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Reshuffling the Deck: An Illustrated Companion to My WSJ Piece on National Gallery Reinstallations

Although my Wall Street Journal piece, A Capital Overhaul at the National Gallery, on the reinvented and revitalized permanent collection displays, was generously granted three images by my editors, I think readers often crave a chance to see the other works discussed.

You wish, artlings, is CultureGrrl‘s demand. Below are most of the works whose images didn’t make it into the article, along with a few other related works and additional information and commentary.

But what I didn’t have space to tell you in yesterday’s artcle is that Harry Cooper, curator and department head for modern art, expects to re-do the permanent collection’s contemporary art installations within “a year or two.”

Here’s why, as revealed during our conversation on the East Building’s new sculpture terrace, where he chose to pose with two small Nam June Paik bronzes when I asked if I could take his picture. (His knees are obviously in better shape than mine are.)


Harry Cooper squats with Nam June Paik, “Ugly Buddha and Ugly Television,” 1991-96
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Concourse (the level where the most recent art from the permanent collection is currently shown) will probably be taken over by our next special exhibition: Lynne Cooke (senior curator, special projects in modern art) is organizing “Outliers,” looking at the relationship between mainstream and outsider art (the subject of her research as a 2012-13 Andrew Mellon professor at the National Gallery).

That will kick the contemporary permanent collection upstairs, where we will do a completely different installation.

Cooper added that the displays of contemporary art from the permanent collection will be more fluid than the installations of earlier modern works. “The museum,” he said, “has to stay lively.”

For now, lets look at the current installations, as I described them in the WSJ. All excerpts from my article in italics. The captions mention which works were part of the recent windfall from the defunct Corcoran Gallery.

All photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Last of the Buffalo” (1888), a sweeping Western panorama, featur[es] a life-or-death battle between a spear-wielding Native American and a huge brown beast:

Albert Bierstadt, "The Last of the Buffalo," 1888, ex-Corcoran

Albert Bierstadt, “The Last of the Buffalo,” 1888, ex-Corcoran

Here’s the other Bierstadt I mentioned. Inhabited by a lone bear, this more tranquil painting was named by the artist for the founder of the Corcoran Gallery, whose contribution, under regrettable circumstances, to the National Gallery’s collections cannot be overestimated.

Albert Bierstadt, "Mount Corcoran," c. 1876-77, ex-Corcoran

Albert Bierstadt, “Mount Corcoran,” c. 1876-77, ex-Corcoran

As illustrated by the two Bierstadts, the Corcoran windfall was able to fill major gaps, because that much older Washington museum was able to acquire many “historic” works in the 19th century, when they were contemporary. The National Gallery had owned a Bierstadt landscape from Switzerland, “Lake Lucerne,” but not the monumental western views for which the artist is most renowned.

Enlivening one of the new Tower Galleries are recent long-term loans from the Calder Foundation, beefing up the museum’s already superb Alexander Calder holdings (from the artist’s dealer, Klaus Perls, and his wife, and from Mrs. Paul “Bunny” Mellon):


What this delightful focus gallery lacked during my visit was a gentle air current to set in motion Calder’s delicately balanced constructions, as now happens at the recently reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Calder display.

Another in-depth focus installation has been accorded to portraits and sculpture by Amedeo Modigliani, who has traveled from the West Building to the East.

Part of the Modigliani room

Part of the Modigliani room

Ex-Corcoran European painting highlights include sun-dappled landscapes by Théodore Rousseau and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, raising the level of the museum’s modest Barbizon School holdings:

Théodore Rousseau, “After the Rain,” c. 1850, ex-Corcoran


Narcisse Diaz de la Peña,

Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, “In the Forest,” 1874, ex-Corcoran

A pensive young woman’s portrait by Mary Cassatt, further strengthens the National Gallery’s superb Impressionist trove:

Mary Cassatt,

Mary Cassatt, “Young Girl at a Window,” 1883-84, ex-Corcoran

I would have liked to have seen this ex-Corcoran work by Cecilia Beaux (with a cat) juxtaposed with the ex-Corcoran Cassatt (with a dog). Both artists were American, although Cassatt, at the National Gallery and elsewhere, is traditionally associated with the French Impressionists.

Cecilia Beaux,

Cecilia Beaux,”Sita and Sarita,” 1921, ex-Corcoran

Although still labeled “Studio of Sir Peter Paul Rubens” when I visited recently, on the museum’s website “The Judgment of Midas” (c. 1640) has been firmly assigned to his assistant, Jan van den Hoecke. But Arthur Wheelock Jr., curator of Northern Baroque painting, is still weighing other scholars’ opinions that the painting’s luminous central figure, Apollo, may be by the master’s own hand.

Jan van den Hoecke, “The Judgment of Midas,” c. 1640, ex-Corcoran

Jan van den Hoecke, “The Judgment of Midas,” c. 1640, ex-Corcoran

Harry Cooper has recruited single works by artists who are at home in the West Building to create provocative pairings: An illogically off-kilter Post-Impressionist Cézanne, “Still Life With Milk Jug and Fruit” (c. 1900), keeps company with the Cubists’ jumbling of perspectives.

Here’s the Cézanne in the East Building’s Cubism gallery:

Cézanne EB

Cézanne, “Still Life with Milk, Jug and Fruit,” c. 1900

And here’s a less precarious-looking still life that remains in the West Building with the other Cézannes:

Cezanne, WB

Cézanne, “Still Life with Apples and Peaches,” c. 1905

An Impressionist Monet, “The Houses of Parliament, Sunset” (1903), resonates with a similarly dappled 1906 Fauvist André Derain of a similar scene.

L: Claude Monet, “The Houses of Parliament, Sunset,” 1903 R: André Derain, "TK," 1906

L: Claude Monet, “The Houses of Parliament, Sunset,” 1903
R: André Derain, “Charing Cross Bridge, London,” 1906

In another gallery, color-field and hard-edge painters are fittingly joined by members of the Washington Color School, a strength of the Corcoran. “Beta Kappa” (1961), a late work by Morris Louis, the movements’ progenitor, shares a gallery with Gene Davis’s “Black Popcorn” (1965):

Morris Louis, “Beta Kappa,” 1961

Morris Louis, “Beta Kappa,” 1961

Gene Davis, "Black Popcorn, 1965, ex-Corcoran

Gene Davis, “Black Popcorn, 1965, ex-Corcoran

A surprising no-show in that gallery is Helen Frankenthaler, whose signature work, the delicately stained canvas “Mountains and Sea” (1952), has been exiled downstairs to a loosely thematic temporary installation, “Flow,” where it is overwhelmed by bolder works from later decades. It would have made a more fitting companion for the Sam Gilliam, Relative, 1969, in the Color Field/Color School gallery.

Here’s the Frankenthaler:

Helen Frankenthaler, "Mountains and Sea," 1952, CKCKCK

Helen Frankenthaler, “Mountains and Sea,” 1952, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

And here it is in the “Flow” display:

Installation shot of the Frankenthaler, with Joan Snyder on right and Elizabeth Murray on far wall

Installation shot with Joan Snyder, “Creek Square,” 1974, ex-Corcoran, on right; Frankenthaler in middle; Jessica Stockholder, “No Title,” 1994, ex-Corcoran, on the floor; Elizabeth Murray, “Careless Love,” 1995-96, on the far wall

Here’s one other gripe that space limitations kept out of my WSJ piece:

It took me a while to find one of my favorites—the once prominently displayed Richard Serra “Five Plates, Two Poles,” 1971. A 29,000-pound “prop” piece assembled from eight-foot-square steel plates and 12-foot-long slotted poles, it is now tucked away in a distant corner of the East Building’s cavernous atrium, making it difficult (even dangerous) to circumnavigate.

Richard Serra, "Five Plates, Two Poles," 1971

Richard Serra, “Five Plates, Two Poles,” 1971

A more interesting view of this mass of hot-rolled steel is afforded in back. But the tightness of its placement discourages that journey:


If you view the Serra from its side, standing in the narrow passage where the man in the above photo is walking, you’ll get the best sense of how delicately balanced these unwelded elements are:


Given the challenges of circling around it without getting too close, you’ll need to carefully observe the bold-face admonition on its label—for the safety of the object (and maybe your own):


an ArtsJournal blog