- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2001

Andrew Robison, National Gallery of Art curator of the planned exhibit "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in Dresden and Berlin," brings the passion of his own art collecting to the Kirchner project — which has become all-consuming.
Mr. Robison, 61, discovered collecting when he saw a Rembrandt etching advertised in a dealer's catalog while he was studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Princeton University. "The $1,500 price was reasonable at the time. I was too late for that one, but it got me started," Mr. Robison says.
He became curator and head of the National Gallery department of prints and drawings in 1974 and Andrew W. Mellon senior curator in 1991. It was quite a switch from studying Hinduism in India on a Fulbright Fellowship from 1965 to 1966 and collecting some Indian bronzes.
Mr. Robison first concentrated on the prints of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francisco Jose de Goya and Pablo Picasso in his personal collecting. They attracted him with what he calls "their emotional intensity," an intensity he also finds in the work of the German artist Kirchner (1880-1938).
The tall, wiry curator is genial and patient in describing the show. "Ernst Kirchner is one of the great masters of the 20th century in honing his radically innovative, spontaneous style. He did a lot of exciting experimental work with prints," Mr. Robison says. The National Gallery tentatively has scheduled the exhibit for March 2, 2003, to June 1, 2003.
"A museum must build on its strengths and German expressionist art, and especially Kirchner, is one of them," Mr. Robison points out. He mounted a smaller show of the artist's work, called "Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Paintings, Drawings and Prints" at the National Gallery in 1992.
Now, he is casting his net across the United States and Europe for paintings, works on paper and sculptures by Kirchner.
"It seems I've been traveling forever. I covered 22 cities in 32 days in Europe last June," he says almost gleefully of his work. Mr. Robison comes home weekends to bring ideas together and catch up on other responsibilities.
"The work really consumes me, I'm that kind of person," he says. He travels at night when other people are sleeping.
He estimates he has seen 50 public and private collections and "thousands of Kirchners" in his journeys since March. Mr. Robison examined six versions of Kirchner's print "Schlemihl Tries to Catch the Shadow" in different collections before he chose one from the National Gallery for exhibit.
The curator believes the print from Kirchner's series on Peter Schlemihl is the artist's greatest color woodcut. It is also highly personal. The artist, embroidering on an early-19th-century story, shows Schlemihl — who is really Kirchner — selling his shadow to the devil.
Mr. Robison finds no substitute for seeing and comparing originals. "I have to see the quality, condition and scale of the work and how it relates to the others in the show. I must see everything to find the best works of art," he says.
The curator carries color copies when he travels as memory aids. They are neatly bound in a folder to help him plan the show of approximately 120 works. He has another folder for potential choices.
Mr. Robison says most museums share exhibitions for cost-cutting reasons and greater exposure. They also share ideas.
The Royal Academy in London proposed a show to the gallery about six years ago of works Kirchner created from 1905 to 1908. National Gallery representatives believed it was a good idea, but changed the emphasis of Kirchner's art to the next decade. The exhibit will travel to London after closing here.
Mr. Robison says choosing an exhibition involves two steps. The first is the "expansive" one and includes the initial phase of travel.
The second is "refining" the show. "This is the most crucial and creative part. The cuts and adjustments are what make it a successful exhibition. It's also the most fun," he says.
His choices also are subject to review. "[National Gallery Director] Rusty Powell and [exhibition program chief] Dodge Thompson thought my thematic organization confusing, so I changed it to the clearer chronological presentation they recommended. I try to listen," he says.
One tiny person objects to his travel. It's his daughter Mary Pauline (we call her "May"), who is 2. "The first week I was in Europe, she was mad at me. Now we talk twice a day when I'm away," Mr. Robison says. He is married to the former Pauline Maguire, an art historian. They met at the National Gallery.


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