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The Hirshhorn took its modern art treasures out of the vault. It’s a joy | Featuring Amoako Boafo

Review by Kriston Capps

The Hirshhorn’s not like other museums in town. You’ll rarely see a run of masterpieces to match an art history textbook like you’ll find at the National Gallery of Art. The Hirshhorn doesn’t trumpet the work of its namesake founder, the way that the Phillips Collection builds exhibitions around the vision of Duncan Phillips. And the Hirshhorn isn’t a crystal-cool stage for a handful of elite artists, a la Glenstone.

No doubt, the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has a collection that can stand up to any of them. His gift to the Smithsonian Institution in 1966 comprised almost 6,000 paintings and sculptures by the 19th and 20th centuries’ most vital artists — a figure that doubled with a bequest of his remaining works upon his death in 1981.

But rarely is very much of it on view. Especially over the past decade or so, the museum has learned to love its Gordon Bunshaft-designed building, mounting ambitious installations that sometimes take up an entire minor arc of the Brutalist doughnut.

So the museum’s 50th anniversary this year is an opportunity to step back and see the collection in its original light. A chance to look back on the collection’s most important pictures, perhaps a moment to highlight new scholarship in art history or achievements in conservation. But the Hirshhorn’s not like other museums in town — and for its 50th birthday, the museum is throwing a bash.

“Revolutions: Art from the Hirshhorn Collection, 1860-1960” is a delightful romp through the permanent collection, featuring a gobsmacking number of artworks. The first of three planned anniversary exhibitions, this one focuses on modernism in all its lights, exploring the period through a truly maximalist presentation of paintings and sculpture. Better than a greatest-hits exhibition, “Revolutions” remixes the museum’s best B-sides and rarities, while still making a case about the long 20th century in art.

From Grandma Moses to Rashid Johnson, “Revolutions” spans a ludicrous range of painters. Right from the start, the show dials up the contrasts: The first works to greet viewers are a stately 1884 portrait by society painter John Singer Sargent hanging next to an electric 2020 portrait by Ghanaian star Amoako Boafo. Roughly speaking, these works could serve as chronological capstones for the Hirshhorn’s collection. But there’s something else to this pairing: It’s an unlikely diptych that tees up the push-and-pull between figuration and abstraction that defines the collection — and the century.

Curated by the Hirshhorn’s Marina Isgro and Betsy Johnson, “Revolutions” is chockablock with artworks. More than 200 paintings, sculptures and drawings — with the odd photograph thrown in, and a plan to rotate some artworks — trace the flow of ideas from early modernism to the postwar era. That’s a ton of work: For comparison, when the museum mounted a collection show in 2016, it included some 75 pieces.