After traveling to four venues over the past two years, the Corcoran Gallery of Art's masterpieces have returned in an expanded exhibition playing to their strengths. "The American Evolution" only runs through July but suggests a more permanent way of displaying these treasures within Ernest Flagg's beaux-arts building.
It seems like the Corcoran is always dragging out its holdings to fill space, but curators Emily Shapiro and Sarah Newman have refreshed the familiar American artworks by organizing them according to five simple themes underlying the history of the nation. The display of nearly 200 works — the largest showing of the collection since 1976 — combines rarely seen pieces with greatest hits to supply both chronological order and visual surprise.
What better way to start the show than relating our art to commerce? The first section is simply titled "Money" to relate how Americans commissioned portraits to advertise their financial success and social status. It groups John Singleton Copley's likeness of Boston distillery owner Thomas Amory as a dignified Colonial gentleman with other flattering portrayals before moving on to the economic divide during the Gilded Age. Seven paintings of leisure-class women gain visual strength from being wonderfully clustered, salon-style, on one wall, while images of scruffy paperboys, longshoremen and farm laborers are similarly arranged on another.
The biggest portion of the exhibit, "Land," celebrates our native habitat with abstract paintings as well as Hudson River School scenes. It centers on Frederic Church's 1857 masterpiece, "Niagara," which has a gallery all to itself to simulate how the painting was originally shown. Reaction to Church's "Great Fall" from critics of the day are stenciled on the walls to convey the hoopla over this dramatic scene, which people paid to see much like they do for movies today.
Next, the curators have assembled paintings, photographs and sculptures to heroically portray the West. Dramatic, buffalo-inhabited landscapes by Albert Bierstadt are accompanied by contemplative photographs of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge (a recent acquisition). Stereoscopic views taken by Civil War photographers during 1870s geological explorations of these far-flung territories offer an interesting sidebar to the more artistic creations.
From dusky, moonlit scenes by George Inness and Winslow Homer, the exhibition opens to a gallery filled with bright modern canvases. It focuses on Joan Mitchell's "Salut Tom," a 26-foot-long abstraction of the Seine River as seen from the artist's estate in Vetheuil, France. Claude Monet also worked there, and it is tempting to compare his large vistas of water lilies to her daubed, multipaneled work. Paintings by Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Richard Diebenkorn and others also connect American abstraction here to landscape traditions in a way that the Smithsonian American Art Museum's current color field show does not.
Politics is a natural subject for a Washington audience during an election year and the third section of the show starts with a salute to our first president. Gilbert Stuart's iconic 1796 portrait keeps company with Alex Katz's 1970s pop art "Washington," Jean Antoine Houdon's life mask and three other Georges.
Civil war and civil rights both get their due. William MacLeod's 1863 picture of the war camps at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., is followed by Kara Walker's silhouetted commentary on the injustices of slavery and Gordon Parks' famous 1942 photograph "American Gothic," depicting government cleaning woman Ella Watson. This September, the Corcoran will continue the theme in a show of Richard Avedon's political portraits.
The least graspable section, "Cultural Exchange," connects American art to European innovations, from neoclassicism to impressionism. It seems like an excuse to show off a trio of stunning paintings by John Singer Sargent, whose marine scenes will be the subject of a Corcoran exhibition in 2009. Less well known pieces from the collection in this section include Augustus Saint-Gaudens' golden "Angel of Charity," a turn-of-the-century design for a family tomb, and Fred Kabotie's quirky, 1920s drawings of Hopi Indians.
Concluding the show is "The Modern World," an assortment of works from the early 1900s to the present day. From Robert Henri's dark portrait of artist John Sloan, the exhibit marches along to show how such artists as Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis blended cubism with popular culture and later abstraction hardened into blocks and stripes of color.
Throughout the exhibit, the curators have imaginatively positioned objects to reveal repeated motifs and visual contrasts from work to work. A sculpture of two daydreaming women by St. Louis artist Bessie Potter Vonnoh is shown next to Frank Weston Benson's painting "The Open Window," in which a similar bronze is depicted. Richard Tuttle's "Red Canvas" and Martin Puryear's "Blue Blood," a wooden loop encircling empty space, strike up a visual conversation between solid and void.
The last work in the show, a 2001 painted ceramic installation by Detroit-born artist Steven Montgomery, resembles a pair of industrial steel doors. Called "Re-Entrance," it is an apt symbol for the reconfiguration of the Corcoran's treasures in this well-paced survey.
WHAT: "The American Evolution: A History Through Art"
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW
WHEN: Monday, Wednesday, Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Through July 27
ADMISSION: $12 adults; $10 senior, military, student
WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org