Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through January 30, 2011

This show focuses on paintings and photography of the 1850s and 1860s in Britain. Photography was new then, and artists quickly became aware of its potential as a new medium for their expression. Painters at the same time sought to replicate the exactitude possible with photography, so not only did it create a new field of art, it also influenced existing fields.

Outdoor subjects pre-dominate in this show. I very much liked John Dillwyn Llewelyn's Plant Study, which features a path through a garden - I just love paintings of paths. John Ruskin's work is also featured, including a painting and daguerreotype of Fribourg. This is the first time the two works have been exhibited together; I'm always glad when I see something that hasn't been seen before!

Some of the photographs reminded me of the works I saw in The Pond, which I discussed earlier on this blog. They are of the outdoors, and depict it in a detailed and realistic manner, warts and all. I find I'm often reminded of something I've seen earlier when I visit a new exhibit, and often it's something a bit incongruous - like 19th century photographs reminding me of pictures taken in the 1960s.

The paintings in this show are very detailed; you often feel as if you are standing and looking at the actual view, rather than merely a painting of it - photography's influence, undoubtedly. John Wilham Inchbold's work was particularly realistic; I liked his paintings of paths through the woods.

Alice Liddell, the model for Alice in Wonderland appears in two pieces - as part of tableaux that the artists set up - perhaps this was how they occupied themselves when the weather was too inclement to allow for outdoor compositions?

Verdict: This is well worth seeing. Allow plenty of time, as the exhibit is quite large, encompassing several rooms. If you're taking a long lunch, or are going at the weekend, you could do this and Picturing the Victorians in the East Building library, which is from the same time period.

Lost and Found: The Lesbian and Gay Presence at the Archives of American Art

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through February 13, 2011

First of all, who knew there was an Archives of American Art? I've never heard of this before, but I'll be keeping an eye out for exhibits from now on. The gallery is in the American Art Museum, on F Street, NW, in a nice well-light room. I just wandered around the museum until I found it, but now that I know where it is, I'll waste less time getting there the next time I visit.

I don't know if this show was timed to coincide with the Hide/Seek exhibit, but it dovetails nicely. It turns out that the archives is full of items by and about gay and lesbian artists, and some very interesting pieces are on display here. Items include letters, newspaper clippings, photographs (including some full frontal male nudity - leave your prudery at home!) and other artifacts. There's even a statement by David Wojnarowicz in a catalog for Witnesses: Against our Vanishing, a show put on in 1989 featuring works by artists suffering from or who had died of AIDS. The National Endowment for the Arts stopped funding for the exhibit due to Wojnarowicz's "inflammatory rhetoric," which led to outrage, which in turn led to the restoration of the funding. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun!

I was quite interested to see the photograph above, featuring Eleanor Roosevelt with Alain Locke. No mention was made of Roosevelt's own relationships with women, only of Locke's homosexuality.

Verdict: Go see this small show; it's only one room, so easy to see in a lunch hour. I've heard nothing in the press about this exhibit, so I'm assuming it's safe from those who would usher homosexuality firmly out the museum door.Add Image

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Picturing the Victorians: British Photographs and Reproductive Prints from the Department of Image Collections

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building Library

When: through January 28, 2011

In the main lobby area of the East Building, is the entrance to the National Gallery's library. It's a lovely space, nice and quiet, and every so often they have an exhibit in the display cases in their reading room. You have to tell the guard at the door that you're there to see the exhibit, but I've had no problem getting in to the main space.

The Victorian Era saw the beginning of reproductions, which were sold to the emerging middle class, who were eager to display artworks in their homes, but who could not afford original pieces. These reproductions were of both art in the traditional sense, and of the then new art of photography.

Middle class people were not only interested in reproductions, however. They also were interested in seeing original artworks at museums. (I felt a kinship with these people from another country and time period!) The Sunday Society was formed to lobby for the opening of museums to the public on Sundays, arguing that it was better for people to spend their time looking at great art than in getting up to no good. One of the items on display is a page from the exhibit book of "Art Treasures of the United Kingdom" an exhibit held in Manchester in 1857. The show drew 1.3 million visitors in 5 months - an excellent draw today!

Verdict: A nice little exhibit; you could see it and "The Body Inside and Out" at the same time, as I did, or combine this show with one of the other, larger shows now on in the East Building.

The Body Inside and Out: Anatomical Literature and Art Theory Selections from the National Gallery of Art Library

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through January 23, 2011

This small exhibit is difficult to find in the National Gallery - have a look at the map available at any of the entrances to find your way to the correct room. Once there, however, the exhibit is interesting and easy to visit during lunch hour.

During the Renaissance, physicians and artists worked together to increase their knowledge of the human body. Artists witnessed dissections to gain a greater understanding of the body, which they then dispersed to a wider audience. This exhibit of rare books from the Gallery's collection shows the importance to artists of proportion and musculature in their work.

Verdict: Perhaps not everyone's first thought when visiting the National Gallery, but if you are interested in the history of art, or of the intersection of science and art, this is worth a look. You could easily combine this exhibit with one of the others at the Gallery, as it's only one room.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: until January 30, 2011

I went to see this exhibit along with the "Art of Gaman" show, as they're both at the Renwick. The shows are small enough that they can be viewed in one lunch time, provided you move pretty quickly through them both. If you want to linger, see them one at a time. I would recommend seeing this show on a Tuesday, if you can, as they have a lathe demonstration going on from 12-1 through December. If you happen to be in town on a weekend, they have another demo going on the second Saturday of the month, from 2-4.

These objects are beautiful, especially if you like woodwork. All were made by turning the wood on a lathe. This brought back memories for me of my grandfather, father and uncle talking about their woodworking when I was a child. I didn't know what a lathe was, but I gathered it was important as it seemed to feature in so many of their conversations.

This exhibit includes not only functional pieces (bowls, vases) but also art objects. Bud Latven's piece, Integration, is made of maple and African blackwood. You don't really expect wood to make a statement, but this piece does.

Daniel Ellsworth's Solstice Series is a set of painted wood pieces - a sort of "Dylan Goes Electric" moment that is not without its controversy.

Finally, Edward Moulthrop's Donut Bowl I liked very much. There was something about the rounded shape that really appealed to me. He had several other similarly shaped pieces I liked as well.

Verdict: This show features many stunning wooden pieces. If you like wood as art, don't miss this exhibit.

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: until January 30, 2011

This exhibit features art created by persons of Japanese descent living in internment camps during World War II. It is truly incredible that people living in these conditions could create any art, let alone such beautiful pieces. Some of the items are practical things, as people could take almost nothing with them, and had very little in the way of furniture.

Others are simply works of art, including Akira Oye's bear carving. It's stunning, yet he never carved again after leaving the camps. Chiura Obuta did a series of internment sketches. They start out in an impressionistic style, then become more realistic, as they depict scenes in the camp. The sketch of a deaf man shot at a fence (the guards warned him away, but he couldn't hear them) was haunting. A painting by George Matsusaburo Hiti, Topaz in Winter, reminded me of the "snow effect" used by the impressionists.

There were classes organized in the camps, showing how much the internees valued education, no matter the circumstances. Those who were artists before coming to the camps, or who picked up skills while there, taught others how to make things, whether for daily use or for decoration. Also amazing is the way the internees used whatever materials were at hand to create their art.

Edward Jitsue Kurushima made a toy train that looks like a model you could buy in a store, and he made it with scrap metal. On display were many bird carvings that were used as pins, that were made from scrap lumber and bits of wire.

Verdict: This show isn't always easy to view, as it is a vivid reminder of the injustice done to these people, but does show how resilient people can be. It reminds us that art can exist in even the most unlikely circumstances. This show is well worth a visit.

Gods of Angkor: Bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: until January 23, 2011

This exhibit is not terribly large - only 36 pieces, which makes it ideal for lunchtime viewing. While I was looking at the exhibit, I saw several tours going on. I'm a big fan of museum tours, although I don't take them on my lunch hour, for fear they'd run too long. I like them because you get a lot more information then you do just looking at the pieces yourself, and they are especially helpful for large museums, like the National Gallery of Art.

The Gods of Angkor exhibit is the result of a partnership between the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the National Museum of Cambodia. The museums have worked together to establish a metals conservation laboratory in Cambodia, and several pieces in the show have been conserved there.

Some of the pieces I found most interesting were:

  • a Kandal urn from the 4th - 2nd century BCE that was found in the possession of a peasant family, who were using it to carry water. I couldn't help but think what a Cambodian version of Antiques Roadshow might be like.
  • a kneeling female figure whose lost hand was later found among other excavated materials and replaced
  • a Crowned Buddha whose hands were held up in a "fear not" position
  • a statue of a male divinity missing the item that would help identify him. His hands were placed in what I think of as a "muffler man" pose.
  • an incense burner from the 12th century that reminded me of art nouveau design
Something else I found interesting was the use of a serpent as a protector of Buddha. In Western art, the serpent is usually the representative of evil, but in this show, the serpent is good. Buddha was also protected by both male and female figures. The male represents compassion, and the female represents wisdom. Again, a switch from Western views.

Verdict: do go and see this small, but very impressive, show. It's very well laid out, and if you have a bit more time, take a tour to learn more.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Note on Current Events

It was not my intention to make this blog into a sounding board for my political views, only for my opinions on exhibits in town. Recent events, however, have made me reconsider this idea, if only for this one post. I'm so angry I could spit nails, and since this concerns a museum exhibit, I'm going to vent my spleen here.

For those of you outside the Washington, DC area, I'm not sure if you've heard about the controversy surrounding the National Portrait Gallery's show, Hide/Seek. I have not yet seen the exhibit, so I'm basing my comments on what I've read about it, both at the museum's website and in a review and subsequent article by Blake Gropnik in the Washington Post.

The exhibit examines how homosexuality has been portrayed in portraits, focusing on times when people of the same gender were not free to express their feelings of love for one another. One portion of this exhibit is a video by an artist who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. The video was his way of demonstrating his feelings of grief and loss when his partner died of AIDS in the late 1980s. The complete video is about 30 minutes long; the National Portrait Gallery was showing a portion of the work, about 4 minutes in length. Included in this clip on display was a short (10 seconds, maybe) image of a crucifix covered in ants.

Some people have expressed offense at this image, and have declared that this is a deliberate insult to Christians and Christianity during the Christmas season. The National Portrait Gallery has removed the video and it is now on display at the Transformer Gallery.

It's difficult to know where to begin in expressing my outrage, but I'll give it the old college try. First, not everything is about the delicate sensibilities of Christians. I know that's hard for some people to understand, but it's true. My suspicion is that the artist was using the cross as a symbol for suffering, which artists have been doing for centuries. I'm sure there were other things on his mind when he created this piece than the ability of some people to take offense at everything - manufactured hysteria, I like to call it.

The idea that the curators at the National Portrait Gallery set out to deliberately offend people is preposterous. I'm sure they have much better things to do than put up displays just to make Christians unhappy. I'm sure they're well aware that they receive funding from the federal government, and that good public relations is helpful in continuing to receive that. Of course, art is not always meant to make everyone feel comfortable with their prejudices. Sometimes, it is meant to offend people and get them to examine their lives and viewpoints. It's a difficult line to walk, and I think that there are so many unobjectionable exhibits at the Portrait Gallery, that they can afford to have something a bit edgier from time to time.

Once you bring in the Christmas angle, that just smacks of the oh-so-bogus "war on Christmas" which is so ludicrous that I won't even discuss it further.

Second, this display isn't put up with public funds. Private funding paid for this display, so no taxpayer dollars were spent on this exhibit. Even if they were, I still don't buy this argument. Over the course of my working life, my tax dollars have been spent in ways I don't like, in some cases in ways that I find morally repugnant. That's how the system works. I vote for people that I think will spend my money in ways of which I approve. If those people win, then my money supports things I like. If those people don't win, then my money goes to support things I would prefer not to purchase. In either scenario, I still have to pay taxes. The idea that the government shouldn't fund anything that anyone might find objectionable is crazy. There's nothing the government funds that makes everyone happy. People who trot out this "My tax dollars are paying for this "argument are just whining like spoiled children.

Third, shame on you National Portrait Gallery. You decided to hold this exhibit and that the video should be part of it. You should stick by your decision - if you think these groups will stop with this, you are so very mistaken. They'll decide that all sort of pictures are offensive and have to go. Eventually, you'll be left with a big empty building. I find it difficult to believe that the museum didn't realize this exhibit would be controversial; when I saw the review, my first thought was that the flat earth society types would be up in arms. This is one of very few instances when I'm sorry I was right.

This exhibit is on my list to see, although I may have to go sooner than I had planned, before the whole show is closed.

Two small exhibits at American History

What: Clotilde Arias' Spanish translation of the Star Spangled Banner and "View from Up North"

Where: National Museum of American History

When: until November 30 (View from Up North) and December 2010 (Clotilde Arias)

I didn't see these two items listed on my exhibit website when I was making my plans for November and December, so I'm glad I saw them before they closed. I recommend to anyone who is a regular museum goer to check exhibit listings regularly, as closing dates change and new shows are added frequently.

American History is one of the most crowded museums I visit. During the school year, there are class trips almost every day, and during the summer, families flock to this museum, as it offers a little something for everyone. I'm happy that so many people are taking such enjoyment from this museum and its collection, but there are times I dread going over there and fighting the crowds.

One area that is empty whenever I go over is the display cases from the museum's archives. I think the average tourist writes off the displays as boring, and the displays lack the drama or presence of some of the more popular exhibits. For all that it's a bit dull, the archives cases exhibits are often quite informative, and sometimes they dovetail quite nicely with another exhibit at the museum. For instance, when the museum had its show on the Apollo Theater, the archives cases featured memorabilia from performers who had appeared at the Apollo (ticket stubs, programs, etc.).

The exhibit I saw, View From Up North, consisted of artifacts showing the pre-World War II views of Americans toward Mexico and Mexicans. The first thing that struck me was that Americans thought of Mexico as a place of political turmoil and instability - a view pretty common today, as well. Romanticized pictures of Mexicans predominated: dashing cowboys and beautiful women. In fact, increased economic investment had lead to discontent among the common people; I was reminded of the drug wars causing so much death and destruction today. Americans knew very little of Mexico, and what they learned came from published images and from the displays at World's Fairs. There were even paper dolls inspired by Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy.

The second exhibit is a Spanish translation of the Star Spangled Banner, commissioned by the State Department in 1945. This is on display in the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, towards the end of the room. I love looking at the flag that flew over Fort McHenry; it reminds me of my childhood visits to what was then called the Museum of History and Technology, when I was one of those kids on a class trip. In the 1970s, the flag was hanging (I think where the entrance to the flag exhibit is now), exposed to all the elements. Now, of course, it's in a low light area, behind glass, to preserve it for future generations to see. The low light is handled extremely well; you can see where you're going at all times.

The State Department asked Arias to translate two verses of the anthem into Spanish and what you see on display are her hand-written notes, including corrections. I always like seeing someone's rough drafts; it's like looking at their mind at work.

Verdict: The archives exhibit is closed now, although I'm not sure how firm those closing dates are; it might be worth a look, if you're there anyway. It may not be worth a separate trip to see the Spanish translation, but if you're planning to see the flag area anyway, go now and see this added artifact as well.

Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: until January 23, 2011

Lots of people are bigger fans of Elvis Presley than I am. Don't misunderstand me, I have nothing against him, and I recognize his place in musical and American history. I'm just not someone who worships him, or thinks he's still alive somewhere, or believes that I've had his baby.

Nevertheless, there's still much to like in this exhibit, even for the non-rabid fan. The show consists of photographs of Elvis by Alfred Wertheimer, shot over the course of a short period of time in 1956, just before he became a big star. The photographs themselves are beautiful; intimate moments and public scenes alike are captured in mostly black and white portraits. Elvis comes across as completely accessible and open to other people, as well as a bit naive and wide-eyed about all the interest in his music. This is not the fat Vegas-y Elvis of later years, but the heartthrob of the Eisenhower administration era.

Pictures that I particularly noticed included one of Elvis in New York City, talking to a young girl looking very proper in her white gloves. It occurs to me that the gloves are about to come off in terms of American pop culture; neither Elvis nor his fans had any idea what was ahead of them.

The second shot was one of Steve Allen discussing Elvis signature hip movements and how they might not be appropriate for his program. It reminded me of Ed Sullivan trying to get The Doors to change their lyrics a decade later.

My only criticism is that it's a bit difficult to figure out the layout of the show. I wanted to look at the photos in chronological order, but I found myself zigzagging from room to room in order to do so. A guide of some sort would have been nice, maybe numbers on the photos?

Verdict: Check out this show if you're an Elvis fan, a pop culture buff or a photography enthusiast. It's a picture of a moment in time.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

John Gossage: The Pond

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: until January 17, 2011

I suspect everyone will have a slightly different reaction to this set of photographs. Mine was, "let's clean this up!" I thought there was real beauty in this unimproved bit of nature, a pond somewhere between D.C. and the Eastern Shore. I also thought it was a shame people have been using it as a garbage dump for many years. I'm not suggesting that it should be beautified, or gentrified, or made into yet another piece of cookie-cutter suburban perfection. I'd just like it to not function as a place for people to toss their refuse.

The exhibit is a series of photographs of Gossage's trip to the pond, and is meant to be viewed in order, from start to finish. That would be easier if the museum had labeled the pictures in some way; as it is, I spent a good bit of time making sure I was looking at the right photo at the right time. I also found I rushed through, eager to get to the end, so I took some time to go back and look at the photos again. The viewer with lots of time could easily spend hours and not see everything in every photo, but the lunch hour viewer will get lots from this show as well.

At the end of the exhibit are photos of houses (I think they're in northern Virginia), and although in a way they're sort of tacked-on to the pond shots, they do belong in a way. They show a modest, but perfectly nice neighborhood (the photos were taken in the early 1908s, so I guess those starter homes are worth $500,000 now). There are plenty of imperfections in the houses: a boarded up window in one, and some irregularities in the sidewalk in front of another, but to me, they showed how humanity can live with both order and a bit of chaos. There is a kind of beauty in the rustic, but not if the garbage dominates the scene.

Verdict: Well worth a visit - it would be interesting to know what the pond looks like now - some 25 years later.

Investigating Where We Live

Where: National Building Museum

When: until January 17, 2011

This exhibit was designed by the teenage participants in the Building Museum's four-week summer program. The young people divide into 3 groups and go to visit a particular D.C. neighborhood. They take photographs, talk to neighborhood residents and learn about the community. The show represents the fruits of their labors, and the visitor gets to find out more about the neighborhoods they visited, as well as the kids' own learning process. All three groups reported that they had thought the neighborhood to which they had been assigned (Petworth, Trinidad or the Southwest Waterfront) would be run down or poverty-stricken. They were surprised by the vibrancy of the neighborhoods and the enthusiasm of the people they interviewed.

This is a really great program; the kids learn photography and they have a chance to change their own perceptions. The show they've designed is quite good; some of the photographs are excellent. A Step Closer, taken in Petworth, by Amira Samiy is particularly good. There is also writing to go along with the photos. Why Me? by Jasmine Marr was impressive.

Verdict: Go see this show. It's only one room, so you can easily see it in a lunch hour. It's great to see kids learning new skills and having a chance to be creative.

Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Paintings and Works on Paper, 1980–2008

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: until January 16, 2011

As I mentioned in my last post, 'tis the season for Argentine art in DC museums. This show of Kuitca works makes a nice contrast to the show at the Ripley that I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Rather than featuring one or two works of many artists, this show has, as its name suggests, everything by Guillermo Kuitca. It's an enormous show; every time you think you must be at the end, there's another room full of art to see. I was unfamiliar with Kuitca before I saw this show, so I was glad to see so much of his work - I feel like I know him now!

Terminal, the picture above, is the first work I saw upon entering the exhibit. It's so realistic, I stood there, expecting my bags to appear. The painting was completed in 2001, so recent changes in airport security, luggage pricing and the general mood of exasperation surrounding air travel are not reflected in this piece, but I read all of that and more in this work. Perhaps that's a definition of great art; that it continues to speak to people who see in it a commentary on events that have transpired after it was created.

Kuitca uses floor plans in his work extensively; I enjoyed looking at them, as I love examining floor plans. I always imagine where I would put furniture in the various rooms, how the people living in the house would move around, and where they would store their belongings. One of his floor plans he entitled "Childhood of Christ." I can make no sense out of the title, but I like the work.

The items which moved me the most were the maps painted on mattresses. I think the idea is that the mattress is the most intimate of locations, but road maps are general and public, with no particular meaning for the viewer. My experience, however, was completely different. One of the mattress maps was of northern Minnesota, and featured Crookston, Bemidji and Park Rapids, all places where my family members have lived. What a shock to see these small (and to anyone else meaningless) towns featured in a major modern art exhibit!

Finally, Kuitca also creates architectural plans, including The Tablada Suite. The patience necessary to draw every seat in an entire stadium is mind-boggling.

Verdict: By all means, see this show. It's quite large, but you could skim through it fairly quickly, if you looked at one or two pieces in each room.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Southern Identity: Contemporary Argentine Art

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 23, 2011

If you are interested in Argentine art, now is the time to visit Washington's museums; in honor of its bicentennial, there are several shows featuring the art and artists of this country currently on display. I was thinking as I walked over to the Ripley that I really know nothing of Latin American art, and I was glad of an opportunity to fill this gap in my knowledge.

"Southern Identity" is a survey of the contemporary art of this country, and although it's a large exhibit, the Ripley has done a nice job of organizing the show. It's divided into several different sections, so that even though you're looking at pieces by different artists, they "go together" thematically. They've provided a diagram of the exhibit that shows you where you are as you move through, a nice touch. The Ripley may be underground, and its International Gallery may be a pretty lousy exhibit space, but the curators there do the best they can - which is quite good.

Quite a few works caught my eye including:
  • a picture that from a distance I thought was a Christ figure, but then realized was Eva Peron eating the entrails of Che Guevara
  • a traffic camera by Jorge Macchi where the cars represent notes on a staff - less lazy than the usual traffic camera installation
  • Leon Ferrari's sculpture of Christ crucified on a USAF plane
  • a landscape series by Eduardo Stupia that looks like the blotter paper of a manic doodler
  • several pieces by Tulio de Sagastizabal with really wonderful colors
  • a piece by Marta Minujin with similar colors, placed in the same area - hats off to the person who set this up - each artist's work plays up the work of the other
  • the picture displayed above, by Marcos Lopez - a Last Supper of soccer players
  • an installation by Susanna Drogotta called "About to Laugh" which is constructed of vinyl fabric and mosquito netting
Verdict: worth a look, especially if you're interested in Argentine art, or would like to learn more. The great organization makes it easy to view.

Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg

Where: American Art Museum

When: through January 2, 2011

Although I'm very familiar with Norman Rockwell's work, I think this is the first time I've ever seen any of his paintings that were not reproductions - the first time I'd ever seen them "live."

I chose the word "live," with its musical connotations deliberately, as I've discovered that the difference between seeing a reproduction of a piece of art and the actual art work is quite similar to the experience of hearing live music as opposed to an album. Yes, it's the same painting, and yes, it's the same music, but the reason people go to art museums and to concerts is that there is a real, qualitative difference in the experience.

For me, the colors in the actual Rockwell pieces are much more vibrant than the colors in the reproductions. They seem to jump off the canvas - to force the viewer to notice them. I've seen more Rockwell reproductions than I could possibly count, but I've never had this feeling before. Another thing I've never noticed before is his use of the color red as an accent. It's in most of his work; sometimes as a main color, but more often as the color of a man's necktie, or a woman's shoes. Once you're aware of it, you see it everywhere.

Among the pieces that struck me most was "The Connoisseur," in which Rockwell quite successfully paints a Jackson Pollock, which mystifies a viewer. It's easy to dismiss Rockwell as a second-rate artist, but I'm willing to bet he does a better job imitating Pollock, than Pollock could of imitating him.

"Pioneer of the Air" is a fantastic art deco portrait of Charles Lindbergh; the lettering is beautiful, and rather unlike his other work. Again, he had more range than most people think.

I was interested to see a preliminary version of "Freedom of Speech." I've always thought the main figure in that painting looks much like a young Abraham Lincoln. The original figure looks much less Lincoln-ish (if that's a word, which I'm sure it's not). It would be interesting to know why Rockwell changed the appearance of the man speaking...

A painting I had not seen before is "Time for Greatness," which is a wonderful portrait of John Kennedy; better in my view than the official Kennedy portrait.

Verdict: Go see this exhibit. If you like Rockwell, you'll like him better for having seen it. If you don't like Rockwell, this will give you something to think about.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cornucopia: Ceramics from Southern Japan

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: until January 9, 2011

The Freer is one of my favorite museums. It's not very large, so even if I don't know exactly where my exhibit is, it takes only a short time to find it. It's also very quiet. Not may people seem to know about it, or visit, which is lovely. It's a closed collection - nothing new is added, and nothing is deaccessioned. It's Mr. Freer's collection, and thus it will remain. There's something soothing about visiting: even though it's right on the Mall, with all its hustle and bustle, it's a place that invites contemplation. It's relaxing just to think about it.

I was able to do more than just think about it recently, as I visited this exhibit on Japanese ceramics. I don't know enough about porcelain to comment authoritatively on what I saw, but I found the Arita ceramics reminded me strongly of Delft pottery - lots of blue and white. I also noted that the makers of this porcelain must have been quite busy, as they were required to send 2000 pieces to the shogun and his officials every year. Very nice, if you're the recipient of these art works; not so nice if you're the one having to produce all this on deadline!

I saw several examples of tea bowls - a lovely item with beautiful proportions. There were so many serving items for tea that I was stunned. Here, it's hard to get one cup of tea in a restaurant! How nice to be in a culture where one's beverage of choice is so popular that there are countless products to facilitate one's imbibing.

Another item I particularly enjoyed was a tea ceremony water jug with a plum tree design. Really lovely, with delicate flowers. I'd like to be the government official receiving this!

Verdict: It's always worth a trip to the Freer. This exhibit is very nice, especially if you like Japanese art or tea ceremonies.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Palladio & His Legacy

Where: National Building Museum

When: until January 9, 2011

I was pleasantly surprised by this exhibit. I wasn't certain how interested I would be in looking at architectural drawings, and at first, I felt my lack of architectural background as a hindrance in appreciating the show. However, once the focus of the exhibit moved to American buildings, especially those with which I am familiar, I became much more engaged in the show.

The exhibit features some copies of drawings of famous buildings, and drawings of buildings that were never built. The age of some of these items is breathtaking; they are hundreds of years old. I also enjoyed the story of how Palladio translated architectural tomes into Italian, so that his contemporaries could understand them. Palladio's own works were then translated into other languages, including English, so that generations of architects born long after Palladio's death, could learn from his work.

Presently, the United States is the place where Palladian architecture has really taken hold, and is featured in myriad buildings in DC. As I left the exhibit, I caught a glimpse of the National Gallery of Art building, and thought, "Ah Palladio!" On my walk each morning from Union Station to my office in the Gallery Place area, I see numerous examples of Palladio's ideas, and knowing them for what they are increases my interest. It's amazing what more there is to see in the city, if you know how to look.

Thomas Jefferson was a great adherent of Palladio, and his house at Monticello and some of the architecture at the University of Virginia shows this. I was unaware that there was a competition to design what we now call the White House, and I certainly didn't know that Jefferson submitted a design. I liked his offering - it featured a wonderful dome.

Verdict: Do make time for this show. It's not terribly large; you can see it easily in a lunch hour. Once you have your eye out for Palladio, you see him everywhere - which adds to the fun.

Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: until January 16, 2011

My other posts have all been about exhibits I've seen on my lunch hour, but I took a day off of work, and decided to spend part of my time at this exhibit. It features three videos: one is about an hour in length, the other two are both over 20 minutes, so a lunch hour is just not enough time to see this entire show. If lunch times are all you have, pick one of the 20 minute shows (I watched all of "Lapse of Memory" but got a bit weary after only a few minutes of "Rise and Fall"), check out the photographs and spend as much time as you have left at "May You Live in Interesting Times," the hour-long video. Frankly, it's worth a return trip to see everything.

I was struck by the series of photographs of the West Pier at Brighton. Although the pier was built long after the Regency period, I could not but be reminded of Lydia Bennett and her trip to the seaside - those glittering dreams of romance with a handsome officer crumbled in the end, just as the West Pier does in these photos. In life as in literature, things have a way of falling apart.

The film I watched in its entirety, "Lapse of Memory," was strangely interesting. It's one man, in an empty house, moving through his day. Is he mentally ill? How does he survive? What is his relationship to the house? None of these questions are answered, but the film is so engrossing that it doesn't matter. I was wondering what would happen next throughout the whole video. Note that there is a sign advising that this is shown in low light. This is actual low light, meaning that it's dim, but you can still see, unlike the Hirschhorn, where low light means pitch blackness. Sketches and a story board are also on display.

"May You Live in Interesting Times" is a series of conversations with Chinese people living in Indonesia. It's amazing how small our world has become. People, for a variety of reasons, now live in places where they were not born, in different countries, in different cultures, in different climates. How they adapt to their new surroundings is fascinating. What do they keep from their original lives; what do they discard? How do they blend in to their new environment, without abandoning their identities?

Verdict: Terrific show and well worth a visit. There's lots to see here, so you may want to set aside time for more than one look.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

In the Tower: Mark Rothko

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: until January 2, 2011

I realize that this is unfair, but I have much higher expectations of shows in the Tower area of the National Gallery than I do of shows in other parts of the museum. I think it's because it's just so time consuming to get to the Tower, when I arrive, I want to see something that makes me think, "Wow, this was worth the trip." If you're a fan of Rothko, you'll probably think just that; for the rest of us, well...

I will say, on a positive note, that the National Gallery has done a top-notch job in displaying Rothko's collection of black on black works. One feels as if one is in a chapel, which I believe is the intent. Excellent number of pieces in the room; they go together thematically; one feels somber - really well done. The Hirshhorn would do well to learn a thing or two from this show.

My problem is that I don't really want to look at numerous black on black pieces - I'm left thinking, "So?" What's the point, really? It's lots of black paint, some of it lighter in shade. Perhaps it's meant to reflect our dark, pointless society? Somehow, that message is not coming through to me.

Verdict: If you like Rothko, it's worth the trek. If you don't, save your energy for something else.

American Modernism - The Shein Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: until January 2, 2011

This exhibition features works by many artists, all of them first-generation American modernists. It's a small show, only 20 works, so if you're going at lunch time, you can check out the Mark Rothko exhibit in the tower as well. See my next post for my thoughts on Rothko.

I can't really call this show a disappointment, as I'm not much of a fan of this type of art. It's not traditional enough for me to appreciate the technique and it's not "over the top" enough for me to really enjoy. I went to the show thinking I wouldn't much care for it, and I was right.

My attention was caught by a Marcel Duchamp piece called Fresh Widow. It's a wooden window with leather panes. The window was built by someone else, a carpenter, so no credit to Duchamp for it. Also, the notes next to the piece told me that he insisted the leather panes be shined each day. Presumably, he wasn't the one doing the shining. Tough luck for the person who was. Makes me roll my eyes.

Also, Georgia O'Keefe made an appearance. After my surprising encounter with Sky with Flat White Cloud, I was prepared to look at this piece with an open mind. I needn't have bothered - yet another vagina dressed up like a flower painting. Boring.

Verdict: If you like early modern art, you'll enjoy this, but otherwise, give this one a miss.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through January 2, 2011

I always learn something when I go to an exhibit, and my trip to Colorforms was no exception. I'm not sure that this was the impression the Hirshhorn wanted to make on visitors, but I was left with a distinct appreciation for the art of setting up a museum exhibit.

I suspect that if you set up an exhibit really well, no one notices. I know I've been to over 100 exhibits in the past year, and I've never given a thought to how it was organized. Why were some pictures put together? Why were a specific number of paintings put in one room and other paintings put in another? How do you light an exhibit for maximum effect?

The reason I bring up these issues is that the Colorforms exhibit is the most oddly organized show I've seen. It seemed as if I was walking forever to get through it all - only a few paintings in any one room, and so much white space as backdrop. I'm a great walker, so the fact that I had to walk was not a problem. It just seems that the show was so spread out, I couldn't connect one group of works with another.

The first room featured some pieces by Larry Poons, which I thought would make excellent wrapping paper - I must check the gift shop on my next trip to the Hirshhorn. The second room featured an installation by Fred Sandback that involved yarn strung between the ceiling and the floor. Not sure if this goes in the "not art" category; I certainly could do it, but I know I wouldn't, so perhaps it is art.

There was an installation that was listed as being in "low light." If this is what the Hirshhorn thinks is low light, I'd hate to see what they think is total darkness. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, and was bumping into walls on my way to the piece. Finally, a guard told me I was in the wrong spot (a booming disembodied voice - made me jump), and I stumbled out. Couldn't tell you what that was supposed to be.

Finally, there was an installation involving hazelnut pollen scattered on the floor. I'll grant you, it's a lovely yellow color, but I'm not sure it's art if you can scrape it off your car in the springtime.

Verdict: Lower your expectations for this show, and if you manage to see what was at the end of the long dark corridor - let me know!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Up Where We Belong

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: until January 2, 2011

I've now finished with exhibits closing this year. January 2011 is a banner month for show closings - the most I've seen in over a year of taking in exhibits. It's a lucky thing I'm starting to go see these in October, as otherwise, I might not be able to see them all!

This is an interesting show - about Native American contributions to American popular music. Many more performers than you probably realize are Native Americans (or of Native American descent), including Jimi Hendrix, whose coat is pictured here.

I hadn't heard of all the musicians in the show - my knowledge of bands performing Native music is non-existent. I had certainly heard of Redbone - their "Come and Get Your Love" was playing in the back of the exhibit, where there is a TV and places to sit and watch videos.

Native Americans have been influential in jazz, blues, folk, country and rock music and the exhibit is a trip down a musical memory lane.

Verdict: The Hendrix coat is worth seeing all on its own, and unless you're a Native American music expert, you'll certainly learn something.

American Painting, 1959-2009

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: November 28, 2010

Somehow, I missed this exhibit's listing when I made my plans to visit shows closing in November, but happily, I noticed it in time to see it before it ends.

As you might guess from the title, this exhibition is of paintings by American artists, completed between 1959 and last year. It's not a very large exhibit, which meant I was able to go back and look at paintings I particularly liked. Usually, I'm pressed for time, and only get to look at things once.

One of the pieces I liked very much was entitled Swamp Maple (4:30). Not the most promising of titles, I grant you; I was surprised that it was a picture of a lovely tree, with not a trace of the primordial ooze. My first thought was that if I owned this piece, I would place it lower on the wall (I was craning my neck to see the top). When I looked at it again, I decided that the placement was deliberate; the viewer must look up to see the top of the painting, just as you would if you were looking at an actual tree.

There were also a couple of pieces that I would describe as "not art." My definition of art is very simple: if I can do it, it's not art. The "not art" examples in the show included some white canvases with a black box on them - sorry folks, not art. Give me some paint and a ruler, and I can do just as well.

The piece pictured above was grand. It looked like a painter's drop cloth, arranged to resemble curtains. The colors were lovely, and you rarely see art that looks as if you could toss it in the washer with the bathroom towels.

The most amazing thing in the show was a painting I thought did not exist - a Georgia O'Keefe that I like. I don't put her in the "not art" category - I couldn't possibly paint as she did. My interest in bleached steer skulls and vaginas dressed up as flowers, however, is quite small. I mistakenly believed that those were her two subjects, as I had never seen an O'Keefe that wasn't one or the other. I now stand corrected; her painting, Sky with Flat White Cloud, is a lovely piece. To me, it looked like a white sandy beach, with the ocean in the background, and I have a fondness for peaceful waterside views. Whether sky with cloud or sand with water, it is lovely and well worth a look.

Verdict: By all means, check out this small show. It's likely to be overlooked by those at the gallery for the Arcimboldo show (yes, it's on my list), which is a shame.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Washington Post Museum section

Today's Washington Post has an entire section devoted to local museums. It's well worth checking out if you live in the area, or are planning a trip in the near future.

Even if you won't be visiting the museums yourself, the writing is good, and it's interesting to find out how others view museum exhibits. I found thought-provoking Blake Gopnik's idea that the museum is the best place to view art (as opposed to someone's home). I don't often agree with his reviews, but he made some very persuasive points in this piece.

If you have the paper version, it's section R. Otherwise, it's available at the Post's website:

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Cityscapes Revealed: Highlights from the Collection

Where: National Building Museum

When: until December 31, 2010

The Building Museum is a great place to see exhibits, as it's off the beaten path, and doesn't attract lots of visitors. I was the only person in this exhibit, so I could look to my heart's content, without having to maneuver around other people. The exhibit focuses on architectural details that set buildings apart, or are representative of certain architectural styles. They are the sort of things you see, but don't really notice. This exhibit reminds you to pay attention as you walk down the street - interesting stuff is all around!

I was stuck by how often buildings are designed for one purpose, then re-used for something else. The original home of the Corcoran School of Art is now the Renwick Museum. The Building Museum itself started as the Pension Building. Not mentioned in the exhibit, the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery began its existence as the Patent Office. I like to see buildings re-used when possible, and not simply torn down. Of course, my feelings on this vary according to the beauty of the building - they could tear down some of those horrible box-like structures that pollute the neighborhood where I work and put up something else any time!

One of the more interesting items in this exhibit was the "Turner Cities" pictures. Turner is a major construction company, hired to build all kinds of structures all over the world (sports stadiums, municipal buildings, cultural centers, large office buildings, etc.). Every year, they commission a picture of a fictitious city that includes all the buildings they've competed that year. The pictures started out fairly modest in size, but have grown to be quite large. I think the idea is a clever one, and a creative way to show what the company's accomplished over the course of the year.

Verdict: Worth a look, if you've got some time, and want a break from the typical museum crowd.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Losing Paradise? Endangered Plants Here and Around the World

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: until December 12, 2010

I was a bit concerned that this exhibit would be depressing. It's not just polar bears or ice caps that are disappearing; plants are vanishing as well. Not the sort of thing to pick up one's spirits at lunchtime. Rather than skip the exhibit, however, I remembered that the point of this exercise is to see everything, regardless of whether or not I think I'm going to like it, so off I went.

As has happened before, I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, plants are endangered, but scientists are working to save them, and the museum has developed a way to pinpoint the plants most in need of attention quickly and accurately, thus leading to more plants saved.

The exhibit consists of botanical drawings of endangered plants - really lovely and very detailed. The artists work from specimens that are in the museum's collection and from the field, providing a visual description of the plants to further the work of scientists in saving them.

What was especially interesting is that on Mondays (when I went), one of the illustrators is actually in the exhibit room, working on a new drawing. I've never been to an exhibit where the artist was "in residence." How cool is that, to see the person who is responsible for such beautiful and important work, sitting in the back of the hall, creating more art?

Verdict: well worth a lunch time visit - try to go on Monday, when you can see one of the illustrators at work.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Hello fans of museum exhibits, and welcome to my blog. I'm lucky enough to work just a few blocks from the National Mall in Washington, DC, and I take advantage of my close proximity to the museums to visit them at lunch time. I go to:
  • all the museums on the Mall,
  • the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery (on F Street, between 7th & 9th),
  • the Renwick (close to the White House),
  • the Building Museum (on F Street, between 4th and 5th) and
  • the Postal Museum (by Union Station).
I get a little exercise, I learn a little something, I get away from the office - what could be better?

You can get museum reviews from the Washington Post, or from any number of other sources, but I'm going to focus on what you can see in a short period of time, and what's most memorable (good or bad) about the exhibits I visit. I have no academic background in museum studies or art history, so these are merely the views of a lay person, but I hope you'll find this entertaining enough to check in periodically and see what's worth visiting in town.

If you'd like to know what exhibits are currently on view at local museums, check out these links:

I first started systematically visiting museums in August 2009, and since then, I've been to over 100 exhibits. Some of them have been wonderful; some have been bizarre (not mutually exclusive categories); some have been dull; some have been less than I hoped, but I've learned an enormous amount since I started this, and I always come back to the office feeling better after my trip.

My system is that I visit the current exhibits that are closest to closing; for example, when I started in August 2009, I went to all the exhibits that were closing in September. Right now, it's September 2010, and I'm visiting exhibits that are closing in December. Some months, there are over a dozen exhibits closing; other months there are only a handful. I haven't been doing this long enough to know if there's a regular ebb and flow to the year, as far as exhbit openings and closing are concerned, but I noticed that last year, no exhibits closed in December, and this year, only two exhibits are closing in the last month of the year. January, on the other hand, has been a big month for closings, both in 2011 and 2010, so perhaps there is a method to the madness?

Stay tuned for reviews of exhibits, and information on upcoming museum offerings - if you live in the DC area, you're in the best place in the world for visiting museums at no cost!