Sunday, December 11, 2011

Race: Are We So Different?

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through January 8, 2012

"Human diversity is the end result of two complex, interrelated and fascinating processes: evolution and history." - Alan Goodman, biological anthropologist, Hampshire College

This is a fantastic exhibit and one I would urge everyone to go see.  It's very large, and to see it properly requires much longer than a lunch hour.  Even in a limited period of time, however, you can learn quite a bit about race, and unlearn quite a bit more.

First of all, there is no such thing as race, viewed scientifically or biologically.  The traits that most people think of as making up race: skin color, eye color, hair color and texture are all inherited individually, and so actually have no relationship to one another.  Skin color is simply a function of how intense the sun's rays are in the area of the planet where the people whose genes you inherited lived.  If they were from Kenya, where the sun's rays are quite intense, you will have darker skin, as protection from the sun.  If  they were from Norway (like some of my ancestors) you will have light skin, as you need to soak up every bit of Vitamin D you can get in a sun-starved place.

Secondly, when people think of race, they think of black, white and Asian, but in fact, the world is far more diverse than this division would imply.  If you looked at a person from Kenya, one from Egypt and one from Norway, they would appear very different from one another.  If however, you walked from Kenya, through Egypt to Norway, you would find that the changes in the appearance of people you met along the way were far more gradual.  Each person looks much like the people living around them, and the changes that are so apparent when you take people from different places and put them together are far less obvious if you see them in their native place.  The question of how to draw the line between races may seem simple, but in fact, is quite difficult, and has been fraught with power struggles over time, not least here in the United States.

I found out that sickle cell anemia is not related to race, so much as place.  In areas where malaria is prevalent (such as Africa, but also parts of the Middle East), sickle cell anemia is also prevalent.  This is because the same gene that causes sickle cell also protects you from malaria.  The exhibit showed a man, of Middle Eastern descent, who has sickle cell, as does his daughter, who looks as if she just stepped off the boat from Ireland.  He was undiagnosed for years, as the doctors thought he couldn't have sickle cell because he's not of African descent.

Race is not found in nature; it's created by people who wish to dominate others and find appearance an easy way to do that.  One can only hope that as people migrate even more around the globe and intermarry with those who look different from themselves, this rigid view of race will give way to an acknowledgment that we are all human, and have much more in common than outward appearance would indicate.

Verdict: Go see this exhibit!

Seasons: Chinese Flowers

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through January 8, 2012

This is another in the Freer's year-long series of exhibits on the portrayal of the seasons in Chinese and Japanese visual art.  Most of the flowers depicted in Chinese art are grown in gardens, not in the wild.  The meanings ascribed to them influence the art, rather than scientific study.  I've often noticed the relationship in Western art between scientists and artists.  In these paintings, that's not what's on view.

Seemingly realistic paintings are actually puzzles where each element has a meaning.  Putting certain elements together makes a message for the recipient, perhaps good wishes on a birthday, or marriage.  For example, the painting Hollyhocks and Ducks is actually meant as a wish for a long marriage with many sons.

This is not the most colorful exhibit I've seen, although there are bits of red here and there, if you look for them.  One of my favorite pieces featured large red peonies, which, I found out, are originally from China.  I also discovered that a narcissus is what I've always called a daffodil.  I really never fail to learn something in each exhibit I attend.

Verdict: I love going to the Freer, if for nothing else than the tranquility.  This exhibit would be worth seeing, even if it were in one of the busier museums.

The Great American Hall of Wonders

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through January 8, 2012

This exhibit showcases the accomplishments of the American people of the 19th century.  If the Founding Fathers saw the United States as a "great experiment," then subsequent generations saw themselves as an inventive people.  They invented many things that we still use, in some form or fashion, today; they explored the North American continent, and we live with the consequences of their views of themselves as masters of their environment to this day.

The exhibit covers many aspects of 19th century invention and exploration, beginning with the hunting of the buffalo.  I came away thinking that technology can be a wonderful thing, as it increases efficiency, but that sometimes a little inefficiency is not a bad thing.  Buffalo used to exist in such enormous numbers that it seemed incredible that they would ever be endangered.  They were no match for rifles, however, and now their numbers are considerably diminished.  It reminded me of the book Cod, which details the same story as regards that fish.

In the room dealing with railroads, there is a painting entitled Two Artists in a Landscape by Harrell.  It is on loan from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, NY, which I visited when on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Also in the room is the last spike of the transcontinental railroad.

In the botany room, I was struck by Rubens Peale with Geranium, by Rembrandt Peale.  Apparently, this was one of the first geraniums in the United States, and was described as a finicky, exotic plant.  That has not been my experience - I've found they'll put up with even my neglectful watering, so I'm guessing they've gotten hardier over time.

Verdict: This is a large show, difficult to take in if you have only an hour.  It also feels a bit disjointed, as if there are so many things to cram in, that you only get a bit of each one.  It might be worth choosing only two or three rooms to visit, in order to get a better sense of what's contained in each one.

Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira

Where: National Museum of African Art

When:  through January 8, 2012

This is the second in a series of exhibits in which two artists (one of whom is African) are invited to exchange ideas with one another.  Zulu is from South Africa and Oliveira is from Brazil.

Zulu uses fire to create his works, patterns on canvas, and they are very interesting.  Most of his pieces are similar to the one displayed here, and they are quite large.

Oliveira's works are abstracts - paintings of color that are psychedelic.  I liked his work; you could look at it for hours and not see every element contained in it.

I also liked the videos that were playing, showing the artists creating their work.  It's something you usually don't see in an exhibit.  You have the sense of being "behind the scenes."

Zulu's influence on Oliveira was to encourage him to use fire in his work.  He created two enormous wood sculptures: one, which is slightly charred, appears to be bulging out of the wall, and the other is a gigantic sculpture of wood entangled and attached to the walls.  I could not help but wonder: how did they get this in and how will they uninstall it?

Verdict: Go see this exhibit.  It's not terribly large, in terms of number of pieces, so it's manageable in a lunch hour.  It does, however, feature some wild, large art.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Words Cannot Express, Death in the Archives

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through December 31, 2011

The Archives of American Art is a room in the American Art Museum that showcases parts of the archives collection.  The archives has 16 million items, the largest collection of its kind in the world.  Again, I'm reminded how fortunate I am to live here in DC, with access to all of these resources.

This exhibit shows expressions of sympathy for artists who have died, written by other artists.  In a way, they are like any other letters people write to the survivors.  They mention how much they loved the deceased person, how big an influence they were on their lives and how much they will miss them.  Because the people they are mourning are artists, however, these condolence letters serve as the beginning of the making of the artist's legacy, and so are more than the usual notes of sympathy.

Verdict: A trip to the archives is always worth while, and the subject matter, while somber, is interesting.  A way to escape the nonstop merriment of the holiday season, if you are in need of such.

50th Anniversary of JFK’s Inauguration: 1961 – 2011

Where: Portrait Gallery

When: through January 8, 2012

This small collection of pictures is in the stairway in the Portrait Gallery/American Art building, on the second floor.  It's easy to combine with a trip to another exhibit in either of the collections.

The painting shown here is by Elaine de Kooning, who was so taken with the president that after his death, she didn't paint for a year.   The painting has a tremendous energy to it, in keeping with Kennedy's personality, well worth seeing on its own.  Interestingly enough, it was adopted by the Mondales.

The inauguration took place in a snowstorm, where streets were unplowed and cars abandoned.  The more things change, the more they stay the same...

Verdict: If you're here in the building to see another exhibit, and there's lots going on now to see, take a few minutes to look at this little show.

Invention at Play

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through November 27, 2011

The subject of this show is invention's relationship to play, how inventors play around or tinker with ideas to come up with their inventions.   The first thing I noticed was something called "27 scraps of paper" by Arthur Ganson - it reminded me of an exhibit I saw many years ago at the Hirshhorn (prepare for weirdness) that involved picking up pieces of paper and dropping them on the floor.

The next case was a description of how a set of inventors at a company came up with a better baby stroller - interesting to see how they decide what features to add and subtract.  I also found out that Kevlar was invented by a woman, Stephanie Kwolek, who worked as a chemist at Dupont in the 1960s.  Alexander Graham Bell was also highlighted, and I found out he had what he called a "dreaming place"- the edge of a bluff in Ontario, Canada.

I confess I didn't really spend a lot of time in this exhibit.  It was filled with noisy kids, which is perfectly understandable, given the subject matter and the fact that much of the items were interactive.  Still, my tolerance for the rambunctious is limited, and I decided to beat a hasty retreat before I reached the end of my admittedly short rope.


Verdict: A great place to go with kids, but something the person looking for a bit of quiet reflection can safely miss.

Frank Kameny

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through January 16, 2012

Frank Kameny, who died recently, was a gay rights activist.  He was fired from his government position in 1957 because he was gay, and this led him to speak out against discrimination towards gays and lesbians.  Three of the posters he carried in demonstrations during the 1960s are on display in the cases close to the Mall Entrance.

Again, I was struck as I looked at these posters that there were no references to the AIDS quilt panel in the Constitution Avenue cases or to the Archives exhibition.  Puzzled, I thought that someone interested in one item would be interested in all three, and it would make a good lunchtime trip.  Then, I happened to read an article in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/hideseek-smithsonian-officials-look-back-at-what-went-wrong/2011/11/16/gIQAVkp8oN_story.html, which explained that, in an effort to avoid the unpleasantness surrounding last year's Portrait Gallery exhibit, Hide/Seek, the museum deliberately divided the exhibits, putting the AIDS quilt panel in a more prominent place, and the archives exhibit, which has some material that some might find objectionable (gasp, a condom) in what the article describes as a "less trafficked area." Of course, any child too young to be told about condoms would have zero interest in the archives exhibit, as it contains no bells or whistles, but I guess that's beside the point.

I also found out that the Hide/Seek exhibit is now in a museum in Brooklyn.  If you live in that area, do check this out.  The controversial video has been restored to the show, so you can actually see more than what was available to us in DC.  It will be traveling to Tacoma, Washington, so those of you on the West Coast have that to anticipate.

Verdict: Go see these posters, and check out the AIDS quilt and archives exhibit - easily manageable in a lunch hour.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Text as Inspiration: Artists' Books and Literature

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: January 29, 2012


This is a small exhibit of books transformed by artists.  The artists don't merely illustrate the book, they use the text as inspiration to create a work of art.  They bring the book to life, but also use the book itself as part of the artwork.  Some of the works retain the shape and look of the book, others move beyond that and take the book apart to make an entirely new work.

Verdict: Go see this lovely little show.  It's tucked away in the National Gallery on the ground floor, so it may take a few minutes to find it.  It's easily managed in a lunch hour, so you might combine it with a visit to another show.

The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 8, 2012

These are tapestries commemorating Alfonso the V's campaign in Morocco.  What is interesting about them, is that they portray contemporary events, rather than the usual mythology or biblical history.  They are among the finest Gothic tapestries in existence; they date from the late 1400s.

Alfonso used them to invent a glorious image for himself, without worrying too much about pesky details that might get in the way.  In the Landing at Asilah, the weavers were unfamiliar with Moroccan architecture, so it appears that Afonso's army is landing in a Northern European city.  You can see that some of the soldiers are drowning, as the king and his son come to the city, but the focus is on the royalty, not on the common man.

In the Siege of Asilah, Afonso's army used wooden screens to shield themselves from Moroccan horsemen, a clever strategy.  In the Assault on Asilah, the troops are storming the city in hand-to-hand combat.  The conditions were actually much worse than the tapestries depict; there was a lot of rain, and many Portuguese ships were lost.  In the pictures, however, there is only glory.


In the Conquest of Tangier, the army walks into an empty city, as the inhabitants surrendered and fled, rather than suffer the fate of Asilah.  Clearly, one's existence was pretty miserable if one was a peasant.

The tapestries had been in Spain, and had been much damaged.  Recently, they were returned to Belgium, where they were originally woven, for restoration, and are now in such good condition that they can travel.

Verdcit: Make time for this show - when else are you likely to see the finest Gothic tapestries in existence?  There aren't very many pieces, so you can spend plenty of time looking at each one.

Conversations with the Earth: Indigenous Voices on Climate Change

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through January 2, 2012

This exhibit is a result of a collaboration between 15 indigenous communities in 13 different countries.  These people are the first to deal with the momentous results of climate change.  Each community is facing a different challenge, but all of them may be harbingers of what is to come for the rest of the world's population.

One of the communities is the People of the Caribou.  They have noticed that the caribou herds are declining; the permafrost is melting and the foods they eat are disappearing.  It used to reach -70 degrees in the winter (sounds dreadful frankly, but I realize this is how they live and my notions of what constitutes pleasant winter weather do not apply), but now it is no longer that cold.

Peoples in Peru and Ethiopia are working together, across an ocean, to promote indigenous agriculture.  The hope is that they will be able to find new crops to grow, as old ones are no longer feasible.  In Zanskari, India, they are moving the entire village from their 1000 year location to a new place.  Obviously, there are many people who are opposed to the move, but there are others who realize they can no longer live there, and are eager to move somewhere more hospitable.

In South America, the environmental efforts to save the forests are preventing the Guarani from living as they have traditionally done.  The conflict between saving the trees and saving the people's way of life is real, and it seems as if the Guarani are paying the price for others' pillaging of the landscape.

Verdict: Go and see this exhibit.  I was unaware of the devastation that climate change is already causing in various parts of the world.  As people are forced to leave their native areas, one fears that culture clash may be the result.  One hopes for better. 

The Solemnity of Shadows: Juan Laurent's Vision of Spain

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through December 30, 2011

Yet another exhibit at the Gallery's library - one of my favorite places to see a show.  So quiet and peaceful - I only wish my library were like that!  This show features 19th century Spanish photography, a topic of which I was heretofore ignorant.

Juan Laurent was a very famous photographer, and took many pictures of public works.  He also photographed many art museum collections, which is an interesting thought.  It would be a way to keep track of what you owned, in case of fire or theft.  Eventually, he became a businessman and sold photographic cartes de visites.  His black and white prints are now brown with age, and I'm glad I was able to see them before they can no longer be put on display.  Some of his prints show buildings with an Islamic art influence; I was reminded of the Islamic influence on Spanish culture (who says a college education is a waste!?!).

Verdict: I always recommend shows at the Gallery's library, if for no other reason than I like to think that whoever went to the trouble of putting it up would be made happy by seeing people look at their display.  It's also a wonderful way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Gallery, which is well worth the trip.

Made in Chicago: The Koffler Collection

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through January 2, 2012

The Kofflers were Chicagoans who collected art by Chicago artists.  Eventually, they had amassed a large enough collection to warrant starting a foundation, and the collection was made part of the Smithsonian in 1979.

Several pieces caught my eye:

  • Alligator Spring by Bill Benway - this reminded me of the exhibit (also at American Art) on the decaying of the earth
  • Mytystic Pairanoiya by Gladys Nilsson - I liked the colors - there is something comical about it
  • Homage to Archimboldo by Theodore Halkin - not quite as easy to see the larger picture in this, as in a real Archimboldo, but I was happy to be reminded of that very fun show
Verdict: Well worth a look; it's not an enormous exhibit, so it fits easily into a lunchtime excursion.  I had never heard of the Kofflers before, so yet again, I've increased my score of knowledge!

Warhol: Headlines

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through January 2, 2012

Andy Warhol is the subject of two current shows on the Mall, this one at the National Gallery and another at the Hirshhorn.  I'll be reviewing the Hirshhorn show once I've seen it.  There are so many shows closing in January, that it's all I can do to see them all - a great problem to have!

This Warhol exhibition focuses on his paintings of headlines.  A great quote opens the show: "If your name's in the paper, then the news should be paying you."  I guess these paintings were his way of extracting some payment from the media that made so much money reporting on him.  The first room contains huge paintings of newspaper front pages, including the one pictured here.  I find it these an interesting commentary on our society's focus more on "infotainment" than on actual hard news.  Sad to think this is not a recent phenomenon.

Further along in the show are screen tests, videos of people (who probably didn't know they were being taped - hate to think of the legal ramifications of this) being themselves, just chatting.  Apparently, he made hundreds of these - what's on display are merely a small sample.  In the same room are some drawings of newspaper front pages - the Wall Street Journal is pretty drab, even if Warhol is painting it.  One of the paintings he created was of the reporting on the marine attack in Lebanon in the early 1980s - this is something I remember (I was in college at the time); very sad, and a chapter in our nation's history that I think is probably forgotten.

You can also watch clips from Andy Warhol's TV, a New York cable show, including an interview with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, talking about Afghanistan - makes you realize how long we've been involved in that country, one way and another.

Verdict: Do go see this show - it's quite interesting, especially if you're a fan of Warhol, or are interested in portrayals of popular culture in the news media.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through November 27, 2011

This show highlights the impact and importance of visual images in the way that African Americans were portrayed prior to the civil rights movement and how imagery was used during the movement to show the American public what was happening in the South.

As you enter the exhibit, you can hear Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" from Showboat.  There are several examples of African American portraiture on display, which reminded me of the exhibit I saw (in the same space) on African American portrait studios.

Much of the imagery in the first part of the show is quite derogatory to African Americans, as well as to women.  I realize that anti-women sentiments are not the focus of the show, but I could not help but notice.

Take This Hammer, a 1963 documentary was playing further along in the exhibit.  It shows James Baldwin talking to several young men, who believe that a black man will never be President of the United States.  Baldwin remonstrates with them, telling them that if they have this attitude, their prediction will prove true.  It was the only time I smiled in the entire exhibit; I can only hope that all of those  young men were alive to see the 2009 inauguration.  There was also some film footage of Jackie Robinson's first game in the major leagues.

There is a notice at the front of the exhibit warning people that the imagery is quite graphic and unpleasant.  This is absolutely true.  The most awful picture there is of Emmit Till, after his gruesome murder.  Although this photograph was never published in mainstream American newspapers, it was published in African American newspapers and served to galvanize resistance to the Jim Crow laws of the South.

Verdict: This exhibit is very well done and very important, especially as the civil rights era moves further into the past.  It is not a show, in my opinion, for young children.  The images depicted are quite disturbing, so if you go, and you should, be prepared.

Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985-2009

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through November 1, 2011

The closing date for this exhibit changed since I went to see it - glad I went when I did, as it's over now.  I saw this display the same day that I saw the AIDS Quilt Panel - they obviously go together.

This is another display by the archives section of the museum - I do enjoy going to see these, as I'm usually the only one there.  To find a haven amidst the hustle and bustle of this popular institution is marvelous.

The exhibit highlights two oral histories, one by Justin-Manuel Andriote, who interviewed 200 people for his 1999 book about AIDS and the way that it changed gay life and the other by Carol Burch Benson, who interviewed patrons of a gay bar in Bluefield, WV.  It's a powerful little exhibit - a picture of an era, and it's a shame that more people didn't have the opportunity to see it.  I'm not sure why this show and the AIDS Quilt Panel weren't put together, but I'm sure there's a good reason for that.   

Verdict: Well worth the time to look at this exhibit and reflect on how fortunate we are that the epidemic is far more manageable in the United States today than it was twenty years ago.

AIDS Quilt Panel

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through December 11, 2011

The quilt panel is in the display case by the Constitution Avenue entrance - the one I use regularly.  It's moving and sad to see this part of the AIDS quilt, which eventually became so large that it could not be moved and displayed.  Medical advances are wonderful things - now that era of death and despair is over.  I was, of course, reminded of the terrible and amazing painting of the artist's lover who had just died of AIDS in the Hide/Seek exhibit at the Museum of American Art.  This was a somber start to a somber trip to the NMAH; I saw a display on archiving the AIDS epidemic and on the visual images used in the civil rights movement - blog entries on those to follow.

Verdict:  If you have a moment, stop by and see this panel - it will remind you of a dreadful time that is now, thankfully, in the past.

The Gothic Spirit of John Taylor Arms

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through November 27, 2011

John Taylor Arms was the heir to John Ruskin, who championed the Gothic Revival style in the 19th century.  John Taylor Arms' intense devotion to craftsmanship was associated with medieval artists.  Early in the exhibit were some gorgeous doglike gargoyles.   At some point, I learned that gargoyles are actually functional; they act as waterspouts.  Grotesques, on the other hand, although they look like gargoyles, and could easily be mistaken for them, are strictly decorative.

Arms created a lovely drawing of the National Cathedral; sadly it was never made into a print, as Arms died before he could complete the project.  Another work on display is a drawing of the Grolier Club Library.  Arms drew this in just over two hours as a demonstration of his art.  It looks like a great library.  Also included are some prints of Venice, which reminded me of the view paintings I saw in the East Building a few months ago.

Arms' dedication was truly amazing; he spent almost 200 hours creating one etching plate - the detail and dedication are tremendous.  He looked through three aligned magnifying glasses when working on the plate.  A quotation from Arms that I just love is, "I cannot etch what I do not love."  The ability to work at what one loves is no small thing.

There are also on display three prints by artists other than Arms; they are similar, but they somehow lack the precision of Arms' work.

Verdict: I was pleasantly surprised by this show; I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I saw many thing to admire.

Recent Acquisitions

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 13, 2011

The Portrait Gallery opened in 1968 with a total collection of 500 items.  It now holds over 20,000 works.  A commission meets bi-annually to decide what objects to accept.  The paramount concern is the importance of the sitter to American history.  In the future, the museum directors anticipate that video portraits will be of increasing importance.  There is an exhibit of recent acquisitions that hangs permanently in one of the corridors - the works change every few months to highlight new pieces.  The current show ends today, but a new set of pieces will be on display beginning on Friday - a quick turnaround time, I must say.  Some of the pieces that particularly caught my eye were:

  • a photograph of William Cody and several Lakota leaders at Wounded Knee - Cody was there to help negotiate a peace settlement and recruit performers for his Wild West Show - of course, I remembered the show I'd seen in the Ripley some months ago, consisting of portraits of these Native American performers
  • photographs of John Heenan and Tom Sayers, boxers whose portraits were placed facing each other, so it looks as if they're about to start fighting
  • a bust in nickle-plated bronze of the architect Philip Johnson with black glasses (also bronze) - I know I've heard of him before, but where?  Perhaps in another Smithsonian exhibit...
Verdict: If you didn't have an opportunity to see this show, wait until Friday, and you can catch the next installment!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Italian Master Drawings from the Wolfgang Ratjen Collection: 1525–1835

Where: National Gallery of Art, Main Building

When: through November 27, 2011

In 2007, the National Gallery purchased this collection of 65 drawings from the estate of Wolfgang Ratjen.  This is the first time they have been exhibited.

I must confess, I was not terribly excited to go see this show.  I don't much care for pen and ink drawings - I prefer art with much more color.  There were, however, a few items that caught my eye:

  • Leandro Bassano's "Man Lifting a Bundle" is a wonderful depiction of human musculature
  • Guiseppe Zocchi's "View of Rome" reminded me of the Venetian view paintings I saw several months ago
  • Canaletto's drawing of a Venetian festival (pictured above) is amazing for the detail he's able to give to a teaming multitude
  • Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's "Two Rampaging Elephants" is remarkable, not for its accuracy, but for its inaccuracy - it's obvious he had never seen an elephant!
Verdict: If you like drawings, go see this show.  Even if you don't, there's something worthwhile to see.   It's small enough that you can fit it into a lunch hour, especially if you don't dawdle over each work.

Hope Diamond in its Temporary New Setting

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through November 13, 2011

The Smithsonian is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the diamond's donation and the 100th anniversary of the Museum's opening by displaying the Hope Diamond in a new, specially created setting.  In addition to seeing the gem itself, you can learn a good bit about the diamond at the exhibit.

The Hope Diamond is over 1 billion years old.  That's so old that I can't really comprehend it.  It was originally found in India and sold to King Louis XVI of France.  It was stolen during the French Revolution, but eventually it resurfaced and was bought by Henry Philip Hope, a London banker and gem collector.  The diamond was bought and sold several times, including once to Cartier.  Finally, Harry Winston bought it in 1958 and gave it to the Smithsonian.

The new setting was created by Harry Winston, Inc., and was chosen by an online vote sponsored by the Smithsonian Channel.

Verdict: Go see this lovely setting while it's still on display.  Note that the area around the gem is always crowded, so you may have to wait a few minutes to actually see the diamond.

Discovering Rastafari!

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through November 13, 2011

Before I went to see this exhibit, I had a vague notion that Rastafarians were Jamaicans who smoked pot, listened to reggae music and wore colorful clothing.  Now, I know that these ideas are correct, but there's more to the Rastafarians than the picture these ideas might convey.

Rastafarianism started in Jamaica in the 1930s.  The Rastafarians are followers of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.  Ras Tafari was Selassie's pre-coronation name.  These followers believe that Selassie is divine.  Although I can't subscribe to that idea, I will say his warning to the League of Nations after Italy's invasion of Ethiopia that the Fascists were a threat to the world was prescient, to say the least.

In the early 20th century, Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican, made known his idea that all black people had a common identity, struggle and destiny.  He believed that the Ethiopians victory over Italy was a symbol of the freedom for which all black people were striving.

Reggae emerged in Jamaica after Selassie's visit; Bob Marley became the genre's best-known artist and brought international attention to the Rastafari culture.

There are videos of Rastafarians talking about their way of life: why they wear dreadlocks, how the use of marijuana is part of their religious ceremonies, their vegetarianism and the distinctive dialect that sets them apart from other Jamaicans.

Verdict: This small show is packed with information; I learned a lot in a short time.  It's well worth a visit - you'll find yourself saying, "I never knew that..."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Modern Lab: The Found Alphabet

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through November 13, 2011

The Modern Lab is a small room within the Modern Art Collection on the Upper Level of the East Building.  It's not quite the slog that the Tower is, but it's close.  Again, I find myself rolling my eyes at the things they exhibit here, and I think the effort I've made to get here plays a role.

This exhibit focuses on pieces that incorporate the alphabet.  Letters are "found objects" in that the artist does not create them, but uses them as part of the artistic work.  There are paintings here, as well as a piece of string on a block of wood and various scribbles - when I think of the number of notebooks I doodled in during dull classes and the art contained therein, I wish I had them back to sell!

A piece by Kim Rugg, entitled "No More Dry Runs" is a page from the Financial Times, with all the letters rearranged alphabetically; Robert Cumming's offering is "Shaving Cream Alphabet," which is exactly what you think it is - an alphabet written with shaving cream and then photographed.

Verdict: I'd give this a miss - there's not much to see and it takes quite a bit of wandering through the Modern Art collection to find it.

Black Box: Nira Pereg

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through November 13, 2011

As much as I dislike the Hirshhorn, I am a fan of their Black Box series of videos.  My favorite so far is "Floating McDonalds,"  but all of them have been at least somewhat interesting.  This latest offering, entitled "67 Bows" by Nira Pereg is a worthy addition to the series.

The video is of the flamingo exhibit in the Karlsruhe Zoo in Germany, and it shows them going about their day, conducting whatever business it is that flamingos conduct.  Every so often, you hear what sounds like gunshots, and the flamingos duck their heads in unison.  Have no fear, the flamingos are in no danger - the audio has been overlaid on the video, and it's Pereg's work that has made the sounds sync up with the movements.

I'm not sure exactly what message the film is supposed to convey - perhaps that you can't always believe what you hear, anymore than you can always believe what you read?  Especially in the age of image manipulation, things are not always what they seem.

Verdict: Go see this film, for the flamingo video, if for nothing else.  They're lovely birds, and their movements are well worth watching, even without the slightly creepy audio.

Perspectives: Hale Tenger

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through November 6, 2011

This very short film is on display in the main lobby of the Sackler, so if you're going on your lunch hour, you can see something else as well.  There are a couple of special exhibits going on now, and the permanent collection is wonderful too.

That's one thing about going to see all the special exhibits that are on - I don't often get to see the permanent collections.  I keep thinking that when I run out of limited time shows, I'll work on the rest of the Smithsonian's offerings, but of course, that never happens - there's just too much new stuff to see!  A wonderful problem to have, I know.

This short film is of the Saint Georges Hotel in Beirut.  The hotel was nearly destroyed in the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and was further damaged by the explosion of a nearby car bomb in 2005.  Sadly, it has never been restored.  My father traveled extensively in the Middle East, and when the civil war raged in Beirut, he frequently commented on the destruction of some of his favorite hotels.  It is unfortunate that conditions in that country have not allowed it to regain its former reputation as the Paris of the Middle East.

Most of the film shows the hotel in daylight.  When you first look at it, you see the curtains floating in the breeze, and you might think you're looking at a beach resort, where the windows are open to catch the salt air.  Pleasant music plays in the background, as if you're looking at a carefree summer day.  Gradually, you notice the tattered condition of the curtains, and the scene turns abruptly to night, and the music is replaced by alarms and gunshots.  For a film lasting less than five minutes, it packs quite a punch.

Verdict:  Go see this film - it's easy to add on to a visit to the Sackler to see another show, or on its own, if you're short of time.

Monday, September 26, 2011

From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through January 2, 2012

I had some extra time one morning last week, and decided to see this exhibit, as it's too large to see in a lunch hour.  I'm under the impression (although I can't remember where I read this, so take this with a grain of salt) that the National Gallery decided to put on this exhibit when they realized that their renovation of several of the galleries on the upper floor would necessitate the removal of many of these works.  Rather than deprive visitors of the opportunity to see them, they made them into a show - lemonade out of lemons - and at a much lesser cost than putting up a show with items borrowed from another museum.

This is the first special exhibit of these works since their official unveiling in 1965.  Under the terms of the gift, they are never lent to other museums.  A shame, really, as there are many people who are not able to travel to DC, and so have no opportunity to see them.  I know how much I enjoy seeing works from other museums, especially those that I'm unlikely to visit.

Some of the pieces that caught my eye are:
  • Saint Sebastian by Redon - far less blood-thirsty than the Ter Brugghen that I saw several months ago
  • The Lovers by Picasso - his early work is not much like his cubist offerings - I prefer this, as did the Dales, as there is lots of Picasso in the exhibit, but very little cubism
  • The Old Musician by Manet - this was nearly lost in an ocean crossing; the ship on which it was traveling collided with another vessel and almost sank 
  • Palazzo da Mula, Venice by Monet - a lovely, watery scene - you feel as if you're in the painting, perhaps in a boat on the water yourself, there are several Monets in the show - his ability to paint water is amazing
  • Portrait of a Young Woman in White by the circle of Jacques Louis David - for some reason, this painting always reminds me of Jane Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice, although she would never had been painted in such an immodest gown
  • The Plumed Hat by Matisse - this was a painting attacked by the mad woman who went after the Gaugin painting - happily, it's none the worse for wear - can't understand why anyone would object to this piece - it's simply a painting of a woman wearing a hat - no nudity, no licentiousness, nothing 
Verdict: Do go see this show - it's large enough to have something for everybody.  If you're using your lunch hour, you'll need several to see everything.

First Ladies at the Smithsonian

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through October 31, 2011

Rest assured, the exhibit of First Ladies' gowns is not closing permanently.  It's one of the most popular displays in the museum.  It's only closing temporarily, so that they can move the artifacts to their new home on the 3rd floor of the museum.

Note also, that this is not the First Ladies exhibit I remember from childhood.  At that time (think the 1970s), all the first ladies gowns were on display, arranged in chronological order.  I used to enjoy looking at the dresses every much, to see how fashions had changed over the years.  Now, only a few of the gowns are on display.  According to the notice on the wall, some of the gowns have been so damaged by years of being on display, that they can no longer be shown.  A pity, really, but it can't be helped.

The exhibit itself has moved before.  Its original home was the Arts and Industries Building (now undergoing renovation).  In the 1950s, it moved to the History and Technology Building (the name of what is now the Museum of American History).  This exhibit was the first to focus on women, and in 1992, the exhibit changed from one simply displaying gowns, to one that explored the role of the first lady, and featured items other than just dresses.

Martha Washington's gown is still on display, so it's not just age that causes deterioration - would be interesting to know why some dresses last and others don't.  Helen Taft was the first lady who began the tradition of donating the inaugural ball gown to the Smithsonian, and her dress is still on display as well.

The gowns of the "modern" first ladies, beginning with Lady Bird Johnson, are now in a separate gallery.  I'm assuming that state-of-the-art preservation techniques are being used to keep those gowns in good order, so they should be available to visitors for quite a while yet.  Lady Bird's gown is yellow, with brown trim - she was going for something that wouldn't seem dated in years to come, yikes - missed the mark there, I'm afraid.

Verdict: Well worth a look, although if you miss this show before it closes, you'll have plenty of time to look at the new exhibit that opens in mid-November.

Have You Heard the One…? The Phyllis Diller Gag File

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through October 28, 2011

This exhibit is in the Smal Documents Gallery, one of my favorite spaces in the American History Museum.  It's easy to miss on the 2nd floor, which means it's usually not terribly crowded.

This exhibit is ostensibly about Phyllis Diller's gag file, and it is on display, a metal filing cabinet with one-liners typed on 3x5 cards and arranged by subject, but really it's about Diller herself, with information about her career, her clothing and her material.  There's a video of a few minutes of one of her shows playing in the exhibit - very funny.

Diller had 50,000 jokes in the file - how she managed to keep them all straight and remember which joke she was telling when, I have no idea.  Several of the cards are standing up so you can read the jokes - they give not only the joke itself, but the source and the date.  One of the ones on display is dated Juy 16, 1964 - the day I was born!

Interestingly enough, her famous cigarette in the long holder was made of wood, as she didn't smoke.  She was the opening act in the early 1960s for a young singer named Barbra Streisand - at one point, they shared a dressing room.  There's a picture of them together at the Bon Soir Nightclub in Greenwich Village.

Verdict: Go see this small, but amusing exhibit - a look at comedy when it was about telling jokes.

Publishing Modernism: The Bauhaus in Print

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through October 28, 2011

This exhibit is in the National Gallery of Art's library, on the main floor of the East building.  Whenever I go to see these displays, I'm always the only one there, so I can take my time without worrying that I'm impeding someone else's enjoyment.  The library, as you might expect, is very quiet, so it's quite relaxing to visit, display or no.  There's a guard station at the entrance, but if you say you're here to see the exhibit, they'll let you right in.  I'm enamored of having a guard at my own library, only allowing access to certain people - dare to dream!

The Bauhaus was only open for 14 years, but its influence on modern art and design is far greater than its short life would indicate.  While open, it educated the leaders of the modernist movement and joined fine art theory to traditional artisan craft skills.  I particularly liked the cover design of one of their catalogs: Utopia: Documents of Reality, which has a marvelous art deco feel to it.

Klee, Kandinsky and Mondrian were among the famous names involved with the school, which included theater productions in its curriculum, along with fine art.

Verdict: Worth a look, if you're at all interested in Bauhaus design, or if you're just looking for a quiet place to spend a bit of time.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Nature's Best 2010 Photography Awards: Windland Smith Rice International Awards

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through September 25, 2011

I went with a friend to see this exhibit, and I was reminded of how different an experience it is to see a show with someone else.  Other people notice things I don't and cause me to look at things in new ways.  As much as I like the "alone time" I get when I go to exhibits on my own, it's nice every so often to go with another person.

I had been to see this exhibit last year, and was looking forward to seeing this year's award winners.  The pictures are stunning on several levels; the animals and plants themselves are beautiful, and the skill and patience necessary to capture their beauty is breathtaking all on its own.  Each photograph had a small blurb written by the photographer, and many of them recalled waiting hours for just the right composition, or taking hundreds of shots to get just one that was good.  Then, the technology that's available to the photographer now is also amazing - the pictures are so sharp, you expect the animals to jump right out of the shot.

Each picture is fantastic and well worth seeing, but these are the ones that really caught my eye:

  • The Grand Prize Winner, "Osprey," by Peter Cairns.  It shows an osprey diving into the water, about to snare a fish.  You can see each drop of water, as the bird goes after its prey.
  • The Animal Antics Winner, "Black Bear," by James Galletto.  The bear is scratching his back on a tree, but appears to be making a speech, with one of his arms stretched out as if for emphasis
  • The Plant Life Winner, "Wildflowers," by Edward Nunez.  This is a picture of grassland in California; although the photo was taken in springtime, the flowers have painted the hillsides in fall colors
  • The Creative Digital Winner, "Mediterranean Tree Frog," by Francisco Mingorance.  There appear to be two frogs in the picture, but it's actually only one.  You see it as it sits on the branch, and then in mid-flight.
  • The Highly Honored photo in the Oceans category, "Sea Angel," by Christian Stauge.  Despite its name, it's actually a slug.  Amazingly enough, it's quite beautiful
Verdict: This is a wonderful show - do make time to go see it.  It would make a great outing for kids, as well as adults.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

September 11: Remembrance and Reflection

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through September 11, 2011

Note: this display is open only from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM.


This is the first time I've been to an exhibit with a line for entry.  The line was fairly long, and I was there on a weekday.  I can only imagine that weekend lines will be much longer.  It took about 15 minutes to get into the room with the artifacts on display, although it doesn't take very long to look at them.  Obviously, it's not a very pleasant display, and there's not a lot of conversation among the visitors.  Tissues are made available for anyone whose emotions require them.

The items on display are all connected to the attacks on 9/11.  One table contained things from New York, one table has items from the Pentagon, and one table has items from Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  A fourth table contains items from the Department of Homeland Security, showing how things are different now than they were 10 years ago.

In addition to the display, there are two videos playing in a small room off the exhibit area.  I didn't stay to watch those, as I was under a tight time constraint, but they seemed popular with other visitors.

I'm not sure why the exhibit is only up for such a short time - based on the crowd that was there when I visited, I think viewership would have justified a longer period.  It is a very labor-intensive exhibit; at least half a dozen museum workers were there, so perhaps they just don't have the employees/volunteers to manage anything longer.

Verdict: At this point, your only chance to see this display is tomorrow.  If you go, expect the lines to be terrifically long.  Frankly, I plan to spend the day holed up at home, but if you want to go downtown, this is a worthy destination.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through October 9, 2011

I confess to a lack of enthusiasm when I head to the Air and Space Museum.  I've discussed the reasons before, so I won't go into them again, but it takes a lot to make me think a trip there is worthwhile.  This exhibit, although not as stunning as the photographs of the planets previously on display in the same gallery, was quite good and interesting.  Plus, the kids are heading back to school, which means there are not so many families on summer vacation, and the school trips have not yet started.  Hence, the museum is less crowded now than it is at practically any other time of the year, which is nice.

This exhibit highlights some of the artwork that NASA has commissioned over the years to document the space program.  This began in 1962 and now includes over 3,000 pieces created by over 200 artists.  I think it's interesting that NASA should have begun and continued this program, that, in addition to the many photographs and documents that exist to show the agency's history, they felt that artists should play a role in this mission as well.  I was surprised at how many artists whose work I've seen in other shows appear in this one.  There are two Norman Rockwell pieces on display, that obviously were not part of the Spielberg/Lucas collections show at American Art; there is a work by Alexander Calder, whose portraits I just saw a couple of weeks ago, and even a Nam June Paik piece meant to commemorate Apollo 11 - more scribbling, I'm sorry to say.

On another note, I noticed that the gallery across from this one is now closed.  There had been an exhibit in there that looked pretty tired and dated, that I reviewed here a few months ago.  A new exhibit (I confess I don't remember the topic - space exploration is just not my thing) will be opening in 2013.  Makes you realize how long it takes to set up an exhibit, especially one that will be permanent.

Verdict: This show is worth a trip over to Air and Space.  You can see it in a lunch hour quite easily, and the crowds are not so large as they would be usually.

American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music

Where: Ripley Center

When: through October 9, 2011

The Spanish word sabor means taste or flavor and is often used to refer to good music.  This exhibit is full of sabor and well worth a trip to the Ripley to see.

I am always amazed at how the people who put up shows in the Ripley manage to take a terribly unattractive space with no natural light, and turn it into a feast for the eyes.  This time, they've really outdone themselves, as this exhibit is also a feast for the ears.  Latin jazz from the 1950s and 1960s is playing in the background and this adds enormously to the festive atmosphere.

The exhibit focuses on five different cities in the United States (New York, San Antonio, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles) and the growth of Latin music in those cities.  You can begin your tour of the show in any of the cities; each section is filled with great artifacts: playbills, album covers, snapshots, ticket stubs and much more.

It occurred to me to wonder, when most music is digital now, what will constitute a memento in the future?  There are no more album covers to show, which is unfortunate, as some of them were quite good works of art, independent of the music.  Will museums show computer screens with lists of people's iTunes playlists?  A question for future museum curators...

 Throughout the exhibit are listening stations, so that you can hear lots more Latin music, in addition to what's being played over the sound system.   There are also plenty of videos of concerts and displays of costumes - truly a multi-media show.

I found out some things I didn't know before (although since my knowledge of Latin music was confined to largely to Desi Arnaz and Santana - both of whom are featured - that's not surprising).  Puerto Ricans were greatly involved in the beginnings of rap and hip-hop music, but the record labels decided to market this as "black" music, so artists who were Latin had a hard time getting contracts.  The San Antonio section highlighted the music of Esteban Jordan, who was described as the "Jimi Hendrix of the accordion" - I could not help but smile at this characterization.

Verdict: Do go and check out this show.  You could spend much longer than a lunch hour here, especially if you wanted to watch the videos or listen to the music at the listening stations, but if you don't linger, you can get a good overview of the show in much less time.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art


Where: Archives of American Art

When: through October 3, 2011

The display area of the Archives of American Art is a room on the 1st floor of the American Art Museum, and because the space is fairly small, it's a great lunchtime excursion.

This display highlights the snapshots found in the papers and effects of American artists. They made photograph albums and carried around informal photos of friends and family, and this display puts many of these items together for public view. The description of the exhibit said that there is "a charm in capturing even the simplest of scenes," and I agree.

The snapshot album of Alexander Archipenko, a Russian sculptor, reminded me strongly of albums of my mother's. The careful labeling of pictures and the little corners stuck onto all of the photos were much the same. I suppose people don't really do this much anymore - everyone's pictures are on their phones or computers or in various emails.

I saw several photos of Alexander Calder, whose very interesting portrait exhibit just ended at the Portrait Gallery. I can see that the more exhibits I attend, the more overlap there will be between one show and another. A picture of the artist Walt Kuhn taken in 1911 in Ogunquit, Maine caught my eye. My husband and I visited Ogunquit once, and although the snapshot is now 100 years old (amazing a little snap could last that long), the view is not much changed.

Another quote from the notes that took my fancy: "As much as photographs appear to be a tissue of memory, they are also projections of all that we want to believe about ourselves and our connectedness to others." Photographs are faithful records of a moment in time, but how much that moment is reflective of the truth of our lives is another matter entirely.

Verdict: Do go see this small show. It's an easy lunchtime outing, and you'll probably have the space to yourself.

Artists at Work


Where: Ripley Center

When: through October 2, 2011

This show, on the walls of the concourse on the Ripley's 3rd floor, is a display of works of art by people who work for the Smithsonian. Some are full-time employees, others are interns, still others are volunteers. It's amazing to me how incredibly talented these people, most of whom are not professional artists, are. I don't think an exhibit of artwork by myself and my co-workers would be worthy of display anywhere, let alone at the Smithsonian.

Several pieces that caught my eye:

  • Jooseal Lee's Nostalgia (Paper Clothes) was three dresses, made of paper, hanging on hangers on the wall. There was something creepy about the piece - those dresses in tatters, as if something sinister had happened to them.
  • Laura Erekson's Lake Audubon - Erekson is an intern at the Hirshhorn, nevertheless, I liked her piece, a black and white of a lake with trees. I had to look closely to see where the sky ended and the water began.
  • Doug Dunlop's Alchemical Consciousness - Dunlp is a metadata librarian, which I think means he works in cataloging. I wanted to like this piece, as he's a fellow librarian, but I couldn't quite manage to.
  • Patrick Rizer's Orchids - a lovely piece in copper and bronze, it reminded me of the orchid exhibit I'd seen recently at the Sackler.
  • Huston Dove's Untitled - despite the name, it's an interesting picture of water cascading out of the dam at the Prettyboy reservoir. Dove is a cataloger at the Smithsonian Library.
Verdict: It's a fairly large show, as shows tend to be at the Ripley, so allow plenty of time to look at everything. Well worth a trip, not just for the art, but also to appreciate the many talents of the people who bring us so many worthwhile things at the Smithsonian.

In the Tower: Nam June Paik


Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through October 2, 2011

I decided on my recent visit to the East Building's Tower exhibit space that it really functions as a mini-Hirshhorn. Everything that's really weird goes in there. Accordingly, I have lowered my expectations for the exhibits I see in the space, although I'm still miffed by the idea that I have to climb so many steps to see the weirdness; that's one thing you can say for the Hirshhorn, they don't wear you out until you're actually in the exhibit.

This offering, by the Korean artist, Nam June Paik, is plenty odd. There's one room that holds a lighted candle - an actual candle with an actual flame. The flame being real, it flickers, as flames do. This is captured by a camera, hooked up to multiple projectors which show the candle all over the walls of the room. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that all of the candles are really the same flame - some of the projections are at angles or upside down. Also in this room is an egg sitting on a table, which is also projected on a screen next to the actual egg. Then, next to that, is another projector with an egg inside it. It's very difficult to describe, but rest assured, it's as goofy as I'm making it sound.

All of this I can handle; yes, it's odd and over the top, but what the heck, it's not like I'm thinking of projecting images of candles on the wall - more power to him, I say. In the next room, there's a 19th century Chinese scroll with a illuminated red hand on it that blinks on and off - fine with me. What I do object to is the display of the artists' doodles and random scrawls. If he was passing these off as art, then truly there's a sucker born every minute. One person's scrawls are no more artistic than another person's in my view - perhaps this is because I'm not making a fortune selling my scrap paper to the National Gallery.

Also in this second room is a video about the artist and his partnership with a female cellist. He created a TV bra that she wore while playing the cello - the original boob tube, as he described it.

Verdict: If you need some exercise anyway, have a look at this exhibit. I enjoyed sitting in the room with the candles, but the scrawls are just irritating.

Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves


Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 25, 2011

Although this is listed as being at the Portrait Gallery, it's really not - it's right in the middle of the museum, so neither Portrait Gallery nor American Art. I guess you could say it's a portrait of a neighborhood? The show features pictures and narrative about the Penn Quarter, the part of downtown DC that's between Pennsylvania Avenue and Chinatown. It happens to be the neighborhood where I work, so it held particular interest for me. Well do I remember the days when you hurried through the streets in daylight and didn't go there at all at night. My friends and I referred to this area as the peruquerie district, as it contained so many seedy wig shops.

In the early part of the 20th century, however, the area was thriving. Looking at the pictures from that time period, it was easy to recognize the blocks I walk down every day - the stores were different, but the atmosphere was similar. Suburbanization and the riots that occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King led to the decline of the area, and by the time I first arrived in the city in the early 1980s, it was a very undesirable location. The pictures from that time were much harder to identify - the buildings were the same as they are now, but they all looked nasty - either boarded up or housing unsavory businesses.

There was a chromolithograph of the Patent Office, that looks just the same as it does today. Pierre L'Enfant had originally intended that the space be used for a national cathedral or pantheon of American heroes - the more pragmatic Americans of the time decided on a building to house the Patent Office instead. Amazingly, Congress considered tearing the building down on two occasions - when I think of the many happy hours I've passed in this building (it's now the home of the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum) the thought is too dreadful to contemplate. Luckily, the first time demolition was contemplated, the local merchants were pacified with a widening of F Street, which necessitated the removal of a large staircase. The second time, in the 1950s, President Eisenhower was persuaded by David Finley, the director of the National Gallery of Art, to turn the building to its present purpose. I was heretofore ignorant of your role in enriching my life, Mr. Finley, but please accept the thanks of this grateful blogger!

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senator from New York, was also instrumental in revitalizing the Penn Quarter area. He worked under four presidents to put forth his plans for rebuilding the neighborhood - I'm sure he would be delighted to see it so vibrant today. The exhibit contains a wonderful bronze of Moynihan, done by Pat Oliphant, which is worth the trip to the show all on its own. It really captures his expression and energy.

I also discovered that several historic buildings were demolished to make way for the MLK Library, which is described as a "decrepit eyesore." I could not agree more with this assessment - what that structure needs is a can of gasoline and a lit match. It stands out in the neighborhood like a sore thumb, and is ugly and depressing to look upon. One can only hope that in some future redesign, it will go the way of the buildings it replaced.

Verdict: If you have any interest at all in the Penn Quarter neighborhood, or DC history in general, do go see this small display. It's easily seen in a lunch hour, even if you dawdle!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections


Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 5, 2011

Most of the pieces in this show have never been exhibited before, as they reside in private collections. People have inherited these pieces, or purchased them for their artistic merit or sat for them, but none of them belong to museums. The time periods displayed run through the colonial period through to the present day, and one gets a look at the changes in portraiture along with the portraits themselves.

One that caught my eye was of a family of women, a Mrs. Church, her daughter and her daughter-in-law. They are pictured sitting together, the daughter-in-law handing Mrs. Church a letter, which family history suggests was information that Mrs. Church's son, the daughter-in-law's husband, was in fact not her husband at all. He had been proved a bigamist, as his divorce from his first wife was never finalized. Why, I wondered would one wish to have this moment painted?

Another piece was of Phoebe Caroline Elliott Pinckney - I was struck by her resemblance to Jacqueline Kennedy. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, was it the expression, the smile, the eyes? Whatever it was, I found the likeness uncanny.

I also saw a sculpture by Hiram Powers, whose scultpure The Greek Slave was much discussed in the exhibit notes for the Capitoline Venus - nothing like having one's lessons reinforced.

Another piece of interest is a small picture of Mamie Eisenhower, done by Dwight Eisenhower. It's not great art, but he managed to get her expression very well, and isn't that what portraiture is all about?

Verdict: A nice show, but quite large. In order to do this in a lunch hour, you'll have to resist the urge to dawdle.

Declaration of Independence: The Stone Copy


Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through September 5, 2011

On the same day I went to see the Capitoline Venus, I also went to see this copy of the Declaration of Independence. It was created at the request of then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams
(who was not, contrary to current popular belief, a Founding Father). Adams realized that the original Declaration was showing signs of age and wear, and asked William J. Stone to create a facsimile. Of the 200 copies of this facsimile that were made and distributed to the living signers and other government officials, only 31 still survive.

Stone's original engraving is what is on display, in a small room filled, appropriately enough, with portraits by Gilbert Stuart, including pictures of the first five Presidents of the United States. Although the Continental Congress ordered that a large and legible copy of Jefferson's manuscript be made, I must say, reading the text was quite challenging. At my eye level were the signatures, and the famous and the forgotten are mixed in together, with John Hancock's name prominently at the top. Seeing this document, one remembers that the signers were taking their lives in their hands, and one is thankful they were willing to do so.

Verdict: Do make time to see this; although it's more history than art, it's a lovely item. Seeing this document and the Venus is quite easily managed in a lunch hour, and one will come away feeling it was time well spent.

A Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome: The Capitoline Venus


Where: National Galley of Art, West Building

When: through September 5, 2011

For the first time since 1797, when it was seized by Napoleon and taken to Paris, the Capitoline Venus has left Rome. Happily, its current journey is a loan, rather than a heist, and it will return safely to the Capitoline Museum when its visit here is over.

The Capitoline Venus is one of the best preserved examples of Roman art in the world; it dates from the 2nd century AD. Found in the 1670s buried under a garden, it was in very good condition. It really is amazing how art can survive upheavals and cataclysms to delight viewers hundreds of years later.

The statue itself is beautiful, so lifelike you expect it to climb down from its plinth and walk about. There is much to appreciate here, both in its antiquity and in the talent of the sculptor.

I'm happy to report that, although the mad woman who attacked a Gaugin painting earlier in the summer returned to the National Gallery recently and tried to damage a Matisse, she apparently did not realize a naked statue was on display in the main rotunda. I understand from the newspaper accounts that she is now under lock and key, so our nation's collection of priceless art is safe from her insanity, at least for the moment.

Verdict: Do not miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see this tremendous piece. I think it's marvelous that the Italians have lent the Venus to the National Gallery, and it was wonderful to see it.

Directions: Grazia Toderi

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through September 5, 2011

Well, off I went again to the Hirshhorn, and yet again, I came away shaking my head. This exhibit features two video projections by Grazia Toderi, an Italian artist, and I'm not sure I really understood either of them.

One is called Orbite Rosse, and it seems to be a nighttime cityscape: lots of lights in the darkness. The description compared it to landing at an airport at night but since the viewer never gets closer to the city, that comparison falls apart after a few minutes watching. You see the city through two large ovals, that are much like looking at something through binoculars. There are rings of stars that circle through every so often - lots of bright lights generally, but nothing much going on.

The second projection is called Rosso Babele, which is apparently a reference to the Biblical Tower of Babel. It's meant to show the futility of architecture in connecting the earth to the heavens, a point I do appreciate. The description posits that the Internet is the only human construct that "literally connects earth to sky." How does it do that exactly? I declare myself mystified. For a hilarious description of what literally means, see this Oatmeal cartoon: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/literally. The projection, pictured above, features two screens, one upside down, that are collections of lights and redness. There are helicopter noises and bursts of light, but that's about it. Oh yes, those circles of stars are back.

Verdict: It won't take long to watch these; I spent about 15 minutes total, and felt like I got a pretty good idea of what was going on. I didn't get much back for my time investment, however, so you may want to give this a miss.

Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through September 5, 2011

This is an exhibit put on by the Smithsonian Institution libraries; they have a nice little space next to the Archives cases on the first floor of the museum. As I think I've mentioned before, I put together many library displays in a former job, so I like to go and see what the librarians and archivists have on offer, if for no other reason than to let them know that someone's interested. I need not have worried about lack of attendance for this exhibit - its was quite crowded when I visited, perhaps due to the time of year?

In addition to seeing many really neat pop-up books, I learned several things about this craft. Did you know that pop-up books are 800 years old? Neither did I, but now we both know. At the front of the show, you can push a button and turn the pages of two different pop-up books - lots of fun, and not just for the kids. And there are not only pop-up books - there's a whole assortment of books on display that open up, fold, and otherwise move. I was much taken with a tunnel book - you look through small circles in the front of the tunnel, and see different parts of the picture behind. It's hard to describe, but fun to see.

Lest you think pop-up books are only for children, think again. Euclid's Geometry features pop-ups, and that's no Dr. Seuss. I saw a copy of Peter and Wendy See the New York World's Fair and was reminded of the Building Museum's world fair exhibit. I still think charging admission is a bad idea on their part...

All movable and pop-up books are assembled by hand, even today. Perhaps if we all read a few more, we could add a few jobs to the economy? I like to see real craftsmanship and outside of a craft fair, one sees little enough of it. This exhibit is not just a collection of kids' books, but a genuine art show.

Verdict: Don't miss this. It's easily managed in a lunch hour, and well worth the time you'll spend.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America


Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through September 5, 2011

I wasn't terrible excited about seeing this show; I had the idea it would be depressing and uninteresting. I'm happy to report that I was wrong, and that I quite enjoyed my visit.

George Ault, an artist with whom I was unfamiliar prior to seeing this exhibit, moved from Manhattan to Woodstock, NY in 1937, in part to get away from an increasingly troubling world and to bring some sense of order to the chaos that was taking over. When I read this, I was reminded of a woman with whom I used to work, who left DC and moved to Vermont after 9/11, feeling a need for greater security. It's not a choice I have made in my life, but I understand the impulse.

The show features Ault's work, along with pieces by several of his contemporaries. One, Flag Station, by Harry Leith-Ross, has a quote from Alistair Cooke in its description, extolling the "rare beauty of stasis." I've often felt that the normal day, where nothing much happens, is a marvelous thing, and vastly underrated by those who seek constant stimulation. Nothing like a little boredom to help you re-charge your batteries to deal with whatever life will thrown at you next.

Ault was described as a poet of empty places, and the paintings of Russell's Corners, including the piece pictured above, show the same scene, devoid of people. Daylight at Russell's Corners is a wonderful winter tableau - you can feel the cold as you look at it.

I also admired his Brook in the Mountains. You can see the great power of the water flowing , but it is controlled. The note next to the piece indicates that this is meant to show the value Ault placed on emotional control, and regardless of whether that's true or not, it make me wonder if the ability to keep a cool head and not shout out one's every thought is valued in American society any longer. Having just watched a couple of the Sunday talk shows, I'm inclined to think not.

One of the exhibition notes puts forward the idea that Ault told no stories in his art. Is that really true? Granted, you don't have the story laid out for you - it's not as if you've got a scene of people interacting in some way, or some picture of a historical event, but I think that just provides more room for the viewer to create his or her own story.

Verdict: Despite my misgivings, I enjoyed this show. It's large, but not so large that you can't see it in a lunch hour.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fragments in Time and Space


Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through August 28, 2011

This show is made up of pieces from the Hirshhorn's own collection and focuses on how artists have explored time and space in their work. As arts funding has decreased during the recession, many museums have turned to putting on shows comprised of pieces from their own permanent collections. I can imagine the cost of putting up such a show would be considerably less than arranging for shipment of works of art from other locations, and it allows visitors to see pieces they might otherwise miss, or see them in a new context. Clearly, an example of receiving lemons and making lemonade.

Of course, this is the Hirshhorn, so you know going in that there will be at least one ridiculous piece in the show. The first one is in the first room (may as well begin as we mean to go on); it's entitled Oct. 24, 1971, and it's a sign with that date on it. That's the whole work. It's one of a series of these signs with dates on them - three appear in the show. I practically had to pry my eyeballs loose from the top of my head.

Something I'll mention that I often see at exhibits, and I haven't written about so far, are the helpful guards. I wandered into a room full of seascapes (very nice - see below for description), and a guard approached to warn me about the riser in front of the photographs that was very hard to see in the darkened room (what is it about the Hirshhorn and their desire to show everything in the dark?). He also directed me to the description of the series of photos on the far wall. Really pleasant and helpful - thank you!!

The seascapes themselves were quite nice, actually. They are simply water and sky, each photo divided in half. I liked them, although it did make me realize how much I enjoy a bit of greenery about my water. It makes me feel as if I'm standing on shore, looking at the view, as opposed to being in the water, desperate for shore. The Post had an article in its weekend section on Friday discussing several "eye-popping" works of art in the area, and this set of photos was one of the pieces listed.

The piece from which the picture above is taken is a video called Play Dead; Real Time by Douglas Gordon. It's a video of a circus elephant repeatedly performing a trick; one feels sorry for the poor creature. It looks tired and sad. Always a dangerous matter to assign human emotions to animals, I know, but I really couldn't watch it for very long. It's on multiple large screens in one of the room, and on a small television screen in the corner of the room.

By this point, I remembered one of my other criticisms of the Hirshhorn: the enormity of their exhibits. Why must the pieces be so spread out that you feel as if you've completed the Bataan Death March by the time you've seen them all? I'm no fan of the style of exhibits that hangs dozens of pieces on each wall, one atop the other - I feel as if I can't get a sense of any of them - but this was just too spread out; nothing seemed to have any context or relationship to anything else.

Towards the end of the show, there was a video of a pig farm done by John Gerrard. I remember seeing this piece before, along with a few other video pieces - they incorporate virtual reality into the videos. It's less boring to watch then you'd think, and I felt a sense of satisfaction that I recognized the piece. A series of photographs by David Claerbout entitled Sections of a Happy Moment caught my eye. I love the title, and the photos were of kids playing in what appeared to be a schoolyard or neighborhood playground. Rather melancholy music was attached to it, with which I could have dispensed. I also liked Niagara by Wolfgang Staehle, a beautiful picture of rushing water.

Verdict: I've seen worse shows at the Hirshhorn! It's very large, so don't dawdle if you're on your lunch hour. Some of the pieces are quite interesting, and others aren't worth the paper they're painted on, but overall, it's worth a look.