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Show Quizzes Art Viewers


PAINTER George Bellows did two views of the Hudson River, one of a sullen Hudson in bleak colors, the other of a river shot with gold from a sunset. You are asked to search the first, ``A Cloudy Day (Hudson River: Coming Squall)'' done in 1908, and ``The Warships (Warships on the Hudson)'' done in 1909, then ask yourself which one you feel closer to or more involved with.

This is not an art Rorschach test, it's an exhibition called ``Comparisons: An Exercise in Looking,'' at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

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The show, which compares two paintings by each of 15 artists from Mary Cassatt to Jackson Pollock, asks viewers to search for the answers to posted questions about each pair.

The Bellows paintings were done at the beginning of the century. The artist painted both of them from Riverside Drive in a more pastoral era, looking out across the Hudson to the Palisades on a Jersey shore barren of a single apartment building.

In ``Coming Squall'' there is a shaft of light in a somber gray sky, the river churns gray-green, and tiny figures of workmen are seen darkly on the near shore.

In ``Warships,'' a golden sunset washes the sky, flecking the blue-green water with gold. The Palisades loom in the distance. On the New York shore, women in summer gowns and parasols look down on the floating warships as though at a regatta.

You look dutifully at the questions involving the patterns of colors, light, focus, distance, involvement, and make your own decisions.

In a way this makes a game of an art exhibition. It stops the viewer from flitting between pictures.

The show's catalog has a written introduction from curator of paintings Judith Zilczer that says ``Evaluating works of art is not unlike judging such individual sports as gymnastics, diving, or figure skating.''

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Adolph Gottlieb has done a double somersault with his twin paintings ``Night Voyage'' and ``Pictogenic Fragments'' (both 1946) - one in greenish underwater symbols and signs, the other in gold, rust, and black forms. Jackson Pollock has done a perfect figure eight with ``Number 3, 1949: Tiger'' and ``Number 2, 1951'' (reproduced above).

``Tiger'' is an oil which includes metallic enamel and cigarette fragments; Number 2 is a collage of paper soaked in Rivet glue, with newsprint, pebbles, twine, wire mesh, and oil paint.

``Has Pollock used materials to produce a sense of movement in either of these works?'' we are asked. The undulations of string and twine, the pebbles and cigarette fragment keep us focused on the swirl of motion.

It could be said that Josef Albers does a perfect swan dive in his paired paintings, ``Homage to the Square: Glow'' (1966), and ``Homage to the Square: Elected II'' (196l). ``Is the combination of colors more pleasing in one painting than the other?'' we are asked.

It depends on whether you like the exploding scarlet, orange, and gold of ``Glow'' or the imploding yellow, aqua, puce, and mustard of ``Homage.''

As a viewer who just likes to absorb the beauty or the message of art without distracting questions or games, I found the exhibition a little too much like ``Hollywood Squares.'' But lots of people around me were enjoying it, particularly the kids. And it's certainly one way to pull viewers into a show.

But the beautiful art here, like Mary Cassatt's ``Young Girl Reading,'' a pensive blonde with bangs in a blue smock, and ``Baby Charles,'' a rosy baby with the thoughtful look of a philosophy professor, speaks to you without any gimmicks.

Barbara Hepworth's handsome, enigmatic bronze casts, ``Sea Form'' and ``Torso I (Ulysses)'' both done in l958, are riveting on their own.

With Ben Shahn's ``Supreme Court of California: Mooney Series'' about a labor leader wrongly convicted of murder and later pardoned, you need a little background. But his poignant, depression-era painting ``Farmer and Son'' stands on its own.

Also, the fractured, brilliant color of Oscar Bluemner's ``Old Canal, Red and Blue (Rockaway River) and ``Morning Light (Dover Hills, October) needs no words.

The other artists represented in this exhibition are: Alfred Maurer, Giorgio Morandi, Bob Thompson, Fernand L'eger, Ossip Zadkine, Stuart Davis, and Alma Thomas.

``Comparisons'' will be at the Hirshhorn through April 2l.

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