Saturday, January 26, 2013

Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 28, 2013

You get both poetry and portraits at this show, featuring poets from Walt Whitman to the 1970s.  Some people get multiple pictures (presumably those the curators thought were more important); most get one.  All are from the Gallery's permanent collection.  Each portrait also features a sample of the poet's work and a short biography.  It functions as a type of introduction to modern poetry, something of which I stand in sore need.  Although I studied poetry in high school, I confess I've not kept up since then, so I'm a bit behind!

In the 20th century, American poetry came into its own, no longer a derivative of English poetry.  The foundation comes from works by Walt Whitman (think of "Leaves of Grass," and "Song of Myself," which I do remember from 10th grade) and Ezra Pound.  In fact, I even remembered the quote they use from "Song of Myself," which I had to memorize for English class.

Ezra Pound, one of those who gets a larger display, is commemorated with a bronze bust.  It's interesting in that it has lots of slits in it - as if to symbolize the breaks in his mental state; quite effective, I thought.  The commentary on Gertrude Stein, "her writing is a thing that needs verbs," made me smile.  I went to see a big exhibit on her life (was it here at the Portrait Gallery? - I think so) a year or so ago.  There was also a photograph of Allen Ginsberg that I remember seeing in the National Gallery of Art show a while back.  There's something very satisfying in seeing things again and recognizing them; it makes me feel as if I'm part of the "in crowd."  The idea of there being an "in crowd" who go to museum exhibits is a bit ridiculous, I do realize.

Verdict: If you like modern poetry, don't miss this retrospective on a century's worth of practitioners.  For me, I think I would have appreciated it more if I were better versed <groan> in the genre.

Portraits of President Barack Obama

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through February 25, 2013

Timed to coincide with the inauguration, the Portrait Gallery is showing this set of two portraits of Barack Obama, one serious and one smiling.

There's something about larger than life photos that are a bit disturbing to me, but these are very good.  They capture the friendly, approachable side of the President that I think is, in part, responsible for his appeal, along with the serious, it's time to get down to work and act like adults side, that must frequently experience frustration with the political nonsense of Washington.  The artist, Chuck Close, is famous for his large scale heads, and these are certainly large scale!

I was struck by how many people were looking at the portraits - more than I usually see in this museum.  I can only imagine they were tourists in town for the inauguration, who wisely decided to add a day of sightseeing to their trip.  I was happy to see them enjoying themselves at the Smithsonian, posing for photos with the portraits, the way I used to see tourists with those cardboard cutouts of famous politicians by the White House, when I worked in that neighborhood.

Verdict: Easy to add this on to a trip to either the Portrait Gallery or the American Art Museum, and the timing couldn't be better.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Peacock Room with the Shutters Open

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: Third Thursday of each month

One day each month, the curators at the Freer open the shutters in the Peacock Room, and last Thursday, I went to have a look.  Sadly, the day was overcast, so I probably didn't get the best possible view, but it was nice to have a bit more light in the room.

The Freer usually decorates the room with a selection of blue and white china, but at present, they've switched out that collection for a sampling of Charles Lang Freer's pottery.  He collected from a wide variety of sources, so you get a little bit of everything.  If you like pottery, this is a must-see, regardless of whether the shutters are open or closed.  Apparently, the blue and white porcelain will return in the spring, so your opportunity to see the room as Freer lived in it is limited.

The fabulous peacock painting on the far wall is actually James McNeil Whistler's revenge against the room's original owner, who refused to pay him what he (Whistler) though he was owed for his work redecorating the room.  The peacock on the right, who looks very haughty and full of himself, is meant to represent Frederick Leyland, the London shipping magnate, who hired Whistler to redo Thomas Jeckyll's original design.  The peacock on the left is Whistler himself, bullied and cowed by Leyland.  It's a wonderful painting, regardless of the history, but knowing the story does add a bit to the picture.

Docents are available to answer questions while the shutters are open, which is how I found out about the painting's hidden (or not so hidden) meaning.  A knowledgeable guide really adds to my appreciation of a museum I find, and that feeling was reinforced on this visit.  I'd like to be able to take guided tours of the Smithsonian museums - having to work full-time really does cramp my style in this way!

Verdict: Take the time to see this fantastic room in a new light; the next date the shutters will be open is February 21, 2013.

A Century Ago They Came as Sovereign Leaders

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through February 25, 2013

There's something terribly sad about this exhibit.  It's concerned with  the participation of six Native American chiefs in Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 inaugural parade.   The chiefs came with the intention of bringing the hopes and grievances of their people to the attention of the United States government, in order to negotiate government to government, but those planning the parade asked them to participate only in order to add a "picturesque touch of color" to the proceedings.  A Washington Post reporter described them as "like Remington's pictures, only endowed with life and motion."  The concerns and problems of Native Americans were of little interest to Washington's elite.

Theodore Roosevelt had a complicated relationship with Native Americans.  Although there were many individual Native people with whom he was friendly, he felt that the persistence in a tribal identity was futile.  Tribes should become integrated with mainstream American society.  Of course, not everyone is interested in giving up their entire way of life to fit in better with those they blame (with good reason) for making that way of life untenable.

Each of the six chiefs had a particular reason for traveling to Washington, and this exhibit highlights each one.  Geronimo (the only one of the chiefs I'd heard of before) came to advocate for the release of his people, the Chiricahua Apache from captivity following numerous battles with the U.S. Army.  His people were finally released from Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, in 1912, three years after Geronimo's death.

Verdict: This small show is very interesting, and sheds light on a part of American history that I, for one, knew little about.

When Time and Duty Permit: Collecting During World War II

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through April 28, 2013

This exhibit is in the other large display case that's been moved from the vestibule.  It focuses on the work that scientists who were serving in the military during WWII and even regular soldiers did in the area of conservation.

The Smithsonian was able to advise the military about the geographic cultures and natural world of the Pacific region when the U.S. entered the war against Japan.  Curators at the Smithsonian encouraged soldiers to explore the natural world and send back specimens when they were able to do so.  Many servicemen found it a welcome break from the stresses of combat and were happy to assist the museum in its quest for items to add to its collection.

Smithsonian scientists themselves served in the military, and they also sent back specimens.  As a result, the Smithsonian developed a tremendous collection.  It became, and remains, a powerhouse in the field of Pacific studies.  One of the scientists specifically mentioned in the exhibit is S. Dillon Ripley, the Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1964-1984, and for whom the Ripley Center is named.  It was interesting to learn a bit more about Ripley, since I've been to shows in the building named for him many times.

Verdict: Well worth a few minutes of your time.  Like the rhino exhibit, it's easy to add this on to a trip to the museum to see a larger show.

Fascinating -- Endangered RHINO

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through April 28, 2013

I feared I'd have another long search on my hands when I went to see this exhibit.  The display cases on the ground floor, by the Constitution Avenue entrance (where the website told me this exhibit would be housed), used to be located right in the vestibule, just beyond the guard stations.  When I headed over to look at the items there, I found the cases were gone.  I headed out into the main area of the ground floor, and found they'd been re-positioned in the hallway by the gift shop.  This is probably a better place for them; they'll get more foot traffic here, as they were off to the side in the vestibule and not so noticeable.

One of the large cases contained this little exhibit on the rhinoceros.  There are five different types of rhinos in Africa and Asia and sadly, all of them are endangered.  Indiscriminate killing in the 19th and 20th centuries led to a terrible decline in the animal's population, but preservation efforts have led to a slight rebound in populations recently.  Poaching and loss of habitat are still very serious threats to the species' survival.   In fact, the rhinoceros is one of the most endangered species on earth.  The Smithsonian Libraries support and enhance wildlife conservation biology, and this display shows several of the books in their collection on the rhinoceros.  The materials in the case are a nice reminder that there's a lot more to the Smithsonian then just the museums.

Verdict: A nice add-on to a trip to the Natural History Museum - you can see everything in the case in about 10 minutes.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Not Lost in Translation: The Life of Clotilde Arias

Where: American History Museum

When: through April 28, 2013

Yet another entertaining and informative trip to the Small Documents Gallery!  This exhibit focuses on the life of Clotilde Arias, who (among many other things) wrote an official Spanish language translation of the Star Spangled Banner.  The Museum had put her translation on display a couple of years ago, and I was eager to learn more about the person who had written it.

The first thing I noticed was that the museum informed visitors that the Star Spangled Banner was on display - probably not necessary, but good to see nonetheless.  I've been frustrated before by their lack of cross-references, and I'm glad to say that I have no cause for complaint this time.

The museum also set up some stuff outside the gallery, so as to draw visitors in - also good!  The Small Documents Gallery is down a corridor, and easy to overlook, so the more you can alert people to its existence, the better.  I say this and mean it, although part of the attraction of the Gallery for me is the fact that it's often empty when I come to visit.  Not so this time, the display outside in the corridor seems to have worked in luring people in.

So who was Clotilde Arias?  She was a Peruvian immigrant who came to New York City in 1923 to study music.  In 1945, the State Department asked for a translation of the Star Spangled Banner into Spanish and Portuguese, in order to spread American values in Latin America.  Previous translations were not singable - apparently, they were simply word for word translations.  The government was looking for something that could be sung to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner (originally the official song of a London club, the Anacreontic Society, and the lyrics celebrated wine, women and entertainment - bet you didn't know that, did you?  I certainly didn't.).  Arias' version was chosen as the official Spanish language translation, and is the only version allowed to be sung.  She received $150 for her work.

Although Arias was separated from Francis Scott Key by time, gender and ethnicity, they are tied together by her work on the song.  I found that concept very interesting: that two people who never met or worked together and would have had little in common if they had, are able to share the credit for creating something.

The translation was not the only work that Arias did, however.  She translated Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and numerous advertising pieces into Spanish, for use in Latin American markets.  She also wrote her own Spanish language advertising jingles.  She also became involved in the idea of Pan Americanism - the idea that the countries of the Western Hemisphere should be more unified.  For example, she advocated requiring Spanish to be taught in U.S. schools, in order to foster more unity with Latin America.

This display was by far the most elaborate of the ones I've seen over the years in this space.  Whether this is a one-time extravaganza, or a harbinger of things to come, only time will tell.  Much as I like the solitude and the homely arrangement of artifacts, I hope they continue to show more "splashy" exhibits here - more visitors will be likely to take a look at what's on offer, and that's a good thing.

Verdict: Make time for this show the next time you're at American History - interesting and fun.

Pissarro on Paper

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through March 31, 2013

This is the most hidden away exhibit I've ever seen at the National Gallery.   After wandering around the entire Ground Floor for quite a while, I asked the docent at the reception desk where it was, and she couldn't tell me either.  I gave up and returned another day, determined to find this show or die trying.  I finally found it, in the area marked "Small French Paintings."  When you enter that area, head off to the right and through several rooms.  It's in one room at the back.

Once I finally located the pieces in question, I was happy I persisted in my quest.  Although Pissarro is better known for his paintings, this is an exhibit of his prints, which became an important part of his art.  He could try out ideas more easily this way, and then commit to a painting later, if the design was successful.  He bought his own etching press in 1894. and made over 200 plates.  He sought to capture the mood and essence of what he saw, rather than focusing on the bare details.

I found a lot of movement in his brushwork, which gives the pieces a vibrancy that their lack of color might make difficult to show.  These works focus on rural scenes: the hustle and bustle of nature and those who live close to it.

Verdict: This is a small show, easily combined in a lunch hour with the library exhibit also on display.  Now that you know how to find it, you can spend all your time looking at the art!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

In the Library: Announcements from the Vertical Files

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through April 26, 2013

Yet another exhibit from the staff of the Library at the National Gallery of Art.  I do love seeing their displays, situated as they are in the Gallery's library.  No matter how crowded the rest of the Gallery may be, it's always nice and quiet in the library.  Since I went on the day it opened, it's possible I was the first person to see this exhibit.  I certainly had the place to myself while I looked at the pieces.

This is a display of announcements of show openings, not simply flyers, but flyers that were constructed to represent the artist whose show was being announced.  If you have a look at the Calder announcement pictured here, you'll see it is reminiscent of his work, even if it's not a specific representation of any particular piece.  Another announcement, for an Yves Klein exhibition, was entirely in Yves Klein Blue - his own color.  (For my views on the ability of someone to "create" a color, see my review of the Yves Klein exhibit at the Hirshhorn.)

There was an announcement in gold, for a show by Chris Burden, who intended to construct a pyramid of gold bars at the Gagosian Gallery.  Sadly for him, the bars were purchased from a company that was investigated by the SEC and the bullion was placed in receivership.  The show has been postponed indefinitely, so the only thing left is the announcement.  Thus are the effects of the Lesser Depression on art felt.  I also saw an announcement for a Nam June Paik show, and I was reminded both that I had seen some of his work in the Tower a while ago and would see another show of his later this year.

Verdict: When have I ever not recommended a show at the Library?  Go for the serenity, if not for the display.  Although, the display is quite interesting, even for those who are put to sleep by the phrase "vertical file."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Civil War and American Art

Where: American Art Museum

When: through April 28, 2013

This is a large exhibit of art created during and after the Civil War.  I had never realized before that those stormy pictures of the mid 1800s were actually about the political storm raging in the country.  The exhibit commentary begins by describing the Civil War as the second American Revolution.  I could swear the War of 1812 was described in the same way in the show I saw last month in the Portrait Gallery!

One of the differences between the Civil War and the War of 1812 was the impact of photography.  Battlefield photos, which made their way back to the civilian population, destroyed the image of war as a glorious undertaking.  The horrible destruction of so many lives was laid bare.  There's really no way to idealize a pile of corpses.  The artists who witnessed the war first hand were stripped of their idea of America as a new Eden and forced to comes to grips with the idea of a nation fallen from grace.

There are so many pieces in this exhibit that I can't possibly describe each one, but several caught my eye particularly.  Sanford Robinson Gifford's "A Coming Storm," was originally owned by Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth.  It features gorgeous autumn colors, a favorite subject of mine.

The photographs of the South after the war give the decimation an immediacy that books and paintings don't.  It's hard to imagine the loss of lives and property that the war brought to that part of the country, but the photos make it real in a way that other media just can't.

Eastman Johnson's "A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves" shows a slave family riding a horse, heading towards the Union Army.  I was reminded of the "Horse Nation" exhibit I saw at the American Indian museum - horses have played their part in the lives of all who live in North America.

"The Old Mount Vernon" shows a different view of George Washington's home - a view that includes outbuildings and slaves.  I was reminded of the exhibit at the American History museum on Thomas Jefferson's slaves and their families.

A painting by Conrad Wise Chapman is part of the show.  His work appears to be the only paintings made by a Confederate soldier while in uniform.  Finally, another piece by Sanford Robinson Gifford, "Preaching to the Troops" was displayed in the Oval Office from 1976 - 1989.  Frankly, it's not the piece I would have chosen necessarily.

Verdict: Overall, this is an interesting show, although I couldn't quite figure out the method of organization.  It's not chronological; perhaps there's a subject arrangement that was lost on me.  It's a large show, so if you have only a lunch hour, you'll need to move quickly.

Inside Insights: Photographs by the Smithsonian Community

Where: Ripley Center

When: through April 30, 2013

This is the second exhibit I've seen that focuses on the artwork of Smithsonian employees.  This one is strictly photography, and a talented bunch of photographers they are.  Employees for the purposes of this exhibit include fellows and volunteers, so they're pulling from a large pool of people.  The photos are the winners of a contest held in August of 2012; the subjects are people, places and objects.  Typing this reminds me of the "Schoolhouse Rock" cartoon about nouns!

Some of the photographs that most appealed to me were "Sunset, Disko Bay, Greenland" - the colors in this are just beautiful.  Another, called "Untitled" (I can overcome my disdain for this title, you see) features a person walking through the piece "Blue Penetrable" that I saw, and walked through myself, at the Hirshhorn.

Verdict: Worth a look, especially if you're a fan of photography.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Perspectives: Ai Weiwei

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through April 7, 2013

If the Hirshhorn show has left you wanting more of Ai Weiwei, you're in luck: the Sackler Gallery, only a few steps away, is featuring one of his installations as part of their "Perspectives" series of contemporary Asian art.  Located in the Gallery's main entryway, "Fragments" is one of his large pieces that, viewed from above, is in the shape of China.  My issue with this is the same one I had at the Hirshhorn.  It's all very well to make things in the shape of China, but if I can't look down on the piece to see that, the point is lost.

Setting that objection aside, the piece uses the same reclaimed wood from Chinese temples that I saw at the Hirshhorn, so there's a quality of timelessness to this, as well as a sense of time moving on.  Everything old is new again, perhaps expresses it best.  I would have liked to walk in the sculpture, but I'm pretty sure I would have been taken to task for that, so didn't attempt it.  A chair, a stool and a table make up part of this piece, and I wondered what it meant that those items couldn't be used - you can't just walk in and sit down on the chair, or set your bags down on the table; their usefulness has been removed.  I'm sure this is terribly important, but I can't quite figure it out.

There's a quote from Ai on the wall that I liked very much, "The more quickly one is moving, the more frequently one grabs hold of memories."  I'm not entirely sure what this has to do with the installation, but I think it's a great comment on our fast-moving, yet nostalgia-obsessed culture.

Verdict: You could easily top off your trip to the Hirshhorn by looking into the Sackler to see this, or you can have a look while you're in the Sackler to see another exhibit.

Michelangelo's David-Apollo

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through March 3, 2013

It's been a long time since we Washingtonians have seen this sculpture.  The year was 1949, and it was here for the second inauguration of Harry Truman.  Times have changed a lot since David-Apollo's last visit, but Michelangelo's work has weathered the years unchanged.

A word about the unusual name: there is considerable uncertainty among scholars over whether this is meant to be a statute of David or of Apollo.  The hyphen is really a way of covering all bases.  The uncertainty is due in part to the fact that in some historical sources it's referred to as David and in others as Apollo, but it's also because the statue is unfinished.  Apparently, Michelangelo was prone to leaving works undone, or non-finito.  This allows the viewer to get a look at the artistic process, by seeing something that is less than the finished product, which is very interesting, but it does make one wonder if the artist had some sort of issue with closure.  Could he have been afraid of commitment?

Kidding aside, the portions of the work that are left unfinished are exactly those that would give the greatest clues to the statute's identity.  His left arm is reaching for something on his back - is it a quiver of arrows, suggesting Apollo?  His right foot is resting on something - maybe Goliath's head, which would make him David?  It's unlikely we'll ever know, but it's a fine statue, whoever it's meant to represent.

I'm happy to say that this exhibit ushers in "2013: The Year of Italian Culture" at the National Gallery, so I'm looking forward to more shows featuring Italian art.

Verdict:  When is Michelangelo not worth a look?  You can easily combine this figure with another show at the National Gallery, or a trip to part of their permanent collection.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through February 24, 2013

So after hearing about this show for a couple of months, I finally had an opportunity to see this major exhibition of works by the Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei.  I was concerned that it would be nothing but crazy stuff (this is the Hirshhorn, after all), but in fact, there were several items I thought were quite good.  Don't get me wrong, it's not a collection of landscape paintings, so if oddness does not appeal, you may wish to stay away.  Overall, there were more things that I found interesting than ridiculous.

The bicycle sculpture pictured here is actually on the first floor of the Hirshhorn, so don't miss this just because it's not with the main part of the show.  When you make your way to the second floor, you'll hear a voice reading aloud what I later discovered were the names of the children killed in the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.  This recording runs for three hours, and the list of the names takes up the entire left wall - you'll see it as you come up the escalator.  On the ceiling is what looks like a snake, but upon closer examination is a chain of backpacks in various sizes, appropriate for schoolchildren.  90,000 people were killed or are still missing as a result of this earthquake - it's hard to imagine the loss of so many lives.

In the first room of the show, there are prints of photographs of the construction of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, the "bird's nest," that was designed by Ai.  The photographs cover the entire walls and the floor, so you feel as if you are completely immersed in the building.

In the next rooms, there are very large wooden sculptures, made of reclaimed wood from Chinese temples that are (apparently) in the shape of China.  The problem is that you can only see this if you're looking down on the sculpture from above, so until I read the commentary on the wall, this point was lost on me.   It occurs to me that the set-up in the African Art Museum would be great for these - the area where you look down on the show in the second floor from the first floor.  Sadly, this is in the Hirshhorn, where they have no such arrangement.

There are also a couple of videos - they look like traffic cameras, and are about as interesting. Happily, I was distracted from these offerings by three small brown houses, made of tea!  They are literal teahouses.  Crazy it may be, but it's the kind of crazy I like.  I really admire the creativity of that.  Another great work is "Moon Chest."  It's seven large chests made of Huali wood; they align so that if you look through the holes towards the bottom (these were at about my eye level), you can see the phases of the moon.  This is quite difficult to describe, but if you go to the show, you'll see what I mean.

Ai also makes use of old vases in his work.  He takes urns and pots that are thousands of years old and paints over them.  On one vase, he had painted the Coca-Cola label.  "Is this desecration?" I asked myself.  More to the point, is it trademark infringement?  My love of antiquities was at war with my appreciation of the recycling he's doing.

There are many more items on display, but I won't write you a laundry list of everything.  Do note that the show continues on the 3rd floor with two more pieces.

Verdict: This is a show of truly unusual art.  Much of it is a reminder of the Sichuan earthquake and an indictment of the government's actions.  I think it's worth a trip.  You can see all of it fairly quickly, if you don't linger, but you could also spend a couple of hours, if you studied everything.

Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through February 24, 2013

This installation is outside of the museum itself, in the center courtyard.  This picture gives a very good idea of what you'll see - very large animal heads on tall poles.  I couldn't help but be reminded of the way the English used to put the heads of their dead enemies on spikes to warn other potential rebels of the cost of threatening the status quo.

Of course, I have no idea what the message of these heads may be.  Since Ai is a dissident artist, there may be some aspect of this work that is meant to evoke thoughts of governments quashing rebellion.  On the other hand, it might just be a way to create representations of the Chinese Zodiac.

Since I was born in a Dragon year, I paid particular attention to that head.  It's more fanciful than the other heads - not surprising, since it's the only creature that isn't real.  It's also more elaborate than the others, perhaps in an effort to show the fire-breathing power that is part of the dragon myth?

If you're headed to the Hirshhorn (perhaps to see the big Ai Weiwei show inside), it's a nice complement to see this as well.  You can even make time on your way to the Air and Space Museum or to the Castle; it only takes a few minutes to walk around the circle of heads.

Verdict: How often do you get to see zodiac animals on spikes?  Go have a look.