Sunday, July 29, 2012

Boston sightseeing

Recently, I traveled to Boston for a conference and took advantage of some free time to make a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.  This is unlike any other museum I've ever visited; Gardner set up the collection and when she bequeathed it to the public, the terms of the bequest mandate that the collection not be altered in any way.  Not only must the collection remain intact (no sales, no acquisitions), but her arrangement must also be preserved.  Having been to the Freer many times, the "no addition no subtraction" rule was familiar to me, but the idea that you can't even move things around from time to time - that was new.  It's unfortunate, really, as it means the curators can't put on exhibitions of parts of the collection.  For example, they can't put all the Sargent paintings in one room for a few months.  What you see is what you get.  Of course, the central courtyard plantings change with the seasons, so you'd get some variety there, but otherwise, it's always the same.  I'm assuming that the curators set up tours to highlight various parts of the collection, so that would serve as an exhibition, but still...

The day that I went, there were no organized tours offered, so I purchased an audio tour when I entered.  Best $4.00 I ever spent, as I would have been utterly overwhelmed without it.  Each room is jam-packed with objects: paintings, sculpture, silver, furniture, etc., etc., etc.  You can't possibly take it all in, so having a guide to point out a few items in each room was great.  In addition, the collection covers a wide variety of artistic periods and artists - there are pieces from antiquity to the early 20th century.  I've never used an audio tour before, so I have nothing to compare this to, but I thought it was very well done.  Different people spoke on the tour, mostly people from the Gardner, but others chimed in as well.  Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked, narrated the commentary in the Dutch room.  It turns out that the Gardner has a residency program for artists (defined quite broadly to include musicians and authors, as well as painters and sculptors).  When Maguire lived at the Gardner, he spent most of his time in the Dutch room, so it was interesting to hear his comments on that part of the collection.

I'm not entirely certain if Gardner was a genius or a madwoman, but her collection is worth a visit.  Note that this is not Washington, so there's an admission fee of $15 for adults.  I spent about two hours following the audio tour, but you could spend days (you could spend a lifetime, really) and still not see everything.

Another day, I took the Boston subway out to Quincy and took the tour of the Adams National Historic Park.  You walk across the street from the subway to a large office building where the National Park Service has a storefront.  Pay $5.00 (a bargain, in my view) for your ticket, board the trolley out front and you're off to the John Adams and John Quincy Adams birthplaces for the first part of your tour.  Frankly, these were a bit of a snooze, as the only things original to the houses are the foundations, but they're kept in period style, so you get a sense of how people lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  When John and John Quincy were born, this was the countryside; now, it's a bustling Boston suburb, so it's a bit odd to look across the street from the houses (which sit next to each other) and see modern architecture.

After the birthplaces, you board the trolley again and you're off to Peacefield, where John and Abigail lived after they returned from Paris.  This is wonderful - everything original - their furnishings, china, books, wallpaper.  We had a terrific park ranger give us the tour, where I learned that Louisa Adams (wife of John Quincy) was the only foreign-born first lady.  In addition, John Quincy and Louisa had china designed by Marie Antoinette.  Who knew that Marie Antoinette designed china?  There is a separate building that John Quincy had constructed in order to house his library.  It's fireproof, which just goes to show that the sixth President knew the importance of books!  It's one large room, with floor to ceiling bookcases all around the walls.  There are thousands of volumes, shelved two and three deep, in a host of different languages.  For a book lover like myself, this was the highlight of the tour.

If you find yourself in Boston and like historic sites, this is a great way to spend a morning or afternoon.  It's quite easy to get there using the subway, and even if you know a bit about the Adams family, you'll learn something new.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Deacon Peckham's Hobby Horse

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through October 8, 2012

Hobby Horse is one of the most often reproduced works in the National Gallery collection.  It is displayed here, along with several other works by Robert Peckham, all of them portraits of children.  Peckham lived and worked in Massachusetts, and the models for his works all lived within a few miles of one another.

Unlike his portraits of adults, which tend to be serious and set against plain backgrounds, Peckham's paintings of children depict their colorful surroundings, providing a glimpse into the merchant and manufacturing class in New England in the mid-1800s.   The notes accompanying the display describe his style as sympathetic but not sentimental, and certainly his portraits are anything but simpering or sugary-sweet.  Of course, the children are all shown quietly facing the viewer, without a hint of sibling rivalry or high spirits or noise, so they're not completely accurate, but they give the 21st century visitor a look at a time much different than our own.  I don't think hobby horses (what I would call rocking horses) are much in vogue now - as soon as they're old enough, children are clamoring for a Wii!

Also on display is an actual hobby horse from the time period, very similar to the one in the painting.  How it managed to survive in such good shape, I don't know.  Hobby Horse is another tough survivor - it was discovered in an antique shop near Boston.  That's what I call a successful day at the store.  It's enough to send one out on a scavenger hunt of one's own.

Verdict:  Have a look at this exhibit - it's small, so easy to do on a lunch hour.  Since it's on the Ground Floor, you don't even have to climb many stairs to reach it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Against All Odds: Rescue at the Chilean Mine

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through September 30, 2012

This is a great exhibit to see when you need to have your faith in human nature restored.  I'm sure everyone remembers the story of the miners trapped for nearly two months in a collapsed mine in Chile and the effort that went into rescuing them.  On display here are one of the rescue capsules used in testing, some of the items the miners used while trapped and lots of information about Chile's mining industry and copper mining generally.

This exhibit is in the back of the Gems room, an odd place I thought, until I remembered that the room is Geology, Gems and Minerals.  I learned that there is a lot of copper in Chile; it contains one-third of the world's supply of copper.  Mining is the backbone of the Chilean economy, and the world's increasing use of electronics has only increased the demand for copper.

The particular mine in which the men were trapped had been in use for over 100 years, and had been weakened by the mining that had gone on before.  Unlike coal, there are no flammable gases in a copper mine, so the men didn't have to deal with an explosion or poisonous gas while trapped.

The rescue effort, involving as it did several different nations, including the United States (NASA advised on how to construct the rescue capsule), was amazing and it's wonderful to be reminded of what great things human beings can do when they work together to accomplish something worthwhile.

The thing that really struck me, though, is the way that the men organized themselves in the early days of their confinement.  It wasn't until the 17th day that they were found, and so for over two weeks, they had to figure out a way to live, even when they didn't know if they would ever be found.  They rationed the food they had, until each man got a spoonful of food a day.  They worked out a schedule for the lights, so they simulated night and day.  They managed to survive in horrific conditions without turning on each other, and that, to me, is even more amazing than the rescue.

Verdict: Don't miss this exhibit - it's small, so easily managed in a lunch hour.  It will remind you that, no matter how frustrating or dreadful people can be, they are also capable of great things.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In the Library: Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape

Where:  National Gallery of Art, East Building Library

When:  through August 12, 2012

I've sensed before that exhibits in the library are tied to exhibits in the Gallery proper, but this is the first time I've seen something in the library that's so clearly meant to "go with" another, larger show.  A continuation of the Joan Miró exhibit currently on at the East Building, it features three Miró pieces.  One is the introduction that Miró wrote to the catalog of a Alexander Calder show in Palma de Mallorca, Spain in 1972.  It consists of  some color drawings and a handwritten note to Calder, recalling several experiences the two shared in years past.  There's something about the drawings that puts me in mind of Calder.  I can't describe it exactly, but somehow they are Calder-esque.  Perhaps it's the orange triangle drawing that is reminiscent of the mobile handing in the East Building.

The other two items on display are scrolls that Miró created, also in 1972.  What they are meant to represent, I couldn't tell you.  They look like so many scribbles, with no rhyme or reason to any of it.  I did notice that at the end of one of them, there are two holes - perhaps another attempt to "assassinate" painting?

Verdict:  Unless you're a big fan of Miró, you can give this a miss.

The Art of Video Games

Where: American Art Museum

When: through September 30, 2012

This exhibit is rather hard for me to review, as I'm not much of a fan of video games.  I have nothing against them, and will play them from time to time, but they just don't hold my interest long enough for me to make very much progress or get very good at them.  Frankly, I'd rather read a book!  Nevertheless, off I went to see this show, and now I will review it.  Just keep in mind that these are the views of a non-gamer.

The question that the exhibit poses is: "Are video games art?"   The show attempts to demonstrate that, in the process of the gamer playing the game, the game itself becomes art.  I find that a little hard to accept.  I'll grant you that the current games on display (and yes, they have several games you can play) have amazing graphics.  One, I think it's called "Flower" allows the player to act as the wind, blowing through grass.  I'm sure there's more to the game than this, but it was beautiful to see.  The colors and the sharpness of the display were gorgeous, especially when compared to the Pac-Man game also featured.  There's no debate about the fact that games have become far more sophisticated and eye-catching, but is the fact that something's pretty enough to make it art?

The exhibit maintains that it is the interaction between the gamer and the designers of the game that is the source of the art, and that intrigued me.  Does a painting or a sculpture become art only when someone looks at it?  Surely these things are art when the artist has finished his or her work on them; no further "interaction" is needed.  I'm reminded of the "tree falling in the forest" question now.

I think this exhibit would have been better placed in the American History museum, as it serves very well as a history of video games.  No question that more people, especially kids, would see it there, and I have no doubt it would be a big hit.

Verdict:  If you like video games, run right over to see this show.  You'll be reminded of games you probably haven't played in years and you'll get to see how much things have changed since the 1980s.

Best in the World: Native Athletes in the Olympics

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: September 3, 2012

I had some extra time yesterday afternoon, and decided to make my way over to the American Indian Museum to see their exhibit on the participation of Native Americans in the Olympics.

Sports were central to civic and religious life in indigenous communities before contact with Europeans, setting a foundation for impressive athletic performance in the years since.  The first Native American Olympic athlete was Frank Pierce, from the Seneca tribe, who ran the marathon in the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis.

The 1912 games in Stockholm were really the first modern Olympics, and they set the standard for the games that followed.  Among the members of the U.S. team was Jim Thorpe, the premier athlete of his era and one of the greatest athletes of all time.  He won gold medals in the pentathlon and the decathlon - the only person ever to do so.  Other Native American athletes were part of the 1912 team, including Duke Kahanamoku, who was to water sports what Thorpe was to sports on land.  After the Olympics, Kahanamoku brought the sport of surfing to the U.S. and to Australia.

On display are Thorpe's gold medals and lots of photos of the athletes.  The show is in the Sealaska Gallery on the second floor, the smaller of the two galleries were I've seen temporary exhibits.

Verdict:  This is a show easily managed in a lunch hour and well worth seeing, especially with the 2012 games about to begin.   

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Six Degrees of Peggy Bacon

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through September 30, 2012

Imagine playing the "6 Degrees of Separation" game with Peggy Bacon, a prominent figure in the art world, rather than with Kevin Bacon, and you've got the idea of this show.

Peggy Bacon was a New York artist, printmaker and author (she wrote a mystery novel entitled The Inward Eye, along with children's books) who knew everyone in the arts.  The show delineates her connections, both individually in separate cases, and as a giant spider web of relationships on one of the walls.

It occurs to me that you could do this with anyone with a reasonable number of friends and professional contacts - perhaps LinkedIn serves as a sort of online version of this show?  A reminder that, although the world is large, it's also small.

Verdict: A fun way to spend a few minutes - it's a one-room show, so you can take it in fairly quickly.

2012 US Presidential Scholars

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 4, 2012

I had never heard of this program before, but each year 141 high school seniors are chosen as Presidential Scholars.  The program began in 1964 and recognizes outstanding students in a variety of fields.  The students whose work is on display in this show are among those who were chosen for their accomplishments in the arts.  It's an interesting group of young people, I must say.  One of them hopes to write and produce an episode of The Boondocks, which I'm assuming is based on the comic of the same name - one of my favorites.  I still miss reading it, although it's been gone for several years now.  Another student was helped enormously by the program, as very few people in his hometown of Lewisport, Kentucky understand or respect the arts. A third student has overcome obstacles that are unfathomable to me: his father was murdered when he was three, his mother was sent to prison for armed robbery when he was seven.  His teachers were the ones who encouraged him to write, and he's going to attend the University of Chicago in the fall.

Verdict: Well worth seeing, so make time this week to stop in!

Pause and Play: A Pop-Up Gallery

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 3, 2012

This show is in the same gallery that held the Innoventions exhibit I attended a few months ago - it seems as if the museum has decided to keep it as a gallery set aside for temporary displays.

This show deals with toys of the 1950s and 1960s, along with memorabilia from television shows of that same era.  Also included are games designed to teach children math - an eclectic selection of items, I must say.  One of the math games was called Digitor and looked much like a large Rolodex.  How it worked, I have no idea.  An item called 27 Scraps of Paper, constructed by Arthur Ganson was also there - it seemed vaguely familiar, as it I'd seen it before...

Since I wasn't around to watch television in the 1950s, I couldn't really get that excited about the relics from that era, but I was quite interested to see that they had on display Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit from the Captain Kangaroo show, one of my childhood favorites.  I found out that Bob Keeshon, who played Captain Kangaroo, had left the Howdy Doody Show, due to his discomfort with the large amount of advertising associated with that program.   Quaint by today's standards, I'm sure.

I was also able to see the original Kermit - not really a frog, more of a lizard.  He was constructed from an old coat belonging to Jim Henson's mother and a ping pong ball - a humble beginning, indeed.  His original show was called Sam and Friends and ran on local DC television.

On the walls were photographs of people watching television - funny to see people watching those small screens, in the big consoles, not to mention how close to the screen everyone was sitting.  Yikes, I wanted to tell them - sit back!

Verdict: Fun to see, if you've got a few minutes to kill and are in the museum anyway.  Probably not worth the trip on its own, unless you're a big fan of the Muppets and want to see Kermit in his original incarnation.