The Way We See Things Now: The Times, the National Gallery, and the new orthodoxy

Editorial Staff Opinion

On Friday March 6 Roberta Smith of the New York Times delivered a spirited and largely negative review of the recent reopening of the American painting galleries at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Held fast in the grip of what she describes as the “strictly orthodox” arrangement of periods and schools, the rooms bored her and, she assumes, will bore us all. The remedy she suggests? Take some of the great naive paintings by artists such as Ammi Phillips, Edward Hicks, and Thomas Chambers from the National Gallery’s Garbisch collection and hang them between the colonial portraits, the Hudson River landscapes, the luminist shore views. It’s a nice a idea, this mixing of styles and periods and it is one that institutions such as the Brooklyn Museum in its American Identities installation, and the American Folk Art Museum with its recent exhibition, The Seduction of Light: Ammi Philips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red, have employed to great public acclaim. It is, in short, the new orthodoxy and Smith is one more adherent.
We like to mix things now, to point out differences, to upset hierarchies. That’s the way we see things best. (There is no greater compliment you can pay an old work of art these days than to say, as Smith does of the naive painters, that they are pre-modern. Hicks and Phillips and Chambers will rescue Peale, and Stuart, and Copley.)
We have taken Smith at her word and juxtaposed some of the works from the Garbisch collection with some of the traditional paintings in the National Gallery. It is an illuminating exercise. Let us know what you think.