Sunday, December 27, 2015

Impressive Works Impressively Displayed

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through March 20, 2016

I'm hardly alone in recommending a trip to the National Gallery's latest blockbuster show; the Washington Post recently had a rave review, and if you Google the show title and "review," you'll turn up many other articles. I feel as if I'm just joining my voice to the chorus, but will do so anyway, because to ignore this show would be wrong.  Very wrong indeed.

When one thinks of classical sculpture, one things of marble, as that is what has survived.  Bronze, however, was a far more common medium of artistic expression.  Sadly, it was often melted down and turned into more mundane objects, so we're left with relatively few examples of this particular Hellenistic art.  Add to that the tendency of classical objects to be lost, whether on land or sea, and the modern world's ignorance of bronze sculpture is understandable.

Happily, the National Gallery's show allows you to fill this gap in your knowledge, and you should make a point of doing so before the show ends in mid-March.  It's not just that the works themselves are wonderful, although they are; it's that the design of the show is wonderful as well.  The use of backdrops to position the works in their original settings is effective - you almost feel yourself transported back to ancient Greece.  The works are spread out across enough rooms that you never feel crowded; each work has the space it needs to be appreciated.

The show begins with a bang - the "Getty Bronze" dominates the first room of the show and was my personal favorite piece.  Lucky are the residents of southern California who can see this work on a regular basis.  This is just the start of a collection of 50 of the most significant bronzes in the world.

Most of the works are missing the eyes of the statute, which were made of substances  less likely to withstand the ravages of time than bronze.  Without eyes, the pieces, especially those that are only heads, look like masks - as if you could put the piece on and become a citizen of a vanished world.

Those with eyes command your attention - they stare out at you with an energy you cannot ignore.  You feel a real connection with a world very far away from our own, both in time and distance.  That's one of the things I love about antiquities - you realize that, no matter how long ago artists lived, they were human beings, capable of observing life around them and creating beauty from what they saw.

Verdict: What are you waiting for?  Get out and see this show!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Best Name for a Show

Where: American Art Museum

When: March 20, 2016

In case you've not had your fill of photographic art, there's a show on at the American Art Museum that is worth a look.  The photographs of Irving Penn are on display here, but not his fashion work; this is everything else he did.  It's called "Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty," and that's exactly what it is.

No rail-thin models in haute couture to be seen - it's a wide display of abstraction, portraits of the famous (like the Truman Capote seen here), still lifes, group shots and portraits taken on his many international travels.

Penn had a real talent for photographing a large number of people at once.  Somehow, he manages to make every one look good, which is no small task.  Each person looks as if the shot is an individual portrait - there's no one hiding behind a taller person, or looking distracted.

I particularly liked his still life called "Frozen Food."  It's just that - food that's been frozen and put together for the picture.  It's full of vivid color and of ice. I also saw a portrait of Henry Moore, and it was nice to have a face to go with the art.

Verdict: This first museum retrospective of his work since his death in 2009 is a big show, so you'll want to allow some time to wander through.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

More Photos at the National Gallery of Art

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through March 13, 2016

2015 represents the 25th anniversary of the National Gallery's photography collection.  This is the final show of the celebration of that anniversary, and there are many things worth seeing in it.

It's organized into five different rooms, each with its own theme.  I didn't necessarily find the organizational scheme all that intuitive, but frankly, you can get plenty out of the show without concerning yourself with why certain pieces are put into the same room.

One of the things I liked best was actually outside of the rooms - a set of two pieces, one a painting by George Bellows entitled "New York" and the other a photographic collage by Vik Muniz called "New York City, after Bellows."  Basically, Muniz sought to re-create Bellows' painting by taking photographs, putting them together into a collage and then photographing and enlarging that.  Both works are great on their own; putting them together just makes them better.

Richard Avedon is well represented in this show.  I very much admired his portrait, taken in 1963, of a man born into slavery.  There's something about the way this (very old) man stares into the camera that forces the viewer to acknowledge his condition - you can't ignore him.  Very powerful.

In another room, there is an entire wall of portraits of 1970s political celebrities, also by Avedon.  There's a listing of who's who, and I enjoyed looking at the photographs and trying to identify the subjects.  Lots of people who are now either deceased or much older - it really takes you back 40 years.

Diane Arbus is also on display, in a series of photos of "awkward children."  Really, don't all of us fall into that category from time to time?

Verdict: Perhaps not as good as the earlier show, "The Memory of Time," but if you like photography, well worth seeing.

The Ugliness that is Surrealism


Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through Feb. 15, 2016

My apologies for the recent lack of blogging - Thanksgiving, work busy-ness and some family issues have taken up a lot of time and energy lately.  Now that the turkey and stuffing are nothing but rapidly disappearing leftovers, however, I'm back at my computer.

Of course, the fact that the first two shows I have to review are surrealist works at the Hirshhorn doesn't fill me with a keen desire to put fingers to keyboard.  "Marvelous Objects" is a survey of surrealist art and "Le 'NEW' Monocle" is a recent work inspired by surrealism.  Both of them left me shaking my head, thinking "Why does anyone want to come and look at this stuff?"  It's weird, but so is a lot of stuff that I like quite a bit.  I really puzzled over my negative reaction until I realized - it's all so ugly.  It's depressing and uninspiring.  It's a good thing I got a nice walk out of my trips to see these shows, as that was the only thing I got out of them.

Many famous names are on display in "Marvelous Objects," including Salvador Dali's "Aphrodisiac Jacket."  This was originally filled with actual green peppermint liqueur and visitors were encouraged to drink it.  I can see the complications from that policy, but a few stiff belts would have been welcome.  A piece called "Lobster Telephone" (I neglected to write down whose creation this was, and I just can't be bothered to look it up) was originally meant to be displayed with an actual lobster (deceased) which would decay and smell - I'm sure that's symbolic of something, but I don't want to be in a room with it.  Happily, the Hirshhorn's version has a plastic(?) lobster resting on a rotary dial phone.

The Washington Post reviewed this show and called it offensive to women, due to the many pieces that objectify and supposedly depict violence against females.  I'm as sensitive to objectification and violence as the next woman, but it was hard for me to summon up any offense, as the pieces were incomprehensible.

At the end of the show, there's a shadow box full of objects, and visitors are encouraged to make their own surrealist art.  Since my motto is, "if I can do it, it's not art," this served to validate my feeling that whatever this collection may be, a great artistic achievement it is not.

Shana Lutker is the artist behind the other show, which is part of the "Directions" series.  Apparently, our friends the surrealists, not content to make ugly pieces and feel alienated from society, would disagree with one another (about what exactly, I don't know) and occasionally, these disagreements would become violent.  Her three pieces are meant to represent three famous fistfights engaged in by surrealists; apparently, all that ugliness didn't do much to make them feel friendly towards their fellow man.

I can't really say this exhibit is either good or bad; it's just incomprehensible.  I dutifully read all the wall notes, hoping for some elucidation, but none was to be had.

Verdict: You know perfectly well I'm not going to recommend these shows.  Do yourself a favor and check out the Downtown Holiday Market at lunch time - many lovely crafts on display, and no fisticuffs!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Archives Explores Jazz History

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 18, 2016

If you're not a jazz aficionado, you can be forgiven for not knowing much (or anything at all) about Billy Strayhorn.  An important figure  in the history of the genre, he was overshadowed by his far more famous contemporary and one-time partner, Duke Ellington.

In fact, their 28-year partnership was one of the most important in American musical history.  Ellington had what the exhibit notes describe as a "forceful persona" (wonder what exactly that's a euphemism for?), and Strayhorn seems to have gotten pushed into the back seat in their joint enterprises.  Scholars are now taking a closer look at Strayhorn and his contributions to America music, and this exhibit is on as part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, on November 29th.

This show, which includes sheet music with notes, albums and photographs, depicts Strayhorn as enormously talented, but content to stay in the background, allowing others to take all the credit for work that was partly his.  It was only in his later years that Strayhorn went out on his own, away from Ellington.  The question I have is why was he content to remain in the background?  Why did he allow his contributions to be unattributed or treated as second-best?  Sadly, the exhibit doesn't provide an answer, which is unfortunate.  I checked on Amazon and there is a new biography out; clearly I'll need to read that in order to learn more about him.

One little piece of information I was able to take away was that arguably his most famous composition, "Take the A Train," was based on directions to Ellington's apartment - one of those neat facts to trot out at cocktail parties.

Verdict: If you're at all interested in jazz or in American musical history, this is worth a look.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

This. Is. Not. Art.

Where: Hirshhorn Museum (where else?)

When: through November 15, 2015

Long-time readers of this blog are well aware of my dim view of the Hirshhorn, or as I like to call it, the concrete doughnut.  I believe it is the "anti-Freer."  I say this because the Freer is full of beautiful things, beautifully arranged, while the Hirshhorn is an ugly building full of nonsense.

Occasionally, I think to myself, "Self, you're being too hard on the Hirshhorn.  With your constant complaining, blog readers will think you're a philistine, closed to modern art and avant-garde ideas.  You need to go in with an open mind and seek the truth to be found in non-traditional works."  And then, I see something like this display of two Dan Flavin pieces, and I think, "Self, don't ever change."

What you see in this picture is exactly what you'd see if you went over to the museum right now.  And since this is closing tomorrow, if you want to see this (can't imagine why you would, but...), that's exactly what you need to do.  The installations (is that the right word?) are made of fluorescent lights - like the sort of thing you'd see on the ceiling of a kitchen.  I've got some art in my kitchen right now, as a matter of fact - call the appraisers!

It's on the lower level, in two rooms.  The first piece, that blue fence-like structure to the left in the picture, takes up one room.  Interestingly enough, when you walk in, the light is actually lavender, rather than blue, and you feel as if you're bathed in the light.  I didn't really mind this piece, it looks like both a fence and a set of windows, and you could doubtless view it as a commentary on how people wall themselves off from other people and experiences, but should really take the time to look at unfamiliar persons or places as a way to expand their own horizons.  Fine; I've got no quarrel with that.  If this had been one work in an exhibit full of other thought-provoking pieces, I would have liked it.

However, then we move on to the second room, and this is where my patience runs out.  As you can see in the picture, it's a set of white fluorescent lights (just like you probably have at home!) mounted on the wall.  According to the notes, this is an homage to the Russian Constructivist movement.  I looked up this artistic period, and found some pictures but nothing that I could really tie to this piece.  Frankly, you could say this is an homage to just about anything, and you'd be right.  Absolute and complete nonsense.

Verdict: I'd apologize for not reviewing this show earlier (for some reason it didn't appear on the Smithsonian website until this week), but I think I've performed a public service in not drawing attention to this.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Big Influence; Big Exhibit

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through January 31, 2016

Tawaraya Sotatsu, who worked in the early 1600s, was a major influence on many well-known Japanese artists, but this is his first major retrospective in the Western Hemisphere.  Little is known about his personal life, and many of his works were erroneously credited to others.

Charles Lang Freer took an interest in his work in the early 1900s and purchased two Sotatsu masterpieces: "Dragons and Clouds" and "Waves at Matsushima" (pictured here).  Happily, both are on display, and they are truly amazing.  They are quite large; you really need to step back and view them at a distance to take them in.  "Waves" is not only a depiction of the sea, but also colorful trees and rocks.  "Dragons," although less colorful, is no less powerful; you feel as if the beasts are going to come right out of the screens.

Perhaps my favorite piece is one entitled "A Child Holding a Spotted Puppy"; it's very endearing.   The expressions on both the child's and the puppy's faces are lovely.  It makes you realize that no matter how much the world has changed in the last 400 years (and it's changed a lot), there will always be kids and dogs.

A video guide placed near the entrance of the show alerts you to the techniques on display in Sotatsu's art.  I don't know why they've set this up, but I like it very much, both because it's informative and because it's so well done.  I wish they would do this for more shows going forward.  It's not that the work is that inaccessible to Western viewers, but for those of us without Freer's discerning eye, it's helpful!

Another aspect of this show that's new to me is the opportunity for audience participation.  About mid-way through the show (which is HUGE), visitors can pick up fan-shaped pieces of paper and use colored pencils to draw their own designs.  Once finished, you can share your fan decoration on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.   It's a contest (involving likes on Facebook); the prize is a basket of Sotatsu-related items.  It occurred to me that my niece might enjoy this type of thing; I'll have to see if she might like to go over winter break...

I also want to give them kudos for providing directions through the show right at the entrance, so you know where to start and how to proceed to see everything.  In addition, they direct you to a related show in the Freer.  This is exactly the kind of signage I'd like to see throughout the Smithsonian: easy to understand and very informative.

In addition to original works, there is also a section of digital images.  Many Asian art works are either so old or so fragile that they are not able to be displayed.  Digital photography allows visitors to see these works in tremendous detail, without damaging the originals.  The Sackler and Freer are experimenting with this technology, so I'm hoping that more Sotatsu pieces will be on display digitally in the years to come.

The final part of the exhibit is entitled "Rediscovery" and contains pieces done by later artists influenced by Sotatsu and/or in homage to his work.  There are some terrific things in this set of galleries as well.

Verdict: This is a whale of an exhibit.  If you recall the show they had on yoga a while back, it's set up (I think) in the same spaces and is about as large.  Not really a lunchtime outing, unless you rush through, and what's the sense in that?  Worth savoring.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Television of the 19th Century

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 13, 2016

When most people, myself included, think of American photographers working at the time of the Civil War, they think of Matthew Brady.  He was not, however, the only person taking photographs in the 19th century, and the Portrait Gallery's current show of images by Alexander Gardner may make you think twice about according Brady pride of place among early practitioners of the art.

Gardner worked with Brady before opening his own studio, and he continued the portrait work for which Brady is justly famous.  Gardner, however, did not remain indoors; he took his equipment to the battlefields of the Civil War and brought into the living rooms of "the folks back home" the realities (more or less - more on that in a moment) of armed conflict.   Americans, living in the height of the Victorian era, had romantic ideas of what war was about - after looking at these photographs, those ideas had to be abandoned in favor of a far more grim reality.

Of course, whenever the subject of a show is photography, the question of reality rears its head.  When one sees a photo, one thinks one is seeing a picture of something that actually happened.  As the National Gallery's 2013 show "Faking It" showed viewers, that's not always true.  Gardner was not someone who used the photographic process to fake his images, but he certainly did create images that he then photographed.  His photograph, "Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter" was supposed to show a dead sniper, fallen while attacking Union troops.  In reality, Gardner moved the body from the battlefield into a different area and pictured him with a gun he would not have been using.  Was this person a Confederate soldier who died at Gettysburg?  Certainly, yes.  Did he die in the way and place that Gardner's photograph showed?  Just as certainly, no.  It seems to me that war is horrible enough without creating tableaux designed to tug more strongly on the heartstrings.

Despite the notoriety that Gardner's battle photos won him, his most famous image is the one pictured above - the "cracked plate" Lincoln.  True confession: I don't quite see the fascination with this image.  There are several other, I think better, pictures of Lincoln on display in this show - this one just seems out of focus and ill-framed.  To me, it's simply a snapshot, not a portrait.  The fact that the plate is cracked through in the place in the image where Lincoln's head is situated, and that Lincoln would be shot in the head not long afterwards is to me a dubious hook on which to hang the description of "accidental masterpiece."  However, it has become one of the most famous and iconic pictures in the history of American photography, so if you go to the show, by all means, see it.

The show itself is well done; I give the lighting director a lot of credit, as the images require low light in order to preserve them, but viewers need to be able to see.  I found my eyes adjusted quite quickly, and I had no problem in seeing both the wall notes and the photographs.  The show is set up in a hallway, with pieces in rooms on both sides and in the hallway itself.  You go through two rooms on one side, that are his early works and Antietam photographs, then through the rooms on the other side, which are later Civil War photographs, as well as images depicting the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination.  Finally, Gardner's photographs of the West and the Native Americans who inhabited it are hanging in the hallway.

Verdict: This is a large show, with lots of notes to read.  If you work any distance from the Portrait Gallery, you'll have a hard time seeing the whole thing in a lunch hour.  If you are interested in photography, the Civil War or depictions of Native Americans in the 19th century, by all means, make time to see this exhibit.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When Once Isn't Enough

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through February 7, 2016

Repetition is the name of the game in this exhibit of works from the renowned Los Angeles print workshop and publisher Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited).  Each work is a series of pieces, so you're seeing both the whole and  the sum of the parts.

This is the sort of show that I think will appeal to many visitors, as the type of art on display really runs the gamut.  I don't see how anyone could like everything, for the same reason.  The picture posted here is from the first room which has this Jasper Johns set of colorful numerals, along with a Roy Lichtenstein series of paintings of a bull.  I'm not a big fan of Johns, but I did like the Lichtenstein.  The first piece is a bull - clear and simple.  No need to scratch your head and ponder.  As the series progresses (or regresses, depending on your point of view), the bull becomes steadily more abstract, until, by the final piece, you could have no idea what it was unless you'd seen the whole set.  It gave me a greater appreciation of abstract act; it's not just random line and squiggles - it really is something.

I was far less impressed with the room of Ellsworth Kelly pieces - all just monochromatic shapes.  How is that different than painting your living room?  By my rule of "If I can do it, it's not art," this is definitely not art.

My favorite piece in the show was a David Hockney work called "Snow," part of his "Weather" series.  It's something that would be right at home at the Freer.  Snow covered mountain and tree branch - one expects a Chinese scholar to come out of the corner, on his way to visit a friend.  Lovely: spare, simple and restful to view.

Verdict: Worth a look - there's bound to be something that pleases you.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

50 years old and still topical

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 20, 2016

The Hart-Celler Act may be 50 years old, but the issue of immigration could not be more current.  This act shaped modern American society, by allowing people from Latin America and Asia to immigrate in large numbers to the U.S.

Prior to 1965, U.S. immigration policies favored white people seeking to come here from Northern Europe.  The Hart-Celler Act enabled immigrants from all over the world to come, and our food, popular culture and way of life generally have been changed (in my opinion, for the better) in many ways.  This is a far more diverse nation than it was before 1965, and I think many people are more open to learning about the experiences of those different from themselves than they were when they lived only with those who looked and lived just as they did.

The people you might recognize in the picture above include not only President Lyndon Johnson signing the legislation, but also his wife Lady Bird Johnson, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and both Ted and Bobby Kennedy.

Verdict:  If you're at American History, stop and have a look at this display in a case on the 2nd floor (it's off to the side, not in the main hall).

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Come for the Pope, stay for the art?

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through December 1, 2015

I went over to the National Gallery on Friday to see this visiting Vermeer painting, and I was not alone.  A very large crowd of people greeted me, both in the room where this work is hanging and at the Caillebotte show, which I re-visited briefly.  The Caillebotte show closes next Sunday, so perhaps it was just a rush of people eager to catch it before it leaves, but I wondered if perhaps these were people who had flocked to Washington to see the Pope and decided to see some art after he decamped to New York?  Whatever the reason, it was busy and then some.

This Vermeer piece is on loan through the end of November from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  It's not been seen in the United States since the mid-1990s, when it made up part of the big Vermeer show here at the National Gallery, and it's been restored in the years since.  Even if you saw it before, it's worth another look now.

There's the effect of the light from the window, of course; this is a Vermeer we're talking about after all.  There's also the lovely blue color of the woman's smock, along with the darker blues of the chairs and the rod holding down the tapestry on the wall.  Looking at the woman, I wondered if she were pregnant?  Perhaps it's just her dress.

I noticed that what I call the "Mona Lisa effect" was a bit in evidence in the room where the painting was hanging.  All the attention was directed to this piece, and the other items got short shrift.  Not so much as in the room in the Louvre where the Mona Lisa hangs (all those other wonderful Leonardos, and no one gives them so much as a glance), but still, most of the attention was on the "Woman in Blue."  I suppose this is understandable, considering that this painting is only visiting, and the other works we will have always with us, but still...

Verdict: There are so few Vermeer paintings in the world, that any time you get to see one, you should do so.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Selection of Hirshhorn Pieces

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through April 17, 2016

The third floor of the Hirshhorn has re-opened after being closed for renovation, and to mark the occasion, a number of items from the museum's permanent collection are on display.  Many of them are forgettable and ridiculous, but I'll focus on a couple of things I actually liked.

First, and this is the reason I recommend seeing this show, they have a Yinka Shonibare piece.  It's from his "Age of Enlightenment" series; this is of Antoine Lavoisier.  Shonibare has given the chemist a disability he did not possess in life, so he's presented seated in a wheelchair.  In addition to clothing Lavoisier in the Dutch wax cloth which is a trademark of his, Shonibare has covered the chair in it as well.  Great colors on both the mannequin and the chair.  It's always fantastic to see one of Shonibare's pieces, especially when you can get close up and really look at all the terrific details.

I also had a chance to see "Display Stand with Madonnas" by Katharina Fritsch, which I'd seen before in another Hirshhorn permanent collection display some years ago.  This is what I call "Yellow Virgin Marys" because it's a big display stand with lots of yellow statutes of the Virgin Mary.  You don't see that every day.

Verdict: Typical Hirshhorn, whether you like that or not.  Go for the Shonibare, but feel free to move quickly through the rest.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Ideas for a Postage Stamp Yard

Where: Ripley Center

When: through January 31, 2016

Hooray - another trip to one of my favorite subterranean destinations!  The Ripley concourse, having finished playing host to the winners of the Smithsonian employee art contest, is now the home of a few garden tableaux designed especially for small spaces.

The display pictured is sitting on a settee, and all of the displays would fit comfortably on an apartment balcony or in a townhouse front yard.  You need not abandon your green thumb simply because you don't have a mansion-sized estate.  You just have to scale down your ambitions a bit.

Featured are a fairy garden (pictured above), several terrariums, green walls, stumperies (plants grown in tree stumps or logs) and dish gardens.  The trick with these is to group together plants that need the same amount of water and sunlight.  An obvious point, but one worth making before you spend a lot of effort to put things in a small plot that look lovely, but just can't live together.

This exhibit is put on by the Smithsonian Gardens, a vital part of the institution that I suspect is often overlooked by visitors.  They have a huge orchid collection (which is where the plants for the annual orchid display originate), many tropical plant specimens and a greenhouse full of nectar plants that are used to provide sustenance for the Butterfly Pavilion at the Natural History Museum.  In addition to all this, they have a collection of over 1,700 garden furnishings, including items as old as the mid-1800s.

Verdict: If you have any interest in adding a bit of greenery to a small space, or are just a fan of gardening in general, this small display is worth a trip underground.

Pueblo Pottery Meets Art Deco

Where: American Art Museum

When: through January 31, 2016

When I saw this image on the Smithsonian, I became very interested in seeing this show.  I'd never heard of this artist before, but the idea of combining Native American design with Art Deco sounded great to me.  I LOVE Art Deco, and am in favor of combining it with anything.

To offer up just a bit of background on Tsireh, he was a Native American artist who took the pottery designs of his Pueblo people and made stylized watercolors that incorporated modernist trends that started in New York and spread across the country.  If he'd been working now, rather than in the early 20th century, I suppose I would say his work is a mash-up of traditional designs and Art Deco.

The first room of the show is Tsireh's early work, which is more traditional Native American art.  If you like that, you'll enjoy this.  The drawings are reminiscent of things I've seen at NMAI, and I admired their precision and depictions of rituals that were unfamiliar to me.  I was, I confess, a bit disappointed though.  Where was the Art Deco bit?  None of this looked the least bit modernist.  Remembering that I hadn't yet seen the image from the website, I soldiered on, and it was in the second and third rooms that I found some truly wonderful pieces.

As Tsireh's style matured, he incorporated modernist techniques, so if you like Art Deco, it's his later stuff that will appeal.  In addition to the piece pictured here, Basket Dancers, the things I liked the best were his "Rainbow Paintings."  These are pictures of animals with a rainbow over top - very Art Deco, and wonderful colors.  It was all I could do to tear myself away.  I'm happy I did, as I was then able to see his series of "Animal Designs," which are also great.  These are fantastical creatures inspired by Pueblo, Navajo and Mayan art with an Art Deco flair.

I was happy to see that this show is mentioned as a critic's choice in the Washington Post's Fall Arts Preview (in today's "Arts and Style" section).  I'm hoping this will bring more people to see this work.

Verdict: Don't miss this great little show.  Easily managed in a lunch hour, it's time very well spent.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Staring back at celebrities

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through July 10, 2016

I went with a friend to see this show, an examination of celebrity portraits.  I enjoy going with another person to exhibits from time to time; it gives me a fresh and different perspective on what I'm seeing.  When one has only oneself for company, one can start having the same reaction to everything.  Having a companion helps to shake things up, and that's all for the best.

The subjects in this show come from all walks of famous life - there are musicians, actors, filmmakers, athletes, even a Supreme Court justice.  They look at us, the viewers, as we look at them.  These are all recent additions to the museum's collection, some of which have not been displayed before.  Some, though, I recognized, which always makes me happy.  "Cupcake Katy," pictured here, is one that is quite familiar, as it was a featured portrait several months ago.

Perhaps the piece I enjoyed most was a video of Esperanza Spalding by Bo Gehring.  I'm pretty sure I saw one of his pieces in the portrait competition exhibit a while ago.  The subject lies flat and listens to a musical work of his or her choice while the camera moves up their body.  It sounds odd, but it's captivating.

Verdict: This is a great show, manageable in a lunch hour.  Lots of interesting people to see and many interesting ways to see them.

Civil Rights in Stamps

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through February 15, 2016

If you think you've seen every possible presentation of the history of African-Americans in the United States, think again. This exhibit tells the story of Black America with stamps and other pieces of postal memorabilia.  From the use of slaves to deliver messages, to the Black Heritage Stamp series, this show, easily managed in a lunch hour, gives you a new perspective on the odyssey that Americans of African descent have taken in the years that they have lived in the United States.

Exhibits include mail carried by slave messengers from one plantation to another, communications dating from the time of the Civil War and mail from the Civil Right era.  African-Americans honored on stamps include Booker T. Washington (whose stamp is pictured here), Marion Anderson (whose stamp is a lovely portrait) and W.E.B. DuBois (whose stamp features a double portrait), and their stamps, along with many others are on display.

Not shying away from the ugly aspects of history, a case with Ku Klux Klan materials is also part of the exhibit, including a hood and mask.  It was disturbing to see, and I realized I'd been very fortunate never to have seen one before.  My hope is never to see one again.

Verdict: A nicely done show, that probably won't get as much traffic as it deserves, tucked away off the Mall.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Is This the Weirdest Thing I've Ever Seen?

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (where else?)

When: through January 3, 2016

Obviously, the question I've posed in this blog posts's title is one only I can answer, so you gentle readers, may treat it as rhetorical.  In an effort to make up my mind on just how weird this is, I've been trying since Friday afternoon to think of something I've seen that's more peculiar than this, and I've not been able to come up with anything.

As we all know, the Hirshhorn is the home of the bizarre, the ridiculous and the eye-rolling when it comes to art, but as much as I criticize their permanent collection, I've always been a big fan of their video offerings.  "Floating McDonald's" is my all-time favorite, but I've seen many other films that I've just loved.  They're out of the ordinary, but they're interesting, thought-provoking, strange in a good way.

The latest addition to the Black Box series is something called "Ancha es Castilla" or "N'importe quoi."  Loosely translated, the French means "Whatever."  I'd be hard pressed to come up with  a better title.  Sergio Caballero is the film maker, and according to the wall notes outside the viewing room, he has a cult following at international film festivals.  I'm not surprised, as his work screams "cult following."

I could try to give you a synopsis of the plot of this 25-minute bit of cinema, but really, there are no words to describe this.  It deals with a child's exorcism and uses puppetry, but it's really something you have to see for yourself.  I watched the last half of the film (it runs on a continuous loop, with five minutes between showings), so maybe it would all have made sense if I'd seen it from the beginning, but somehow, I doubt it.  I'm not saying I didn't like it, but I'm reluctant to recommend it.

Verdict: If you're in the Hirshhorn anyway, have a look.  If you can make sense of it, let me know!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Contest Winner

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through November 1, 2015

The Portrait Gallery runs a contest a couple of times each year called "Recognize."  They offer up three choices of portraits and the public gets to vote on which one they'd like to see.  More details are available at Smithsonianmag.com.

The latest contest featured well-known baseball players and Roberto Clemente emerged the winner.  If the seemingly endless parade of bad behaviors among modern-day athletes leaves you feeling less than eager to celebrate their accomplishments, a dose of Clemente is just what the doctor ordered.

A tremendously talented and successful ball player and a genuinely charitable human being, Clemente was killed in a plane crash on his way to help victims of the Nicaraguan earthquake in 1972.

Verdict: A fine photograph of a fine athlete and person - be sure to see this on your next trip to the Portrait Gallery.


Looking at Italian Art

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through January 3, 2016

It was a banner week this week, gentle readers.  I made not one but two, count 'em two, trips to the Hirshhorn!  Longtime followers know how much I love the Mall's big concrete donut and its collection of what my niece would call "silly art."  Well, there's plenty of that on offer in their show "Le Onde" on display until early January.

The show focuses on the Italian influence on modern art from Europe and Latin America in the 20th century and is co-sponsored by the Italian Embassy.  For a relatively small country that hasn't been powerful for more years than I can count, Italy exerts an out-sized influence on many forms of artistic expression, and I raise my hat to them.

The piece pictured here is called "Blue Surface 5," and it's by Enrico Castellani.  It's oil paint on linen stretched over nails.  When you're up close to it, you can see the nails protruding through the canvas, but viewed from a distance (or online), it looks like weaving.  I liked it, both for the trompe l'oeil effect and for the fantastic blue color.

The thing that really stole the show, however, was "Wave Motion Thread" by Francois Morellet.  This is the sort of thing that makes the Hirshhorn the Hirshhorn, and I'll warn you, I don't mean that in a good way.  This is, I kid you not, a piece of thread that stretches from the ceiling, where it's attached to a motor, almost to the floor, where it's attached to a plummet (a small piece of metal that keeps it stretched out).  For five minutes, the motor turns on and the thread bounces up and down.  Then, for ten minutes, it rests.  You've got to be kidding me.  Seriously, Hirshhorn?  A thread on  a motor bouncing up and down is not art.  It's just not.

One thing I do want to mention is the overall greatness of the Hirshhorn guards.  They are absolutely the friendliest, most helpful folks I've encountered in many years of museum-going.  One of them showed me how to look at a piece involving a projector (you put your arm in front of it, to see the projection) on this trip.  I've been helped by other guards several times.  No matter how much they must want to roll their eyes at the nonsense they see everyday, they are unfailingly pleasant.

Verdict: The best thing about this show is that it's close to another exhibit featuring a Yinka Shonibare piece.  It's okay, but not a crying shame if you miss it.  Unless you're really into bouncing thread.  Then run right over.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Robert Frank, not Anne

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through February 7, 2016

The library has put up a new exhibit in the West Building on photobooks.  These are books in which the majority of the content is photographs, what I might have called coffee table books before realizing there's an even more specific descriptive phrase available.

My issue with the last couple of these library displays is my issue with this one as well.  There are no wall notes to explain what you're seeing.  You just walk into the room, look at some items in the display cases, and walk out very little the wiser, unless you knew something about the subject before you arrived.

Granted, there is a pamphlet available that offers a wealth of information on what you're seeing, and this time, I took one.  I didn't have an enormous amount of time the day I went to the gallery, so I didn't read it while looking at the items; I figured I'd just have a gander at it before writing this post.

It's a lot of information - perhaps more than I really wanted to know about photobooks, truth be told.  Setting aside my quibble with the length, the information is quite helpful.  I realize that I need to allow some more time for these little shows, so that I can read the pamphlet in situ - treat it as a sort of portable version of wall notes.

Interestingly enough, I saw a piece I recognized - William Eggleston's photograph of the tricycle outside a tract house - what I call the "Giant Trike."  There's also a copy of Lee Friedlander's "American Monument," which I feel like I've seen at American Art.  If you remember this show - tell me in the comments!

Oh, the post title is a reference to the name of the display, "Photobooks after Frank."  When I first read it, I thought they meant Anne Frank and couldn't figure out what she had to do with photography.

Verdict: Now that I've figured out how to see these little exhibits, I think I'll appreciate them more.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Conversation about "Conversations"

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through January 24, 2016

I'd been debating with myself for a long time over whether to go to the Cosby exhibit at African Art.  On the one hand, I love going to exhibits, and I wanted to see the art works.  On the other hand, Mr. Cosby is at best, a huge sleazeball and at worst, a rapist.  Of course, it's not the art's fault that their owner is such a dreadful person.  But, he did use his persona as a "nice guy" to make a fortune, that enabled him to purchase all of this art, and have his collection shown at the Smithsonian.

I went back and forth for (literally) months.  I go to see shows based on when they're closing, and every time this show was the "next" one I would go to see, something else would open with an earlier closing date, and I could put off making a final decision. Finally, however, my luck ran out, and I decided to go see the show.  I'm not sure if I'm happy I saw it, but I am happy that I can stop thinking about going to see it.

Setting aside the controversy about the show for a moment, I want to focus on the show itself.  It's an interesting idea - juxtaposing works by African artists with works by African-American artists.  There are similar themes present, and they do seem to "go together" - nothing looks jarring or out of place.  Is this because the artists share a common cultural heritage, even if they've been separated from one another for hundreds of years?  I was reminded of a show on baskets I saw here several years ago, and how the items made by Africans are very similar to those made by African-Americans.  The topic is intriguing, and it's a shame that the scandal hanging over the show overshadows that.

One of the pairings I saw that I liked very much is the one represented here.  The painting "Benin Head" is by African-American artist David C. Driskill, and it is displayed alongside an actual Benin head sculpture.  I very much like seeing representations of things along with the actual thing itself.  It happens rarely, but I'm always delighted when it does.  I was also introduced to sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, whose works "Maternity" and "The Family" I impressed me very much.  I'll have my eye out for more of her work in future.

But now, back to the controversy.  As you walk into the exhibit, there is a notice containing a message to visitors about the exhibit.  The Smithsonian is taking the view (which I suppose is the one I ended up taking) that they decry Cosby's behavior, but they think the art is worthy of being shown on its own merits.  Just because a bad person likes a piece of art doesn't make the art itself bad.  They've also set up a comment book, which I didn't read, so if visitors want to vent their spleen, they may feel free to do so.

What struck me as I went through the show is how much of the Cosby pieces show families and spirituality.  In fact, the wall notes for the "Spiritualities" section indicates that these pieces are meant to be a guideline to pursue a moral life.  I would say that's the most ironic bit about this show, except that, in the display of quilts (which are lovely), one quilt has a square that reads, "What part of NO Didn't you Understand?"  Yes, indeed, that is the question.

Of course, Cosby's behavior is not the only controversy surrounding this exhibit.  There's the fact of the Smithsonian putting it on in the first place.  Apparently, it's considered bad form to display works from a private collector that have not been given or promised to the museum displaying them.  I gather that having your works shown at an institution with the reputation of the Museum of African Art increases the value of the works, so the museum is, in essence, giving the collector a gift.  When you add in that the director of the museum is a personal friend of the Cosbys, well, that starts to look bad.

Verdict: The show is very large, and I only had time to skim much of it.  You could easily spend two lunch hours looking at everything.  I didn't feel great walking around, I must confess.  The scandal hangs heavy in the atmosphere.  Whether you'd feel the same way is something only you can decide.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Will There be an App for That?

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through November 1, 2015


The Archives of American Art, that repository of all documents related to this country's art and artists, has as new show on that deals with the inter-relationships between artists, as revealed in their address books.  I've used address books for years, and still have one that I refer to, if not often, then often enough to make it worthwhile to keep it up to date.  I gather that this makes me an outlier, and that everyone keeps their contact information on their smartphones now.  In fact, the show actually offers an explanation of what an address book is - assuming that at least some of their visitors will not have ever owned or used one.

So how will future archivists unravel the web of friendships, business relationships and romances that shows how artists were related to one another and to those who supported their work?  Will they collect smartphones?  Will there be an app for that?

It occurs to me that this type of exhibit and the research behind it won't be possible in future, and it causes me to ponder (not for the first time) how much harder technology is making the job of future historians.  Gone are the letters between parted friends and family members, replaced by email or texts or tweets.  Going are the book collections, with marginalia, replaced by e-readers.  Vanished are the drafts of manuscripts, with corrections and re-writes, replaced by word processing.  Ah well, they say everything lives on forever, once it's online.  Not such a comfortable thought when one considers one's party photos, but perhaps a boon to those who will write biographies.

But enough wool-gathering, on to the show itself.  It's the standard one-room offering, so perfect for a lunch time excursion.  The decor is their usual nice touch; they seem to put as much thought into that as into the documents on display, and it really adds to the show.  The organization of an artist's address book can tell you quite a bit about their view of the person listed - what category did the person fall into?  Close friend, business contact, passing acquaintance?  The lack of organization raises questions that are perhaps unanswerable: who is this person with just a first name and a number?

In addition to "little black books," there are displays of other historical technologies: a 3.5" floppy disk, a rolodex and a pile of business cards.  The show makes references to the "speed of obsolescence," and if there's some way of measuring that, I can only imagine the number is frighteningly high.

Verdict: I liked this display, and would recommend a visit.  Make a lunch hour excursion, or tack a few minutes on to a visit to another show.  You can even use your smartphone to download interviews with artists!

A Complement to the "View" Paintings

Where: Freer Gallery of Art

When: through November 1, 2015

When one thinks of the Freer, one thinks primarily of Asian art, and with good reason.  The collection is wonderful, as anyone who's followed this blog knows. The pottery, the paintings, the screens, the sculpture, what I call beautiful things, beautifully displayed.

Freer collected American art as well as Asian, and it's this part of his collection that is on display in the show entitled, "Fine Impressions: Whistler, Freer, and Venice."

Freer was initially unimpressed with Whistler and was at a loss to understand his popularity.  Then he what I can only describe as a "Paul on the road to Damascus" moment in a fellow collector's apartment, and started buying Whistler pieces the next day.  Eventually, the two men became friends, and Whistler helped Freer amass what is arguably the finest collection of Whistlers in the world.

The show is of Whistler's etchings of Venice.  Not the touristy Venice, so beloved of "view painters" and post card photographers, but the other Venice - that inhabited by its ordinary citizens.  People in these pieces go about their daily lives, including hanging out an extraordinary amount of washing.  Shirts seem to hang from every window.  There's an intimacy that I like in these works, a universality of human experience; it's only the water-filled streets and the gondolas that put you in Venice and not in another city.

Interestingly, Whistler did all of his own printmaking, something artists often left to others.  His involvement in every aspect of the creation of these pieces gives you a sense of a single vision in these pictures.  No one else has super-imposed his or her ideas of how the scene should look.  This is how Whistler wants you to see his Venice.

The show also includes a fan and a ceramic bottle, which Freer said reminded him of Whistler's work.  I could not help but be reminded in my turn of the Barnes, with its juxtapositioning of "flat art" and handcrafts.

Verdict: A small show, easily managed in a lunch hour; it's on the ground floor of the museum, so head downstairs from the main entrance. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Both an Advertisement and an Arcade

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through January 2016

As long time readers are well aware, Air and Space is possibly my least favorite Smithsonian Museum.  It's always crowded, usually with noisy boys running madly from rocket to rocket, and gawping parents, stopping every three steps to look at the space ships hanging from the ceiling.  Don't misunderstand me, I've seen some good things here, mostly in the gallery devoted to art (the photographs of the planets is one of the best things I've seen ever), but as a general rule, I don't view a trip to Air and Space with the happy anticipation I experience when contemplating a trip to the Sackler.

Today's voyage did nothing to change my view of Air and Space, although I think this exhibit will delight many visitors.  It's called "Above and Beyond," and it deals with innovation in flight.  Since flight, whether on Earth or into space, is nothing but innovation, this is not much of a stretch.  There's plenty to talk about and lots to do.

It's a brand new display, very bright and shiny and interactive.  It reminded me strongly of an arcade filled with games, although it occurs to me that such places are probably passe now that everyone has a game system at home.  You see the family happily positioning themselves as flying birds in the picture - it's lots of that sort of thing.  Videos and simulations are the order of the day.

I also noticed that Boeing is the sponsor of this exhibit.  Their name is featured prominently throughout, and in the video I watched, I learned about some new products they are working to develop.  I was too weary from being interacted with to develop a full rationale for why this bothered me, but it did and still does.  I'm bombarded by advertising every where I look; I'd like my museums to be commercial-free.

Verdict: If you've got children or if you're a fan of games, run right over to Air and Space.  Otherwise, you can give this a miss.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My Thanks to the Donors


Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through December 13, 2015

The Sackler and Freer Galleries, although they owe their existence to the tremendous generosity of their naming donors, are the recipients of additional gifts each year.  Some patrons give works of art; others give money that allow the museum to make purchases.  Several new and anticipated gifts are currently on display at the Sackler in its South Galleries, close to the museum's shop.

Interestingly enough, two of the donors are from the field of mental health.  Both Dr. Arthur Sackler and his friend Dr. Paul Singer (whose collection of Chinese art Sackler in part financed and which was donated to the Sackler) were psychiatrists - is this coincidence or correlation?  Does the study of the human mind lead one to appreciate Asian art?

The exhibit does not have a theme per se.  As the wall notes indicate, "the only unifying element is the generosity of the donors."  And a fine unifying element that is.  I particularly liked a ceramic piece entitled Gathering Morning, an example of stoneware by Miyashita Zenji, pictured above.  The colors reminded me of a sunrise and the shape was very unusual - not symmetrical at all from front to back - a sort of rectangle that juts out in the front and back.  I've not seen a piece like it before, but I'll keep my eye out for more of Zenji's work in future.

I also enjoyed a statue of the Medicine Buddha.  He was worshiped in order to fend off disease, hunger, thirst, cold and mosquitoes.  I love the specificity of that last complaint.  The next time I'm bitten, I'll send a request to the Medicine Buddha and see if that's any more effective than bug spray.

Verdict: Seeing this display was an excellent reminder of the debt of gratitude I owe to the Smithsonian's donors.  Thanks to them, I've had many happy hours and learned a multitude of things.  This is worth a look if you're headed to the Sackler.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Man of Contradictions

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

In addition to the Caillebotte show, the National Gallery has an exhibit of Joachim Wtewael paintings and prints on display on its Main Floor.  It's closer to the 4th Street entrance than the 7th Street entrance, so if you enter on 7th Street, you'll have the opportunity to walk through the museum and see what else is on the walls as you make your way to this show.

Joachim Wtewael was from the Netherlands and worked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  The first pieces you see in this show are family portraits, and they show a typical Dutch group; the men all have Van Dyke beards and ruffs; the women caps and Bibles close at hand.  A very proper gathering of merchants, you might easily think.

Not so fast.  Once you move past these offerings, you'll see quite the display of fleshy delights.  You get a hint of this in a Shepherd and Shepherdess set, that are far more earthy in tone than the rest of the portraits.  It's believed that Wtewael's daughter and son-in-law were the models for these.  If so, one wonders what the proper matron identified as Wtewael's wife would have thought of this.  One can only imagine that years of looking at her husband's mythological paintings made have inured her to art with sexual overtones.

But on to the non-family work, which is extensive and interesting.  Some of it is religious in topic.  Saint Sebastian gets some play, as well as Moses, the Christ Child and various shepherds.  If works of art inspired by the Bible are not your cup of tea, have no fear; there's plenty else to see.  Several takes on Mars and Venus being surprised in flagrante delicto by Vulcan are in the show, as examples of Wtewael's work on copper.  It was amazing to me that paintings completed over 400 years ago should be so vibrant and colorful today, but apparently copperplate does that.

There are also numerous scenes of mythological merry-making.  Lots of handsome gentlemen and voluptuous ladies behaving in ways that gentlemen and ladies are not supposed to behave.  It's all very sumptuous, no dour Dutch propriety here.  Something I noticed in all of these paintings is Wtewael's incredible attention to detail.  The smallest objects are rendered with fantastic precision.  My favorite work in the show is entitled Woman Selling Vegetables, and the fruit in the picture are so realistic, you want to reach right into the picture and pick them up.  It's not just the people who are sensuous.

The one jarring note is the way Wtewael paints feet.  There are any number of barefoot men and women depicted, not to mention various cupids, and everyone of them has big, ugly feet.  One expects this on men, especially if they're meant to be working men, but even on quite beautiful women, there are those big, ugly feet again.  What's up with that?  I understand that he was a Mannerist painter, and they do go in for distortion, but I'm pretty sure the distortion is meant to be elegant, not misshapen and hammer-toed.

Verdict: Feet aside, this is a good show, one I enjoyed and would recommend.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Taking a long view of the shore

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through September 13, 2015

When you walk down the stairs to the exhibit space at the Sackler, this video will meet your eyes.  It's long, over an hour, and focuses on the shoreline.  Driftwood is moved about by waves, people walk past the water on their travels and curious shapes (are they people, dogs, otters?) enjoy the beach.

This is a compilation of five films by the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami and they are dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu, a Japanese filmmaker who influenced Kiarostami's work.  This is presented in conjunction with the Shirin Neshat show at the Hirshhorn, and, I'm happy to say, you are directed to that show, so that those who wish to see more contemporary Iranian art can get their fill.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with both of these artists, no worries.  I was mesmerized by the driftwood film, regardless of my ignorance.  It's just driftwood on a beach, but I got caught up in wondering if the waves would grab it and move it down the beach or out to shore.

Imagine my excitement to see people walking down what appears to be a boardwalk in the next film!  I think some of them were the same people, but it was hard to be sure.  And then, I was enthralled by the figures on the beach.  I thought at first they were people, then decided they were dogs, and was about to consider if they were otters or something similar when one of them got up - dogs!

There are two other films in the series, but I had a limited amount of time to spend, so only saw three.  If you've got 74 minutes, enjoy a visit to the beach, without packing your sunblock!

I think the thing that has really stayed with me was not so much the visuals, but the sound.  The waves coming in, crashing on the shore and going out again, reminded me of family vacations to the ocean.  That sound never fails to relax me, even in the middle of a busy day, in a busy part of town.

Verdict: If you need a trip to the ocean, but can't quite make it out of the city, head to the Sackler - salt water taffy not provided! 

It's a Grand Old Flag

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 28, 2015

On opening day of the Innovation wing of the American History Museum, visitors and LEGO Master Builders created the world's largest American flag constructed out of LEGOs.  This flag is now on display in the center of the first floor of the museum.

I happened to be there that day and saw people putting the bricks together, so I guess this is the first time something I've seen an artifact being created.  If I'd realized it was going to go on display, I would have joined in! 

It's great, although if I were a nitpicker, I would point out that stars don't really look star-like.  Other than that, it's quite an achievement, especially when you consider it was put together in a matter of hours.

One question: how exactly does one get to be a LEGO master builder, and is it too late for me to choose that as my career path?

Verdict: If you'll be at American History any time before the end of September, make sure you have a look at this.

A trip to Philadelphia means a trip to the Barnes





Every so often, I leave the Washington, DC area, usually on business, and travel to another city.  I don't know what other people investigate first when they're traveling somewhere new, but I always figure out what art museums are open to the public, and how I can make my way there.

I've been to Philadelphia before, but the Barnes was pretty far out of town and inaccessible for someone without a car.  Now, it's moved into the city, and I was able to walk to it from my hotel.

What a fantastic experience!  The Barnes is not really an art museum, it's the collection of Dr. Barnes (now deceased) who ran an art school and used his collection in teaching.  He set up displays in order to demonstrate certain artistic techniques to the students, so the art is not arranged the way it is in other museums.  You don't have a room of Van Goghs (although you could) and a room of Renoirs (although you could) and a room of Picassos (although you could).  Everything is mixed together, and your job as a visitor is to find the connections between what, at first glance, are quite disparate pieces.

In addition to the art, there are also crafts - metal work hanging on the wall, and furniture in front of the paintings and pottery and candlesticks.  Dr. Barnes believed that all of these things are "art" and all of them are worthy of study and display.  And they all are part of his art - the arrangement of the items on a particular wall.  One doesn't usually think of collectors as artists; they're the people who support the artists, and one admires (or doesn't) their taste in art, but one thinks of them as consumers of art, rather than producers.  Dr. Barnes turned that idea on its head.  He made each wall of the building his canvas (in fact, the walls look like canvas) and the arrangement of great works on that canvas was his art.

More than any other museum I've visited, I recommend going on a guided tour with one of the docents.  I did that, and I feel like I not only gained an enormous amount of insight into this collection, but learned a lot about art in general.  I'm now a more intelligent viewer of works of art, and for someone whose primary non-work activity is going to museums (well, maybe secondary activity, since reading is doubtless my primary activity), that's saying a lot.

No museum is complete without a gift shop and the Barnes is no exception.  There are lots of lovely things for sale; I picked up a T-shirt that reads, "I stayed behind the line at the Barnes Foundation."  This is a reference to the line on the floor that dictates how close you can get to the artworks.  One is reminded to "stay behind the line" if one gets too close.

Verdict: If you are ever in Philadelphia, DO NOT miss this.  It's wonderful and eclectic and worth very dime of the (admittedly not cheap) admission fee.

The Photographer's Eye

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

The name of this exhibit is actually Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter's Eye, but I'm calling it "The Photographer's Eye," because some of this work is so precise and so of the moment, that you'd think you were looking at a photograph.  But a bit of background before we get started.

Gustave Caillebotte is one of the least well-known French Impressionists.  In part, this was because he had plenty of money and could afford to give his paintings away to friends.  Thus, not many of them turned up in museums.  Those "starving artists" had to sell their work, so more of it wound up in public spaces.  Caillebotte was also a collector of his friends' work, and he left his wonderful collection to the French state.  Since this included only two of his own works, he languished in obscurity until the mid-20th century.

I was first introduced to Caillebotte by the Masterpiece game.  It sounds ridiculous, but I'm willing to bet others got their earliest exposure to great art from that board game.  One of the works included was the one pictured above, Caillebotte's most famous work, Paris Street, Rainy Day which resides at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I saw it there almost three years ago, when on a business trip to the city, and I was happy to see it again.

What I noticed this time is how much like a photograph it is.  In addition to the precision of the painting, the scene is exactly the sort of thing you'd see walking down a busy street.  Clearly, it's composed: the umbrella handles mirror the lamppost and the spokes on the carriage wheels.  Everyone is carrying an identical umbrella.  The streets converge at a perfect point to show perspective in all directions.  But it doesn't feel composed.  It feels as if Caillebotte went out into the street on an overcast, gloomy, wet day and snapped a photo of Parisians scurrying out of the rain.  It's very cleverly done, precisely because it doesn't feel "done" at all.

Paris Street, Rainy Day dominates the room where it's displayed, as you might expect.  I read in a review that the National Gallery would not have put on the show without it, and I can understand why.  It's the star of the show and for good reason.

But, it's not the only reason to see the exhibit.  I would recommend another painting, The Yerres, Effect of Rain.  It's raindrops on a river, which doesn't sound like much, but which I think perfectly shows Caillebotte's mastery of precision and Impressionism.  The rain on the water (which one doesn't see terribly often, it seems to me) is very carefully done.  You see the circles on the water in a totally realistic way.  The trees on the opposite shore, however, are far more reminiscent of Monet or Renior - impressions of trees, rather than faithful recreations of the trees themselves.  The photographer is on display in the water, but the painter dominates in the background.

Verdict:  Don't miss this opportunity to learn more about Gustave Caillebotte - there's more to him than simply the rainy Paris streets you already know.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Re-opening of the West

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 1, 2015

For several years now, the west wing of the American History Museum has been closed.  I never saw any announcement of the closure; I just realized one day that I hadn't been over there in a while, and when I went to investigate, I saw it was closed.  The museum is in the midst of a multi-year renovation of that part of the building, which is sort of surprising since they did a full renovation several years ago.  How could they need to renovate again?  I can only imagine that they got some money and are now able to do work they weren't able to do before.

Whatever the history behind all this, the first floor's west wing is now open again.  If I'm being honest, it still looks like an airport to me; I always feel like I'm making my way to a gate, worried that I'll miss my plane in a long line at security.  I'm hoping that's just me - American History was always my favorite museum when I was a kid, and I want people to like it.

Dedicated to American innovation and invention, it's a bright and shiny new array of exhibits, many of them interactive and designed to hold the interest of the museum's younger visitors.  I'm all in favor of displays that will leave a lasting positive impression on kids.  That's how you build a constituency for museum funding in years to come.  Some of my fondest memories are of class trips to the Smithsonian, and I like to think that other children are now having a great time there, just as I did.

For me, the best thing about this re-opening is that the museum's library and archives are open again.  Both have exhibits, and because they are a bit less "whiz bang" than the rest of the displays, they tend to be a little oasis of quiet in a desert of noise and hustle-bustle.

The current archives center display is on the television show, "Mr. Wizard."  I confess, I racked my brain, trying to remember this program on my way over to the museum, but try as I might, I could conjure no image.  Thinking that middle age was destroying my memory, you can imagine my relief when I discovered that the show was on the air from 1951-1965.  I don't feel bad about not recalling a show that went off the air when I was one year old.

Don Herbert was the star of the show, which revolved around science experiments suitable to be replicated at home.  The idea was that it was a way to interest kids in science, by allowing them to do actual experiments.  Each episode involved a young assistant, both boys and girls.  In its heyday, it had over 800,000 viewers, which seems like an enormous number.

Verdict: Have a glance at these two display cases and learn something about 1950's television.  If nothing else, it's a bit of breathing space amidst all the hoopla of the new exhibits.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Play's Not the Thing

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 2, 2015

I don't get over to the East Building of the National Gallery of Art very much anymore, now that it's under construction and no exhibits are going on there.  I'll be glad when they re-open, as the West Building just doesn't have the space necessary for a blockbuster show.  Plus, there will be a roof garden!  And who doesn't like sitting in a roof garden on a lovely day?

For the moment, however, we must content ourselves with the display case in the Gallery's library.  Not so exciting as the Ballet Russes, but with its own quiet charm.  The current display is of books dealing with theater set design.  These aren't books of plays, but books about famous theaters: architectural drawings and big fold-out floor plans.  Several European countries are represented: France, Italy, Hungary, Germany and England.

I liked the display; the over-sized books and foldouts are eye-catching.  I'm no student of the technical side of the theater, so the content was lost on me, but if you are interested in that sort of thing, this would be of interest.

Verdict: Worth a visit, just to escape the heat, humidity and hurly-burly of tourists that is Washington in the summertime.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Just Not a Big Fan of Prints

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

The National Gallery has recently added to its collection of prints, and they've set up a display on the ground floor to highlight their new acquisitions.  The show is in the two-room space across from the main special exhibit rooms.  I like this space; you get a very manageable number of things to see, making it ideal for a lunch hour excursion.

These prints are from the Italian Renaissance, a period which has been celebrated more for the historical importance of its prints, rather than their beauty.  The wall notes suggest that it is time to reconsider this assessment and look at these works as works of art, not just as technical achievements.

One of items on display is the "Hyperotomachia Poliphili," which is billed as the most beautiful illustrated book of the Italian Renaissance.  I wish the prints had been in color, as black and white is just not very interesting to me.  I tried to be enthralled with the artwork, but it was hard going.  I did appreciate the typeface and the arrangement of the print on the pages on view - it was shaped like a banner, coming to a point at the bottom - very clever, I thought.

Verdict: If you like prints, go see this show.  If not, well, you can safely skip it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Pleasant Surprise

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 10, 2016

I flatter myself that I usually know whether I'm going to like a show or not before I step foot in a museum.  Either I'm familiar with the artist or the genre, or I'm intrigued by the historical subject, and I'm pretty sure I'll like it, or I make myself go see something out of a sense that perhaps I'll learn something, or maybe it won't be as bad as I think.  By this time (I've been going to museum exhibits regularly for almost six years now), I'm usually right.

But every once in a while, I'm wrong.  Happily wrong.  I think I'll not really care for something, or it won't be of much interest, and instead I'm quite taken with an artist or fascinated with a subject.  The current display of portraits by Elaine de Kooning at the National Portrait Gallery is just such an instance: I walked in thinking I'd not care for her work, but I left a fan.

Her portraits are unusual, in that rather than faithfully recreating someone's features, they use abstraction to express the sense of a person - how they move or the gestures they make.  They are portraits of the things about a person that makes them recognizable, even if you can't see their face.  And often, you can't see her subject's face, as she's erased it, or painted it out.

Something I really liked about this show, and it's not a technique I've seen before, is the inclusion of pencil studies for the portraits.  These are surprisingly precise, much more like a traditional portrait.  You see the starting point for the painting, and then you see the finished artwork.  And I think that shows just how artistic the portraits are.  Usually, you look at a portrait, and you evaluate it based on how much it looks like the subject.  You think, "That's a great portrait of so-and-so; it looks just like her!"  You can do that with the preliminary studies, because (I'm assuming) that's their purpose.  Once you see the paintings, however, you've moved past the point of expecting a photographic image - you can see the art as well as the subject.

There were several pieces in this exhibit that I'd seen before.  One of the Kennedy paintings was on display in 2013, and I know I've seen the Donald Barthelme and Merce Cunningham pieces before.  (But in what show?  Curse this middle-aged brain!)

I also felt quite intellectual when I read the wall notes for a pencil study she did for a self-portrait.  The writer indicated that the piece was so precise that it might have been a silverpoint.  Imagine my self-satisfaction in knowing what that meant!  Thank you very much, National Gallery of Art.

Verdict: I highly recommend this show.  It was, to me at least, surprisingly good.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Couldn't help but be reminded of the Stonecutter's Song

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 30, 2015

The Central Hall on the 1st floor of the American History Museum is turning into a display area for historic modes of transportation.  First, we had the Prairie Schooner, then the 1964 Mustang, now an electric car from the 1990s.  Plus, now that I think about it, the carriage Lincoln rode in the night he was assassinated.

The electric car is a concept almost as old as cars themselves.  I read somewhere (was it in Smithsonian magazine?) that the earliest car manufacturers had to decide between gasoline and electricity as the power source for automobiles, and opted for gas, as it was cheaper at that time.  The mind reels at thinking of how world history would have been different if they'd chosen electricity instead...  In any event, electric cars are starting to come into their own now, with hybrids a common sight on the roads, and Teslas available to those with plenty of ready cash.

In the 1990s, however, all of that was in the future, and electric cars existed, but weren't getting much traction (no pun intended).  In 1996, GM decided to make a few (1,117) electric cars and sell them in California, Arizona and Georgia.  By 2003, they canceled the project, as increasing costs led to decreasing demand.  Clearly, the EV1 (the car on display) was ahead of its time.  Of course, by 2010 the Chevrolet Volt made its way to market and enjoyed some success.

The thing that struck me about the EV1 is how it appears both old-fashioned and ultra-modern at the same time, a look I've decided to call "retro futuristic."  It's what I imagine people in the 1950s thought Americans would be driving in the 1990s.  Or, as Lisa Simpson put it about Epcot Center, "It's what the people in 1965 thought the world would be like in 1987."  In case you're wondering about the title of this blog entry, that's a Simpsons reference too.

Fun vocabulary fact I picked up while reading the notes: an invention is an idea for a new product; an innovation is actually creating the product and bringing it to market.

Verdict: If you'd like to get an up close view of an early electric car, this is the next best thing to a test drive.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Blast from the Past

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 2016

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy the exhibits in the Small Documents Gallery on the 2nd floor of American History, and this display is another interesting examination of a piece of America's story - this time with a twist.  Rather than printed documents, which make up the usual show here, this time the documents are audio recordings.

Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone fame, was very interested in recorded sound, and worked on the idea of a phonograph.  Bell and two friends set up a company called Volta Laboratory here in Washington, at 1221 Connecticut Avenue, NW.  (Since that's close to the area where I used to work, I'm sure I've walked past that location numerous times, unaware of its historical connections.)

Lost to time for decades, as technology advanced and left these formats behind, the recordings they made languished in silence in a box at American History after they were donated to the museum for safekeeping, in case of a patent fight.  One usually thinks of donations to a museum as a noble gesture, designed to preserve the nation's history for future generations.  In this case, not so much.  Whatever the reason for the gift, I'm glad this is where the recordings wound up.

Now, thanks to a partnership among the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the American History Museum, they are audible once again.  Not only can you see the recordings and read transcripts of their contents, you can actually hear them.   A software called IRENE allows old recordings to come to life - a way for content from endangered historic media to be heard by modern ears.

Among the recordings you can hear is Bell's actual voice, the only authenticated example of him speaking.  He reads out a text a couple of minutes long that closes with the words, "Hear my voice."  Now, after so many years, we can do just that.

Verdict: This is a small show and well worth seeing and hearing!