Kreeger Museum: A Monument to One Family’s Support of Global Modernism
Text: K.Mitchell Snow
Photos: Paul Clemence
In an upscale corner of Washington, DC dominated by center-hall brick colonials, the home architects Phillip Johnson and Richard Foster created in 1963 for the art collection of Carmen and David Kreeger aggressively asserts its individuality.
Unlike Washington’s better known mansion to museum conversion, such as the Georgian revival Phillips Collection, the Kreeger’s home was designed first and foremost with the duo’s ever expanding art collection in mind. No retrofitting was needed to create the Kreeger Museum, an environment that focused on displaying art to its best advantage and only then bowed in the direction of creature comforts.
The barrel vaulting of the home’s main floor produces display areas that recall the Neo-classical grandeur of the great Italian collections, but pared back to the barest minimum to match the modernist art on view. The distractions of ornament are largely done away with to ensure that it is what is on the walls rather than the structure itself that draws the viewer’s attention. Travertine suggests the marble of the past, but most of the gallery walls are covered in fabric, allowing for much greater flexibility in shifting paintings about as new works entered the collection and new favorites demanded space.
The founder’s portraits are almost completely incongruous elements in the Kreeger’s art collection. David, in an anodyne grey suit, looks out of his frame in a pose designed to fit comfortably into any corporate board room anywhere in postwar America. Carmen’s self presentation, crowned in a Spanish lace mantilla and set against a pseudo-renaissance landscape is far more individualistic. Neither fit comfortably alongside the impressionist and modernist works of their collection, but both help define the personalities that assembled these works.
Another difference between the Kreeger and the Phillips is that Duncan Phillips amassed his collection at a time when the big names of modernism were brash newcomers, the Kreegers didn’t begin collecting in earnest until 1959. By then the lions of modernism’s had also acquired eye-popping price tags and most of their major works were already ensconced in museums across the globe. Backed by the fortune the Kreeger’s amassed in the insurance industry — GEICO — they did their best to acquire paintings by the early modernists. The big names are certainly present — Degas, Kandinsky, Picasso, Renoir and Van Gogh — but the works on view are not necessarily definitive. The whimsy of Carmen’s self portrait, however, seems to come tumbling out in the joyful Kandinsky Relations from 1934, with its sand-painted figures, some of them clad in dark suits of their own. There’s a reason behind everything you see.
The collection’s true strengths, however, lie elsewhere. The Kreeger’s assembled a magnificent collection of African carvings. While these fit comfortably alongside their Picasso holdings, they aren’t there only to illustrate some sort of conceptual heritage with modernist theory. They also fit will with works by African American artists like Sam Gilliam which grace their collection. During David’s tenure as Chairman of the Board of the much mourned Corcoran Gallery of Art he made it known as a venue that supported local artists. He did the same in his collecting The Kreeger holds stand out pieces by local artists whose names would become well known — Gilliam and his colleague in the Washington Color School Gene Davis among them — and even more by artists whose names deserve wider recognition than they have garnered to date — a condition that the Kreeger is actively working to remedy.
The Kreeger’s recent exhibition of prints by Lou Stovall is a case in point. Anyone who has been active in the local arts scene will recognize Stovall’s name as a pioneer in the promotion of printmaking. Over time artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, David Driscoll, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Jacob Lawrence would be drawn to work with him at his screen printing studio Workshop, Inc. The work of Stovall and his artistic family is no less notable than that of the big names who have worked with him and such an exhibition is long overdue.
The Stovall retrospective was joined by “Weathering,” a focused exhibition of recent works by Hoesy Corona, a younger artist who also makes his home in the Washington region. The Kreeger’s focus on local creators is not shared by any other museum in the area, setting it clearly apart from its counterparts and making it a required stop for anyone who wonders if Washington is capable of creating anything other than political quagmires.
The museum’s art and architecture are at its best when the collections seep out of the building and onto its sculpture terrace. The sculptures there include works by Hans Arp, Hurlo (1957) and Torso-Sheaf (1959), Jacques Lipchitz ‘Hagar in the Desert (1949-57), and Henry Moore’s Standing Figure;Knife Edge (1961) and Three-Piece Reclining Figure No. 2: Bridge Prop (1961), works that can’t seem to resist playing with their outside neighbors. Along with the other statues on the terrace, they seem to be engaged in a continual game of tag as their forms engage with the architecture and the surrounding trees amid the ever shifting pools of light and shadow they provide.
As is only appropriate, the garden surrounding the home provides some of the collection’s most vibrant moments and evidence that it is still evolving. Although one of George Rickey’s entertainingly “useless machines,” Two Lines Oblique Down, Variation III, joined the collection in the 1970s, most of the works on view there are recent additions and most of them are works by artists from the surrounding region. Elements from John Dreyfuss’ Invention Series evoking both simple tools and complex machinery, the most recent from 2013, surround the reflecting pool. Dalya Luttwak’s intuitively instructive interpretation of the root system of the ever tenacious Poison Ivy (2014)literally climbs into the surrounding trees.
Suburban Virginia-based Emilie Brzezinski’s Lament (2015) now stands near the entrance of the Kreeger home. Brzezinski typically works in red oak, from which the original version of this sculptural group was carved. This work, by contrast, was cast in bronze to help ensure its longevity. Its material suggests a kind of metaphor for the collection itself.
The Kreeger family created a brief tempest in the 1990s when they announced their intention of opening their home as a museum. It wasn’t simply that their wealthy neighbors didn’t relish increased traffic near their homes. The local arts community had long assumed that the Corcoran would inherit the Kreeger collection. That’s where they thought it belonged. In the wake of subsequent misfeasance by its board, the venerable Corcoran is now just another building in George Washington University’s real estate portfolio. The Kreeger Museum still stands as a monument to one family’s support of global modernism — and of the artists of the Washington, DC area. Take a look. Surprise yourself.
K. Mitchell Snow is the author of A Revolution in Movement: Dancers, Painters, and the Image of Modern Mexico (University Press of Florida 2020). He has written about Latin American art and culture for publications such as Américas, Art Nexus, History of Photography and Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas.
Paul Clemence is an award-winning photographer and writer exploring the cross-section of design, art and architecture. A published author, his volume Mies van der Rohe’s FARNSWORTH HOUSE remains to this day the most complete photo documentation of that iconic modern residential design, and a selection of these photos is part of the Mies van der Rohe Archives housed by MoMa, New York. He is widely published in arts, architecture and lifestyle magazines like Metropolis, ArchDaily, Architizer, Modern, Casa Vogue Brasil and others. Archi-Photo, aka Architecture Photography, his Facebook photo blog quickly became a photography and architecture community, with over 970,000 followers worldwide. An architect by training, Clemence is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.