- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2008

Ansel Adams again?

The photographer of Yosemite National Park and Big Sur is such a regular subject at area museums that you’d think they were lobbying for donations from the Sierra Club.

The latest exhibition to feature his landscapes opened at the National Gallery of Art earlier this month, after last year’s survey of his career at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The one-room “Oceans, Rivers and Skies” compares Mr. Adams’ oceanscapes to works by Robert Adams (no relation) and Alfred Stieglitz. It coincides with an exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where Mr. Adams’ images are compared to paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, who was Mr. Stieglitz’s wife.

Repeating the same artists and the same themes is a hallmark of the art exhibits this season, one of the most unimaginative in recent years. Few of the city’s art museums are showcasing new talents or themes but instead are relying on familiar names and predictable subjects to secure sponsorship and boost attendance.

At the impoverished Corcoran, “Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power” is anything but powerful. This exhibit of more than 200 photos reduces famous artists and politicians to glum, cookie-cutter figures. It’s as celebrity-driven as last year’s Annie Leibovitz exhibit but without any sense of the sitters’ personalities. There isn’t much new here except for some faces of ordinary folks — part of a project called “Democracy” — and they undermine the whole point of the show.

The most tedious exhibit of the season also promotes celebrity, in this case a pair of art-world darlings drumming up support for an environmental artwork. “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, A Work in Progress” at the Phillips Collection documents the husband-and-wife team’s ongoing project to elevate metallic fabric panels over a 34-mile stretch of the Arkansas River in Colorado.

The huckster-artists, who promote their public art through lectures, films and shows such as this one, are best-known for “The Gates” in Central Park. They are still negotiating the permissions to create the temporary Colorado artwork, which they hope to install in 2012.

In gallery after gallery, drawings and collages repeat views of the proposed canopies from every conceivable angle. In one room, a partial mock-up of the anchors and cables required for stringing the silvery fabric over the river looks borrowed from a construction site.

More boring still, numerous photos show the artists meeting with various federal and state governmental agencies to secure their approvals. With all these representations of red tape, the exhibit comes across as an homage to Kafkaesque bureaucracy — it even displays an Environmental Impact Statement.

It’s refreshing to find examples of contemporary art at the Phillips — just not this show. The proposals and documents required of the site-specific installation not only are dull to look at, but run counter to the formalist tradition of the intimate museum with its emphasis on visual comparisons between works.

Over at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where contemporary art rules, this fall’s exhibit is surprisingly backward-looking. Instead of focusing on an edgy topic, it shows off the recent purchase of 1960s and ‘70s works from Italian art collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. This acquisition of conceptualist and minimalist art seems like a catch until you realize several prominent museums around the country already own portions of Mr. Panza’s collection. It will, no doubt, round out the Hirshhorn’s holdings, but it doesn’t build on the momentum of “The Cinema Effect,” last season’s smashing two-part hit.

The season is missing a gee-whiz blockbuster; the closest it comes to a spectacle is the National Gallery’s “Pompeii and the Roman Villa,” a 150-piece display of both excavated antiquities and 18th- and 19th-century artwork inspired by the rediscovery of the ancient world.

While impressive, this show, too, suffers from the safe syndrome. It covers some of the same territory as “Pompeii: Stories From an Eruption,” an exhibit at Chicago’s Field Museum that traveled to Birmingham, Ala., and Houston, where it closed in June.

The me-too approach extends to the Phillips, where a show of still-life paintings by Italian artist Giorgio Morandi will open in February, following the current Morandi survey at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. You might think the organizers of exhibits do little except fly around the country studying one another’s ideas.

This failure of nerve and imagination throughout local art museums can’t be blamed on tightening financial resources alone. Even during the Depression era, exhibitions promoted creative ideas about the future of modern art.

Risk-taking museum shows need not cost more than timid ones, but they require challenging the status quo and believing the public deserves better than the same tired ideas.

Surely there are emerging talents and forgotten episodes from history to discover, reinterpret and celebrate. It’s about time our museums present some of them with the inventive energy so lacking during this sleepy season.

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