Saturday, March 29, 2014


Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 27, 2014

Although the title of this show is quite accurate - it's about jars - it doesn't really bring in the crowds in droves.  The idea of spending a lunch hour looking at jars doesn't really appeal to the average person, I'm willing to bet.  In addition, it's not close to the Chigusa exhibit, with which it is associated, so your only potential audience most likely won't see it.

And that's a pity, because, despite the above problems, this is a lovely collection of Chinese and Chinese-inspired storage jars.  As the wall notes explain, "The utilitarian storage jar is one of the most useful ceramics to have emerged from ancient Chinese kilns."  The idea that something utilitarian can also be beautiful is familiar to me from my reading about the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain and the US at the turn of the 20th century.  These jars, which are hundreds of years older than that, embody this spirit.  The Chinese created storage jars in order to export their wares to neighboring countries.  Once they had fulfilled their job as delivery mechanisms, they were then reused by the recipients and became valued in and of themselves.  Chigusa, the focus of the exhibit on Japanese tea culture, was just such a storage jar.

In Japan and Southeast Asia, local potters replicated the Chinese design, as it was so popular.  It is a wonderful shape, wide at the top and more narrow at the bottom.  It reminded me of the exhibit I'd seen at the Castle, about stamps honoring great American product designs of the 20th century.  If something looks good while working well, it's going to be a commercial success.

I think my favorite of the ten jars on display was one from Vietnam.  It had a reddish color, caused by calcium interacting with the iron in the clay.  Whatever the science behind it, it was an interesting and lovely color.

Verdict: Don't overlook this little show on the bottom floor of the Sackler.  You can easily add it on to a visit to Chigusa, which is on the first floor.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Garry Winogrand

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through June 8, 2014

Garry Winogrand was a photographer who captured the post World War II American world, the propserity of the 1950s, the tumult of the 1960s and the disintegration of the 1970s.  As the wall notes say, Winogrand documented a "country that glitters with possibility, but that threatens to spin out of control."  Starting with a few streets in Manhattan, Winogrand expanded his focus to other parts of America.  He moved from the glamorous world of 1950s downtown to the decay of 1970s urban sprawl.

In all of his photographs, you get the sense that there's more to the story than meets the eye.  If you took any of this pictures, showed them to 100 people and asked, "What's going on here?" you'd get 100 different answers.  Even the photos that appear obvious at first, reveal depth if you look a bit longer.  Although he worked as a photojournalist, I think Winogrand was the opposite of a journalist.  Rather than answer our questions, he prompts us to ask more.  He shows us there is a story, but he doesn't tell us what it is.  This is probably best exemplified by Aquarena Springs, San Marcos, Texas in which a woman is swimming with a pig.  Is this something that happens all the time in Texas?  Is it only my narrow experience that causes me to view this with surprise?  If this is out of the ordinary, what has led to this situation?  Would any pig go for a dip in the family pool, if only they were given the chance?

Winogrand's style reminded of no other photographer, really of no other artist.  The only time I thought of another show was looking at El Morocco, New York (1955) in which a man and woman are dancing in a nightclub.  The woman is laughing, with her teeth bared.  She looked almost vampiric, as if she's about to bite the man's neck.  I was reminded of the Munch show at the National Gallery (was it last year?) and the piece with the woman poised over the man.

There was a photograph that I had seen before and recognized right away.  It's called Albuquerque and features a small child in a driveway, with an overturned tricycle and an ominous skyline.  I had to do some digging online to figure it out, but it was in the "Democracy of Images" show at the American Art Museum, not long ago.  Kudos to me for remembering it!

I liked the first room, of his early New York work, the best.  I thought the photographs were the most interesting overall.  The ones from the 1970s were so depressing that after a while, I stopped seeing them as individual images.  They tended to blend together in one miserable whole.  Note that Winogrand stopped developing his pictures, as he became more interested in taking the photos, rather than working with them later.  Those from the 1970s have been developed by others - could that be why they don't appeal so much?
Verdict: If you like photography, or post-war American middle class life, this is a show not to be missed.  Allow plenty of time, as there are over 100 images.

Two library exhibits at the National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art has two spaces set aside for displays from its library, one in the West Building and one in the East Building.  Even though the East Building is at present closed for renovation, the library is still open.

Walking through the West Building allows the visitor to see some of the works usually displayed in the East Building, as they've relocated a few pieces here.  I must say, it reminded me of an apartment after a new roommate with wildly incompatible taste has moved in.  The East Building pieces feel crammed in and even if there were plenty of room, they just don't belong here.  I'd always rolled my eyes a bit at the East Building's design: so many jagged edges and so much wasted space.  Well, I take it all back.  A Calder mobile needs lots of white space to look like anything, and the West Building just doesn't cut it.  It's wonderful as a home for early American furniture, but not for cubism.  The East Building can't re-open soon enough.

But enough of this general grousing; on to the exhibits!  The first is in the West Building and is on architectural books.

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through September 1, 2014

The Grega and Leo A. Daly Fund for Architectural Books allows the National Gallery to purchase books on architectural subjects (which I'm sure are extremely expensive) and this small display shows some of the items that the fund has enabled the Gallery to  purchase.  One of the main areas in which the Gallery collects is public architecture.  In this area, there is still some valuable information that exists only in printed form (imagine that!), so these books are quite useful to scholars, as well as being lovely for the casual visitor to examine.  I was happy to see several examples of Palladian architecture - I saw a show on Palladio at the National Building Museum a few years ago, and I've noticed his influence on many major structures ever since.

The second display is on marginalia and is in the East Building.

Where: National Gallery, East Building

When: through June 27, 2014

Marginalia is the name given to notes that book owners leave in their volumes, usually located in the margins.  These on display are not the jottings of an average person, however.  These books are made more valuable by these notes, usually because they belonged to famous people, or because the notes help to establish a book's provenance.  Marginalia, even that of ordinary people, transforms a mass printed book into a personal, unique object.  My favorite of the volumes on display is a copy of Livy's Roman History, complete with drawings of the action in the margins.  Think of it as an early graphic novel.

Verdict:  These displays are probably most interesting to book people, so if you're just as happy with an e-reader as the printed word, feel free to give these a miss.  If the book as artifact appeals, have a look at these shows, easily managed in a lunch hour.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Unintended Journeys

Where: National Museum of Natural History

When: through August 13, 2014

This is the most somber show I've ever seen at Natural History.  Usually, I leave an exhibit with a spring in my step, happy to have expanded my knowledge of art, or the natural world, or history.  After seeing this photography display, I walked back to the office slowly, lost in thoughts about the horrors some people face on a daily basis and how little those stories are conveyed to those of us lucky enough not to live them.

This show, sponsored by the Windland Smith Rice Nature's Best Photography Fund (you'll recall that Windland Smith Rice is the person for whom the excellent nature photography contest winner show is named) consists of photographs of and information about natural disasters and the effects they have on human beings.  The "unintended journeys" of the title refer to the disruptions people face and how they are wrested from their homes and lives when disaster strikes.

Included in the show are New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Japan after the tsunami, Haiti after the earthquake (including some information on the art program established for children there, which was the subject of a very interesting show at the Ripley), the desertification in East Africa that has resulted from the massive relocation of war refugees and the torrential flooding that is a regular feature of life in Bangladesh.

Katrina is the event with which Americans are the most familiar, obviously, but these other cataclysms dwarf the hurricane's devastation.  Approximately 1,800 people were killed in Katrina, which is horrifying.  Over 225, 000 are believed to have died in the Haitian earthquake.  The loss of life and complete overthrow of everyday activities cannot be imagined.

I did try to remember that, even in the face of such horror, the resilience of the human spirit is something to admire and by which we can all be inspired.  It was hard, though.  So many people killed, so many others terribly wounded, a vast number dislocated.  Truly, this show is a reminder that if you are living an ordinary life and have an ordinary day, you are a very lucky person.

Verdict: Well worth a visit.  The photography is stunning, and the subject matter is important.

Gymnast Gabrielle Douglas

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through April 2, 2014

If you're on your way to the 2nd Floor, East Wing to see any of the exhibits in that area, take a few minutes to see this display case of items belonging to Gabby Douglas, the young African-American gymnast.  She was the first US gymnast to win both the individual all-around gold medal and to be part of a gold medal winning team in the same Olympics.

"The field of sports is a powerful lens on American democracy" is a quotation from the wall notes, and it's quite true.  When all people participate in sports, regardless of their background, it is often an indication that there is or will be greater participation in all aspects of American life for groups that have been excluded.  Don't think that sports aren't important to the advancement of society.

This is a small display, and one assumes that it may be part of a larger show on African-Americans and sports in the new museum that's slowly emerging from the construction site next door to American History.  Next year is when it's due to open, and it will be great to have a new destination for lunch time excursions!

Verdict: Unless you're a great fan of gymnastics, this probably doesn't merit a trip all on its own, but you can easily add it on to a trip to see another show at American History.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Chigusa and the Art of Tea

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 27, 2014

Readers of this blog know very well my love for the Sackler.  Out of all the Smithsonian museums, it is my favorite.  Not only is their collection wonderful, but their exhibits are uniformly well done.  Thus, I am in an unusual position, for I'm writing about an exhibit that I thought was a bit nuts.

Chigusa is the name of a tea-leaf storage jar from the 16th century and the center of this show.  Made in China, it was transported to Japan, where it earned the favor of the tea men, connoisseurs of the beverage, its accoutrements and the rituals surrounding its consumption.

The exhibit itself is very nicely done, as usual at the Sackler.  There are two videos: one of a tea ceremony and one of a modern-day tea man adorning Chigusa with a mouth cover and a net bag.  There is also lots of explanation of Japanese tea culture, which began in the 16th century.  Chigusa itself is on display, in a glass case, in what I believe is the same location as the Cyrus Cylinder which was here in the US last year.  There's also a replica of a room for drinking tea, set up with all the necessary utensils for the practice.

My issue with the whole concept is that this seems sort of ridiculous.  To get this worked up over tea?  Yes, the jars on display are very nice, and I'm sure they do an admirable job of keeping tea leaves fresh (or however you want to keep tea leaves).  But is it worth all this rigamarole just for a cup of tea?  Granted, I'm such a troglodyte that I drink my tea from a bag, so who am I to judge?  Still, I did have to suppress the urge to laugh.

Verdict: The pottery is lovely, and I did learn quite a bit about Japanese tea culture, but this is still a bit over the top.

Modern German Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through June 29, 2014

I'll confess right up front that I'm not a big fan of prints and drawings.  I prefer my art to be of the  paint on canvas variety, so I went with fairly low expectations to this show of German offerings.

In May 2012, the National Gallery received a large bequest from Ruth Cole Kainen: 781 works.  This was in addition to the many works she and her late husband had given the National Gallery previously.  I can't imagine owning so much art, let alone being in a position to be a major art gallery donor.  Many thanks to you, Mr. and Mrs. Kainen, for sharing your collection with the world.

This show focuses on German art from 1910 - 1930s, largely on expressionism.  Expressionism, in case you don't know (like me), rejected the idea of idealized beauty and concentrated on dynamic art that was a reflection of life and experience in the modern world.  The show proceeds chronologically, with early works in the first room.  Some by Carl Wilhelm Kolbe reminded me of Durer, with their precise depictions of nature.

Kainen's favorite artist was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, so we see lots of him.  I found his early work to be rather scribbly, as if he'd doodled on a napkin and left it behind.  If I'm ever going to get over my disinterest in drawings, this is not the artist to help me do it.  I couldn't help but think, "Really?  This is your favorite artist?  Out of all of the artists who have ever worked; this guy is your favorite?"

I did like a work by Emil Nolde entitled "Hamburg Jetty."  When you look at it, you can almost feel the waves lapping at the pier.

There's yet more Kirchner further on in the show, and his later work is less scribbly and more Picasso-esque.  Several of his works would have been right at home in the Picasso drawing exhibit I saw here a couple of years ago.

Verdict: All in all, if you like German expressionism, I can recommend this show wholeheartedly.  Otherwise, there wasn't anything that really stood out for me.