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Jack Smith

Post-impressions of modern art and the most expensive wallpaper in Washington

November 18, 1986|Jack Smith

We spent nearly a day in Washington looking at modern art.

I am not a true aficionado--my development stopped with Post-Impressionism--but the Hirshhorn Museum and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art hold astounding collections.

After what had seemed days of trudging past the great masters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, I found some relief in the sheer energy and brash irreverence of the modernists.

Held, Johns, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Rothko--they were outrageous, but they were refreshing, astonishing, energizing, mysterious, satirical and sometimes comical.

But I am not comfortable either with the modern era's grotesque distortions or with its minimal inventions. I am neither moved, amused nor enlightened by square yards of black paint enlivened only by one thin line of red.

But I keep in mind that critics vilified the Impressionists when they first broke their way out of the ancient forms, and I remind myself that if our art is crazy, so are the times.

I discovered the depth of my alienation, however, when we entered a gallery of 14 paintings by the late Barnett Newman, in the East Building.

Not being an art critic, I can only describe them as oblongs of beige or white paint or bare canvases transversed by black vertical lines of various widths, mostly thin. We walked slowly around the room, examining one of these opaque paintings after another. They were pleasant enough, I thought--they would have made a good wallpaper--but I couldn't identify them with any kind of message or reality.

I was even more mystified when I considered that they were called, collectively, "The Stations of the Cross." I saw nothing in them of the passion usually associated with that subject, nothing to suggest its spiritual force.

I walked up to a guard who was standing, bored, by the door. "Do you understand these?" I asked him. I thought he might have been with the paintings long enough for them to have penetrated his psyche.

He smiled noncommittally and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

I couldn't help thinking of the emperor's clothes. Did no one even suspect that Newman was pulling our legs?

The next morning we were reading the Washington Post in bed and I came across a startling headline:

"14 Abstracts by Newman Sold to NGA: Reported $4 Million Paid for 'Stations of the Cross' "

The story said the National Art Gallery had paid that much to Newman's widow, the money being provided by a Maryland couple.

I read on: "The pictures just acquired still baffle many viewers. Though their stately, epic rhythms are immediately apparent, it takes an act of faith to detect within their stripes all the profound themes--some Christian, some Hebraic--that he (Newman) insisted they express."

The full title is "The Stations of the Cross--Lema Sabachthani," that phrase being Hebrew for "Why has thou forsaken me?'--the last words of Jesus.

The article quoted Newman: "This is the Passion. This outcry of Jesus. Not the terrible walk up the Via Dolorosa, but the question that has no answer . . . Lema? To what purpose?--is the unanswerable question of human suffering. . . . "

Well, Newman may have been on to something. For me, his paintings pose the unanswerable question: What is art?

In any case, the museum thought they were worth $4 million, and I could measure my ignorance by that.

I look forward to the day when our new Museum of Contemporary Art is able to borrow the set. Maybe when I see them again I will be enlightened. Nobody likes to be an ignoramus.

We popped into the Air and Space Museum for a second look--it would take a month to do it justice--and had lunch in the cafeteria.

We took our trays to a table for four in the crowded room and were soon joined by a mature and distinguished-looking couple. They spoke French. He seemed to be solicitous of her pleasure. She was picking dolefully at her salad.

After we left, my wife said, "He was asking her if the food was all right. I was going to tell them not to think that what they had was the best of American cuisine."

"Why didn't you?"

"I was afraid they'd be annoyed with me--for eavesdropping."

"They looked familiar," I said.

"I thought so too," she agreed.

That evening, looking through the Post again, she said, "Well, here they are."

There they were, side by side, in a two-column picture: Capt. and Mrs. Claude J. Deguines. The story began: "ANNAPOLIS, Md.--A cannon fired, bugles sounded and, as silence fell along the banks of College Creek here, wreaths were set today at the base of a monument dedicated to French soldiers and sailors who died here during the Revolutionary War. . . ."

The monument had been built in 1911; but it was in 1961 that Capt. Deguines, a French officer then teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, started the annual ceremonies.

We saw only one other very important person.

One evening we were having our usual glass of wine at the bar of the Jefferson Hotel, engaged this time in conversation with the president of a national trucking association, when he wrote a note on a napkin and slid it over to us.

It said: "Don't look now, but that's Sen. John Tower of Texas at the table behind you."

"He's out now," he whispered behind his hand, "but he's still a very powerful man."

In a minute we looked casually around at the celebrated ex-senator.

He didn't look so powerful.

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