- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

In “Mary Swift’s Washington: The Arts Scene, 1975-2000,” Flashpoint presents the self-taught photographer’s personal guided tour of local art during those years. Like many similar photojournals, it offers a highly subjective vantage point that features the advantages of intimacy but the distortions of nostalgia.

As managing editor and photographer-in-residence of the former Washington Review, she created the only photographic record of the city as a burgeoning arts center while shooting the capital’s major and minor players — a crucial service to the arts community. From the thousands of images Mrs. Swift, 79, shot and kept, exhibit co-curators and former Review editors James W. Mahoney and Clarissa Wittenberg selected 64.

Parts of the show are irresistible — but only parts.

The curators have selected photos of a wide range of figures both famous and lesser-known from the D.C. art world. Among the luminaries are color stripe painter Gene Davis, shown installing a show in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Rotunda in 1985, and sculptor Martin Puryear, a District native, shown in 1978 in his studio near Columbia Road.

Mover and shaker Alice Denny is photographed in 1979 at the innovative Washington Project for the Arts, which she founded, and Michael Kahn is shown in 1997 at the Shakespeare Theatre, where he is artistic director.

Images of less famous artists include those of Yuri Schwebler, Carroll Sockwell, Mindy Weisel and Big Al Carter. Gallery dealers Ramon Osuna, Harry Lunn, George Hemphill and Manfred Baumgartner also are featured.

Ultimately, the exhibit disappoints as the result of a kind of unprofessional insularity on the part of the curators. Lack of explanatory labels that would help the general public creates the most confusion. Supplying no context beyond the bare essentials — names, titles, places and years — the show is unlikely to attract viewers beyond the local “in” arts crowd.

In neglecting to complement Mrs. Swift’s visual record with accompanying biographical and historical details, curators Mahoney and Wittenberg have squandered a big opportunity to introduce a larger public to a gallery of fascinating figures from the local arts scene.

For example, they might have explained why the late, legendary museum curator and director Walter Hopps wears two sets of glasses in “Walter Hopps in His Office at the National Museum of American Art.” He indelibly stamped the local arts scene while director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Smithsonian’s American Art museum, but his brilliance often led to unpredictability and undependability.

His best working hours were around midnight, when he was unreachable by telephone. He habitually tried to do several things at once, as in this photograph, in which he talks on the telephone while at the same time apparently gesturing at someone in the room and perhaps also looking for a light for the unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Yet Mr. Hopps was widely considered to have one of the greatest curatorial “eyes” of the last century and was recognized as a major influence on artists across the country.

Mrs. Swift’s 1979 photo of “Michael Clark & Big Al Carter in the National Gallery of Art” is another example. Mr. Clark, now director of Georgetown’s Museum of Contemporary Art, shakes hands with a museum policeman while Mr. Carter dissolves in laughter. Flashpoint visitors probably wouldn’t know that artists routinely copied National Gallery masterpieces — here, a Rembrandt van Rijn.

Mrs. Swift photographed her subjects during interviews, firing questions at them all the while and often moving in as close as three feet to what she calls her “victims.” Although taken with a hand-held Leica camera, these spontaneous black-and-white, mostly smallish images deserve better display and more explanatory depth.

Indeed, both the artist and the period deserve a more accessible, informative and user-friendly exhibit than this one.

WHAT: “Mary Swift’s Washington: The Arts Scene, 1975-2000”

WHERE: The Gallery at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW

WHEN: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, or by appointment, through Aug. 27

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/315-1310

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