Monday, July 16, 2018

Back to the Freer

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: closing November 4, 2018

I had not been back to the Freer since its grand re-opening, so I was doubly anxious to see this show.  I like Japanese screens very much, and I was eager to see what changes had been made.

I'm happy to report that my previous description of the museum: beautiful things, beautifully displayed, still holds true.  I still felt a sense of relaxation just walking inside the doors.  It is still my second favorite Smithsonian museum (a close second to the Sackler).

What I really like that's new is the use of red plaques in the rooms containing the permanent collection.  They point out the highlights of each room, so if you have a short amount of time, you can see the "best" of the Freer very easily.  For instance, I saw a knife, carved from a meteor that hit Japan in 1621, the only one of four that were crafted that survives to the present day.  How great is that?  It's art from outer space!

What I came to see was a display of Japanese screens, depicting a sense of place.  Note that these are winter scenes, which were put up in spring and summer to give the viewer a sense of coolness.  Very appropriate for DC in the summertime.  The set of two that I photographed are called "Resilient Friendship."  I love that term; aren't resilient friendships something we all need?

Verdict: It's the Freer, so it's wonderful.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

What's New?

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: closing November 4, 2018

In the same hallway as the Henrietta Lacks portrait is a selection of recent acquisitions.  This display changes every six months or so, so you can pretty much always see what's new.

I feel confident that I've described the criteria for inclusion in the collection before.  My plan for this post was to skip any discussion of that, but I overheard a tour guide describing it while I was there, and I found out some new information.

Obviously, there are some portraits that will "stand the test of time," as the guide put it.  Presidents of the United States, Founding Fathers, other famous people from America's past, all of them will be important for the foreseeable future.  But what about people who are famous or important now, but might not be in 10 or 20 or 50 years?

The "currently famous" (my term) people are designated as "contemporary."  All items in the Portrait Gallery's collection have a letter-number sequence that identifies them.  The contemporary works have a "C" in their identifier.  In theory, if the person is later deemed not important enough to warrant a place in the permanent collection, their portrait could be withdrawn.  In fact, the guide said she'd never seen anything be withdrawn, and if someone was considered not worthy of inclusion in the permanent collection, they'd just stay in the contemporary collection.  To a museum geek like myself, this was fascinating.

I took a snapshot of the Madeleine Albright portrait because I thought it was very well done, and I really liked her dove pin.  I saw a show on her pins once at the Smithsonian Castle, and she chooses them with great care.  They are designed to send a message to anyone with whom she is meeting, so the fact that she chose this symbol of peace for this portrait sends the right message, I think.  Plus, as a great fan of Leslie Knope, how could I not include one of her heroes?

Another terrific piece was a book illustration of Henry Box Brown.  Brown was an enslaved person who literally shipped himself in a crate to an abolitionist society in Philadelphia.  Imagine their surprise when they opened this box and a person emerged.  It's a great story of human courage, endurance and ingenuity.

Verdict: With a wide variety of subjects and styles, there's something for everyone.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: closing November 4, 2018

There are a lot of shows closing in November this year (is this always the pattern?  I seem to recall lots closing in January and very few in December in years past, but I can't recall if November is usually a busy month...), so I'm getting an early start so I don't miss anything.

First up is this portrait of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have been used to fight cancer since her untimely death in 1951.  A book and movie have been made about her life and the controversy surrounding the use of her cells, so I won't go into the full story here.

Suffice it to say, the cells were taken without her knowledge or permission, and her family has (as far as I know) never been given any compensation for their use.  If it were me, I'd be happy to donate some cells that might be helpful to  research, but I'd want to be asked first.  It's a matter of being treated with dignity, and isn't that something we all want?

Verdict: Take time to see this portrait the next time you're at the Portrait Gallery; both the subject and the messages in the portrait are worth a look.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

An Unexpected Pleasure

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: closing October 28, 2018

The East Building of the NGA is currently devoting a room to the works of Jackson Pollock.  The signature piece is the one pictured here, "Mural," from 1943.  He painted it originally for a hallway in Peggy Guggenheim's townhouse, and she donated it to the University of Iowa Museum of Art.  Why she decided to give it to an institution so far removed from the New York art world (as opposed to say, the Guggenheim), I don't know, and it's obviously outside the scope of this exhibit to elucidate that point.

However it made its way to middle America, it's back on the East Coast for a visit now.  Pollock is not really to my taste, but I'll say this for "Mural,"  it's far better than his drip paintings, some of which are on display.  There's something rather cheerful in the use of the color yellow in this painting, and I don't dislike the swirling nature of the lines.  You'll also see some works on paper, which I'm tempted to call doodling, but will not.

So, I was thinking that this was about what I had expected, which is to say, art I don't really care for very much, but nothing like as bad as Georg Baselitz, when I noticed a doorway into another room.  Thinking there might be more to the show, I walked through it and came upon this work:

Not more Jackson Pollock, but more of the NGA's modern art collection, and among the offerings, "Girl on Globe 2" by Yinka Shonibare.  I had seen this piece once before, at the Corcoran, and I knew that the NGA had acquired it, but I hadn't actually seen it in its new location before.

I was filled with surprise and delight to see this fantastic work - it's about climate change and the French Revolution and how society treats children all at once.  I'll say that the display at the Corcoran was far superior to this.  It was the centerpiece of a room a French count had built for his princess fiancee, so you had the pre-Revolution excess and the argument against it, all in one place.  Really wonderful curation.  Not so here; the Shonibare is in with a bunch of other modern works, but I'm so happy I found it, I'll not quibble.

Verdict: The Pollock show is fine, if you like that sort of thing, and I'm very pleased to know the Shonibare piece has landed in a place where I can see it any time I like.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

How Bad Is It?

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: closing September 16, 2018

I read a really scathing review of the Georg Baselitz career retrospective in the Washington Post recently, and when I say really scathing I mean the title included the phrase "overrated hack."  So, rather than approaching this show with my usual fear and loathing, I went to the Hirshhorn looking forward to seeing just how bad this would be.

And it is bad.  Everything is ugly, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, each in its own way.  Those worm headed people in the photograph are what greet you at the door - not my definition of an inviting introduction.

But have no fear, if you don't like this, there's lots of different types of things to follow.  Unfortunately, they're all just tiresome nonsense.  Usually, even in a show I don't care for, there's one thing that I think isn't too awful.  Not so here!  Give the man points for consistency.

The best thing I can say for Baselitz is that, unlike my least favorite artist, Yves Klein, he doesn't sell people gold ingots to throw in the Seine.  I realize that's damning with faint praise, but it's the only praise I have.

According to the wall notes, Baselitz is one of the leading artistic figures of post-WWII Germany.  Poor Germany, if that's the case.  The land of Albrecht Durer is reduced to this?  One shakes one's head in sorrow and pity.  Another wall note tells me that Baselitz was influenced by Mannerist painting, which explains a lot.  Of all the artistic genres to leave by the wayside, Mannerism ranks high on my list.

At one point, he decided to create upside down portraits.  So you have paintings that appear to be straightforward pictures of people, except they're all upside down.  It makes it hard to really look at them, because you're trying to put them right side up in your mind.  My question: does he paint them upside down (which is what I assume he's doing, as there was a quote from him saying how hard it was to get the right perspective), or does he really paint them right side up and then insist they be hung upside down?

Not content to make ugly paintings, he branched out into sculpture.  At least it's not upside down.  The show ends with a piece that is meant to be some sort of homage to Andy Warhol.  It appears to be gigantic wooden legs in high heeled shoes, painted black and tied together at the top.  I'm no Warhol expert, but I can't imagine he would be happy to have something so ugly associated with him.

Verdict: Go for the upside down paintings; stay for the ugly sculpture.  Or don't go at all.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Usually I Like the Hirshhorn Videos...

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: closing August 12, 2018

As much as I dislike the Hirshhorn, and I dislike it a lot, I usually enjoy the video offerings.  They are funny, or moving or thought-provoking in some way.  So I wasn't dreading my trip this past week to see several videos having to do with the connection between the mind and the body.

The museum is having live performances by these artists over the course of the next several weeks, but I wasn't not sure I'd be able to see any of those, so I thought I'd go for the exhibit of their work instead.  A viewing area is set up on the inner ring of the second floor, with numerous screens and little stands across from each one.  Lots of room for many people to see what's on offer.

I only watched part of one video, but that was plenty.  It was called "Swivel Spot."  It begins pretty weird and just gets stranger as it goes along.  A topless woman sits on the floor, eating peanuts and tossing the shells on the ground, while a man walks around with an enormous tape dispenser, wrapping things in tape.  Another man (who starts out shirtless, but then dons a red shirt, bizarre glasses and a woman's wig) is in the room as well.  When he took off all his clothes, rubbed his backside with some sort of lotion/glue/I don't know what and rolled around in the peanut shells, I decided I'd had enough.

Verdict: Maybe the video I watched makes sense in the end; maybe the rest of the works are terrific, I don't know.  But, life is short, and sometimes, you have to know when to give up on something.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Art at the Crossroads

Where: African Art Museum

When: closing September 3, 2018

The Swahili Coast marks the intersection of Africa and the Indian Ocean.  Over centuries, peoples and their artistic traditions have met and mixed here, and this exhibit is a survey of what that mingling has produced.  This melting pot of cultures has allowed Islamic influences and traditional African art to meld into a distinct set of artworks: jewelry, textiles, furniture and other woodwork, photography - even board games.

Jewelry is well-represented in this show, and it was an important commodity in years past.  It was a sound investment, which allowed women some autonomy.  It functioned as a type of private nest egg, separate from their husband's wealth.

The pieces that most impressed me were the beautifully carved wooden doorways, the craftsmanship was wonderful.  Intricate in design and expert in execution, they are a way of bringing art into one's home - making the necessary exceptional.

The photography section reminds us that the "selfie" craze is just the latest manifestation of the human desire to be documented, to be seen in a certain way or with certain other people.  These photographs served purposes very similar to those of Western portraits - social signifiers that indicated that the subject was worthy of being remembered, that their image was worthy of preservation.

Just when I thought I'd left the exhibit behind, what should I see but this small robot, named Pepper, who wanted to tell me about the show and about the Swahili language.  Since part of my job is tracking news about automation and the advent of robots in the workplace, how could I resist a conversation with a real "live" example?  Pepper did most of the talking, although it did ask me to learn some Swahili words and say them out loud.  My only criticism, and I mean this to be constructive, is that Pepper is really short.  I'm not tall, and I was stooping over to touch the screen.  Perhaps this is meant to ensure that it is not intimidating to children?

Verdict: An interesting exhibit and cultural history lesson in one.  And a talking robot!