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.