Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff's Murals at Talladega College

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through March 1, 2015

In the East wing of the 2nd floor, a space is reserved for exhibits from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.  Over the past several years, they have put up about half a dozen different shows, and each has been excellent.  I don't mean good, or interesting or worth the trip; I mean excellent - a cut above the ordinary show.  If this is the caliber of display we can expect when the NMAAHC opens in 2016, we are in for a real treat.  I wish I knew the names of the curators of these shows so I could compliment them by name - whoever you are, you're doing great work.

The current show is an exhibit of murals by Hale Woodruff, a 20th century African American artist.  The colors are wonderful, and each work (there are six in total) is full of action.  There's a sinuous quality to his brushstrokes that gives the pieces a sense of power and strength, and they are large enough that you feel part of the action, even just standing and looking.

This is most true of the first piece, pictured here, The Mutiny, which is a painting of the takeover of The Amistad by the Africans aboard.  Brute force is depicted, not just in the men fighting, but in the waves in the background and the sugarcane that litters the deck.  Woodruff shows the rage of the mutineers, fighting for their freedom from bondage and the terror of the crew, fighting for their lives.  It's a powerful work, both in the subject matter and in the technique used to bring it to life.

The other two painting in the Amistad group are here, along with the three works that make up the "Founding" series; murals depicting the origins of Talladega College.  The vivid color scheme, the sensitive expressions of the principal characters, the sense of action, of lots going on, are present in all of the works.

In addition, others items useful in interpreting the main works and Woodruff's life and work are also on display.  One of them is a Life magazine article, featuring a picture of Woodruff taken by Eliot Elisofon, the subject of a show at the Museum of African Art not long ago.

The curators of this space set a high bar, and they've met it yet again.

Verdict: A very fine exhibit - do not miss.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Day in the Life: Artists' Diaries from the Archives of American Art

Where: Archives of American Art


When: through February 28, 2015

I've been to many of these little shows from the Archives of American Art, and I'm starting to wonder if perhaps the way they decorate the room is the best part of the display?  The archivists, or whoever is putting these up, transform the space, so that from one exhibit to the next, you wouldn't even realize you were in the same room.  The colors, the designs on the walls - it's all very well done and very interesting.  I see the title of the new show, and I think, "What will the room look like this time?"

One wonders, though, if this is the response the sponsors of the show want.  Would they perhaps be dismayed that I'm coming more for the style than for the substance?  Or are they happy someone's stopping by, regardless of the reason?  I won't say I'm the only person who looks at these, as there's usually at least one other person in the room with me when I visit, but I will say it's never been crowded.

Archival documents are usually not block-buster items.  Setting aside the founding documents at the National Archives, mostly archives are records of an institution - important, yes, but not exciting.  This archives is slightly different, in that it's composed of records created by and about American art, which, I grant you, is inherently more interesting than records about a widget factory.  Still, though, these are records, and they lack drama.

The current offering is about artists' diaries.  Some of them are illustrated, which is nice, and some of them are of an unusual shape - like the one pictured here, which is a huge set of little tablets.  Otherwise, though, they're diaries, and unless you're going to sit down with one and read it cover to cover, developing an interest in the author's family and friends, it's hard to find them terribly enthralling.

Plus, there's the voyeur aspect of reading that which was not meant for me to read.  In fact, the wall display this time includes a quote from Blanche Lazzell, a printmaker, who wrote in her diary that it was intended for no one's eyes but her own, and she hoped it would be burnt upon her death.  Apparently, whoever had charge of her effects didn't follow her wishes.  It made me think of the controversies over the "right to be forgotten," and the lack of privacy in electronic communications.  No matter the technology, we want to have control over how we present ourselves to the world, and we don't always get it.

One of the offerings on display was a "video diary" by Joe Hollier, an artist, filmmaker and animator.  No worries about an invasion of privacy here, but is this really a diary?  It's described as being non-chronological, and isn't that the essence of a diary?  Food for thought...

Verdict: If you're interested in the lives of artists outside of their art, stop by and have a look.  Otherwise, I think you can give this a miss.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 22, 2015

It's funny how some times I'll have expectations for a show, that it will be good, or bad, or will feature certain types of art.  I thought this would be Audubon prints and large scale paintings from the 1800s, but I could not have been more wrong.  The vast majority of the works in this show are modern - in some cases, very modern.  There's a lot that's wild and a lot that's weird and an enormous amount to like. The wall notes at the beginning of the show describe birds as "winged wonders that surround us daily," and I think winged wonders is a great way to describe this show.

My favorite artist on display is Fred Tomaselli.  The colors he uses are wonderful, and his work has a psychedelic quality to it.  In addition to paint, he uses leaves from his own garden in his work, which provide a touch of realism amidst the trippiness of his efforts.  I found myself thinking that, if I owned one of his paintings, I could look at it a very long time before I would stop finding elements I hadn't noticed before.

Of course, what catches the eye immediately is the giant sculptures (if sculpture is the right word, and I'm not sure that it is, but I can't come up with any other word that's better) by Petah Coyne.  They're very tall, with taxidermied birds and squirrels.  They look vaguely like trees, but also vaguely like big piles of flowers - you really have to see them to appreciate them.

Then there's Laurel Roth Hope's birds, made of human adornments - earrings, barrettes and fake fingernails.  Somehow, using these unlikely materials, she manages to convey the movement of the birds; you almost expect them to rise up and fly away.  And there's a set of extinct birds, most of the ones in the Lost Bird Project.  They're pigeon mannequins, with sweaters knitted in a pattern showing their coloring - a reminder to appreciate the wonders of nature before they vanish forever.

Finally, I must mention the mural outside the exhibit space.  It's a recreation of the end papers in Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.  I can remember my parents using this book frequently to identify birds in our backyard when I was a child, and the mural brought it all back to me.  It's great to have a personal connection to art, to have it remind you of a part of your life you had forgotten.

Verdict: This is the best show I've seen in a long time, and I recommend it highly.

El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebration

Where: National Gallery of Art

When:  through February 16, 2015

This year is the 400th anniversary of El Greco's death, and the National Gallery has decided to mark the occasion by displaying several of their own El Greco paintings, along with three from other local collections.

The exhibit takes up only one room, so I had plenty of time to examine each work in detail.  I've decided that El Greco is a sort of bridge between the Mannerist artists of the 1500s and the abstract painters of the 20th century, especially Picasso.  His elongated figures, who often seem to be in tortured poses, remind me of the exaggerated people of the Mannerists, but also of Picasso's early work.  It's not that El Greco's figures are completely abstract, but they're not completely realistic either.

If you like religious art, you'll find much to enjoy here; he lived during the Counter-Reformation in Spain, and his work reflects the religious fervor of the times.

Verdict: An interesting small show, nothing like as large as the El Greco retrospective I remember from 1982.  You can see this and the lovely holiday decorations in the Rotunda in a lunch hour.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Richard Estes' Realism

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 8, 2015

It's easy to get so caught up in the realism of Richard Estes' work that you miss the artistry in his pieces.  You could easily mistake almost every painting for a photograph - they're that crisp and detailed and "real" looking.  Once you've marveled at how paint can look so much like toner, however, look again and see what else is going on.

In every piece, you can see the theme of repetition and multiplicity.  Whether it's the arches in his Roman bridge, the stacks of books in the National Gallery of Art library or the telephone booths outside a diner (pictured here), you see the same element repeated over and over again.  In one piece, he deliberately repeats his painting through the use of a mirror effect.  As much as we want to believe that we are unique individuals (special little snow flakes, as I like to say), Estes shows us that the world in which we live is made up of similar, if not identical, pieces.

Another theme that you see in many of his works is that of travel, especially travel over water.  He incorporates bridges as well as boats, showing people moving from one side of the water to the other.  Some of them are commuters on their way to work; others are on vacation, headed for an island destination.  Movement, no matter the purpose, is what he portrays - both the movement of the water and of the people on the water.

Motion and multiplicity are what you see, if you can stop marveling at his technique long enough to appreciate them.

Verdict: The show is well laid out, in a large space.  Because there are only a few paintings in each area, you can make your way through quickly, leaving you time to stop and admire the craftsmanship.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

First 3-D Printed Presidential Life Mask and Bust


Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through December 31, 2014

This is a great time of year to visit the Castle - it's decorated for the holidays with a big tree and other greenery, festive without being overwhelming.   Another reason to wander over is to see a bust and life mask of President Obama - the first president to have these made using 3-D printing technology.

Staff from the National Portrait Gallery used some really cutting-edge tools to scan the President for the bust and life mask - both banks of LED lights and handheld devices.  The results are on display this month at the far end of the Castle, where the exhibit of items from various Smithsonian museums are located.

Along with President Obama, two 3-D printed versions of the life masks of President Lincoln are also on display.  When you think about how uncomfortable and time-consuming it must have been in the 1800s to have plaster put all over your face to create a life mask, you realize that the 21st century's version - a few seconds sitting in a chair - is a vast improvement.

The idea is that the 3-D printer creates an objective picture of reality, as opposed to paintings or sculptures, which are inherently non-objective.  Of course, the same case has been made for photography, and I've seen more than one exhibit demonstrating that the camera certainly does lie.  Whether the same is true of the 3-D printer, I think we'll have to wait to see.

If you're interested in learning more about the process of making the images, see this short video at the Smithsonian Magazine website: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/president-obama-now-first-president-to-be-3D-scanned-printed-180951784/?utm_source=gosmithsoniannewsletter&no-ist

Verdict: If you're heading over to the Castle, make sure to have a look.  I'm sure this technology will be commonplace some day, but it's still pretty exciting today.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

From Neoclassicism to Futurism: Italian Prints and Drawings, 1800–1925

Where: National Gallery of Art

 When: February 1, 2015

It's been a while since I saw this show - I wasn't very impressed with it, so it was hard to summon up the energy to write a blog post, especially since I had holiday-related activities to occupy my time.

The wall notes tell you that Italian art from this period (Napoleonic Era through the creation of the Italian nation up to the rise of Fascism) tends to be overlooked in favor of the art of other countries, particularly French art.  Considering that the Impressionists were working at this time, it's easy to see how other art might languish unnoticed.  On the other hand, if this selection is anything to go by, the Italians weren't really producing anything fabulous at this time, so maybe they have only themselves to blame?

The National Gallery is actively building a collection of Italian art from the 19th and early 20th centuries - let's hope that something more impressive arrives to represent the time period.

 Verdict: If you are a devotee of prints and drawings, or a scholar of Italian history, make time to see this exhibit.  Otherwise, don't let it interfere with your holiday plans.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Modern American Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through February 1, 2015

I make a point of going to every new exhibit at the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art, even if I think it's something that won't appeal to me.  I've discovered some wonderful things this way, most notably Yinka Shonibare, my favorite artist.  It had been a while since I'd been pleasantly surprised by a show, and as I looked at the description of this one, I confess I was less than enthused by the idea of seeing it.

But I'm nothing if not dedicated, so over to the National Gallery I went, and what should I discover but a new artist to like!  His name is Louis Lozowick, and I fell in love with his drawings, which are in the first room of this small show.  Some of his pieces show a tremendous precision of line, including Still Life #2 and others an exuberance of subject, like Luna Park.  All of them are quite fine, and I'll be on the lookout for more of his work in other exhibits I see.

Overall, I liked the works in the first room better than the later works, on display in the second room.  Post-WWII modern works just don't do it for me.

Verdict: This is a small display, so easily combined with something else on offer.  It's a nice overview of the Kainen's collection in this area, and we can look forward to seeing more of their generous gift in exhibits to come.

Untitled: The Art of James Castle

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 1, 2015

It's not often that I see an exhibit and really have no idea what to make of it.  I might like something or dislike something, but I can't remember the last time I went to a show and had no idea whether I liked it or not.

Here's what I do know:  James Castle was a profoundly deaf man who never learned to communicate with others in any conventional way.  He could not read lips or use sign language, nor could he read or write.  He lived in rural Idaho with his family and created many drawings.  He used paper he found around his family's home and made a kind of ink out of soot and his own saliva.  His works depict the small town and farmland that were his surroundings.

So are these works of interest to us because we're trying to figure out what he's saying?  Or are they of interest because they stand on their own merits?  Would we put them in a museum or add them to private collections even if Castle were able to communicate in ways the general populace could understand?  Are they art, or are they a curiosity?  On another level, we're assuming that Castle is trying to communicate through his art, but is this really true?  Is there something he wants us to understand or is he merely passing the time?

I left the show with more questions than answers and a sense that the questions are not capable of being answered.  The one thing I can say is that James Castle's work is the ultimate example of outsider art.

Verdict: I'm not sure I have one, which is a first since I started writing this blog.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Room of Her Own: My Mother's Altar, an installation by Sandra Cisneros

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 12, 2015

This display is on the Second Floor, East Wing, in the American Stories area.  It is an ofrenda, or offering, something set up to honor a deceased person on the Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.  It's a Mexican custom, which has gained popularity and spread throughout Latin America and the United States.

The author Sandra Cisneros has set up this ofrenda to her mother, who loved museums, art and culture and wanted to be an artist.  Sadly, she never was able to do this, as she was busy raising her children.  Truly, a cautionary tale.  Don't put off pursuing your dreams, or dreams are all you will have.

The display is a wild mixture of the macabre and the kitschy, with an abundance of flowers to add some natural beauty. Cisneros is quoted as saying that creating this assemblage of her mother's personal possessions and mementos was a way to transform her grief over her mother's death into a celebration of her mother's life.

I understand why the museum has put this in the American Stories exhibit, as the story of Latin America is also the story of the United States.  The problem is that this is a display that would benefit from quiet reflection and examination, and the area is noisy and busy.

Verdict: I liked both this display and the idea of honoring deceased loved ones every year.  I'm not sure I'm ready to start creating my own ofrendas, but it's a nice reminder to keep those you love in your heart, so they won't be forgotten.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Out of Many, One

Where: National Mall Reflecting Pool, visible from the Washington Monument

When: through October 31, 2014

I took the afternoon off today to go up in the Washington Monument and see this portrait made of sand and soil, set up next to the Reflecting Pool, between the WWII and Lincoln Memorials.

It had been at least 25 years since I'd visited the Washington Monument, and the views from the top are lovely.  DC is a beautiful city, although it's easy to lose sight of that, when your mired in traffic, or dealing with a barely functional subway system or trying to find a bit of peace and quiet downtown.  You can see in all directions from this height, and there's something picturesque out of each observation window.

Of course, for today and tomorrow, you can also see this portrait by the Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada.  It's a composite picture, made of the facial features of several people, hence the title.  It's an interesting idea, and having it visible only from above does make it more of an event than it might otherwise be.

The problem is that you're so far away from the piece that seeing it from the Monument is not much different than seeing it online or in the newspaper.  You don't feel as if you're in the presence of the "real thing" in the way you do when you see a painting or sculpture in a museum.  Even if it's behind glass, you're still in the room with it.  With this installation, you're still at a remove.  I feel as if I've seen it, but I haven't experienced it.

That having been said, I'm glad I went up and would go again if something similar were on display in future.  Note that beginning next May, the Park Service will be offering "walk down" tours of the Monument.  You take the elevator to the top, but walk down with a guide.  It takes two hours, so you need to block out some time for this.  If I'm feeling particularly energetic some day, I'll give it a try.

Verdict: Come for the views, whether of the portrait or of the city generally.  You have to plan ahead in order to get tickets, but it's worth taking the time to do at least once in your life.

From the Library: The Book Illustrations by Romeyn de Hooghe

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 25, 2015

Lots of pieces have moved at the National Gallery of Art, as the West Building has made way for works from the East Building, but the little room where exhibits from the museum's library are displayed is still in the same place.  It's tucked away on the ground floor in room G21; happily there's a sign over the door that lets you know you've reached the right place.

The current display is one of book illustrations by Romeyn de Hooghe, a person with whom I was completely unfamiliar until I saw this offering of some of his work.  Sadly, I'm not much more informed now than I was before I looked at this display.  Rather than put up some wall notes to give the visitor a little background information, the Gallery has put out brochures to take.  I appreciate the trouble they've taken to create and print these, but frankly, I just want a few sentences - not pages of info.  I suppose it's my own fault for not looking at the brochure, but a short description of each piece, with a paragraph or two of introduction would have suited me better, and saved a few trees in the process!

I was further stymied by the fact that that the text of the books is almost entirely in Dutch, which I don't read.  I tried a bit of a French text, but didn't get very far.  I certainly can't blame the National Gallery for my own lack of language skills, but I can't imagine most other visitors would have fared any better.

On the plus side, one of the books displayed seems to be picturing a festival, and it reminded me of the View Painting exhibit I saw some years back.  I enjoyed that show and was happy to have it recalled to my memory.

Verdict: Unless you're a great fan of 17th century Dutch book illustrations (in which case, I advise you to run right out and have a look at this), you can safely skip this little show.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Degas's Little Dancer

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 11, 2015

It's worth the trouble to find Degas' lovely sculpture, the only one he made with his own hands.  It's on the Main Floor, at the 4th Street end of the building.  You have to walk through several rooms to get to it, but there are helpful signs along the way.

Placed in a glass case that both protects the piece and allows you to see it from all sides, the sculpture is accompanied by several Degas paintings, including two from the Corcoran collection.  They blend in beautifully; unless you looked at each piece to see where it was from, you'd never know which were the newcomers to the National Gallery's Degas pieces.

The star of the show, of course, is the little dancer herself.  The model for the piece was a 14 year old girl, originally from Belgium, who had a promising career in the ballet, but never became a famous ballerina.  What happened to her is unknown.  Her image, however, is well known to art lovers; she continues to delight us long after even a successful career on the stage would have ended.  Little consolation to her, of course, but a kind of immortality, none the less.

The piece is wonderful; the expression on the girl's face and her pose are quite appealing.  There's a realism that extends beyond the clothing and wig made of real human hair.  You almost expect her to begin practicing her steps as you walk around the room.  There's also an earthy quality to the piece; the model would have come from modest circumstances, and there's nothing pampered or cosseted about this depiction of her.  It's a fascinating piece that draws the eye.

I was happy to see that, in addition to situating the sculpture in a room filled with Degas dancer paintings, there's also information directing the visitor to other Degas works in the museum.  Nothing like a little cross-referencing to help those who might not be familiar with the Gallery's layout and holdings.

Verdict: Don't miss this opportunity to see a captivating work displayed very well indeed.

The Journey: A National Juried Exhibition for Emerging Artists with Disabilities, Ages 16-25

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 5, 2015

At long last, an opportunity to return to the Ripley!  I can't remember when they last had an exhibit in the International Gallery, and I don't see one scheduled any time soon.  It's a shame, really.  As much as the space itself is not terribly appealing, I've seen some great shows in there.  Oh well, I can only hope that 2015 provides me with a chance to return.

The show I saw earlier this week is set up in the main space, a sort of hallway that provides access to various lecture rooms, offices and other museums.  It's a bit of an odd area for a display, but it's better than the little corridor they've used for this show in the past.  For I wasn't just happy to be returning to the Ripley, I was also happy to be seeing this exhibit of works by young artists with disabilities.  This is the third, or maybe fourth, year I've seen this, and it's always full of interesting (well, sometimes weird) pieces.

The piece that caught my eye this year was "Never Stopping" by Gianna Paniagua.  Gianna is the recipient of a heart transplant, and the piece was meant to portray that major event in her life.  Her piece consists of paper cuttings put together into a collage; I can't imagine how much work that must take, to cut all that paper by hand.  She describes it as a form of meditation, and I can see how, once you had learned how to do the cutting, it could become meditative.  Her images include legs, bananas and hands in circular patterns, along with cutout paper, that has a flowing motion to it.  What I took from this piece was that life is a flow; we're always running, always reaching for something.

At what point, though, does this reaching and striving become too much?  At what point do we need to slow down, to turn inward, to think before acting?  Isn't that what art asks us to do?  To pause and examine what's in front of us; to get wisdom not only from the journey, but from the stops along the way?

Verdict: This show is worth a look every year.  You never know when today's "emerging artist" will become tomorrow's celebrated master.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 4, 2015

Yoga classes and lunch meetings meant I only took in one exhibit this week: photography at the National Gallery.  Rather than venturing off to Burma and India with Captain Tripe, this time I joined the Photo-Secessionists and went no further afield than Europe.

The Photo-Secessionists were early 20th century rebels, who viewed photography as a fine art.  Yes, yet another display that asks "is photography art?"  One can only imagine it must get wearisome to create a spectacular photograph, and then be greeted by people certain they can do the same thing with their new phone.  At least if you're a painter, critics may like or dislike your work, but they will admit it's art.

I decided some while ago that photography is art, and I was struck while looking at this small show by how abstract it can be.  Included in the second room is a photograph of Aubrey Beardsley taken by Frederick Evans, and it's almost entirely angles.  You'd think Picasso had created it.  The terribly long fingers, the straight line of his hair, his quite pointed nose - all very linear.  Contrast that with many of the other shots, which would have been right at home in the Pre-Raphaelite show from last year.

Verdict: A small show that's worth a look, especially if you're interested in the history of photographic techniques.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A visit to Hillwood

Where: Hillwood Estate

When: Cartier exhibit is on display until December 31, 2014

Marjorie Merriweather Post, the heir to the Post cereal fortune, purchased Hillwood in 1955; it opened to the public in 1977.  It contains her collection of art and decorative items, which focus on both French and Russian pieces.

From a chair owned by Marie Antoinette to Russian icons purchased after the revolution, each room is, in its own way, fabulous.  It is, frankly, a bit overwhelming, especially for the first-time visitor.  Happily, an audio tour is included in the price of admission, so you at least know what you're looking at as you wander from room to room.

My particular reason for going was to see the special exhibit on her collection of Cartier pieces, which is set up in the Adirondack Building.  (Note that there are several buildings on the estate, plus the gardens, so it's a good idea to get a map at the information desk.)  Post was one of the Cartier brothers' most important clients; she purchased pieces from them for many years and wore their jewelry while being presented at Court, while attending diplomatic social events in Russia, as the wife of the ambassador and while serving as a prominent socialite in the United States.  The display is relatively small - just one room, so you can look at everything in a short time.

Hillwood has a lovely gift shop, which is open to the public, even if you don't pay admission to the house, so think of it as the holiday season approaches.  You can easily spend the best part of a day here, especially if you have a fine day and want to walk around the gardens.

Verdict: A wonderful place to visit, a bit off the beaten path, but well worth a trip!

Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852–1860

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 4, 2015

Several new shows have opened recently at the National Gallery, and this display of photographs from mid-19th century India and Burma is one of them.  Tripe worked for the British East India Company when he took these pictures; they were designed to inform his employers about these two countries.  You might think that they would be rather dull - nothing artistic about them, but that's not the case.  Even though he took these photos for work purposes, they are well composed and very interesting to look at, even if you're not working for the British East India Company.

Tripe's military precision and attention to detail served him well in India, where the climate made photography quite difficult.  He managed to achieve consistent results, even with all the heat and humidity.  Granted consistency and a detail-oriented personality doesn't make one think of great artists, but when you need to contend with conditions that are working against your developing any sort of picture, those humble virtues are what allow you to create at all.

Two photographs really stood out for me.  The first is Rangoon: Signal Pagoda which is of a pagoda on which the British had put a signaling apparatus.  They thought they'd successfully transformed a local building into a useful device; the Burmese thought they'd desecrated a holy site.  It serves as a depiction of the British occupation of the area in microcosm.  The British believed they were bringing civilization; the Burmese though they were destroying their culture.  Perhaps they're both right.

Lest you think the British were entirely successful, the locals may have had the last laugh.  The second photograph I particularly noted is Royacottah: View Overlooking the Country, South-Southeast from Inside the Fort Gate.  This fort had been occupied by the British in the late 1700s and viewed by them as impregnable - a great triumph in their battle against the natives.  Fifty years later, when Tripe took his picture, it was abandoned and overgrown.  So much for the immortality of anything foreign to a local environment.

As I looked at these pieces, I was reminded both of Kiyochika and Marville, recording their cities in times of change.  These photos give you a sense of a particular time period and a particular point of view.  Don't look for people in these shots; the technology didn't allow for the capture of movement without blurring.  These are, for the most part, only empty streets and landscapes.  Also like Marville, there came a time when there was no more work for Tripe; the British Army took over India and the British East India Company ceased to hold the reins of power.  Tripe was therefore out of a job, as far as photography went, and he hung up his camera when he was only in his 30s.  A shame, as he could doubtless have turned his eye to other subjects, had he wished to do so.

Verdict: Worth a look, especially if you're interested in India or Burma, English history or early photographic techniques.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hawaii by Air

Where: National Air and Space Museum

When: through July 2015

Hawai'i is one of the most remote places on earth.  If you look at a map, it's in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, many hours flight, even from the West Coast of the United States.  There are 120 islands in the chain, which is far more than I realized.  In addition to the major islands that make up most people's vacation itinerary, there are numerous smaller atolls and islets.

People have been traveling to Hawai'i for hundreds of years, mostly by water.  Although it was originally used by sailors as a way station, some visitors went purely for pleasure, including, in 1866, Mark Twain, who fell in love with the islands and included a description of them in his book Roughing It.  In 1898, the United States annexed the islands and the number of visitors increased.  In the 1920s wealthy travelers took luxury liners to see the sights, and Waikiki Beach became a tourist destination.  For those who couldn't make the journey, Hawai'i came to American homes via a radio show called "Hawai'i Calls," which featured island music.

Flying clipper ships replaced ocean liners, and passengers traveled to the islands in first class - the only class there was.  After World War II, more airlines were able to fly to Hawai'i, and the trip became both faster and cheaper.  Now, it's hard to think of Hawai'i as remote, as so many people have made the trip.

The display is informative and well done; I was delighted to see several signs directing visitors both to other exhibits at Air and Space, as well as to other displays on the Mall.  Finally, a little cross-referencing!  Was that so hard?  One can only hope that other museums will pick up on this idea.

As much as Air and Space is not my favorite museum, I have seen some intriguing shows there, and happily, this one was located on the west side of the first floor, which is much less crowded than other parts of the building.

Verdict: If you're at all interested in Hawai'i or the history of travel generally, have a look at this small show - easily managed in a lunch hour.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A visit to the Sant Ocean Hall

Where: Natural History Museum

When: Fall 2015

I took a stroll over to the Natural History Museum this week, as much to enjoy the delightful weather as to see anything in particular.  There are three small exhibits in the Sant Ocean Hall that I glanced over, and they're worth checking out if you happen to be in the museum anyway.

The first is "Portraits of Planet Ocean: the Photographs of Brian Skerry."  If you like nature photography, this is a delight.  It focuses on underwater life, as you might have guessed from the title and is a reminder that what lies beneath the surface of the ocean is remarkable.

There's also a small case providing information on the Census of Marine Life.  This project involved scientists worldwide and provided the opportunity to obtain, for the first time, a baseline picture of the ocean.

Finally, another small display showcases the work of artist Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh, whose work is inspired by tiny ocean pteropods, or "sea butterflies."  As small as a grain of sand, they are threatened by ocean acidification.  Her work is abstract, but based on forms found in nature.

Verdict: When you're next in the Sant Ocean Hall, don't miss these small, but interesting, displays.

Speculative Forms

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through September 27, 2015

Arrayed through the hallways on the 2nd and 3rd floors, this exhibit of sculpture promises to turn one's "preconceived notions of sculpture inside out."  I can't say I felt much notion inversion while I walked around, but I will say I've not seen sculpture so well placed before.  Just at eye level and in the middle of the space, so you can walk around and look at each piece easily and completely.  I might not have fallen in love with what I saw, but at least I had a good look at it.

I was interested to see two Henry Moore pieces.  I've a fondness for his "Knife Edge Mirror Two Piece" that stands guard over the entrance of the National Gallery's East Building.  When I read the plate that identified the artist of the two pieces, I recognized them as his work.  How exactly I can't say, but they looked reminiscent of the other pieces of his I've seen.

Another piece that caught my eye was one made of paper and ink that looked exactly like a sofa cushion.  How did the artist manage this?!?

Verdict: If you like contemporary sculpture, you'll get more out of this than I did, but I have nothing but praise for how the show is arranged.

Better late than never: my trip to the Corcoran

Washington, DC has many museums other than the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art.  The reason I don't visit them is that they charge for admission, and since I only have a limited time to spend, I don't think it's worth it to pay $20+ to see one exhibit.  Besides, the Smithsonian and National Gallery are world class, so it's not as if I'm having to settle for second best, by limiting my visits to them.

The Corcoran, which is (I believe) the oldest art museum in DC, has recently been taken over by the National Gallery, so it's no longer charging admission.  There was a great kerfluffle over this; if you're interested in the play-by-play, see the Washington Post website for full details.

Now that this is another free DC museum, I headed over there to have a look at its collection.  Not wanting to just wander around aimlessly, I opted for the guided tour.  The docent was excellent, and we saw many lovely pieces.  Not just classic art: statues and oil paintings, but quite modern items as well.  The Corcoran has its own version of the Peacock Room; theirs is a room a French count had built for his princess fiancee.  Imagine France, circa 1788, and you'll have an idea of the decor: heaps of gold everywhere and terribly ornate.  Not exactly to my taste, I'm afraid.

But imagine my surprise and delight, to see a Yinka Shonibare in the center of the room! "Girl on Globe 2" is, at first, anachronistic.  A symbol of globalization and a herald of the problems of global warming, she seems out of place amidst the gilt and the rococo.  Of course, given a little thought, she's perfectly situated.  She has no head, and she stands directly opposite a clock that once belonged to Marie Antoinette.  Her style of dress would have fit right in amongst the nobility of late 18th century France.  She is, literally, on top of the world, and the people who used this room thought they were, figuratively, as well.  All in all, a brilliant juxtaposition.

The museum is a bit shabby, if I'm being truthful.  I also saw no evidence of a gift shop - a first in my experiences of museums.  I'm assuming this is because the place is closing shortly.  According to the docent who led my tour, lots of work needs to be done on the building, and then it can be used again.  For what exactly, I don't know.  Perhaps for swanky receptions?  Perhaps as overflow exhibit space for the National Gallery?  I just hope that wherever the Shonibare piece ends up, I can see it again.

Verdict: If you have a chance to visit before it closes (not sure exactly when that is, but soon), you'll find some good pieces and an interesting building.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 7, 2015

A few posts ago, I described seeing this installation as it was assembled.  Now, I went to see the finished product.  I thought I might find it less interesting than usual, since I'd seen part of it already, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Having the wall notes to explain the work gave me a context for the display which was quite helpful.  Shiota has gathered together shoes that have been discarded by their owners; some she gets from friends, others from second-hand stores.  When she can, she has the former owner of the shoes write a note about the significance of the shoes that she then attaches to the shoe in question.  She sets up the shoes on the floor and attaches each of them to a central point on the wall behind them with red yarn.  Thus, even though these shoes were from many different people and have no relationship one to the other, they are all connected.

I think of it as a reminder that human beings may be strangers, but we're all humans living on this planet and thus connected.  Many of the shoes, although all from Japan, were ones you might see in the United States - further proof of our connectedness.  I also couldn't help but think of those who made the shoes and those who designed them.  They, as much as the wearers of the shoes, were present as well.  I couldn't read the notes, as they were all in Japanese, but I suspect they add to the piece.

Verdict: There's plenty of time to see this installation when you're next in the Sackler for a show.  Take a few minutes to walk around and see this intriguing piece.

An unexpected display

On my way to see "Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota" at the Sackler, I saw a sign in the Haupt Garden directing me to see "Paradise in a Pot,"  a collection of tropical plants.  Following the sign's suggestion, I walked around and found an array of tropical plants, many of them unfamiliar to me, at the back of the garden.  They will be moved to the Smithsonian's greenhouse in Suitland in the near future; I'm guessing as soon as the weather turns colder.  "Limited time only" was the warning on the sign.  I didn't realize the Smithsonian had a greenhouse, but they do.  It serves as a production facility for plants that are displayed in the museums, and as the home of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection.  I was reminded once again that the museum exhibits that you see on the Mall are only a fraction of what the Smithsonian really owns.

Verdict: I can't tell you when the plants will retreat to their winter quarters, but if you happen to be in the Haupt Garden before it's really fall, have a look.

Portraiture Now: Staging the Self

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 12, 2015

"Portraiture Now" is the National Portrait Gallery's series featuring the works of 21st century artists.  Strolling through the gallery, you might think that the collection consists entirely of oil paintings of dead people, most of whom are rich, male and of European descent.  "Portraiture Now" shows that portrait artists can be from diverse backgrounds, depict people from every walk of life and use abstraction as well as realism in their work.

"Staging the Self" is the ninth installment of this series.  I've seen several, although not all of the offerings, and they're always interesting.  You may like or dislike what you see, but it's not a run of the mill show.

"Staging the Self" focuses on six Latino artists, who work in a variety of media: photography, sculpture, mixed media and painting.  The notes on the website will tell you that they have similarities, but I didn't really see it.  Each seems utterly different than the others.  I don't mind the lack of an overall theme; I simply viewed it as a opportunity to see the works of six different artists.

My feelings about the show are, like the media, mixed.  Some I liked, and others I didn't.  Carlee Fernandez is a sculptor, but uses photography as well.  I think of her as "the bear girl," because in several photos she appears in parts of a bear suit.  In one, she's topless, wearing only the back of the suit.  In another, she wears only the top of the suit.  If it sounds odd, well, that's because it is.  She was featured at an exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art, a museum I visited many years ago.  If there's a better collection of ridiculous art (things that make you think, "a fool and his money are soon parted") out there, I don't want to see it.  This makes it seems as if I didn't like Fernandez' work, and that's not actually true.  It's unusual, but her photography is very good.  She took a picture of herself dressed as her father and paired that with a photograph of her father - again, weird, but intriguing.

Fernandez isn't the only one to contemplate her relationship with her father; Maria Martinez-Canas takes a photograph of herself and a photograph of her father and overlays them.  As you walk around the room, you start out with a photo that's 90% her father and 10% her.  Gradually, the percentages are reversed, and you end with a photo that's 90% her and 10% her father.  Really interesting - more so, I think, than if it had been a father-son or mother-daughter pairing.

Speaking of mothers and daughters, Karen Miranda Rivadaneira uses photography to recreate memories of her childhood.  Two of them stood out, but not in a good way.  One is of a old woman (possibly her grandmother) nude, being bathed as the artists looks on.  One cannot help but wonder if grandma (who seems a bit removed from reality) knows that a nude photo of her is on display in a public museum?  One fears she might not approve.  Another is of her with her mother, lying in bed.  One of her mother's breasts is hanging out of her shirt.  I suppose it's meant to suggest breast-feeding, but it was hard to concentrate on the artistry of the image with Mom's huge breast dominating the picture.  At least Mom is clearly cognizant of what's going on and presumably gave her permission for this image to be displayed.

Verdict: Setting aside museum space specifically for contemporary artists is an idea I applaud.  Portraiture is not only about showing the "great men" of the past, but also about artistic expression in the present.  This is a hit or miss show, but worth it for the Martinez-Canas photos alone.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Sculptures by Paul Manship

Where: Museum of American Art

When: through early 2015

I'd never heard of Paul Manship before I saw this small display of his sculptures, but I'm a big fan now.  His work was inspired by mythological and symbolic figures, and those are very fine. 

For my money, however, the stars of the show are the animal sculptures.  "Group of Bears" especially, took my fancy.  I was reminded of Inuit art I've seen - it had the same love of nature inherent in the work.  "Group of Deer" was also appealing, as were the gates he did for the Bronx Zoo.  They have an "Arts and Crafts" feel to them, which I like very much.

Manship had a close relationship with the museum.  He served on its board of directors from 1932 - 1964 and was chairman of the board from 1945 onwards.  When he stepped down in 1964, he made a gift of many of his works to the museum, which is now a rich repository of all things Manship.

Verdict: I recommend this small display - I'm only sorry they're taking it down in the new year.

Barbara Kruger: Belief + Doubt

Where:  Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through December 2014

I've seen this installation many times in visits to other exhibits at the Hirshhorn since it was put up in August of 2012.  As you can see from the picture, much of the wording is so gigantic, you can't help but see it.  I've enjoyed reading the thought-provoking questions and statements over the past two years (I can't believe it's been up that long!) and will miss them when they're taken down.  I especially like the fact that many of the sentiments against consumerism continue on the floor of the gift shop.  Art is good; ironic art is even better.

My only criticism, and I didn't even realize that this was true until I made a point of reading everything, is that the words are so large that it's hard to read them close up.  Because of where it's placed (on and around the escalators), you can't really stand back to see the words.  I do like this placement, as it means you can't miss the message, but at the same time, it's awkward to read.

Verdict: The next time you're at the Hirshhorn, take a few minutes to read these giant words - love it or hate it, it's impossible to ignore.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Song Legacy

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through October 26, 2014

With all due apologies to Carolina in the morning, what could be finer than a trip to the Freer in the afternoon?  Very little, and this is yet another lovely display that repays a visit.

I'm very fond of landscape paintings, and many of these are quite fine.  The Song Dynasty lasted a long time, from the mid-10th to the mid-14th century.  This period was the apogee of traditional Chinese painting.  Landscapes came into their own as subjects; they moved out of the background, as it were and took center stage.

The paintings from this time had a great effect on later painters, and often these later works have been mistaken for the efforts of earlier masters.  There are very few genuine Song Dynasty paintings still left, which is hardly surprising given their age.  Some of them are here in the Freer - yet another reason to be grateful for living in DC.

My favorite works were those in the Mi Family style - not much color to them, but they made the most of the blacks and grays at their disposal.  Mist is featured in all of these pictures - which is really untouched paper, a charming effect.

My only criticism is that many of the works are rather dark, which makes it hard to see any detail.  This is hardly the Freer's fault, as I can only imagine this is the effect of age and environmental conditions.  One thing I wish could be changed are the display cases - there's quite a bit of glare, which doesn't help matters.

Verdict: Another enjoyable time at the Freer.

In Memoriam: Robin Williams

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 9, 2014

I took a few minutes this week to walk over to the Portrait Gallery and see their tribute to Robin Williams.  This is getting to be a habit, to see portraits of recently deceased celebrities.  I can only imagine someone else famous will have died by the time they take this portrait down.  A gruesome thought, I must watch out for a tendency towards morbidity.

My memories of Robin Williams date back to his days as Mork from Ork, so I was happy to see that this picture dates from that time period as well.  Williams was just crazy on that show, much of his dialogue ad-libbed, which must have been a challenge for his co-stars.

A sad loss; we must content ourselves with his body of work from now on.

Verdict: A fine photograph that captures both Williams' madcap antics and the sweet side he brought to many of his performances.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Arts of China

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through September 7, 2014

I rarely get the opportunity to see the permanent collections of the Smithsonian; I'm usually well occupied looking at limited-time shows.  I only see the long-term displays when they're closing.  This week, I discovered that the "Arts of China" area of the Sackler is closing after being on display since 1990.

I don't know why they're taking this exhibit down.  Perhaps it's to put up different Chinese art objects?  I can't imagine they wouldn't display Chinese works.  Maybe it's to open up more space for traveling shows?  Only time will tell; I'm eager to see what will come next.  Of course, that's assuming they're not closing down part of the museum due to budget cuts, something I've noticed in other places.  Oh well, we'll just have to wait and see.

I enjoyed looking at the Chinese objects on display at present.  Some of them are terrifically old, and I do love antiquities.  Looking at jewelry items from thousands of years ago made me realize just how ancient is the need to adorn ourselves with beautiful objects, and to adorn even our most everyday objects with pictures and designs.  It's part of the human condition, and appears in every culture's objects.

I also liked looking at some of the furniture on display, of a far more recent vintage.  I could see how the Arts and Crafts furniture makers were influenced by Asian designs.

Verdict: Have a look at this good stuff before it vanishes!

Perspectives: Chiharu Shiota

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: August 18-21, 2014

I saw something I'd never seen before at a museum this week: an installation of an exhibit.  Usually, when a new show is being put up, the doors are locked or dividers surround the work, so you can't see what's going on.  A bit frustrating, but understandable.  I wouldn't want people looking at my half-finished projects either.

The Sackler took a different approach to their latest offering in the "Perspectives" series.  Rather than hiding the efforts of the artist, they've put the creative process on display.  I went over on Tuesday and saw about half of what's in this picture.  No work was going on when I was there, but I thought that might be because it was lunch time.  I went back later in the week, and they were holding some sort of press reception, so lots of activity, but the piece looked pretty complete.

I didn't get to see the artist at work exactly, but I did get to see the display in process.  It was interesting, and I hope they do this again.  Maybe then I'll go at a non-lunch time period and see the artist actually at his craft.  I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product when it opens at the end of the month.

Verdict: If you get a chance to see a work being installed, take advantage of the chance to look "behind the curtain."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Exhibits

Yesterday, I took myself to the Natural History Museum, intending to see two exhibits.  One was the interactive "Walk Among Dinosaurs!" and the other was "Once There Were Billions" about several species of extinct birds.  For all the hype about the ability to "meet" dinosaurs, the real star of the show is in the basement, with nary a sign to guide you to her.


Where: Natural History Musem

When: through September 2, 2014


What could be more exciting than seeing yourself face-to-face with prehistoric creatures?  You can "pet" them and make horror-struck faces and swerve to avoid being eaten.    Somehow, though, the whole thing fell flat.  The movie technology is fine, and I think the small kids in the audience enjoyed themselves, with the help of some fun-loving dads, but this just isn't my thing.  Perhaps you get what you pay for with these "augmented reality" displays, and since I paid nothing, well, you get the idea.

I appreciate that the museum has a big problem right now.  The dinosaur area, one of their most popular exhibit halls, is closed for a long time, and although it will doubtless be greatly improved when it re-opens, at the moment, they're scrambling to find something to fill this gaping void in their offerings.

Verdict: If you've got little kids, by all means go see this, as they'll doubtless enjoy themselves.  Adults can probably give this walk a pass.

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through October 2015

The second exhibit I saw was about as unlike the dinosaur walk as it is possible to imagine.  There are two big display cases next to the gift shop by the Constitution Avenue entrance, and the Smithsonian Library uses them to put up displays.  They tend to feature books from the Smithsonian holdings and artifacts from their warehouses.  Where the dinosaur walk used cutting-edge technology, this is heavy on text, and those display cases have been around since I was a child (possibly longer).

This display provides information and specimens of extinct bird species.  It is, in fact, all the info I had wished for when I saw the bronzes of these birds outside the museum and in the Haupt Garden.  Why, why is there no indication that this exhibit is here on the plaques identifying the statutes?  Just a few lines saying something to the effect of: if you're interested in these species and how they became extinct (spoiler alert: it's people), go see the display "Once There Were Billions" on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum."  How hard would that be?

Correction 8/23/14:  As it happens, I was in the Haupt Garden this week, and I saw that they do reference the "One There Were Billions" exhibit on one of the informational plaques.  So I take back my criticism for the lack of cross-referencing.  The rest of my rant stands.

If it were only a matter of a lack of cross-referencing, I would just shake my head and move on.  I've seen this before in the American History museum.  Come on people, help the tourists out.  They come for a day, they don't know exactly what you've got, give them some information so they can see things that interest them.

But it's not just that.  In this display case, is Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died in (I think) 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.  I don't mean it's a model of her, or a photograph; I mean it's actually her.  Her body was stuffed after she died, and she belongs to the Smithsonian.  Usually, she's in a climate-controlled cabinet somewhere, far from the museum itself, but until October 2015, she's on display.  The last passenger pigeon!  And you can see her!  This should be big news; they should be promoting this all over their website and with big signs when you walk in.  Instead, nothing.  If I hadn't been reading the notes in the display case carefully, I would have missed her entirely.

What were they thinking?  If you're going to pull a specimen of this level of historical significance out of storage, why not make a big deal out of it?  Make Martha the centerpiece of a big display on extinction and the need for conservation.

Verdict: Go see this.  It's informative, it's small enough that it's easily managed in a lunch hour, and you can see the last passenger pigeon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through July 6, 2015

This is one of the major display areas of the NMAI, and I'm assuming it was formerly a permanent exhibit.  It's quite good, although too large for a lunch time visit, unless you work across the street from the museum and can waste no time in travel to and fro.  I work a good distance from this part of the Mall, so I'm always in a hurry when I visit.  That's why I like the shows in the Sealaska Gallery so much: they're small enough that I can see them without rushing.

The exhibit is well-organized; in the middle of the very large space is general information on the current-day lives of Native Americans.  Around the walls are information on individual Indian tribes from around the country.  There's even a group (who are not officially recognized as a tribe) in Virginia, which was news to me.

Each group lives differently and faces different challenges in incorporating their traditional way of life into modern American society.  Two of the tribes must deal with living on opposite sides of borders: one group in the United States and Canada and the other group in the United States and Mexico.  When the boundaries between the nations were established, the tribe members were given the right to move freely back and forth, but maintaining those rights has been a struggle over the years.

One can only wonder what will go in this space after this show closes next July.  The issue of how Native Americans hold on to their culture, while living in the United States is one that I think would resonate with many people whose ancestors came from other countries and had to decide how much of their old ways to abandon in order to become Americans.  We can only hope something equally thought-provoking will move into this area on the 3rd floor.

Verdict: You've got plenty of time to see this show before it closes next summer.  You may want to take a couple of lunch hours in order to see all of it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

One Life: Grant and Lee: "It is well that war is so terrible..."

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 25, 2015

The latest installment in the excellent "One Life" series features Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee; half the room is devoted to one and half to the other.  Turn in one direction as you enter the room to learn about Grant and turn in the other direction to learn about Lee.  Directly across from the door are two representations of the meeting at Appomattox Courthouse.

The look of the room is excellent.  The walls are painted a deep maroon color, and the windows have matching drapes in an 1860s style.  You feel as if you've stepped into a Civil War-era parlor.  The content is also quite informative.  I know a little about the Civil War, as my husband is quite interested in the period and a few stray facts have entered by mind by osmosis, but I'm certainly no expert.  I learned about the final year of the war and the Battle of the Wilderness, in which Grant pressed his numerical advantage in troops to finally defeat the Confederate Army.

My quarrel with this exhibit is that it's part of the "One Life" series.  It's not one life; it's two.  The whole point of "One Life" is to showcase one person, not to show the relationship between two people, no matter how intertwined their lives.  If the Portrait Gallery would like to start a new series called "Two Lives" and set up displays showing other pairs of important Americans, I'm all for it.  As it is, this just doesn't belong.  I think they could have set this up, either in another space, or in the "One Life" room (they could have taken a hiatus from "One Life" to accommodate this) as part of their Civil War displays, and I would have been all for it.  As part of "One Life," it just makes no sense.

Verdict: I've recommended this to friends with an interest in the Civil War, but you'll need to be a bit less anal retentive than I am in order to get over the fact that it isn't "One Life."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Watch This! New Directions in the Art of the Moving Image

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through February 15, 2015

I love visiting the third floor of the American Art Museum/Portrait Gallery.  The floor, the walls and the windows are a riot of color and pattern - no subtle earth tones here!  I don't know when this decorative scheme would have been chosen, but I love its excesses.  Even if the show I see there isn't much to my taste, at least I've been given my smile for the day by the decor.

Happily, my most recent trip to the third floor was enjoyable for the show as well.  A new permanent addition to the collection, this is a rotating selection of video offerings; I was reminded, in a good way, of the Black Box and Directions series at the Hirshhorn.  I think art galleries and museums overlook the "moving image" as the title calls it, and it's good to see the Smithsonian continuing to celebrate it.

The film pictured here is "Fall Into Paradise."  A pinprick of light develops gradually into two people in an embrace, then, all of a sudden, they fall into a body of water.  The splash is startlingly loud - I jumped a bit, but the group of young people who watched it after me actually screamed with surprise.  I like this video - although it takes a while for the action to develop, your patience is rewarded in the end.

"Six Colorful Inside Jobs" is a series of people painting a room.  First, it's entirely red, then orange, then yellow and so on.  I know, I know, who wants to see something that perilously akin to watching paint dry?  It's hypnotic, really - the action is sped up, so it only takes a couple of minutes to paint the room, rather than a couple of hours.  And it's neat to watch one color give way to another.  It reminded me of "Floating McDonald's."  You know what's going to happen, but it's riveting in its own way.

Less successful than either of these offerings is "Walk with Contrapposto, " which features the artist walking back and forth along a narrow corridor, striking poses along the way.  Perhaps something else happens as well, but I couldn't stay interested long enough to find out.  Nam June Paik is also represented here (I recognized the piece as one of his - kudos to me) with "Zen for TV."  It's an old television set with video playing of a straight line, almost like when TV used to go off for the night (imagine!!) and you'd get the test pattern.  It's about as interesting.

Verdict: It's batting .500 for me, which is an admirable average.  I look forward to more installments in this series.



Salvatore Scarpitta: Traveler

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through January 11, 2015

Believe it or not, long-time readers, I saw a show at the Hirshhorn this week that I didn't hate!  I can only imagine the apocalypse is fast approaching, so repent those sins now, while there's still time.

This relatively small show, on the lower level, is of work by Salvatore Scarpitta, an American artist who was previously unknown to me.  Born in the United States, he lived for a time in Italy, including during World War II.  Having read about some of the conditions in that country during the War, my sympathies go out to anyone who had to endure it.

He began his artistic career with portraiture, but moved into other, more abstract areas as the years progressed.  The show opens with several examples of works he made after the War that were meant to express his feelings about what he had witnessed at that time.  It was a way for him to release his anger in a non-violent way - a lesson we could all stand to learn from time to time.

He then moved on to creating modes of transportation, most notably racing cars, but sleds as well.  He became a racing enthusiast (rural dirt track racing, rather than the bright lights of NASCAR or Indy cars), and he created works that were made with bits of equipment from the cars, as well as fully equipped and functional cars themselves.  He described them as portraits of the drivers, so perhaps his early training stuck with him?

The show raised a question for me: if you could operate one of his sleds or cars, and use it as a mode of transportation, is it art?  Is art inherently representational?  I hashed this out a bit with a friend of mine, and finally decided that, if the item can be used, then it's a craft and not art.  It's the difference between a vase that can hold flowers (craft) and  a still life painting of a vase holding flowers (art).  Doubtless, there's a vast scholarly literature on this topic, but I'm happy enough with my definition that I won't seek it out.

Verdict: An interesting show that raises many questions; small enough to be manageable in a lunch hour.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Color of Nature: Recent Acquisitions of Landscape Watercolors

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through September 14, 2014

If you're feeling a bit exhausted with huge shows and would like to see something a bit more relaxed, check out this small display of landscape watercolors at the National Gallery.  Tucked away in two little rooms on the ground floor, these represent a sample of the Gallery's recent additions to their collection in this genre.

Watercolors have been around for over 500 years, but they really took off in popularity in the late 18th century, due to improvements in materials.  The picture above is representative of what's on display.  These are accessible pieces, lovely to look at and easy to interpret.  The colors are vibrant and cheerful, dare I say it, the perfect antidote to the Wyeth show upstairs.

Verdict: If you like watercolors, you're in the mood for something soothing or if you've got a short time to see something at the National Gallery, this is a nice little show.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

In the Library: Preservation and Loss during World War II

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building Library

When: through September 26, 2014

Even though most of the National Gallery's East Building is closed for renovation at present, you can still enter through the main doorway and look around that floor.  Contained there is the Gallery's Library, so their exhibits will continue, I'm happy to report.  I always enjoy a trip to the Library; as I was remarking to a friend this week, it's so orderly and quiet.

The current display is on the devastation wreaked by World War II on Europe's art and archives.  You might think, not another exhibit about the Monuments Men - haven't they been done to death?!  Although they are mentioned, this is more about the destruction of great buildings - the things they weren't able to save.  Sadly, the loss of art and information during wartime has been going on as long as war itself.  Prior to WWII, there was little, if any, documentation of this loss, so not only are we deprived of the works we might have seen, we don't even know what we're missing!

The National Gallery has a very large collection of images that chronicle both the loss and the preservation of great works of art; what's on display is a tiny piece of that collection.  Some of the most interesting pictures, in my opinion, were those of the Louvre.  The great museum was emptied at the beginning of the War, when the French realized that the Germans were coming.  Paintings, sculpture - even the great Winged Victory had to leave her fantastic place on the staircase and journey to the Chateau de Valencay for the duration of the war.  I can't begin to imagine what a job that would be to move her - so large, so heavy, a priceless treasure.  Happily for all of us who've been lucky enough to see her, it was managed.

Of course, sometimes works were unknowingly moved to danger, rather than away from it.  Areas that seemed safe at the beginning of the war became targets for bombing by the war's end.  Add to that the danger in moving the art at all, and it's a wonder anything survived.

Verdict: If you have any interest in the history of art, have a look at this small display, easily managed in a lunch hour.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

My trip to New York

On Thursday, I went to New York for the day to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  As much as I love museums, I'd never been there before, so it was a great treat to fill in this gap in my museum experience.

My excuse for going was an exhibit on Southeast Asian art called "Lost Kingdoms."  The show featured Hindu and Buddhist sculpture from the 6th - 8th centuries.  The kingdoms that produced this art are long since gone and little is known about them.  This is really a once in a lifetime show that is making no other stops.  Once it's over at the end of July, the art will be returned to the loaning institutions in various countries (Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos).  The chances of it touring again any time soon are very slim.  So if I wanted to see it, this was my only opportunity.

To be completely honest, I don't much care for New York.  It's too crowded, has too many skyscrapers and is just too big.  On the plus side, it does make me appreciate my home here in DC that much more.  Nevertheless, my dedication to museum-going knows no bounds, so off to New York I went.

I took an Acela train from DC and arrived within five minutes of our scheduled time.  Kudos to Amtrak for getting me on my way in an efficient fashion.  Deposited at Penn Station, I managed to find a machine that would issue me a card good for riding the city buses.  I then found the bus stop, located only about a block from the station, and took the M4 bus uptown.  Rather than bury my head in a book, as I do when taking DC public transportation, I spent the ride looking out the window, taking in the sights of Madison Avenue.  Getting out at 83rd Street, I walked over one block to 5th Avenue and there was the Met.

One thing you have to realize immediately is that the Met is HUGE.  I mean, really big.  Like Louvre big.  A friend told me to expect crowds on the font steps and in the entrance hall where you buy your tickets, and he was 100% right.  I managed to pay my entrance fee (another difference from DC, but one for which I was prepared) and walk into the museum.

Even with a map, I found it very hard to orient myself and got lost several times.  You have to allow lots of time to get from one place to another, especially if you need to go to another floor.  Finding a restroom was a 15-minute proposition.  Eventually, I did find the "Lost Kingdoms" show and set about walking through it.

It's very good sized; I spent 1.5 hours looking at everything.  The set up was quite good - muted colors for the walls and dim lighting.  I suspect the latter was in deference to the age of the pieces, but it helped to discourage loud talking and made the space quiet serene.  Although there were crowds elsewhere, this was a haven of few people, a bit of tranquility in the midst of the hustle and bustle.

Many of the pieces are quite large and set on pedestals to raise them above floor height, so I found myself craning my neck to see them, yet another disadvantage to being short.  I can only assume that this was done to protect them from unwanted contact and to give a sense of how they would have been viewed in a temple.  No photography was allowed, due to copyright issues.  That was a surprise, as I had assumed it was due to issues of preservation.

All in all, a very fine show, and one I'm happy I was able to see.  On my way to "Lost Kingdoms," I noticed that the Garry Winogrand show that had been on at the National Gallery was now here.  I considered having a look at it, just to compare presentations, but with limited time, I decided against that idea.  With more space than the National Gallery, they were able to have a more splashy entrance area, that much I did notice.

I had lunch on the rooftop, which I heartily recommend on a nice day.  The views are lovely, and the sandwiches are quite good.  Even if you decide to eat elsewhere at the museum (other places have much larger menus), make a point of going to the rooftop to look out on the city and Central Park.

I then made my way back to the entrance hall for the 1:30 highlights tour.  Our guide took us around the first and second floors, and we stopped at several works for an in-depth description.  Of course, with only an hour, you barely scrape the surface, and although there were items I noticed as we walked around, I knew I'd never be able to find them again, so gave them up for lost!

I ended my trip with a visit to the gift shop, which is also huge.  In addition to catalogs for the shows on at the Met, they also have catalogs for shows from other museums, several of which, I'm proud to say, I've seen in DC.  I picked up a catalog from a show on guitars (that I didn't have time to see) for my husband, and a bookmark for myself and bid the museum good-bye.

The M4 bus stop to go back to Penn Station is in front of the Met, so I had no trouble finding it.  The nice thing about the one-way streets is that I had a different view from the one coming uptown.  Fifth Avenue is certainly the place for very upscale shopping.  I also saw the entrance to the New York Public Library, another place I'd like to visit if I had more time.  Back to the train station I went and on to the Acela to return to DC.

This is where things really fell apart.  Terrible weather caused us to stop for about an hour in Wilmington, DE and we then crawled at a snail's place to Baltimore.  A trip that should have taken 2 hours and 45 minutes took about 6 hours.  I did manage to commiserate with the folks sitting around me: three twenty-somethings and a nun.  I know that should be the start of a joke, but it's the truth.  I finally got home about midnight and fell into bed exhausted.  Happily, I have a three-day weekend in which to recuperate.

What would be nice to do is take a whole weekend to see much more of the Met and be able to take a bit more time walking around.  As much as I saw, there was so much that I missed!  If you're in New York with some time to spend looking at great art in a magnificent setting, the Met is the place to go.

Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through August 16, 2015

You'll notice from the closing date that I'm well ahead in my viewing of exhibits.  Far from missing anything, I'm in danger of running out of shows to see!  Happily, the Smithsonian and National Gallery are always adding additional shows, so I'm sure I'll be able to keep viewing and blogging for the foreseeable future.

This show, which you have an abundance of time to see, is concerned with the impact of Indian Americans on the U.S.  I should make clear at the outset that we're discussing Indians from India, not Native Americans.  In fact, on display is a series of photographs entitled "An Indian from India" by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, an Indian-America who reflects on the similarities in how the British looked at Indians, and how Americans viewed their own "Indians."  She takes photographs of herself, in the same poses as Native Americans - the similarities are striking.  This was an interesting set of photos to see, right after having seen the "Indelible" show at NMAI.

The story of Indians in America is one of immigration.  Some came directly to the U.S., others came through other British territories with Indian enclaves.  A small suitcase, holding the possessions Indians brought with them from their homeland, reminded me of Camilla's Purse - in both cases, a container to hold those items that were most precious to the owner.  Now, one out of every 100 Americans can trace their ancestry to India; there are 121,000 in the D.C. area alone.

Indians were seeking freedom from British rule, which you would have thought would have endeared them to Americans, but no such thing.  Caught up in the discrimination against the Chinese, Indians were included, along with all other "Asiatic nations" in the Chinese Exclusion Act.  There were anti-Indian riots in Bellingham, WA in 1907 - within two weeks, the entire Indian population had left.  Indian women were discouraged from immigrating; I guess the hope was that this would prevent the production of more Indians.  Of course, the Indian men simply married members of other immigrant groups.  It was only in 1980 that the Census included Asian Indian as a racial designation.

The exhibit highlights the different occupations to which Indians have flocked in numbers; one of them was medicine.  In addition to photographs of actual doctors and other medical professionals, both Kal Penn and Mindy Kaling are featured.  Surely, the museum knows that they are not actual doctors, but actors portraying doctors?  I confess, although I have nothing against either one of them (I loved Mindy Kaling in "The Office"), I found it a bit disconcerting to see them in this section.

Perhaps my favorite fun fact in this display is that the most popular representation of Indian Americans is Apu, the manager of the Kwik-E-Mart on "The Simpsons."  Although there's no picture of him, or even better, video of one of his classic exchanges with Homer or Bart (copyright issues perhaps?), I was reminded of him and smiled.

Verdict: This is a very interesting exhibit.  I learned a lot about Indian Americans, their history in this country and their cultural impact.  I would recommend devoting a trip to this show, as it's large enough to take up a lunch hour.