- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

The decor at Sunday’s glam preview of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Modernism: Designing A New World 1914-1939” nearly stole the show.

It turns out that much of what at first looked like decor was part of the show — a blockbuster in scope and ambition — which is why gallery officials, led by new Director/President Paul Greenhalgh, were determined to celebrate in kind. Key themes of the grandly titled 20th-century period comprised a number of movements that are explored in dizzying succession — almost 400 pieces of art and related objects as well as film clips, with a strong emphasis on design and architecture.

The “modern black-tie” event gave some 200 trustees and premium supporters a first look amid a red, white, black, yellow and blue-themed (think Mondrian) environment: tricolor glass bars and an atrium floor bathed in patterned beams of light that danced on striking tubular glass centerpieces at dinner. (Mr. Greenhalgh’s chair was the only one covered in bright blue fabric.)

Guests were slow to take advantage of the dress code since most, including the director, turned up in usual tuxedo mode. Flamboyant, they were not. The most daring among them wore Nehru jackets or straight ties. “So much black. This is Washington,” patron Mark Ein sighed. Christina DePaul, dean of the Corcoran College of Art and Design, stood out in sparkling silver high heels and drop-dead rhinestone jewelry.

Arriving guests were met on the ground floor by a silver-gray lacquered metal 1937 Czech-made Tatra T87 saloon car said by its owner and restorer, John Long of Toronto, to be the first aerodynamic vehicle of its kind and an inspiration of zeppelin style. Observers deemed it a hybrid Bentley-Volkswagen-Batmobile. The auto ensured a stunning entrance, as did the grand staircase decorated for the occasion with copies of the so-called Red Blue Chair, a token of the De Stijl movement (1918-23), with the original on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art in an upstairs gallery.

“This definitely marks a new leaf for the Corcoran,” said Raymond Garcia, a contemporary art collector and former board member. “The largest ever of its kind to be staged at the Corcoran,” said architect Catherine Armour, the exhibition’s designer.

Initially, guests only got teasing glimpses of what lay behind open doors until, after dinner, a formal opening photo-op was marked by cutting of a red ribbon with outsized red scissors by Mr. Greenhalgh and board chair Jeanne Ruesch.

The event was the first in a week chockablock with preview receptions for what is indisputably a history lesson as well as an admirable exhibit that began life in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. (Much has changed since then, including the addition of American works.)

Curators and museum officials had a private dinner Monday. On Tuesday, a Director’s Circle Preview occasioned another “grand opening” scenario with Mr. Greenhalgh telling the 500-strong crowd that the exhibition signified the beginning of a “new epoch” for the oft-troubled Corcoran. Later he spoke of a “five-year program” to “explore our own collections” and develop exhibitions of “international caliber.” Upcoming shows, he added, will highlight the works of photographers Ansel Adams, Annie Liebovitz and Richard Avedon and painters Claes Oldenburg and John Singer Sargent.

Smithsonian Institution Undersecretary for Art Ned Rifkin and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Director Olga Viso were among local art luminaries praising Mr. Greenhalgh’s overhaul efforts: “A critical re-launching of a new chapter in Corcoran history,” Mr. Rifkin told a reporter. “They’re on their way,” Miss Viso added.

Upstairs in rooms reconfigured for the show, guests meandered through gallery after gallery admiring works by Fernand Leger, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, among many others.

One of the most unusual was the “Frankfurt Kitchen,” the first built-in modern kitchen manufactured in mass quantity. It was recently discovered in Germany after 80 years of continual use.

“I grew up with this stuff — but we threw it all out,” Austrian-born developer Anthony Lanier told his wife Isabel as they took in the pea green walls, utilitarian cabinets, ancient spigots and no-nonsense meat grinder, cauldrons and kettles.

Not that he had any regrets in an era of supermodern kitchens with every known convenience.

“We’d throw it out again,” he said with a laugh.

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