or, as Smith wrote in January:

To its credit, perhaps, the Modern has become the leading exemplar of the changing role of new art in museums. Where museums used to be vaguely or overtly suspicious of the new, allowing it through the door only hesitantly, now they can’t get enough of it, or at least certain kinds of it. (NYT, 1/2, AR8) She cites video, performance, and large-scale installation art as being favored in particular; and it seems significant that what Smith cites the French dealer/writer François Piron as calling “museum porosity” is taking place in Washington/Baltimore too. While clearly this development prompts an awareness that the institution “art museum” as a whole and its function within society are in the process of changing, there would seem to be more to it. For along with that would come an alteration in our understanding as to what “history” is: its redefinition as a kind of continuing present-ness, as well as a comprehension of our current participatory role as contemporary individuals in constructing it.
With the seemingly increasingly rapid pace of our (and history’s) rush into the future in the so-called “information age” comes another relation to the past than that of previous eras—one that Washington’s Phillips Collection has best expressed in the if-paradoxical title for the year-long celebration of its jubilee: “90 Years of the New.”

In other words, new-ness now defines the “new” museum’s relevance, rather than (as before) that which is old.

Julia Bernard, Consulting Editor

January 2011




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