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American Evolution' Challenges Conventional Chronological Wisdom

Imagine parking an antique Roadster beside a modern-day Ferrari, and you might have an idea of what’s in store at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s latest exhibit, “The American Evolution: A History through Art,” which challenges museum-goers to throw out conventional wisdom on chronological art presentation.

This long-awaited re-installation of the Corcoran’s American art collection offers a fresh look at the gallery’s vast holdings, with nearly 200 pieces in various media, from painting to sculpture, represented here.

From the moment you walk into the exhibit, you’re assured this will not be a traditional art-viewing experience. At the entrance lie two historical but vastly different renderings: Gilbert Stuart’s stately, early 1800s oil-on-canvas portrait “George Washington” and Andy Warhol’s synthetic-polymer-paint and silkscreen-ink rendition of Chinese leader Mao Zedong from 1973.

“This exhibition is one of the largest and most diverse displays of American art ever to be mounted at the Corcoran,” said Emily Shapiro, the museum’s assistant curator of American art. “It is not size and scope alone that distinguish the installation from earlier presentations of our collection, however. The display also purposefully rejects the chronological structure of traditional art historical surveys in favor of a thematic model that highlights continuities in American artistic production and culture from the Colonial era to the present day.”

Sarah Newman, Corcoran assistant curator of contemporary art, said she enjoys seeing the newer works interacting with the older ones. “I like the built-in critique,” Newman said. “It’s like seeing the old favorites in a totally new context. So everything is kind of new.”

It took Corcoran officials about six months to pull the massive exhibit together. “American Evolution” centers around five themes: money, land, politics, cultural exchange and the modern world. The exhibit’s message is simple and timeless: As much as things change, they also stay the same.

The section on money, which of course has always held powerful sway in this country, showcases several oil paintings depicting America’s influential and elite personalities, mostly from the Gilded Age. Among the most striking is Joshua Johnson’s oil on canvas of “Grace Allison McCurdy (Mrs. Hugh McCurdy) and Her Daughters, Mary Jane and Letitia Grace,” with all three wearing romantic, flowing white dresses and looking as if they emerged from a Shakespearean play.

Under the land section, traditional early 19th-century and modern 20th-century landscapes reveal how nature has figured into the American psyche. One of the most impressive highlights is Frederic Edwin Church’s awe-inspiring depiction of Niagara Falls from 1857. The illusion of reality in this painting is heady—sit down on one of the benches and you could swear the water is actually moving in front of you.

And just as in real life, the politics section is a mixed bag—surveying some of the great figures and moments in the nation’s history, as well as the artistic images that have helped to shape that history. The works range from portraits of 18th- and 19th-century political and military leaders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, to photographers who documented the Civil Rights Movement, including Ben Fernandez and Danny Lyon, who captured images of dissent and struggle that expanded the language of both politics and culture. A couple of favorites that epitomize this historical range: Samuel F.B. Morse’s immense oil on canvas titled “The House of Representatives” from the early 1800s and Rupert Garcia’s stunning human rights lithographic and screen prints, dating from 1969 to 1976.

The most recent work in the exhibit, from 2001, is “Re-Entrance,” a ceramic sculpture of a set of high-tech-looking doors made to appear aged and corroded. It’s the last piece in the exhibition and an appropriate ending to this chronological fusion of art.

The Corcoran also proves that it’s never too late for the old to evolve with the new: For the first time in its nearly 140-year history, the gallery is offering a cell phone tour in conjunction with “American Evolution,” during which a variety of speakers—artists, curators, museum directors and celebrity experts—talk about select pieces depending on the number that you dial in from your own phone. Now that’s evolution!

The American Evolution: A History through Art through July 27 Corcoran Gallery of Art 500 17th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.

About the Author

Christine Cub

Last Edited on November 29, 1999