Friday, May 30, 2014

Black Box: Oliver Laric

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through October 5, 2014

As much as I don't care for the Hirshhorn generally, I do enjoy their video offerings.  This is the latest in their Black Box series; the room where those play is on the lower level of the building.  They're weird, but they're thought-provoking.

This video is entitled Versions and deals with the fact that technology allows us to alter works of art.  How do you know when you're seeing "the original" and when you're looking at a copy that's been Photoshopped or otherwise changed?  Answer: you may not be able to tell.  What does this mean for the concept of authenticity?  How do we know what is real and what is a re-mix?  Are the re-mixes art?  Working in a law firm, I can't help but ask: are they legal?  As the wall notes tell us, there is a "constant need to interpret visual information today."  Seeing is no longer believing.

A procedural note:  the room has two screens and mid-way through the video, it moves from one screen to another.  That means if you're sitting down, you'll have to swivel around to keep watching the show.  I believe the idea is to put the audience in the middle of the show, but I'm not sure that really works.  I fear that people are losing out on some of the show by adjusting themselves to the new orientation.  Now that I read that sentence over, it occurs to me that this might be the point.  Are we losing out on art by having to adjust to the new realities of altered works?  You see what I mean when I say these videos are thought-provoking.  They really cry out for a group viewing and discussion afterwards.

Verdict: Worth every second of the 15 minutes it will take you to watch this in its entirety.  Perhaps you'll come up with answers to my many questions?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Artists and their Models

Where: Archives of American Art

When: closing date listed as TBA

In case you don't know, the exhibit space for the Archives of American Art, the largest collection of its kind in the world, is on the first floor of the American Art Museum.  Except when they're taking down one exhibit and installing another, there's always a display here.  It's only one room (and not a very large room at that), so the shows are small, but that makes them ideal for a lunch hour trip.

The current exhibit is on models, those usually anonymous people who pose for artists and help to create great art.  One can't say they labor in the shadows, as their contributions are front and center, but their stories are most often untold, unless they're the subject of scandal.  As the wall notes indicate, " a talent for holding still is often more important than beauty" in a model.  It strikes me as very hard work, holding a pose for 30 minutes at a time.  I think I'll stick to looking at paintings, rather than being a part of them.

In addition to information on human models, there's also a section on animal models - they may not hold a pose as well as a person, but they also work for free!  One model whose identity is known is Nan Wood Graham, Grant Wood's sister and the model for the wife in American Gothic.  Contrary to the impression that portrait gives, Nan was quite attractive, and she posed for several other of her brother's paintings.  One of them featured a small chick that she held in her hands.  After Wood was finished painting it, he put the chick in a pot and covered it with a lid to keep it from making noise.  The chick was so quiet that Wood forgot about it, and his mother discovered it the next morning, fainted, but still alive.  Happily, some food and water brought it around, although Wood gave it the day off to recuperate.  Just think of the fuss a human model would have made in similar circumstances.

One bit of history that reminded me of the present day was in 1939, when some members of Congress condemned the WPA artists for using nude models.  "A waste of government money," and "a desecration of womanhood" were some of the comments.  I could not help but be reminded of the uproar over the "Hide/Seek" exhibit (on gay and lesbian portraiture) held in this very building a few years ago.  La plus ca change, la plus c'est le meme chose.

Verdict:  If you have any interest in learning more about the people you've seen in great artworks, this is a nice overview of the subject.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The History of American History

Two small displays currently up at the American History Museum explore the history of the museum itself, in honor of the 50th anniversary of its founding.  One is on the 2nd floor, in the Small Documents Gallery, and one is on the lower level, in the hallway.  I wonder why they didn't try to put these together; it would have made much more sense than having them on two entirely separate floors.  There's enough wall space outside the Small gallery to have held the photographs on the lower level.  If they couldn't manage this, why not do some cross-referencing?  Let people who are looking at one exhibit know there's another one on the same subject on another floor?  Not everyone checks the Smithsonian website as carefully as I do!  Oh well, if you have any interest in the history of the museum, these are both worth seeing.

Making a Modern Museum: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the National Museum of American History

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 7, 2014

The original name of the National Museum of American History was the Museum of History and Technology.  The history part was tagged on to satisfy the political historians at the Smithsonian, the real focus was the technology. 

The Soviets were showcasing their technological achievements, and we had to do the same.  One can almost hear the cries in the halls of Congress, "We've got a technology museum GAP!"

So a new museum took shape on the Mall, one that combined modern style with columns reminiscent of the neighboring buildings.  Filled with artifacts from the Arts & Industries Building, (nicknamed "The Nation's Attic," it was full to overflowing with random collections of stuff that was important to telling the country's historical narrative, but was largely unorganized, not to mention un-air conditioned and dusty) and new acquisitions that highlighted the things Americans had built and invented, it featured exhibits such as "The Hall of Bridges and Tunnels."  To me, that doesn't seem the type of display to bring the crowds in droves, but attendance was high from the very start.

Over time, the museum changed its focus to America's cultural and social history, which is much more to my taste.  One of the more popular items on display, and one I'm sad to note is no longer up, was the Foucault Pendulum.  Designed to show the rotation of the earth, people would watch the ball knock over small pins and cheer when one went down.  Kitschy?  Well, yes, in the extreme.  Fun?  Absolutely yes.  I remember from school trips coming to Washington, DC and watching the pendulum myself.

Continuity and Change: Fifty Years of Museum History

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 14, 2014

Meanwhile, down on the Lower Level, with the cafeteria and the ride simulators, is this display of photographs, of the museum's construction and its ever-changing displays.  Three of the major objects on display had to be specially installed; in fact the building is built around them: the 1401 steam engine, the enormous statue of George Washington in a Roman toga (which always strikes me as a bit odd) and the Gunboat Philadelphia.

There are several photos of the First Ladies Gowns, one of the most popular displays.  I remember seeing this as a child, and being disappointed that not all of the gowns are on display any more (turns out fabric doesn't last forever, and some of them are in such bad shape that they can no longer be on exhibit).  There are also photos and information about the Star Spangled Banner, including a photo of it hanging on the wall, which I remember from my trips as a child.  Of course, now, it has a far grander (and safer) display in dim lighting.

They also give some information about the future of the museum.  The West Wing is currently undergoing renovation.  That will finish in sometime next year (I think July, but don't quote me on that!) and then they'll close the East Wing and renovate that.  Not sure how long that will take, but I'll be glad when it's all over and the full museum is open again.

Verdict: If you have any interest in the history of this fine museum, don't miss these two shows.

American Experience

Where: American Art Museum

When: July 13, 2014

Every so often, I notice that an exhibit that's been on display for years is listed as closing.  I guess that just proves that nothing's really permanent.  Museums acquire new items or older pieces need conservation or areas of the building itself need to be repaired or refurbished.  Whatever the reason, a set of works/objects is taken down and new works/objects are put in their place.

Such is the case with this display, called "American Experience" which is located next to the Folk Art on the museum's first floor.  I've walked through here dozens of times over the years but had never stopped to really look at the paintings and photographs on display.  I was always off to see something else.  And that's a shame, really, because there are some lovely pieces here - well worth more than a passing glance.

The exhibit is divided into three parts: the first is of landscape paintings, meant to show America at her most majestic and featuring a wide variety of views (including a Winslow Homer entitled "High Cliff, Coast of Maine"); the second is a series of photographs of American monuments taken in the 1970s, called, appropriately enough, "The American Monument" by Lee Friedlander (there are a couple of shots of the Washington Monument in which the structure itself seems to be a bit of an afterthought); and the third is more American art, but I couldn't really determine the theme.  There's an Arthur Dove (a friend of mine had just been telling me about some of his work on display at the Phillips Collection) which I rather liked and a Georgia O'Keefe that I didn't dislike (imagine!) of New York skyscrapers.  I was delighted to recognize an Andrew Wyeth - I thought that the tattered cloth in the painting was reminiscent of the Olsons' curtains.

Verdict: Give this a look the next time you're in American Art/Portrait Gallery - it's too good to just walk by.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 5, 2014

In contrast to the Wyeth show described below, where the human form was conspicuous by its absence, Cassatt and Degas show nothing but people: in their homes, visiting friends, at the theater.  Wyeth can be described as both a realist and an abstract painter; Cassatt and Degas are unapologetic realists.

This show was much smaller than I had anticipated, which is not a bad thing.  Often, when I'm making my way through one of those gargantuan exhibits in the East Building, I'm tired of whatever I'm seeing by the time I'm finished, no matter how enthusiastic I was when I started.  No worries on that score here; it's four rooms, and although they're full of great art, you'll run out of paintings before you run out of energy.

Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas were friends and professional colleagues in Paris in the late 1800s, and this show focuses on that time period and the influence each had on the other.  If you're expecting lots of mother and child paintings from Cassatt, prepare to be surprised.  There are only three in the show.  Featured is the familiar painting above, of a little girl and her dog in a room full of blue upholstery, and several paintings of women at the theater.  As for Degas, his theater paintings are represented as well; his are of the women on the stage.

Degas' influence on Cassatt is exemplified by his contributions in the painting above.  He suggested the corner in the back of the painting, which alters the perspective to make it more interesting.  The influence was not all one-way however.  Degas used Mary Cassatt as a model more than once - his paintings and drawings of her at the Louvre take up an entire room.

Although their work took different directions later in their careers, they remained friends until Degas' death.  Degas bought many of Cassatt's paintings and Cassatt encouraged others to purchase Degas' works, as well as buying a few paintings for herself.

Note that the show is quite crowded, especially around the works on the audio tour they sell outside the entrance.  I'm guessing that this is a problem that will resolve itself in a few weeks, when everyone who's interested will have seen the show.  For that reason, you may want to delay your trip in order to have a bit more elbow room.

Verdict: If you like French Impressionism, this is a lovely show.  Its tight focus on one aspect of Degas and Cassatt makes it quite manageable as a lunchtime excursion.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through November 30, 2014

Andrew Wyeth is the unusual artist who has something for everyone: those who look to art for realistic, unvarnished pictures of the world in which we live and those who value abstraction, the elevation of form and line.  This show, which concentrates on his paintings of windows, highlights his realist and abstract credentials.

It's not an enormous show, four rooms, (none of which, ironically, have any actual windows) full of windows, views from windows, light from windows, windows with curtains, windows without curtains, windows with and without frames.  The paintings are, for the most part, quite spare, even sparse.  They favor line and geometric shapes, and none of them contain people.

They are realistic - one has no doubt that if one looked through the dormer window at the Olson house in Maine, one would see the view depicted above.  These are not, however, bucolic works, that evoke fond feelings about the simplicity of rural life.  They are, for the most part, the windows of people without much wherewithal; I confess, after looking at a room full of paintings of the Olson farmhouse, I wanted to buy them some new curtains.

In 2009, the National Gallery of Art was given the painting pictured above, "Wind From the Sea."  This prompted them to mount this exhibition, the first to focus on Wyeth's window paintings.  My favorite was another well-regarded piece, "Off to Sea."  It was described as his most mathematical work, and there is a precision about it that makes you imagine him painting it with a ruler and compass in hand.  It's an empty room (all the rooms are empty) with a bench underneath a window.  There's an empty hangar hanging on the wall, representing someone who has left the house, perhaps (since "off to sea" was a way of expressing that someone was lost at sea) not to return.

Verdict: This is a very interesting show.  The paintings are deceptively simple - there's not much in them, but they hold your attention for a long time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits, Part II

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 2, 2014

Usually when you describe something as "more of the same," it's not a compliment.  In this case, more of the same is quite a tribute.  In 2009, the photographer Yousuf Karsh's widow gave the National Portrait Gallery over 100 of his photographs.  This is the second display of the best of his work.  If you liked the first selection, you'll like these as well.

Two photographs are hold-overs from the first part of the show: his iconic Winston Churchill shot and his informal photograph of Franklin Roosevelt with his son James.  The rest of the pieces are new.  Once again, you have fascinating people paired with superb photography - an excellent small show.

My favorite of these works is one of Muhammad Ali, which I would call pugnacious in pinstripes.  Pictured in a combative pose, you see the fighter in the man, both inside and outside the ring.  He's dressed, not in boxing gear, but in a pinstripe suit, showing his considerable business acumen.  An excellent shot, one that shows not just the surface of the man, but something deeper.  You could say that about all of the photographs.  One can only hope that more of his works will make their way into future shows.

Verdict: An excellent way to spend a lunch hour; whether you saw the first installment or not, don't miss this one.

Monday, May 5, 2014

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through August 17, 2014

One doesn't usually think of the Sackler as a destination for an exhibit of Whistler works, but think again!  It's currently the site of an international show of etchings, drawings, oils and water colors, all on the theme of the Thames.  I'm guessing that the Freer didn't have a space large enough to host this show, so their Whistlers and many other, visiting works are on display at the Sackler.  This is the first time since the Freer opened in 1923 that its Whistlers (the most comprehensive collection in the world) have been shown with works from other museums.

Lest you think that Asian art is unrepresented in this show, one of the sections is entitled "Japonisme" and focuses on the Japanese influence in Whistler's later pieces.  To demonstrate the similarities, there are several Hiroshige and Hokusai works - regular readers of this blog can easily imagine my delight in seeing my old friend Hokusai in an unexpected setting.  The man on the boat in the piece pictured here could easily have come from a Japanese artist, and the bridges that played such a large part in Whistler's repertoire were common features in Asian art as well.

This piece is particularly fine, in my opinion, along with the moodiness of the nocturne, you have the exuberance of the fireworks dimly visible in the background.  As some in London go about their work, others are at play - true of all cities, I suppose.

Whistler lived in sight of the Thames for the many years he was resident in London, and he documented the changes that industrialization wrought on the river, the bridges crossing the river and those who made their living on the water.  In this way, he's like Marville and Kioychika, chronicling the end of an era in London the way those artists did in Paris and Tokyo.

One of the etchings, "Black Lion's Wharf" is notable both for the fact that it's the only one to have been reversed on the etching plate, so that the resulting print is an accurate portrayal of the scene, but was also depicted in Whistler's most famous painting, "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1" - better known as Whistler's Mother.  That piece is not among those in this show, as it doesn't depict the Thames, but I've been fortunate enough to see it at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

Just in case you follow the dictates of art critics closely in deciding what's good and what's not, keep in mind that Whistler's Nocturnes were thought very poor at the time he painted them.  Now, of course, they're considered some of his finest work.  Just goes to show, you can't trust the critics.  How someone could have disparaged the Nocturnes is beyond me.  Granted, they're quite different from his earlier, more realistic work, but they convey the mood of the Thames at night, with the fog enveloping the details of the buildings so effectively that they're quite realistic in their own way.

Verdict:  If you like Whistler, don't miss this show.  If you don't know much about him, this is a great way to make his acquaintance.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget

Where: American Art Museum

When: through August 3, 2014

I make a point of going to see every new exhibit at the Smithsonian and National Gallery, regardless of whether I think I'll like it or not.  Most of the time, if I'm excited to see something, I'm not disappointed.  Other times, I feel less enthusiasm for a show; for whatever reason, it just doesn't appeal to me.  Many times, I'm right about these as well: they're usually not to my taste.

Every once in a while, though, I feel ambivalent about a show and it's wonderful.  It's what keeps me going to exhibits that I would otherwise pass up - the idea that I will be wildly surprised by how good something is.  The Ralph Fasanella exhibit currently on display at American Art is one of those shows.

I had never heard of Fasanella before, and his story is an unlikely one.  The son of Italian immigrants, he worked several blue collar jobs before turning to art, and it was quite a few years before he could paint full time.  With no artistic training, his work is considered folk art, and that's an excellent way to describe his paintings for two reasons.  They are the output of an untrained artist and they are, for the most part, about "folks," the common people - their lives, their environment, their dreams.

There are less than 30 pieces in this exhibit, but you'll want to allow time to look at each one carefully.  They are incredibly detailed: rich, complex, intricate pictures - the kind that could hang on your wall for years and offer you something new each time you looked.  They are often of urban scenes; his New York City from 1957 opens the show, and I was hooked at first glance.  You feel as if you're pulled into the painting, a part of the hustle and bustle of the streets.

There's nothing subtle about these works; they're wildly colorful, which I like very much, and they speak loudly about the plight of the working man and the power of organized labor to better their lives.  Many of them are overtly political, and the Rosenbergs feature prominently in several.  His views on the latter half of the 20th century are made manifest by his willingness to call out politicians who he thinks do not have the people's best interests at heart.  If I were to pick one word to describe his work, it would be "unapologetic."

"Lest we forget" is his mantra, and it appears in most of his works.  The idea is that we must not forget the sacrifices of those who have gone before us.  His works feature family themes, and there are many religious overtones.  A disillusioned Catholic, he takes the church to task as well for promising workers a heaven in the afterlife, while ignoring the hell on earth.  He also has little patience for those who would leave the vibrance and activity of the city for a sterile life in the suburbs.

As I looked at one of his painting featuring newspapers, I found myself reminded of Roz Chasts's cartoons, as I looked at the faces on the papers.  Two completely different artists, with completely different life stories, but their paintings of faces look alike.  Perhaps it's because I just read an article about Chast and her new book, but the resemblance struck me strongly.

Verdict: Don't miss this great show; it's small, but worth a full lunch time.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed

Where: American Indian Museum

When: through February 2, 2015

This is a very large exhibit of Central American pottery, in the big display space on the 3rd floor of the museum.  I didn't have time to do more than skim through, but if you like ceramics, you may want to take some time and look at these on display.

Ceramics are an anthropologist's dream find.  Unlike wood or cloth or most other materials, ceramics remain constant through the ravages of time.  Of course, they can be broken, but even pottery shards can provide useful information on the people who created them.

My first thought upon entering this exhibit was that the works on display reminded me strongly of traditional African art.  Depictions of both people and animals are prevalent in the carvings, and one has the sense that all of the items on display were actually used by people and were not merely designed to sit on a shelf and look pretty.

Apparently, Central American art works and crafts have suffered a fate similar to Asian statutes - collectors have visited the area and taken what they wanted, leaving the countries to whom these items actually belong without their treasures.  Happily, in this instance, what you see on display are not damaged goods (like the Buddha statutes missing heads or hands) but intact pieces.  What's more controversial is that you're seeing them here and not in their home country.  I always have a bit of a hard time with this.  If nothing ever left its place of origin, I wouldn't be able to see it (I can't go to Guatemala on my lunch hour), so it seems a bit hypocritical of me to decry the movement of art around the world.  In the case of many Central American pieces, there was a feeling that the local governments wouldn't be able to safeguard this art, so it was removed from the country for safekeeping.  I guess I'd like for some art to remain in the US and some art to go back to where it "belongs."  Sort of a wishy-washy position I guess.

Controversy aside, there's lots to see here, and I found the arrangement a bit confusing.  I wasn't sure where I was supposed to turn next to see everything - a bit more clarity in the signage would have been good.  I liked the things I saw, although nothing really jumped out at me as wonderful.  I was reminded both of shows I've seen at the African Art Museum and at the Freer/Sackler, proving yet again that for all of the differences between cultures, there are also similarities.  This collection includes not only kitchen ware, but also musical instruments, jewelry and figurines.  If you're interested in interpreting the meaning of the animal representations, there's a chart that explains what everything means.

I was reminded by this show that native peoples are not confined to the continental United States.  Many indigenous communities still exist in Central America as well.  Through the items their ancestors made for use in their everyday lives, we can gather an enormous amount of information about how they lived.

Verdict: If you go on a lunch hour, plan on getting strictly an overview.  If you want to take your time, plan on spending more than an hour.