Monday, May 30, 2011

Negro League Baseball Stamp Art

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through June 5, 2011

On display are several examples of the stamps issued in 2010 honoring the Negro League. The league was quite popular during its heyday, although the integration of Major League Baseball brought about its demise. Innovations the league brought to the majors include bunting and stealing bases, without which baseball as we know it today would be distinctly less interesting.

Kadir Nelson is the artist who was commissioned to do the artwork; he had produced several paintings of Negro League baseball and was the author of a book on the Negro League. He based his design for the stamps on historical photographs. The stamps were issued se tenant, meaning that one picture was spread across two stamps.

The Postal Service had previously honored Negro League players Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson in its "Legends of Baseball" series issued in 2000. Whereas the Negro League stamps were more action-oriented, the 2000 series were designed to look like trading cards.

This display is so small you might miss it - it's on the ground floor, right by the entrance. I'm glad I saw this on my way to run an errand elsewhere - if I'd walked all the way over to the Postal Museum to spend about 10 minutes, I would have been a bit miffed. Combine it with a trip to the Union Station food court for lunch, and you'll feel like your walk was worth it.

Verdict: if you are interested in baseball, check it out. Otherwise, it's not what I'd call a major show.

SPANS: Photographs from the Esther McCoy Papers

Where: Archives of American Art, American Art Museum

When: through June 5, 2011

Esther McCoy was an architecture critic and historian who worked from the 1950s through the 1970s. This display shows some of the photographs she used in her articles.

She reported on trends in architecture around the world, so the photographs include shots of Brasilia, geodesic domes, tent-like structures by Frei Otto and hyperbolic paraboloids (which are thin shells). The inflatable architecture reminded me of the roof over the Metrodome, which collapsed last winter under the weight of a particularly heavy snowstorm. They look great, but are not the most stable of structures.

This exhibit is the first I've seen that actually incorporates the museum into the exhibit. There is a drawing on the ceiling that looks like a Gothic arch. In addition, the room itself looks out into the courtyard with its controversial covering. They've put a loveseat in the room, so that you can sit down and look at the courtyard roof. There were those who objected to the span when the building was most recently renovated, but as far as I'm concerned, you couldn't ask for a nicer space to relax when the elements are too forbidding for outside seating.

Verdict: this is a neat little show, well worth seeing even if you're not an expert on architecture.

Gaugin: Maker of Myth

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through June 5, 2011

This show has gained a certain amount of notoriety lately, as a result of a mad woman's attempt to attack one of the paintings on display. Thankfully, she did no lasting damage to the piece, which is now back on display.

For myself, I came away with as much of a sense of Gaugin as a person as I did of Gaugin as a painter. The description of him at the beginning of the show calls him "ferociously egotistical" - a point born out by the many self-portraits in the first room.

I was gratified when looking at the description of "Portrait of Meijer de Haan by Lamplight" to see him called devilish - exactly the word I'd thought of myself when looking at the piece. Clearly, I've got a future as an art critic!

My sense that I would not have cared to meet Gaugin came when looking at his wood carving, "Self-portrait vase in the form of a severed head." I could only think, "oh brother." It just seemed so self-indulgent and hysterical.

Gaugin identified greatly with "savages" - people outside of polite Western society. While spending time in Brittany, he began to reject Western civilization as corrupt, but still concerned himself with how much his art was fetching in Paris - so the civilization is bad, but not the money it brings in.

As I mentioned above, the painting that had been attacked is back on display - there's a rope in front of it now, along with a guard. As I looked at the piece, in a room filled with other Gaugins, I was reminded of seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It is encased in a clear box, with ropes around it, to foil thieves, meanwhile, the rest of the room is filled with other da Vincis, with no such security. Interesting how those who would steal or attack art determine what pieces we protect the most...

I was puzzled as to why the crazy lady found that particular painting so objectionable. There are any number of similar works in the exhibit. There's a carving that's even entitled "Lewdness" and features a naked woman, a wilted flower (a symbol of lost purity) and a fox. You'd think she would have hurled herself at that.

I was intrigued by the painted "Still Life with Three Puppies," as I don't think I've ever seen puppies in a still life before. Having raised a puppy, I don't remember a lot of stillness.

As for his time in Tahiti, Gaugin decried Western influences on the native society, and I'm sure they were not all for the good. Since they did lead to the elimination of human sacrifice, however, I can't say that it was all bad either. Gaugin imagined a Tahitian past and then painted what he imagined; one could make the case that this is his Western influence at work.

All in all, Gaugin seems a tiresome person, but he did expose the hypocrisy of a local bishop who decried Gaugin's womanizing, while engaging in some of his own, so I'll give him credit for that.

Verdict: if you're a fan of Gaugin, don't miss this show. It's quite large, so you'll need to move quickly to take it all in.

One Life: Katharine Graham

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 30, 2011

The National Portrait Gallery has been putting up a series of shows entitled "One Life." They set aside a small room in the museum devoted to pictures and other items about one person. I've seen shows on Elvis Presley and Thomas Paine previously. It's a nice way to learn about a particular individual and their time through artifacts from their life.

Katharine Graham was really a fascinating person; a description of her was "an extraordinary person living in extraordinary times." Very true. I was impressed by the tremendous courage she must have possessed to take over the Post after her husband's suicide. There's some coverage of her early life and marriage, but the bulk of the show concerns her stewardship of the Post in the 1970s.

One of the artifacts they have on display is a copy of the Post front page when they were allowed to publish the Pentagon Papers. There was a photo on that page, below the fold, entitled "Metro in the making." Today's small picture becomes tomorrow's expose series.

Also on display is Graham's Pulitzer Prize, which she won for her biography in 1998 - it's much smaller than I would have guessed.

Lots of Watergate stuff is on display; no surprise there. One gets a sense that she gambled on doing the right thing in exposing the corruption of the Nixon administration, and it paid off. One small beef, they misidentify the Circuit Court of Appeals as the District Court of Appeals in a blurb by a photo of Graham and Bradley.

Verdict: By all means, see this show; if you remember Watergate, it will bring it all back. If you don't, you can get some sense of what the fuss what all about.

Women in Jazz: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, 1937-1949

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through May 31

This exhibit is in the archives cases, and once again, I am reminded how little attention anyone pays to these shows. No matter how crowded the museum is, there's rarely even one person (other than me) looking at these little displays. In a previous job, I was responsible for putting on displays, and I feel for anyone who does it for a living. It's an enormous amount of work, and unless your display is tremendously flashy, no one notices.

This little offering, easily viewable in a lunch hour, even paired with another exhibit, concerns the first integrated, female big band. They began as a school band from Mississippi and grew to be quite popular on their own, when they ended their relationship with the school. They toured with the USO during World War II. The exhibit includes photographs obtained from band members and other memorabilia from their tours.

Verdict: Go see this little display - it will only take a few minutes to look at what's on offer, and you'll undoubtedly make some archivist feel good.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through May 30, 2011

I can't say that I learned anything new about Abraham Lincoln by going to this exhibit, but it is nice to see all of the museum's Lincoln artifacts in one place. The exhibit is well organized, showing items from Lincoln's childhood through the mourning after his death, and the fates of those who conspired to assassinate him. Lincoln was truly one of the great figures of American history, and it is fitting that the museum has staged a show to bring a bit of that greatness home to visitors.

Speaking of visitors, there are LOTS of them here. Although the exhibit is on the 3rd floor, many people were milling about when I was there, so be prepared to share your experience with several hundred others if you go.

One of the artifacts on display is a piece of a "genuine rail" split by Lincoln himself. I could not help but think of the "pieces of the true cross." I'm going to rely on the museum's curators to have authenticated the piece, and not allow my natural skepticism to wonder if this could be some random piece of wood...

Several other pieces that attracted my attention included:

  • a picture of the 1860 Presidential candidates (which brought to mind Team of Rivals)
  • the casts of Lincoln's hands and face - there's something you don't see done anymore
  • campaign torches from 1860
  • a newspaper notice of the firing on Ft. Sumter with the notice, "the tea has been thrown overboard" - tea party references are hardly new
  • a Union Army draft wheel
  • a model of Lincoln's patent
Interestingly enough, the White House was in great need of refurbishment when the Lincolns moved in, much like the experience of the Trumans. I'm not entirely sure why we let the residence of the President of the United States fall into disrepair, but apparently we've been doing so for a long time.

Very effective was "The Conspirators" section of the exhibit, which comes at the end. There are busts for each one of those involved in the assassination plot, with hoods pulled over their faces - slightly creepy, but not overdone - just creepy enough, I guess.

Verdict: Go see this show, especially if you have an interest in Lincoln or the Civil War, but be prepared to jostle your way through many tourists to see it.

Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through May 30, 2011

During the 18th century, it was fashionable for the wealthy in England to take a "grand tour" of continental Europe, and these trips inevitably included Venice. As photography was not yet available to them, the tourists would purchase paintings of Venice to remind them of their trip, much as today's tourists purchase postcards.

One of the masters of these so-called "view paintings" was Canaletto, and his works and those of others active in this genre make up the content of this show. Outside of the exhibit is a fabulous gondola from the 1800s. Thomas Moran used it in Venice, then had it brought back to the United States. How useful it would have been in Long Island, I don't know, but I'm glad he kept it, as it was great fun to see. Made me want to visit Venice and take a ride!

One of Canaletto's contemporaries said of his work, "You can see the sun shining" in his paintings, and this is, for the most part, correct. His early work did involve overcast skies and scenes outside of the ordinary tourist destinations, but he soon switched to sun-drenched views of the popular buildings and plazas that were more enticing to visitors wishing to purchase a souvenir of their trip. I recently read a book by E.F. Benson entitled Limitations, which dealt with the theme of artists sacrificing their true artistic visions to create work that will sell. Whether Canaletto felt he had "sold out" I have no idea, but one does wonder.

View painters would often forgo authenticity in their paintings in order to create paintings that showed a "better view." A famous building might appear in a painting where, in real life, it would be blocked from view. It occurred to me that when one remembers a trip, one often remembers the best parts of it, and leaves out the tediousness or inconveniences. View paintings allowed the traveler to see Venice as they remembered it, rather than as it really was.

Several paintings by Maneschi, a rival to Canaletto, were on display. Although they painted the same buildings and plazas, Maneschi's work seems more precise, more painstaking to me than Canaletto's. There's almost an impressionistic quality to Canaletto's work, although he pre-dates the Impressionists by about 100 years.

In addition to the paintings of everyday Venice, there were also many pieces depicting special events: feast days, visits by foreign dignitaries, regattas and the like. Not only did the view paintings serve as postcards, they were also souvenirs of formal occasions.

I was delighted to see a painting by Guardi of a building designed by Palladio - a great favorite of mine since I saw a show of his works at the National Building Museum several months ago.

Verdict: Do go see this very large show. You'll have to move quickly to see the whole thing in a lunch hour, but it's a way to visit Venice without leaving DC.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Blinky Palermo: Retrospective, 1964-1977

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through May 15, 2011

As I walked over to the Hirshhorn, I thought yet again that it's an ugly building. It's a big concrete doughnut, with nothing to recommend it. Granted it has a fountain in the open middle of the building, but it lacks the splash (forgive the pun) of the fountain at the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden across the Mall. All in all, an eyesore. Perhaps it's the ugly container that prejudices me against the exhibits there; I'm already in a foul mood before I ever walk in.

On the other hand, perhaps the shows leave something to be desired? This one, which is the first retrospective for Blinky Palermo, had me shaking my head and saying, "yes, that's all very well, but I could do the same, given a bucket of paint and some canvas." I don't much appreciate the monochrome painters - seems to me it's too much like what someone does when they come to your house to paint your kitchen.

In the first room, we are treated to white paint on cardboard, with two squares of more white paint on cardboard affixed. I'm sure an art historian could ascribe great meaning to this, but I found myself considering what I might be able to do with the left over paint from our bathroom remodel and some stray cardboard I could pick up at work. I did rather like the orange stick with blue triangles on it - it had a rather nautical air about it. It would fit rather nicely in someone's boat house. Most of the works were called "Untitled," which I always think is a cop out. Really? Untitled? I've walked all the way over here, come into this hideous building to see your show, and you can't even come up with a name for your "art"? Really?

Like many large shows at the Hirshhorn, you fell as if you've walked miles to see all of it - this one takes up the entire 2nd floor, so wear your walking shoes if you plan to visit. Some of the color combinations he uses are quite nice; I liked his blue and gray palette, but again, is this art or is this an enormous paint card, like the ones you get at Home Depot? As a fan of color in art, I can't complaint about the show being too drab; there's color everywhere. It's just that there's not much else.

Verdict: If you're a fan of the monochrome school, rush right out and see this show. Otherwise, you can give it a miss.

Alexis Rockman: A Fable for Tomorrow

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through May 8, 2011

I had not been looking forward to seeing this show particularly; looking at the posters advertising it, I got the impression that this was a "hit you over the head" type of exhibit. "Man is destroying the environment and we're all going to die!" seemed to be the theme. It's not that I don't believe that man is destroying the environment, and we're all going to die; I do think that's true, but I just didn't want to spend an entire lunch hour contemplating this.

Now that I've seen it, I wasn't exactly wrong in my impressions, but the show is more than what the advertisements would lead you to believe. The picture in this entry is not atypical of his work, but it's not the entirety of it, and I'm glad I went to see it.

The title of the show comes from a chapter in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, so the environmental note comes right away. Rockman's work is inspired by his boyhood trips to the Natural History Museum in New York, so I felt a bit of comradeship with him, as I too, have been inspired by my trips to museums. Many of his works depict the decay and death that lurks under the surface - what lies beneath the unturned rock. There is also a note of science fiction in his Biosphere series of paintings. As I've only just started reading science fiction, I can't comment very intelligently on that.

I was most struck by his painting of Guyana, based on a trip he took to that country in 1994. These painting depict only what is real; there are no imagined objects. Even so, there is plenty of strangeness in the works; one is astonished by the vibrancy of the real. I suppose we have brightly colored animals here in the United States, but as I tend to avoid prolonged exposure to nature, I don't often see them. Kapok Tree shows a forest at night, filled with frogs of many colors, rather than the insects that populate so many of his works.

Another work I liked very much was Ready to Rumble, a parody of the sanitization of urban decay, featuring a caped crusader cat. In his picture entitled Sea World, he shows a Sea World-like performance, with mutant sea creatures. I couldn't help but be reminded of the whale at Sea World, or some similar place, who killed one of the trainers.

The largest piece in the show is one that shows no decay or destruction at all - South is a panoramic (7 panels) view of Antarctica, and it is really stunning. The Big Weather series depicts the destruction of catastrophic weather, and was sadly apropos, given the tornadoes that have struck recently. Finally, The Reef reminded me of the crochet reef exhibit at the Natural History Museum, so I've yet another example of one show reminding me of another.

Verdict: The show ends today, so I can't tell you to run out and see it, but I hope you had a chance to visit while it was here. Really interesting and a far more varied body of work than I had expected.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Beyond the Limits: Flight Enters the Computer Age

Where: National Museum of Air and Space

When: through May 2011

Full confession, Air and Space is not my favorite museum. It's very crowded year-round, and most of the people there are small, screaming boys. Spaceships and rockets hold little interest for me; I know that it's an amazing achievement for human beings to leave Earth and explore outer space, but I just can't get worked up over seeing how that happens.

This exhibit has not changed my mind about either space flight or the Air and Space Museum, but if that sort of thing appeals to you, by all means have at it.

The show seems quite dated, and I looked it up online later and found out it opened in 1989. I can only imagine the curators are taking it down to modernize it a bit - it needs it! The development of the space program and the development of computers went hand in hand; it really does astonish me that the flight to the moon was possible with the archaic computer technology available in the 1960s. As the exhibit states, there was a time when a computer was a person who added numbers; that person was usually a woman who had been a math major, and while the men got to do drawings of space ships, the women handled the calculations.

I did enjoy seeing the movie poster from "Dr. Strangelove" in the section on airborne invasion - not sure how much that poster will resonate with young visitors today.

The exhibit, although in need of sprucing up, was quite popular, and I had to make my way through a large crowd - probably due to the flashing lights over the entrance.

Verdict: Air and Space is the only museum which makes me think with fondness of the Hirshhorn, so I can't recommend going there for anything less than a top-notch show. On the other hand, when they put up another exhibit in this space, it will be interesting to see how it has changed.

Beyond: Visions of our Solar System

Where: National Air and Space Museum

When: through May 2, 2011

This is a beautiful exhibit - the photographs of the planets (and other objects in the solar system) are stunning. This show focuses exclusively on the pictures of outer space, and not on the technology that created the photographs, which is fine with me. I find "rocket science" boring, so the fact that there was none of it was a plus in my book.

There were a lot of little pieces of information along with the photos in the exhibit, and I'm now much more informed about other planets than I was when I entered. The Great Lakes make up 22% of the Earth's fresh water, for instance, and the sun constitutes 99.8% of the mass of the solar system. I also found out that Venus is actually hotter than Mercury due to the cloud cover that traps heat on the planet. Mercury, which I had always thought of as a red planet, actually looks like our moon, but larger. Mars (the actual red planet) is red due to the iron deposits in its deserts. It reminded me of the soil on Prince Edward Island, which is also red and full of iron. Martian desert landscapes are quite similar in appearance to deserts on Earth - not that either one seems terribly hospitable... And who knew there should have been a planet between Mars and Jupiter, instead of the asteroid belt that exists there?

Jupiter's Red Spot is twice the size of Earth - it's really hard to conceive of something so enormous, particularly when you think that it's merely a spot on the biggest planet in the solar system. Saturn is gorgeous, rings and all, no surprise there. The photos of Uranus and Neptune were a lovely shade of blue, and Uranus has faint rings around it - although they get none of the attention of Saturn's much larger rings. Of course, there were no pictures of Pluto - eventually, no one will even remember it was a planet! Oh well, science moves on, and we must move with it.

Verdict: if you have time on Monday, check this out. It's not as crowded as some of the more spaceship-oriented exhibits at the Museum, and the photography is stunning.

R.C. Gorman: Early Prints and Drawings, 1966-1974

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through May 1, 2011

I've not been going to out to museums lately, and so have fallen a bit behind in my reviews. This show closes today, so I hope that if you're an R.C. Gorman fan, you had a chance to go see this show.

I had never heard of R.C Gorman before seeing this exhibit, so I feel a bit at a loss to discuss the work. Obviously, it was meant to show the foundations of his later pieces, and if I knew more about it (meaning if I knew anything at all about it), I'd be able to comment on that. As it is, this was my first exposure to this artist, so I can only talk about this exhibit on its own.

The pieces that really drew my attention were those featuring lots of color. I hadn't realized before how much I like art that is quite colorful; pen and ink drawings don't really do much for me. "The Green Shawl," with its greens, fuschias and blues caught my eye, along with "Santo Domingo," in which the teal of the beads stands out against the white and taupe of the figures and ground. "Yei-bi-cha" has great colors, much more so that his other works.

"Homage to Spider Woman" (depicted above) is wonderful - there are four parts to this work, which is a series of blanket designs - I'd love to have such a beautiful blanket!

Verdcit: This is a small show, and easily manageable in a lunch hour. The American Indian Museum is a bit of a hike from my office, so I had to skim through the display in order to get back to work, but if you have more time, you might plan to go when a live performance is going on in the main lobby. I came in just as one was finishing. I didn't realize that's how they used that space - it has always seemed very pretty, but a bit wasteful to me before.