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.