Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Note on the Shutdown

As of this writing (Saturday, January 20 at about 2:00 pm ET), the federal government has shut down.  Although the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art are open this weekend, we don't know what will happen on Monday.

Obviously, if the museums are shut, this blog will go silent as well.  I've scheduled a couple of posts for the coming week, but once they're up, that's all there is.

Needless to say, I'm not happy about this sorry state of affairs.  My brother and many of my friends are federal government employees, and although I'm confident they will be paid eventually, they won't get a paycheck until all this is over, through no fault of their own.  In addition, I have friends who are government contractors, and they won't get paid at all.  Compared to what they're facing, my inability to go to museums at lunch time and post on my blog is hardly worth mentioning.

I hope that this is resolved quickly, for the good of everyone: government workers, contractors, museum visitors and those who depend on the work of the government - which is all of us.

The Sackler Proves Its Greatness Once Again

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: closing June 10, 2018

The Sackler puts on a terrific show when they have important objects to display.  They exhibit them beautifully; they explain them well; they use dramatic lighting and wall colors - it's all very well done.  Their current show on lacquer Buddhas is the latest example of how to show magnificent pieces to their best advantage.  There's a dignity to how these works are presented; you, the visitor, feels as if you're seeing something wonderful.

There are innumerable representations of Buddha that exist in the world, but there are very few Buddha statutes made of lacquer.  The three earliest known examples are all housed in the United States: one at the Met, one at the Walters in Baltimore and one here at the Freer.  Right now, all three of them are together, for the first time, at the Sackler.

This is a two room show; the outer room provides X-ray views of each Buddha and explanations of how they were created.  There's also a discussion of the blood and bone that were found to be mixed into the lacquer.  The bones are from horses and cows - they don't know the origin of the blood!

Pictured here (I figured photography of the Buddhas themselves was not allowed) are two 3D prints of a Bodhisattva head.  Aside from the fact that 3D printing is just cool generally, it really allows you to get close up and see details that the originals are too fragile to allow.

In Buddhism, Bodhisattvas are those persons who are capable of reaching nirvana, but out of compassion for suffering beings, delay doing so.  I think of them as a sort of guardian angel, to make a comparison from Christianity.  I'm not sure that Bodhisattvas really exist, but I like the idea, so I'm always happy to see them represented.

Verdict: Do not miss this great exhibit, yet another reason to be happy that the Sackler has re-opened.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

This Post Brought to You by the Letter T

Where: American History Museum

When: closing July 4, 2018

Since I was at American History anyway, to see the "Religion in Early America" exhibit, I thought I'd give these four display cases a look.  Focused on children's television, they highlight the different purposes of shows geared to kids, from the early years of Howdy Doody and Bozo the Clown, to Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Originally, children's television was all about selling products.  And, let's be honest, it's still about that.  But along the way, some notion of educational value has crept in, so kids can learn counting and letters from Sesame Street, in both English and Spanish, and Bill Nye instilled a love of science in a generation of children.  Since he was on in the 90s, I missed that, much to my chagrin.

Of course, Muppet fan that I am, I thought the best part was seeing Oscar the Grouch (picture above).  He's my favorite of the Sesame Street muppets - so irritable and unpleasant.  Because, let's be honest, a little Grover can go a long way.

Verdict: A fun trip down memory lane.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Spiritual Marketplace

Where: American History Museum

When: closing June 4, 2018

It's not often I get a chance to visit a new space at the Smithsonian, but I've never been to the Taubman Gallery at American History, so I'm assuming it's new.  It's a nice, airy gallery with changing exhibitions, so I'm sure I'll be back many times in the future.

Colonial America was a place where people of many religions settled: a wide variety of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims.  Although there were some who wanted to establish a state religion when the United States declared its independence, those who advocated against this idea won out.  So the "spiritual marketplace" as early America was described, continues to this day.

This display has a treasure trove of artifacts and would be worth seeing regardless of your views on religion and religious history.  Among the great things are a church bell made by Revere and Son (he of the midnight ride), an iron cross (loaned by Georgetown University) made from pieces of ships that came to the U.S. in 1634, George Washington's inaugural bible and Thomas Jefferson's bible that he made by cutting out the pieces he liked from several other bibles (he went through the gospels and cut out all the bits with miracles and pasted into his own book the sayings and teachings of Jesus).

Verdict: An informative exhibition in a fine new space.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Brady before the Civil War

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: closing June 3, 2018

I've made it through the shows closing in May and am now on to June and July.  Not sure if I'll be able to get to many exhibits this coming week, due to various other things going on, so I made the most of the past week!

The Portrait Gallery has an area for displaying items that require low light, mostly very early photographs, daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.  Full lighting would ruin them, so they're tucked away in a little alcove, very close to the Archives of American Art and the One Life room.

The current offering is of Matthew Brady work from before the Civil War.  Although best known for his work photographing that terrible conflict and the people who fought in it, Brady was an accomplished photographer in the years before the war.

It seems to be a theme of the shows I've seen recently that the subjects are those who are master self-promoters, because Brady was not shy about advertising his services.  He started out doing daguerrotypes, then moved to ambrotypes and then salted paper prints.  With each new technological innovation, he jumped on board and made the most of it.  I admire his ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

He courted celebrity sitters; my favorite of the pieces on display is one of Dolley Madison, in later years.  Although she's pictured as an elderly woman, you can see her lively personality.  She looks like someone you'd want to invite to your party, even if she might not be able to dance every dance.

Verdict: An interesting little show; if you're in the neighborhood, have a look.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Small Shows at the National Gallery

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: closing May 18, 2018

On the mezzanine level of the East Building, there are three "special installations" on display.  Note: I'm not sure what the difference is between an exhibition and a special installation - please use the comment section if you can enlighten me!

Also, in this tucked away corner that you have to wander around to find, is a room where James Nares' Street is playing.  So happy to see this again.  I'm hoping it will be up permanently.

The first installation is Recent Acquisitions: Made in California.  It's just what you'd expect: things the gallery has obtained recently made by California artists.  I recognized Peter Voulkos' name from having seen the show of his work at the Renwick, but I didn't care much for the piece itself.  I find it difficult to generalize about the works, but I'll say they all seemed like an assemblage of things.  You could see the component parts of everything; they didn't mesh well into one work of art.  I was left thinking, "meh."

More interesting, in my view, was the Saul Steinberg show.  He worked for The New Yorker, but if you're looking for cartoons, you'll be disappointed.  This is far more abstract stuff.  The item I found most intriguing was a drawing of The Smithsonian.  I'm not sure I quite understand how this is a picture of The Smithsonian (see photo below), but I did give it a close look.

Finally, what I thought was by far the best of the three was the "Kitchen Table Series" by Carrie Mae Weems.  Photos of herself and others, sitting at a kitchen table are interspersed with text about a woman's relationship with her friends, her daughter and a man.  It's very powerful; the text adds to the photograhy, and the photographs make the text that much more immediate.

Verdict: Carrie Mae Weems' photographs are the best of these installations - worth the trip up to the Mezzanine.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Another Woman Mastering Her Image

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: closing May 20, 2018

Yes, I'm seeing shows closing in May.  In a desperate attempt to see as much as I can ahead of a possible government shutdown (now it could happen on January 19), I'm making museums my lunchtime priority.  My goal for the next two weeks is to get through everything open now that's closing through June.  This is no way to run a country, but the budgetary sword of Damocles that hangs over all our heads has at least prevented me from working through lunch.

This is the latest in the Portrait Gallery's "One Life" series, and it features Sylvia Plath.  True confession: I've never read any of her works, and all I knew about her before seeing this exhibit was that she wrote The Bell Jar, and she killed herself.  There's lots more to know!  She was an accomplished woman, educated at Smith and the University of Cambridge, and the author of several volumes of poetry, in addition to the novel, largely based on her own life.

She was someone who was very conscious of her image, and the wall notes indicate that she relished manipulating that image.  I was reminded of Marlene Dietrich, who dressed for her image.  She drew upon her own experiences, no matter how painful, in her works, which I suppose is what makes them resonate with her readers.

The picture above is of bells in the center of the display.  You touch them, and they light up and play sound around the room.  I've not seen anything interactive in the "One Life" series before, and I enjoyed this.

Verdict: Perfect for a lunchtime visit - well set up and informative, just like the others in this excellent series.