Kenneth Stubbs
(American artist, 1907-1967)

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American Cross-Section
Sixteenth Biennial Presents Diversity of Work -- Many New Names on Roster

Opened with a reception last evening, the sixteenth Corcoran Biennial in Washington will be current through May 7. The jury invited by the Corcoran to select the paintings, to install the exhibition and to make the W.A. Clark awards is composed of the following artists: Maurice Sterne (chairman), Randall Davey, Jerry Farnsworth, John C. Johansen and Carroll Tyson. The show, somewhat smaller than upon the last previous occasion, contains 369 canvases by 358 artists--in a few instances painters are represented by more than a single work.

Room has been found on this page for reproductions of three of the prize-winning pictures: Franklin C. Watkins's "Summer Fragrance," Robert Philipp's "Nude" and the Cape Cod landscape, "Lighthouse," by Morris Kantor. The fourth W. A. Clark prize, together with the Corcoran honorable mention certificate, went to Ernest Fiene for a landscape entitled "Spring Evening." And in addition the jury awarded second, third and fourth honorable mentions to, respectively, Nicola Ziroli of Chicago for his flower subject, "Shite Pitcher"; Gladys Rockmore Davis of New York for her portrait of a girl (it is called "Morning Papers") and Albert B. Serwazy of Philadelphia for "Model Resting."

Two other paintings that appear in the show will be found reproduced today in the Rotogravure Section: Guy Pene duBois's large portrait, "Portia Lebrun," and "Martha Graham No. 2," by Paul R. Meltsner.

The canvases that make up this biennial were selected from a total of nearly 3,000 submitted from all over the United States. The exhibition opens to the public today.

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C. Powell Minnigerode, director of The Corcoran Gallery, again outlines and emphasizes, in the catalogue, the basic plan in accordance with which this important American series is conducted. He writes:

"It is the aim of this institution to present to the public, with the close cooperation of its jury, and exhibition of oil paintings by living American artists which accurately reflects the trend of contemporary painting in this country; which illustrates as completely as possible what American painters of today are doing; which is broad and truly representative in its scope and character, and which includes the best available works exemplifying the different schools and phases of painting as they now exist."

"Any exhibition of contemporary art which fails to cover all phases thereof would be biases; would illustrate only a part of the entire current art movement, and would defeat the fundamental object of the display, which is to show contemporary American painting as it actually is and not as any individual or group might like it to be."

Of course, when it comes to that, a jury of five artists is a "group," through the well-picked jury will, it is assumed, represent all sides. Unless we are to witness no winnowing (as in an exhibition by the Independents) there would seem but a single alternative: the one-man jury system, adopted by the San Francisco Fair for its show of contemporary American art, and entrusted, with excellent results, to Roland J. McKinney. What would you? In any event the assembled aggregate is bound to reflect choice based on critical judgment and taste, whether it be the "averaged" or compromise decision arrived at by a group or the simple decision reached by an individual.

In either case the report must be accepted on its face value, with the understanding that it is by no means the only report of its kind that could be prepared, and that, involving selective opinion, it can never be inclusive. We do not know what it might have included; we only know what is there.

* * *

On that "face value" basis, how does this year's Corcoran Biennial shape up? Taking it just as it hangs, without having recourse to the art that failed to get in, I should certainly call it an excellent show. While classifications are generally awkward and often misleading, the three camps that might be designated as "conservative," "middle-of-the-road" and "radical" are all represented. The exhibition has a balanced look--as indeed these affairs at the Corcoran are wont to have under the earnest, equable and mellowed leadership of Mr. Minnigerode.

The show is thoroughly diverse with respect to the points of view confessed by the contributing artists and it is also gratifyingly furnished with good examples. For my part, I approached this Corcoran Biennial not without trepidation, cognizant of the fact that, what with two world's fairs added to the season's list of big shows, organizers and the resources of the painters themselves have been subjected to unwonted strain. It would not be very surprising if in some instances this proved an off year. That, however, it certainly does not seem to be at the Corcoran.

* * *

For some time now propaganda of a deliberate sort has been on the decline, whereas a few seasons back it was loudly in evidence. This is a welcome trend, not because the discussion of social issues has no legitimate place in art, for it emphatically does belong, but because most of our artists who have essayed this problem appear so ill-equipped to frame social protest in plastic terms. The mesalliance need not be analyzed now, since it has an only negative bearing here.

I do not recall more than three canvases in the Corcoran show (three out of 369) that attempt anything like that. In "Martial Law" Manuel J. Tolegian is not averse to embellishing tragedy with spots of sensously rich, romantic color; Joseph Hirsch's "Landscape With Teargas" is a very effective, original work, suffused with an eerie red glow; while in his small "Dispossessed" Jack Markow has succeeded, with rare sensitiveness, in coordinating compassion (protest, too, if you will) and fine pictorial treatment.

* * *

No, as if with almost unanimous consent, the artists at the Corcoran address themselves to pleasant pursuits in art or, in not a few instances, to really serious preoccupation with substantial artists' problems, problems altogether on the esthetic side. Thus a trend that has long been gathering momentum in America seems at length to have reached high tide.

Much of the work, it is true, may be called no more than cheerfully picturesque, embodying its own brand, as the case may be, of nonchalant academism. And much of the work, besides, whether of that or of more detaining caliber, is too typical or too familiar to demand specific comment in a review that cannot undertake extensively to particularize.

One aspect of the show asserts itself with such salience that no one who is in touch with the exhibition field hereabouts could possibly miss it. This has to do with the extraordinarily, the unprecedentedly, large number of American talents that have not before, or that have not with regularity, figured in a Corcoran Biennial. The catalogue, as one skips about in it--or sometimes as one scans whole sections--reads almost like a directory of newcomers. And this is an auspicious sign. For the facile course would be just to stick to entrenched celeborites, as if art were a kind of static pool instead of a swift-moving stream of change and reinforcement.

I took up with initial eagerness the task of checking the names of those artists who are unknown or little known to me, but soon gave it up: there are so many. Not always, to be sure, do these Corcoran newcomers bring in with them gifts that signally enrich the spectacle. There are among them the exuberant prophets of cliche and there are the devout hero-worshipers still submerged in the depths of some hallowed woods. But again and again these happily discovered talents will be found introducing a real tang of freshness. And sometimes they can lift a wall out of the comparative commonplace of humdrum familiar competence.

Thus among the pictures that seemed excellent or stimulatingly suffused with promise might be mentioned Polly Parkman's "Hats"; "The Creek" by William Thon; Gordon Mallet McCouch's color-patch near-abstraction called "Terraces, Malta"; Harry Mintz's "South Side Green, Chicago"; Tom E. Lewis's "To San Francisco" (lent by the San Francisco Museum); delightful flower subjects by C. L. Purviance, Mary Townsend Mason, Carolin McCreary, Adrian Siegel, William A. Gaw, Edith M. Bregy and Ann Hunt Spencer; Roswell Weidner's "The Willows" (a landscape that is certainly Renoiresque, but imbued with an individual charm); "Carnival" by Donald Mattison; "Lunch Hour," by Joseph Hirsch; Raphael Ellender's well-painted still-life entitled "Sword In Hand"; "Portrait," by Charles W. Thwaites; "Sewing Woman," by Isabel Bate; Arthur Meltzer's "Blue Ridge Farm"; "Landscape," by Eugene Karlin; "Figure," by Briggs Dyer; "Morning, Wingasheek" by Susumu Hirota; "All Saints Day in New Orleans," by John Canaday, and still-lifes by Reeves Euler and Kenneth Stubbs. Others might be cited.

Edward Alden Jewell, New York Times, Sunday, March 26, 1939