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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 17, 2006

D.C.'s place for modern art this season

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post

Here's a look at three exhibits coming to the nation's capital:


What promises to be the season's most important exhibition opens at its very end. On Jan. 28, the National Gallery will launch "Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965." On view through April 29, it will survey the seminal years in the career of one of this country's greatest innovators.

Labels and isms never get you very far with really good art, but with Johns they get you nowhere.

You could bill Johns as the godfather of pop art: His early works are built around such everyday objects and imagery as the American flag, typeset numbers and even old cans of Ballantine Ale. Unlike the "official" pop artists who took off in the early 1960s, however, there's not much straight-ahead satire or irony in Johns' work. It all seems more complex, textured, even elegiac than the best early works of Oldenburg or Lichtenstein or Warhol.

Or perhaps you'd want to call him a conceptual artist, even a dadaist. His willingness to make deadpan copies of objects in the world that flag again, the ale cans, marksmen's targets seems to talk about the collapse of painting as an expressive medium. His number paintings, which simply count and recount the digits from zero to nine, whisper that there's nothing left to say. Except that, unlike other doom-and-gloom announcers of the Death of Painting, Johns was as committed to the glorious physicality of paint as any Titian or Rembrandt or Pollock.

Maybe, like for all the very best artists, we have to be satisfied with seeing Johns for just his infinitely complex self anchored in the time and place and scene he made his art in, but transcending it as well.


By the time of Jasper Johns, the American establishment was on its way to embracing modern art. An exhibition called "The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America," at the Phillips Collection Oct. 14 through Jan. 21, will show how that moment was a long time coming.

In 1920, artist, heiress and social activist Katherine Dreier, along with dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, founded an organization for collecting, exhibiting and promoting modern art in the United States. They dubbed their body the Societe Anonyme the French equivalent of "the Corporation" and under its aegis organized the first U.S. solos of artists such as Paul Klee and Fernand Leger. It also staged major group shows such as the 1926 "International Exhibition of Modern Art."

By 1941, when Dreier gave the Societe's collection to Yale University, it included more than 1,000 pieces. The Phillips exhibition will present more than 100 of those works, along with others bequeathed by Dreier to the Phillips on her death in 1952. There will, of course, be important pictures by influential figures such as Kandinsky, Duchamp and Mondrian.


It's a season for lovers of classic modern art. Sandwiched between the Societe Anonyme at the Phillips and Johns at the National Gallery, Joseph Cornell, the eccentric surrealist from Queens, N.Y., will be featured at the newly renovated Smithsonian American Art Museum. This will be the first major exhibition in American Art's new spaces that has been organized in-house, and Cornell is the perfect choice for such an honor: The museum hosts a Joseph Cornell Study Center and many of the artist's papers are held by its Archives of American Art.

"Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination," Nov. 17 through Feb. 19, will be the artist's first full-scale retrospective in 25 years, and it looks set to have a greater range of work than any other has. Of course, there will be lots of Cornell's famous "boxes": small, glass-fronted cases full of poetic accumulations of found objects such as clay pipes, stuffed birds and small bottles. They are like surrealist collages in 3-D.