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.

Titian’s Danaë from the Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through November 2, 2014

There's a lot going on in this fabulous painting on loan from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, in honor of Italy's year holding the Presidency of the European Union.  Sex, money, a horrified angel - who could ask for anything more?

This Titian is part of his series of paintings in the genre of erotic mythology; two other pieces are contained in the museum's permanent collection and on display in a gallery not far from the lobby were the Danaë is hanging.  The subject matter is quite explicit; no doubt depicting a woman from the ancient myths allowed Titian to make female nudity the centerpiece of this work without turning it into a "dirty picture."

And explicit is a good word to describe this work.  This Danaë is no shrinking violet; she seems quite welcoming of the attentions of Jupiter.  Is this because she's interested in him, or is his appearance as a rain of gold coins behind her desire?  Is Titian depicting many a man's concern: that a woman is more interested in his bank account than in him?  Is the artist suggesting that all women are to some extent prostitutes, happy to give in to a man's desire in exchange for access to his wallet?

My favorite part of the piece is the Cupid standing next to Danaë.  The expression on his face is priceless and in stark contrast to that on the face of the woman.  Where she looks with undisguised longing, his face is a mixture of horror and shock.  One can almost hear him remonstrating with Danaë, urging her to cover herself and leave the bed.  Good luck with that little friend; I think this is a lost cause.

Verdict: Don't miss this piece while it's visiting from Italy.  From a purely historical perspective, it's quite interesting to see a painting rescued by the Monuments Men (it had been hidden in an Austrian salt mine).  Also, it's a fantastic painting of a very attractive woman - something for everyone!