How often has it happened that Emsworth has made his way to the doors of a notable art museum, far from his Rochester home, only to find that its famed collection is not being exhibited?
We speak not of cases in which a museum is closed for renovations (will the Cleveland Museum of Art ever reopen?), but of museums that stubbornly choose to display anything and everything in their galleries other than their own paintings and sculptures.
(For example, Fernand Leger’s The Smokers, owned by the Guggenheim and one of the cubist painter’s masterpieces, was decidedly not on display during a recent visit by Emsworth.)
Nothing is more frustrating to art museum junkies like Emsworth. Let us catalog the chief culprits:
1. The Guggenheim Museum (Fifth Avenue, Manhattan). The most egregious by a landslide. The Guggenheim owns one of the finest collections of modern art anywhere — dazzling works by Picasso, Mondrian, Modigliani, Franz Marc, and Ernest Kirchner. And what Kandinskys!
Yet for years, disappointment has awaited the modern art lover who hoped to see more than a few of these works when in New York City. (Max Beckmann’s Paris Society, owned by the Guggenheim, was not on display during a recent visit by Emsworth.)
Emsworth took another chance on the Guggenheim again just a couple of weeks ago. You know (the ticket-seller asked me) that it’s mostly just photographs right now, don’t you? I did know it, having seen a poster announcement when I finally entered the building. It wasn’t what I came for, but I’d waited so long in line that I went in anyway.
By my actual count, the Guggenheim was exhibiting only eleven works of art from its collection: two paintings by Franz Marc, two by Chagall, one each by Kirchner and Jawlensky, and five early Kandinskys. Not even the Guggenheim’s Thannhauser collection was on display.
We didn’t want to waste our money, so we visited the photography exhibit, a retrospective of Catherine Opie. She was a new artist for us, and we can report that she has a keen eye for urban landscape and also an interest in what the exhibit termed “queer culture.” We rolled our eyes at a pretentious description of a group of photos as “Opie’s most complex investigation of community to date” and wished there had been more Kandinskys to see.
2. National Academy of Design (also on Fifth Avenue, just north of the Guggenheim). The crimes of the management here are remarkable.
No chance of seeing either Frederick Carl Frieseke’s Hollyhocks or Asher Durand’s The Evening of Life at the National Academy of Design, which squirrels them away in storage somewhere.
We walked into the Fifth Avenue mansion which the National Academy occupies, bought our ticket, and were then told that there was nothing to see but exhibits of George Tooker and Henry Blakelock in galleries on the fifth floor.
But in a nearby atrium a large plaque gave the history of the institution and informed me that the National Academy has a collection of more than 3,000 works of American art from the 19th and 20th centuries, including works from the Hudson River School, the tonalists, the American impressionists, the Ashcan painters, and the modernists. Our heart quickened; surely the ticket man was mistaken.
I spent some time in the exhibits (which, in fairness, were excellent, especially the Tooker), and when I saw the ticket seller again, I asked him again about the 3,000 pieces of art. You might ask this lady about it, he said — she’s the director.
I turned and intercepted a woman walking by, who interrupted my question to say that the Academy now actually had over 5,000 works. They weren’t ordinarily displayed, she told me, in a tone that suggested she was weary of the question. Wasn’t it a shame, I asked, that such a fine collection should be kept in storage? Well, she said, next year sometime we’re going to make a point of having at least some of the collection on display.
Total number of works of art from the National Academy’s permanent collection on display? Two, that I counted — a Tooker and a Blakelock. They were part of the exhibits.
3. The Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., just north of the White House). The Corcoran has a fine, comprehensive collection of both American and European art. At least, we think so. For in perhaps half a dozen hopeful visits to the Corcoran over the last 25 years, we’ve seen only bits and pieces of it. (For example, Edward Hopper’s Ground Swell. We’ve never seen it at the Corcoran.)
As far as we can tell, there aren’t any galleries in the Corcoran regularly dedicated to its permanent collection. The management seems to think that it’s enough, every now and then, for it to cobble together an “exhibition” of works from the permanent collection. There are a couple such exhibits there now. But one never gets a sense of the entire collection.
The Corcoran is big on high-profile exhibits like the retrospective of Annie Leibovitz, the photographer, that we ran into last year, or of the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, which amazed us a while back. But shows like that are unsatisfactory when you can’t wander through the rest of the museum and put them in context with other art.
4. The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston). At times we’ve actually been a card-carrying member of the MFA, so we feel fully justified in complaining that a good part of its magnificent collection of European impressionists hasn’t been seen in Boston for years, like Alfred Sisley’s The Loing at Saint Mammes. At least, we never see them when we’re there. Our frustration is compounded by our strong suspicion that the MFA has, in fact, been selling its members and visitors short by renting out the Sisley and other masterpieces to a casino in Las Vegas.
5. The Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City). The Whitney has 12,000 works. It could easily fill up a couple of floors of galleries with its permanent collection, as the Museum of Modern Art does. (Your chances of seeing Max Weber’s 1915 cubist masterpiece, Chinese Restaurant at the Whitney, which owns it? Slim.)
But no. I’ve virtually given up visiting the Whitney, even though it has many of my favorite paintings, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen more than two or three galleries worth of its permanent collection. And as with many art museums, it’s virtually impossible to get a sense, from visiting its website, how much of the permanent collection can actually be seen at any given time.
(October 30, 2008)