Saturday, December 10, 2016

New Additions to the Dutch and Flemish Collection

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 2, 2017

This is a nice little display - two rooms of Dutch and Flemish works, some as old as the 15th century.  Amazing to see works from the 1400s, with the colors still vibrant.

There was a work in blue that reminded of things I've seen at the Freer - tiny people walking through a landscape.  Just typing that sentence made me realize how much I miss the Freer...

Verdict: Probably not worth a trip all on its own, unless you're a serious fan of Dutch/Flemish art, but a nice add-on to a trip you're already making.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Yinka Shonibare - Need I Say More?

Where: African Art Museum

When: through January 2, 2017

Imagine my delight when I discovered that Yinka Shonibare was among the African artists featured in this selection of contemporary video art.  I was off to the Mall with a spring in my step, and that spring was only enhanced by the fact that the barriers are down, and you can walk easily from one side of the Mall to the other!  Hurrah - no more walking all the way over to 12th street to get to the Sackler and its neighbors.

The Shonibare piece was "Un Ballo in Maschera," and I only wish I'd had time to watch it all the way through.  The dancers are clad in his trademark wax cloth and their movements are much like those of birds.  I wish I knew what that meant, as I'm sure it means something.  Gorgeous colors in the costuming and lots to think about - typical Shonibare.

The other videos are interested as well; the first one in the show is of a woman walking on olive oil, which is strangely captivating.  I was also intrigued by Theo Eshetu's kaleidoscope piece - so cool to look at, especially as you can see your own reflection in the mirrors.

My only complaint is that sometimes the sound bleeds over from piece to piece, but that's a small gripe.

Verdict: This show reminds me how much I like contemporary African art.  Worth seeing.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Learning How the Sausage Is Made

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 2, 2017

How can I already be going to shows that will close in 2017?  This year has sped by on gossamer wings.

This is a good sized show on the drawings that underpin the paintings from the time of Rembrandt, a golden age of painting - think the Netherlands in the 1600s. The drawings were the starting point for the finished artworks and allow art historians to gain insight into how the creative process proceeded.

What I found most interesting was that artists would keep drawings in a notebook and use them in various combinations to make a painting - rather like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle.  Need a house?  Flip through the notebook and find one that fits!  Want to change the leg position of one of your subjects?  Back to the notebook for a new posture!

There were several Hendrick Avercamp paintings on display - did I see some of his work in the "little ice age" show a few years ago?  They looked very familiar.  The best way I can describe them is as Currier & Ives for the 17th century Dutch.  If you like winter scenes, heavy on the ice skating, this is your guy.

I also noticed a piece called "Sleeping Spaniel" by Frans Van Mieris the Elder - it looked a bit like a Cavalier.

Verdict: I liked this show and would recommend it, both for the art and for the "peek behind the curtain."

Sunday, November 6, 2016

You Are What You Eat

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through November 27, 2016

Is food good for what ails you?  Is food the new pharmacopeia?  Are drugs the new religion?  Are doctors the new high priests?

You might not find the answers to these questions, but you will see them asked in this small show of Damien Hirst works.  They're part drug label, part food packaging, tucked away in a little corner of the West Building, just before you walk into the concourse to the East Building.

Verdict: A small show that provides, and you knew this was coming, food for thought.

Making an Artistic Virtue of Necessity

Where: Air and Space Museum

When: through November 30, 2016

I'm not a big fan of the Air and Space Museum, as long time readers of this blog already know.  A little goes a long way, is my view of rocket ships, and the cacophony of young boys running and screaming does nothing to add to my experience.

Every so often, the museum does put on an art display, and I head over to the "big box of noise."  This one focused on the artistic qualities of air traffic control towers.  Sounds unlikely, I know, but, quoting from the wall notes, "...there is beauty in the prosaic, if one only has the eye to see it."  Very true, and it's a lot better for your psyche to look for the beautiful than feel overwhelmed by the ugly.

Fun facts: FDR chose the site for National Airport, JFK is one of only two airports in North America with direct flights to all six inhabited continents and Arlanda Airport in Stockholm doubles as a wedding location.

Verdict: If you can take the hustle and bustle, it's a mildly interesting display.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Several Exhibits at American History

Where: American History Museum

When: until November and December, 2016

I took the afternoon off on Friday, just because you need an afternoon off every once in a while.  I met some friends for wine and pastries in Georgetown later in the day, and spent the time between work and my gathering at several museums.  Because that's what I do with a few free hours - I go to museums.

I saw three small shows at American History: one on giving in America - about philanthropy.  There was a time when the very wealthy and successful felt an obligation to give back to the society which had given them so much, and some of the great cultural and artistic institutions we all enjoy today, like the Smithsonian to take but one example, are the result of this giving back.  I was particularly happy to see a mention of Andrew Carnegie and his support for what came to be known as "Carnegie libraries."  The industrialist believed that libraries were a path to good moral character and self-improvement.  A noble sentiment that greater funding for public libraries would help to continue.

The second show I saw was from the archives and was on the subject of Cyrus Field and the first transatlantic cable.  Running a wire from England to the North America still strikes me as an amazing undertaking, even though I'm typing this on a desktop computer and sending it out over the Internet, accessible to billions of people worldwide.  The humble cable was the basis for modern telecommunications, and really did make the world a smaller, more connected place.

The final display I saw was on celebrations in African-American culture during segregation.  It's in honor of the opening of the new African-American museum and features many photographs from the Scurlock Studio, which was the subject of a large exhibit at American History several years ago.  The photos were chosen by a poll of Smithsonian staffers and visitors to the museum's website, and they chose well.  Birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries - all of them happy occasions - just what I needed to lift my spirits during what has been a contentious and stressful election year.

Verdict: The pick of this litter is the photographs - they're on display through December 27, on the lower level.  Who doesn't need a little extra joy?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Times, They Have a-Changed

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through October 30, 2016

I made a return trip to the Portrait Gallery this Wednesday and was able to see this photograph of Bob Dylan.  Taken by John Cohen in 1962, it pre-dates his transition to electric guitar.

I attended Dylan's concert this summer at Wolf Trap, and when I heard the news about his award, I e-mailed my husband and said, "Now you can say you've seen a Nobel Prize winner!"

The photograph is interesting; it has a triangular look to it, with the rug he's sitting on, the untrimmed guitar strings and the way he's sitting and playing.  I'd like to see more of Cohen's work.

Verdict: If you're at the Gallery, take a few minutes to see this photo.  Note the quick closing date!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Some Questions for the Portrait Gallery

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through October 16 & 30, 2016

I spent my museum-going time this week at the Portrait Gallery, which is located a block away from my office.  On Wednesday, I took a close look at this painting of the four female Supreme Court justices.  I've walked past it often in the three years it's been on display, but hadn't really taken the time to stop and examine it.

It's a very interesting painting - lots of windows.  There's the large window to the right, in which one can see many more windows, plus the mirror on the wall behind the justices.  In the reflection, there appears to be a door or window.   The painter, Nelson Shanks, drew on Dutch portraiture conventions, according to the wall notes; does this explain the windows?

Each portrait is very good individually, and they work well together.  That's an advantage over photography - everyone looks their best.  The notes also say that the setting is based on Supreme Court interiors and a courtyard.  Does this mean the location is real, or not?  Is this another example of the "view painting" - where the artist creates the location?

I'm sorry to see this painting leave the museum and am hoping that its owners will decide to give the piece to the Portrait Gallery at some point.  I'll be happy to have them back anytime. 

I returned to the Portrait Gallery on Friday, intending to see the "Recent Acquisitions" exhibit and the portrait of Arnold Palmer in the "In Memoriam" space.  And this is where my questions come up:  first of all, where's Arnie?  I walked all over the first floor, but couldn't locate him.  I think the show of jazz portraits has taken up the "In Memoriam" space, but in that case, don't list it on the website!  Weird.  It's supposed to be up until the end of the month, so I've got a little time.

My other question is about the recent acquisitions.  I don't think they're so recent.  I saw the Neil DeGrasse Tyson piece, which I've seen for a long time now.  Don't get me wrong: I'm a big Tyson fan and couldn't be happier that his portrait is in the collection, but it's not new.  Also, the painting of Hank Aaron is something I've seen before.  And those weren't the only familiar faces.  So what's up?  I had thought that these would be works acquired in the past six months, but perhaps it's more expansive than that?  Perhaps I just need to treat this not so much as an exhibit, but as a way to get a quick look at things that are new-ish.

Verdict: Portrait Gallery is always worth a look, and it's close by, so even if it's just a walk around, it's a nice break in my day.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Lesbians in Black and White

Where: American Art Museum

When: through October 2, 2016

I first saw Romaine Brooks' work in the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibit, six years ago.  Hard to believe it's been so long since that show was generating controversy, but it's true.

Now Brooks has her own show, with lots of her paintings and drawings.  The paintings are mostly of her social circle in Europe and feature a muted color palette.  Black, white and gray, with the occasional flash of color, is what's on offer.  She blurs the lines of gender, picturing women in men's clothing.

Later in her career, she focused her attention on drawing, and her pieces are heavily influence by the surrealist movement.  They focus on themes of captivity and entanglement.

Brooks was independently wealthy, which meant she could choose her own subjects and live as she wished.  Who says money can't buy happiness?  It also meant that she didn't have to sell her pieces in order to make a living, so many important works were still in her possession when she died.  Some of those on display have not been seen in decades.

Verdict: Very fine show, even though black and white is not my favorite color combination.  An interesting person, living her own life and refusing to conform to society's ideas, as well as an excellent artist.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Who Says Women Don't Have a Sense of Humor?

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 3, 2016

The only thing better than a trip to see a museum exhibit is a trip to see a museum exhibit featuring a Muppet.  The one I saw recently had memorabilia from Carol Burnett and Phyllis Diller, including Burnett's famous charwoman costume and Diller's fright wig.  I remember watching The Carol Burnett Show when I was a kid - those skits where Harvey Korman would crack up were a riot.  The charwoman was more than a comic figure; she was an intelligent person, hampered by her class and her gender. 

Diller made an entire career out of skewering the ideal vision of the wife and mother.  No happy homemaker she!  She pulled back the curtain and revealed that things were not all "Ozzie and Harriet" on the home front.

The best part of the display for me though, was Miss Piggy.  She's a hand and rod puppet, but she's so much more!  She's a high-maintenance diva, unafraid to speak her mind since she was first introduced in 1974.  In June 2015, she won an award from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.  Of course, I had to look up Elizabeth A. Sackler, and it turns out she's a public historian and activist, as well as the daughter of Arthur Sackler, of the Sackler Gallery.  A juxtaposition of two of my favorite things: the Sackler and the Muppets.

Verdict: I hope you got a chance to see this fun display.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Robert of the Ruins

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 2, 2016

This exhibit has now closed, so I hope you got a chance to see it before it left the National Gallery.  I was unfamiliar with Hubert Robert before seeing this show, and I'm glad I have become acquainted with his work.

He painted pictures that juxtapose the ancient with the modern (or what was modern when he pained it, in the 1700s and early 1800s).  His work is of ancient ruins, populated with people going about their everyday business.  His works were known as cappriccios, puzzles to be solved.  He would put buildings together in a work that were not anywhere near each other in real life.  So the viewer must determine what is real?  And what is from Robert's imagination?  I was reminded of the "view paintings" of Venice I saw in a show several years ago.  They were often the view you wish you had seen in Venice, rather than the view that actually exists.

Unlike the romantic idea of the starving artist, living in a garret, refusing to compromise his vision for mere money, Robert was a bon vivant.  He painted for the elites of the day and lived very well himself.

Robert was also a chronicler of architectural change in Paris; I was reminded of the Marville show several years ago, which also detailed changes in the city.  It made me realize that Paris is always undergoing renovations.  Robert showed both those buildings going up and those being torn down - the latter becoming ruins for future everyday people to conduct their business around.

Verdict: An interesting show about a painter that I knew nothing about beforehand.  Great to expand my knowledge of art history.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

I'm back!

It's been a long time since I've blogged - a month!  I've been teaching a graduate class at Georgetown's Law School, volunteering at the National Book Festival, dealing with some family issues and visiting the Midwest on a long-planned vacation with friends.  Most of these things are great, but they take up time, and this year, they all happened at once.

But now, I'm back and ready to blog about museums I've visited since I last put fingers to keyboard.

Before I get into that, I'll share a few pics from my vacation:

 This is the house used in the exterior shots for the movie "A Christmas Story."  It's located in Cleveland.  We stayed with some friends there while on our way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they were kind enough to show us many great Cleveland sites. 

 This is the law library reading room at the University of Michigan - just gorgeous.  We were in Ann Arbor for the Michigan-Wisconsin game, with long-time friends of ours who are from Michigan.  We've all worked in law libraries (either now or in the past), so the reading room was a "must see."

One of our friends is from Frankenmuth, Michigan.  It's a German town, with the largest Christmas store I've ever seen.  This photo is of the public library, where our friend worked during her youth.  Note both the English and German on the sign.

This is, of course, the famous view of Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece in Pennsylvania.  It's off the beaten path, but worth the trip.  We stopped on our way back to the DC area.

It was a great trip and allowed us to see several people who are close friends.  Wisconsin lost a defensive struggle against Michigan, but seeing a game in the Big House (we were part of the largest group of people to watch a football game that day anywhere in the country) was quite an experience.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Rockin' Around the Clock

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through October 2, 2016

Bettina Pousttchi's large installation, World Time Clock, which covers the third floor inside ring of the concrete donut, is a reflection on space and time.  As you can see from the picture, images of clocks from around the world, all showing approximately the same time (1:55 pm), are hung on the wall.  This means the viewer's walk around the space is an international journey that requires no travel and a way to stop time without destroying the universe.

This is the international debut of the artwork, which is fitting, considering that the 1884 conference establishing the prime meridian and the international time zones we all use today was held here in DC.  Much as it pains me to say it, the donut is a great venue for this installation, precisely for its circular shape.  You feel as if you're traveling around a clock as you move through, and I don't think a rectangular space would have been as effective.

As I looked at the various clock faces, I was struck by how similar they were: round, divided into twelve sections, numbers of various sorts to denote the sections, two hands - there is a human desire to mark time that transcends geography or culture.  I was reminded of the advertisement (is it for Apple?) with the Maya Angelou voice-over: "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike." 

Two other observations while at the donut: a man posing for a photo in front of Big Man, in a "Big Man" pose, happily not adopting the sculpture's sartorial style (or lack thereof), and preparations for a new exhibit on the second floor, including scraping away the wall notes from the painted background - something I'd never seen before.  I would have stopped and watched the workers longer, but it seemed like staring.

Verdict: If you've got some time, stroll around the third floor.  This is good stuff, and how often do I say that about something at the Hirshhorn?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hirshhorn at the Sackler

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through September 18, 2016

When I approached this photography exhibit, I was greeted by a fixture made of cathode ray tubing hanging from the ceiling - not a good sign I thought to myself.  Happily, this is not an indication of what follows.

Ahmed Mater is a photographer who is documenting Saudi Arabia's transformation from an agrarian society to an oil-based economy.  Like all societal changes, much is gained and much is lost along the way, and Mater's photographs present a view of that.

My favorite photo was one called "Nature Morte."  It's a color photograph with the look of a painting.  It's of a room containing a wonderful red chair with red pillows.  Outside the window, all is light and action and activity.  Inside, all is cool, calm serenity.  A great juxtaposition.

Towards the end of the exhibit is a set of slide viewers.  I think they were meant to show older photographs with newer ones superimposed on them.  Without being able to pick them up and look through, I couldn't really tell.  Touching was not permitted, so I tried to look through, but they were placed at such a low height that even I (not a tall person by anyone's measure) was stooping over to see.  Not a happy placement.

Verdict: Overall, not a bad show.  If you like photography, it's worth a look.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Little Bit of Everything

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through September 18, 2016

No one has given more to the National Gallery than the Mellon family.  Andrew Mellon gave the original gift to found the museum and his son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Bunny Mellon, gave an very large gift of artwork that makes up a significant amount of the permanent collection.  Without the Mellons, there would be no NGA, and we would be the poorer for its absence.

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the institution's founding, the National Gallery has put on a show entitled "In Celebration of Paul Mellon," which contains many of the works he gave that are not in the permanent collection.  Many of the works on display are prints on paper, which are too fragile to be out on a regular basis, so this is a great opportunity to see them.

The wall notes at the entrance to the show include this quote from Paul Mellon, "I have never bought pictures as an investment, except as an investment in pleasure..."  So what you're seeing is what the Mellons liked, what they wanted to live with and have in their home.  Mellon described himself as an "incurable collector," and it's interesting to see what he collected.

I was reminded of the Barnes Foundation that I visited in Philadelphia last summer - when you enter a room, it's fun to try to decide how the works go together, since they are not arranged chronologically or by artist or genre.

Verdict: Worth a look - there's something for everyone in this far-ranging collection.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

NMAI stages major retrospective for Kay WalkingStick

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through September 18, 2016

True confession: I'd never heard of Kay WalkingStick before I went to this show.  Now, she's one of my favorite artists.  Best known for her diptychs, she had several artistic periods throughout her career, which started in the 1960s and continues to the present.  This exhibit explores them all, starting with her early nudes and ending with her landscapes and paintings of Native places.

I was drawn to the shapes and colors she uses in her early work, especially Hudson Reflections, which I saw repeated in later pieces.  She uses the color red in several works - a red that will not be ignored or overlooked.  It's as if the painting is shouting out, "Look at me!!!  Look at me now!!!"

I also liked her diptychs, which combine abstraction on one side, with realistic landscapes on the other.  It's two views of the same thing; either two completely different paintings put together or, as in the work pictured here, two paintings that form one almost seamless whole.

The only works I really didn't care for were from her Italian period.  She lived there for several years, eventually converting to Catholicism.  Perhaps it's my difficulties with organized religion that biased me against these works, but I have a hard time understanding how someone who could create works depicting such raw female sexuality could also join a church that has not exactly been a champion of women's sexual expression.

Verdict: Overall, a great show, well worth seeing before it heads out of town for a national tour.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Art Show Catalogs

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through September 16, 2016

There's a summer exhibit at the National Gallery's library, and it's on art show catalogs.

They span the centuries, from the late 1600s through the mid-twentieth century.  As different French artistic societies organized exhibitions, these catalogs provided a record of what was shown, often including pictures of the works.  Thus, they are important sources for art history and works of art unto themselves.

The display takes up two cases; all the catalogs on display are from the Gallery's collection.

Verdict: If you're interested in art history, this is worth a look.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Report from Far Afield

Where: Field Museum of Natural History

When: July 2016

Hello again faithful readers and apologies for my absence.  I was in the lovely city of Chicago this past weekend, at a law librarians' conference.  Yes, that's just as exciting as it sounds.

Amidst the wining, dining, meeting, and greeting, I found some time to go to a museum.  I realize there are people who go to new cities and don't go to a museum as their first activity, but I think they need to get their priorities in order.

I arrived on Friday afternoon, and within a couple of hours, was on my way to the Field Museum of Natural History.  I'd seen the Art Institute on a previous trip, which I blogged about here: The Art Institute of Chicago

My brother used to work at the Field Museum, and my grandparents had been very impressed with it when they honeymooned in Chicago in 1933, so I decided to honor my family connections and see it for myself.  Spoiler alert: it was well worth the trip.  From SUE, the world's largest and most complete T. Rex. who dominates the main entryway to Lucy, one of our human ancestors to the gem collection, to a display on lichen, to the mummies in the Egyptian room - it was all wonderful.  I could easily have spent an entire day there and still not seen everything.

The ultimate highlight was the special exhibition of The Terra Cotta Warriors.  I missed them when they were at the National Geographic Museum in DC, so this was a great second chance for me.  You don't get those often in life, so I decided to make the most of it.  The display was excellent - explaining the purpose of the warriors and their history, so that when you made your way into the room where several of them were on display, you understood what you were seeing.  The thought of thousands upon thousands of these pieces being buried for centuries and only discovered by accident just takes your breath away.  The enormity of it is awe-inspiring.

Verdict: If you are in Chicago, I highly recommend a visit to the Field Museum.  Allow a full day to see everything.  If you have limited time, download the app to get a highlights tour.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Book is a Work of Art That You Can Hold and Touch

Where: African Art Museum

When: through September 11, 2016

It was so hot in DC yesterday when I went over to the African Art Museum to see this show that I felt like I'd walked all the way to Africa.  This is our first big heat wave of the summer, and I maintain the first one is always the worst.  One's body is not yet adjusted to the humidity, and one really feels it.  I'm looking forward to the fall...

The easiest way to get to this exhibit is to enter through the Ripley; it's just off the main concourse.  The cool temperatures so far below the ground were a delight, and the ordinarily quiet offices were buzzing with summer camp activity.  As much as the crowds of screaming boys who seem to live full-time at the Air and Space Museum get on my nerves, I do realize that children who have happy memories of the Smithsonian are likely to grow up to be adults who will support its funding (just like me!), so I sincerely hope the campers are enjoying themselves to the fullest.

The exhibit is an interesting one, showcasing a wide variety of different illustrated books.  The curators took a very broad view of what is an "artist's book," so these are books with lovely illustrations, or books where the illustrations are primary, with explanatory text, or books that are works of art in and of themselves.  The thing they all have in common is that they are either by African artists or about Africa.

In addition to the books, there is also a video running, of interviews with several of the artists.  If you have some extra time, this is worth watching.  I noticed that the wall notes seemed targeted to younger visitors, as I've observed in other of the museum's shows.  This is probably a good thing, in that children might not be inclined to go to an art museum (especially if Air and Space or Natural History beckon), so making an effort to make the art accessible to them is laudable.  It might not be what I would choose for myself, but I understand that it's not all about me.

Verdict: A nice exhibit, one that you could see with kids.

A Bit of Old Hollywood at the Portrait Gallery

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 11, 2016

The Portrait Gallery is offering viewers a walk down memory lane with this exhibit of TIME magazine covers featuring Hollywood stars.

The museum has a collection of the art featured on over 2,000 covers of the periodical, which I'm assuming must be the largest such collection in existence.  It makes for a rich source of exhibits, I'm sure; we've seen others before and will doubtless see more in future.

I do wonder, however, if this gives the publisher some free publicity - are these shows advertisements for TIME?  I realize that the art now belongs to the museum, so it's not as if they're showing works that are on loan from a private collection, which is frowned upon in museum circles.  Still, though, it did cross my mind...

As for the show itself, it's fine.  Nothing ground-breaking, famous Hollywood types that you've seen many times before.  The wall notes suggest that the pictures might stir memories of movies from yesteryear, so clearly, they're not targeting this to the younger set.

Verdict: If you're a fan of Hollywood celebrities, have a look.  Otherwise, not worth a special trip.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A So-So Show

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: through September 5, 2016

I'm writing this on July 2 - how has half of 2016 gone by already?  I've seen some very fine things this year - WONDER stands out especially.  I wish I could tell you that this major exhibit of Robert Irwin works is another highlight of the year, but I am unable to do so.

It's certainly not the worst thing I've seen at the Hirshhorn, not by a long shot.  What it is, is forgettable.  I saw this just a few days ago, and I had to consult my notes to recall what I saw.  Usually, I look to my notes to remind me of the title of a particular piece or how to spell an artist's name, not to conjure up any recollection of the show at all.

There are a couple of works like the one pictured - they're really more shadow than anything else.  Not awful, not great.  Then there are some paintings with slashes of color across them; they're known as "pick up sticks" works.  Again, okay, I guess.  Eventually, there are fewer and fewer lines, until we're left with just a painted canvas in a solid color.  Sigh - I call this painting the living room, not art.

Then, we move on to "dot paintings."  These are exactly what you think - tiny dots.  You have to get very close to see them, and then all you're seeing is dots.  It's like some sort of anti-Seurat.  You have the dots, but no overall picture.

The show ends with something that is memorable, but very difficult to describe.  It's a site specific installation that I think is called something like "Squaring the Circle."  The idea is that it's a phony wall, made of scrim, that "squares" the circle that is the Hirshhorn building.  I wasn't sure what I was looking at, and the guards were so concerned that you not touch anything, that I felt sort of uncomfortable walking around it.  I noticed that at the ceiling, the wall seems to appear and fade as you approach and walk by.  Not a good description, I know.

Verdict: If you're at the Hirshhorn for something else, that final room is worth seeing.  Otherwise, you can skip this.  

Saturday, June 25, 2016

From Start to Finish

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through September 5, 2016

Every so often, I go to an exhibit not expecting very much and am surprised and delighted at what I see.  This Martin Puryear retrospective is one of those exhibits.  It's a collection of the prints and drawings he makes in preparation for his sculptures.  I'm not a big fan of prints and drawings, so I went more out of a sense of obligation (I go to see everything, so I'm going to go see this) than out of a strong desire to see these works, but I walked away a fan.

I think the most successful parts of the show are those in which either a finished piece or a model of the finished piece are shown along with the preparatory materials.  Seeing photographs doesn't really give you a sense of the final product the way a three-dimensional representation does.  This is sculpture after all, and it needs depth to work.

The piece with which I was most taken was "Face Down."  It's a bronze of a human head that is face down.  You don't see the face at all - in fact the thing that makes it a head, rather than a pitcher or other object are the small ears projecting from the sides.  I find that really fascinating all on its own - how one work can be a representation of divergent things, based on a small detail.

Then, to make this even better, in the next area of the exhibit space is a large wooden structure called "Vessel."  I realized right away that this is "Face Down" except in a much larger (and wooden) format.  I didn't notice any wall notes pointing this out, so I looked carefully to see if I was just imagining this, but, to my eyes anyway, the two pieces were identical.  The difference, other than the size and materials used, was that inside "Vessel" are a small wooden ball and a larger wooden(?) ampersand, covered with some sort of mesh with tar on it (I'm probably not describing this properly, but the point is that it's black, where as everything else about the piece is plain wood).

What does this mean?  I don't know, but I'd be very interested to find out.  I'm going to do some research and see if I can fine some analysis or explanation of his works.  They're tremendously intriguing, in that they draw you in, even if you don't exactly understand them.

Verdict: Go see this show - it's large, but not unmanageable for a lunch hour.

Welcome Back to the Third Floor

Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

When: through August 6, 2016

I don't know exactly how long the third floor of the Hirshhorn has been closed for renovations, but it has now re-opened.  I went to see their inaugural show, thinking that perhaps the exhibit spaces would be less sterile and off-putting.  Only one guess as to whether my hopes were realized.

Of course, it's every bit as uninviting as it was before the renovation, although I have no doubt that whatever needed to be fixed was attended to.  If you go expecting big changes in the look and feel of the place, you need to adjust those expectations.

So, given that the exhibit space looks just the same as it ever did, what about the show itself?  Well, it's the Hirshhorn, so it's pretty much the same mishmash of awful things, mixed with a few items that are not terrible.  How's that for a rousing recommendation?

As you enter the show, you are greeted by Big Man, an enormous sculpture of a naked man, crouching in a corner, looking at you with distaste.  Not the most welcoming figure, but I suppose we might as well begin as we mean to go on.  His expression is quite menacing if you view him from the side (his head is slightly turned, so he's looking at the viewer sideways), but rather less so if you view him straight on.  Of course, then you have a view of his manly bits, which makes one feel a bit like a voyeur, so it's an uncomfortable piece no matter how you slice it.

Early on, you get an actual treat - a Thomas Struth photograph of people in a museum.  I really love this idea, so am always happy to see one of this series.  This particular shot is very clean and open and airy; I feel good just remembering it.  I don't know if any of the Smithsonian museums or the National Gallery has had a show devoted to his work, but I wish they would.

Then we move on to a niche of de Kooning and Giacometti works.  It's all so ugly and unsettling; I can't understand why anyone would want to look at this stuff, let alone own it.  My response to it is to curl up in a ball, pull the covers over my head and think, "This too shall pass."  Since I was in a public museum, I decided to forgo the acting out and scurry off to another room.

Reynier Leyva Novo, an artist heretofore unknown to me, was represented in the show with a piece entitled "5 Nights."  Novo uses INk software to show the weight, volume and area of various texts.  He had five different works on display - all of them big black squares.  They were the works of dictators - Hitler was the largest by far.  I'm not sure if that's a profound statement about how awful he was, even compared to other tyrants, or if it's just that he was more long-winded than the others.  Either way, it's thought-provoking.

Then, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a work by my old friend, Yves Klein.  This is one of those pieces he made by getting women to come to his studio, get naked, roll around in paint and then press themselves against paper.  I'll hand it to him, no one was better at conning women into taking their clothes off than old Yves, but don't ask me to call this art.

Verdict: I would go up to the third floor just to see the Struth photograph, but the rest of the stuff is pretty hit or miss.  Mostly miss.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Bits and Pieces of American History

Where: American History Museum

When: through late August and early September

I went over to the American History Museum and saw several things, all easily managed in a lunch hour.

The first was a Tucker automobile, a great idea that flopped due to insufficient financial backing.  It stressed its safety features,  but what stuck with me was how great it looked.

Another small display is on the role of glass in science, in the center cases on the first floor.  The Smithsonian has a collection of over 1,000 pieces of scientific glassware, which is pretty impressive.  It makes you realize what a tiny fraction of the institution's collection you see when you go to the museums. 
Also on display at present is Prince's Yellow Cloud guitar, which I think is the guitar pictured in the portrait that was up at the National Portrait Gallery.  The black and white photograph really didn't do this instrument justice - when I say it's yellow, I mean it's YELLOW.

Verdict: If you're at American History, it's worth seeing the guitar and the car.  The glassware, well, that's more of an acquired taste...

Muhammad Ali Knocks Out Althea Gibson

I went over to the National Portrait Gallery this week to see a portrait of Althea Gibson that had been newly hung on the "Recognize" wall.  The museum had taken a poll of visitors to see which athlete they wanted to see, and Gibson won.  I wasn't exactly certain where the "Recognize" wall was, but I was certain I'd be able to find it.

After walking around the Gallery for quite a while, I finally asked the people at the information desk what was up - turns out the "Recognize" wall is the same as the "In Memoriam" wall.  After hanging for about 4 hours, Gibson's portrait was taken down to make way for one of Muhammad Ali.  No word on when Ali will come down and Gibson go back up.  And frankly, the way this year is going for famous people, Gibson may have to wait a while.

The Ali portrait is the one that was on display in the Yousuf Karsh show from 2014.  See my review of the portrait here.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Comics Section Visits the American Art Museum

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through August 21, 2016

The Archives has a new show on; I suppose it isn't really new, since it opened in April, but this was my first opportunity to see it, so it was new to me.  It runs through most of August, so if you're planning a trip to the SAAM/Portrait Gallery, you've got time to give this a glance.

The wall notes tell us that, "Artists find inspiration everywhere," and this show is an attempt to document some of that inspiration.  One of the artists featured was Ben Shahn, who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression.  His work was the inspiration for the photographers featured in the "No Mountains in the Way" show I saw last week.

Ray Yoshida collected newspaper comic "specimens" - pictured at left, they're not full comics, but pieces of strips.  I had a lot of fun picking out images I recognize from the paper - I'm a big fan of the comics, and read almost all of them every day.  Apparently, I'm not the only one who loves the funnies; the side wall is a large reproduction of these cut-outs, and the Smithsonian is using this image on their website.

Verdict: It's not a terribly exciting show, but it's interesting.  Worth a glance if you're in the building anyway.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

They're not Kidding about the Lack of Mountains

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through July 31, 2016

In the 1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts paid for three photographers to go to Kansas and record life there, much as the Farm Security Administration had done throughout the country in the 1930s and 1940s.  This exhibit features over 60 of the images produced as part of the Kansas Documentary Survey, which focused on landscape, buildings and people.

I looked at the landscape images first, and realized very quickly that the show's title is well deserved.  The photograph here is typical - the sense that the land and sky go on forever, with nothing to break up the view.  It's not that the pictures are necessarily bleak; it's that they are vast and unchanging.  There are no boundaries; they are pictures of infinity.

The second room contains photographs of people, and the thing that struck me is how much they are fully present with each other.  There are no phones (of course, since this is 1974) or any other distractions.  You have the sense that people have gathered together to enjoy one another's company, and that they will turn back to their coffee, or board games or conversation as soon as the photographer has left.  In part, this is because it is 1974, and portable private entertainment has yet to be invented, but I think it's also partly a reaction to the landscape in which they live.  With so much space outside, I imagine these people coming together for human companionship - to band together against the void.

Finally, I went into the room of buildings, which are almost as empty as the landscape.  There are signs in the windows, so you can assume that these are businesses with owners, employees, customers, but we don't see these people.  Perhaps they're all at the coffee shop having their pictures taken by another photographer?

Verdict: Good show, easily managed in a lunch hour.  Especially recommended for those with an interest in photography, or the history of the Midwest. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Cyrus' HQ

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through July 31, 2016

This is an exhibit of items from the Freer/Sackler archives, an enormous set of 160 collections on Asian and Middle Eastern art and culture.  Whenever I see something from the Smithsonian archives or libraries, I'm reminded that the displays are merely the tip of the iceberg.  The institution has vast amounts of information that rarely sees the light of day.  Happily, the Sackler has a room that (now that I think of it) often displays items from its archives, so the casual visitor can get a glimpse of the "rest" of the collection.

Among the Freer/Sackler Archives holdings is a large collection of the papers of Ernst Herzfeld, a German archaeologist and the discoverer of Pasargadae, first capital of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire and the final resting place of Cyrus the Great.

You may recall that the Sackler had a wonderful display of the Cyrus Cylinder in 2013; it was in fact the first time the cylinder (viewed as the first human rights document in world history) had been exhibited in the United States.  This is the same Cyrus; Pasargadae was his capital and contains his tomb.  Over the years, Cyrus' monument had been turned into a mosque, and was subsequently misidentified as the burial place of a woman.  Herzfeld changed all that, and established that it was Cyrus' tomb.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Verdict: This is a very interesting small show on the discovery of Pasargadae's real purpose.  If you have any interest in archaeology, it's worth a look.

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Bit of the Freer

Where: Sackler Gallery of Art

When: through July 24, 2016

If, like me, you've been missing the Freer and its beautiful things beautifully displayed, visit the Sackler's exhibit of paintings, poetry and calligraphy from the Wu School.  Many Freer objects are on display, including some of the temporarily closed museum's display cases (I'm pretty sure).

To really see everything and read all of the explanatory notes would take far longer than a lunch hour, but you can immerse yourself in the life of a Chinese gentleman scholar in a shorter time.  The music playing helps to remove you from the present day; it makes it easier to imagine that you are sitting in a pavilion, waiting for your poet friends to arrive.  In fact, the piece was chosen by NASA to represent Chinese music when they gathered 50 musical pieces to be put on a disc aboard Voyager I on its way to deep space.  I'm going to set aside my cynicism about this project (Why would we think that life on other planets intelligent enough to appreciate music would have 1970s era technology available to them to listen to it?), and say that a desire to share the best that humans have created is a worthy thing.

One of the poems that struck me was one entitled "At Leisure in my Studio at Year's End" by Wen Zhengming.  This line, "...all my affairs have slipped into arrears..." Who among us hasn't felt that at some time or other?  The melancholy notion that we could have done more with the past year is a universal one, I think.  Or is that just what I'm hoping?  That I'm not the only one feeling like time is slipping away all too quickly?

The thing I most liked about the art on display is the scale of people to nature.  The human figures are often tiny; you have to really search for them amidst the mountains or the rivers or the trees.  When life gets you down (see above), just think of the magnificence of nature and gain a better perspective.

If I'm being honest, the calligraphy didn't do that much for me.  It's the sort of thing I know I'm supposed to appreciate, but I couldn't help but think that it seemed a bit like looking at great penmanship.  If the words were written in English, would I think the letters were beautiful?

Verdict: Worth seeing, both for the poetry and the painting.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Lots and lots of prints

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through July 24, 2016

It's been a while since I've blogged - between the bad weather here in the DC area and some very busy days at work, I've not been to a museum since I went with my friend to the Renwick.  Yesterday, however, I made up for my exhibit drought by swimming in shows - three to be exact, the first of which was this one at the National Gallery.

As part of their 75th anniversary celebration, the Gallery has put together this large show of selections from their print collection.  It's arranged in chronological order (my favorite kind of order), which allows you to see the various uses to which prints have been put.  In the earliest ones on display (from the American colonial period), it's not art per se that we're looking at, but depictions of current events.  Think of them as an early version of a news magazine - the Time of their day.

By the late 1800s, prints had turned from news sources to the artistic expressions we know today.  They have not lost their political overtones, however.  Two of my favorites pieces on display were a linocut by Elizabeth Catlett, an artist I encountered for the first time at the African Art Museum not long ago and whom I like very much, entitled Untitled (Harriet Tubman) and a color offset lithograph by the Guerilla Girls collective entitled Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?

The Catlett piece shows a powerful and commanding Tubman - strong and fearless.  The Guerilla Girls offering questions the Metropolitan's small number of modern artworks by female artists, while noting the large percentage of works featuring nude women.  Both pieces challenge the status quo as regards women.  Women are not merely objects; they are a force to be reckoned with.  Both pieces demand the viewer take notice.

Verdict: If you like prints, have a look at this show - the scope is broad enough that there's something for everyone.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The WONDER of it all

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: second floor through May 8, 2016; first floor through July 10, 2016

I'd been holding off on visiting this exhibit until a friend of mine from out of town came to DC.  I thought he'd enjoy this show, and he'd not been to the Renwick before.  I'm very glad he came when he did, as part of this show is closing tomorrow, so we got in just under the wire.

Smithsonian, why was this staggered closing not more prominently shown on your website?  Having enjoyed this show so much, I'm horrified to think I could have missed most of it.  You know I love and support you (by visiting, by blogging and by contributing financially), but when you make a mistake, I call you out on it.  Better info in future please!

So what was the show like?  It was WONDERful.  It takes up the entire museum space (which is not terribly large, but still, that's a big exhibit) - each installation gets its own room.  Each installation needs its own space because they are all HUGE.  You can walk around the pieces, for the most part, or are immersed in them - they are interactive in a way that paintings on a wall are not.

The work shown here was perhaps my favorite - string in the colors of the spectrum that looked like a prism.  It may not sound like much, but it was hypnotic to watch.  I was also very much taken with the piece on the ceiling of the Grand Salon, meant to represent the waves of the Japanese tsunami.  I don't think there were any wall notes suggesting that people lie on the floor and look up at it, but that's what people (of all ages) were doing.  And the bug room!  It reminded me of the "Day of the Dead" decorations I'd seen in a Mexican restaurant in Philadelphia last summer - and those are real bugs on the wall.

Note: unlike every other time I've been to the Renwick, this show is CROWDED.  If you added up every person I've seen in the museum the other times I've been there, it wouldn't be a tenth of the number of people there yesterday afternoon.  And all of them have phones.  Which they are using to take pictures of themselves standing next to the art.  Repeatedly.  More than once, I had to wait to enter a room because someone was taking photos.  I'm happy for the museum that it's getting so many visitors, but I confess, I'll also be happy to see a show there without so many other people.

Verdict: If you can possibly see it this weekend, do not miss it.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Feeling a Bit Morbid

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 31, 2016

It feels as if I've seen a lot of "In Memoriam" pieces lately.  Famous people have been dropping like flies.  I know they tend to die in threes, but I think it's been multiples of three this year.

The latest star to fall from the firmament is Prince, so I went to see his portrait this week.  (If I'm seeing depressed, imagine how the people who have to put up and take down all these artworks must feel.)

What I found most interesting about the photograph is that it's in black and white, which I thought was an unlikely choice for someone as colorful as Prince.  In fact, I'd been thinking that many of his songs involve color ("Purple Rain," "Raspberry Beret" and "Little Red Corvette").  So why did Lynn Goldsmith choose to use black and white to depict him?

Otherwise, I think the picture is quite good - I like the vaguely rain-like background, and the designs on his jacket seem to mirror the look of his guitar (which may be the same guitar now on display at American History, just FYI).  I was also struck by the serious expression on his face; perhaps meant to reflect the artist behind all the flamboyance?

Verdict: Worth a look on your next visit to the Portrait Gallery.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Updating the Victorians

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through August 7, 2016

I've been to the National Gallery probably hundreds of times, but I'm still not familiar with every nook and cranny of the place.  This week, I went into a room I've never visited before, in search of some photographs by Tom Hunter.

This room is on the Concourse level, just before you turn to walk into the area with the big gift shop and the cafeteria.  It's so tucked away that, even though I've walked past it countless times, I had no idea it existed.

The exhibit is five photographs, each a reworking of an iconic Victorian painting.  The location for all the works is Hackney, a working class area in England.  Apparently, it's gentrifying now, but when these photos were taken it was still a bit gritty.  Each photograph has a small picture of the original painting next to it, so you can see the reference.  I like this idea and hope the NGA will do more of it.

The one pictured here is based on a painting that was part of the National Gallery's 2013 Pre-Raphaelite show - I recognized it right away, with its lush greenery, and floating woman.  The original was of Ophelia, the character from Hamlet.  This photograph is a representation of a woman who fell into a canal after a late night and drowned.  As I said earlier, a bit gritty.

Verdict: Worth a look, especially if you like photography or Victorian painting.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

More Musicians at American History

Where: American History Museum

When: through July 1, 2016

If you're interested in musicians, now's the time to visit the American History Museum.  In addition to the displays on Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles I discussed earlier, the Archives Center on the first floor has devoted their cases to photographs by Francis Wolff, a co-founder and the official photographer of Blue Note Records, an important American jazz label.

Wolff and his co-founder, Alfred Lion, first heard jazz in their native Berlin, and after they moved to the United States, they made a career of producing jazz albums.

The display consists of Wolff's gorgeous photographs and album covers that feature his images.  Even though I'm pretty ignorant of jazz and its history, I could still appreciate the talent behind the pictures.

Verdict: If you are interested in jazz history or photography, have a look at this display.  You could see it and the Sinatra and Charles displays in a lunch hour very easily.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Atticus Finch as I Prefer to Think of Him

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 10, 2016

If you want to see a piece that's part of the Portrait Gallery's "Celebrate" series, you have to hop right to it.  The art comes and goes quickly.  It's nice that there's always something new to see, but you run the risk of missing things.  This portrait of actor Gregory Peck is only up for ten days, so if you're a fan, you need to hurry over there, or you'll miss out.

Like the picture of Nancy Reagan that was in this space previously, this representation of an actual person is getting nothing like the attention afforded to Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood.  I've discussed this phenomenon earlier, so won't travel the same ground again.

Peck's "quiet strength [and] resolve" come through in this painting, which was done in 1991, portraying him in his later years.  Peck, in addition to his many acting roles, was also a strong advocate of gun control and protested against the Vietnam War.

This portrait has an unfinished feel to it - Peck's face is complete, but his jacket and the painting's background look a bit slapdash to me.  Perhaps it's meant to show Peck as the controlled man rising out of the chaos around him?

Verdict: A fine portrait that reminds me of the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird," and not of the book Go Set a Watchman.

Musicians at the American History Museum

Where: American History Museum

When: Charles through June 26; Sinatra through June 30, 2016

On the first and second floors of the American History Museum, there are large glass cases in the main entrance halls.  It's easy to pass by these without seeing what they contain, and that's what most visitors seem to do.  They are worth a look however, as they are full of interesting objects, which change from time to time. Two displays currently on offer showcase items associated with Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles.

Frank Sinatra was born in 1915, and the museum is marking the 100th anniversary of his birth with a sampling of his recordings, sheet music and clothing worn by the singer-actor.  Sinatra was perhaps the quintessential American popular singer, who managed to combine crooning with jazz.  The Smithsonian calls his work "America's finest body of recorded songs."  The small exhibit shows Sinatra's transformation from fresh-faced kid to Vegas headliner; in a way, he's a microcosm of America itself, all wide-eyed innocence in the 1940s, and more worldly-wise in the 1970s.

My one complaint about this display?  They mention "Anchors Aweigh," but they don't point you in the direction of the George Sidney exhibit at the Archives.  Blockbusters can attract people by virtue of their size; small shows need to help each other out!

Ray Charles also gets some space, in the cases on the second floor.  He managed to overcome racism, poverty and blindness to become a fantastically successful singer.  Even one of these obstacles would be a challenge, never mind all three.  He managed to combine many genres of singing over the course of his career; he can't be pigeon-holed into one type of sound.  He was also a very smart businessman, who was one of the first singers to negotiate the rights to his own master recordings.  Among other artifacts is a customized braille keyboard - it's interesting to see that technology up close.

Verdict: If you're at American History, be sure to allow a few extra minutes for these display cases.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

While Waiting for the Rooftop Garden

Where: National Gallery of Art

When:  through June 3, 2016

Another trip to the East Building library; another opportunity to see the area in which all that modern art currently wedged into the West Building should really be hanging.  I've long been a critic of the East Building, but having seen what Calder and Rothko look like in the West Building, well, I take it all back.  The newly renovated space is scheduled to reopen this fall, and I'm eager to see the new tower and the roof garden - the views!  the views!

The current display in the library (which is open during the renovations, just in case you need to do some art research) is on catalogs for art supplies.  It's a reminder that it's not just the artists that make art, it's the materials they work with as well.  And how do artists obtain those materials?  By purchasing them from art supply houses.  Hence, the display.

Art catalogs have been around for hundreds of years; some on display date back to the 1700s.  My favorite was a catalog from Henry Brooks & Co., "Painters' Brushware," which was printed in London around 1850.  I'm no artist, but the drawings were so lovely, I wanted to go right out and buy brushes!

Verdict: Yet another nice little display.  If you happen to be wandering around the East Building atrium during the week, have a look.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Tale of Two Portraits

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: Reagan: until March 28, 2016; Spacey: until mid-October 2016

Full disclosure: I didn't like Nancy Reagan.  I disliked her less than I disliked her husband, but both of them to me represent the worst of the 1980s: the excess, the disinterest in the less fortunate, the celebrity Presidency.  A pretty dreadful time, now that I think back on it.  Having said that, I went to see the Portrait Gallery's "in memoriam" display of a TIME magazine cover.  I have no beef with the museum putting up portraits of famous people who have died, whether I like them or not.  In fact, I'm surprised they didn't have a portrait of Scalia up - could it be they don't own one?  That seems unlikely.  But I digress...

I went to see the portrait and will offer my thoughts on it as a work of art, and a accurate depiction, setting aside my thoughts on Nancy Reagan as a person.  I thought it was a very fine piece.  It's easily identifiable as her - which can't be said for every portrait I've ever seen!  She's wearing her signature color, red, but is otherwise not depicted in a particularly flamboyant way.  No jewelry, the dress is a simple one, and the background is quite plain.  This is in keeping with her role in the Reagan administration: she's out front in a way, with her red dresses, but there's lots going on behind the scenes that you don't see.  She gave the appearance of a "traditional" First Lady - a wife and mother, concerned about saying no to drugs.  In fact, she had a far greater influence on the Presidency than what most people realized at the time.

Across the hall from Reagan is a portrait of the actor, Kevin Spacey as President Frank Underwood, from the Netflix series "House of Cards."  I've never seen the show, since I don't have a Netflix account (and I am too attached to the original BBC series to think that another adaptation is necessary).  Still, I know the story generally, and it's a good one.  The painting is interesting.  Spacey as Underwood is depicted as a "man in charge."  I noticed that there are blocks in the background, almost as if you're viewing him through a window - perhaps that has something to do with the show?  Good picture, I thought, but realize that without seeing the series, I'm at a bit of a disadvantage in reviewing it.

What I noticed was that the Underwood picture was garnering FAR more attention than the Reagan one.  Lots of people stopped by and many of them were taking selfies with the portrait.  No such adulation for poor Nancy.  Her celebrity has faded, only to be replaced by someone pretending to be the President.

Verdict: Go see these two pictures while they're both still up - it's interesting to see which garners greater notice.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Another low light exhibit

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 5, 2016

There's an alcove at the Portrait Gallery where the curators exhibit items that require dim lighting in order to be displayed.  You don't find blockbuster shows here, in part because it's a small space.  The Alexander Gardner show, which also requires low lighting, is in several rooms; it would never have fit in this little area.

But, if you're interested in the history of American portraiture, and I can only assume you are, at least to some extent, if you've come to the Portrait Gallery, these small shows are worth a look.  They usually deal with a little known aspect of the subject, and I always learn something from my visit.

The current display is on Peace Medals.  These were created by the U.S. Government beginning in the Washington administration and continuing until the early 20th century.  They were used in making treaties with various Native American tribes, as they (the tribes) valued them very much.  In addition to several medals on display, this exhibit shows portraits of Native American leaders wearing the medals they had been given.

I saw something I don't believe I've seen before in this display: a daguerreotype and a painting of the same person.  It was fun to examine both and see if the painting was a good likeness.  The subject was Appanoose, a leader of the Sac tribe.  He came to Washington, D.C. in 1837, as part of a large delegation of Native American leaders to sign a peace treaty.

Happily, the wall notes make mention of the "Nation to Nation" exhibit at the American Indian Museum.  This show tells the full story of treaties between Native American tribes and the U.S. Government; I recommend seeing it if you have any interest in the subject.  The more the Smithsonian can help visitors see shows of interest to them, the better.   I'm willing to check the institution's website regularly to see what's on display, but the more casual viewer will most likely head to a museum they've heard of (like Air and Space or Natural History), never realizing what other treasures are on offer just a few feet away.  Thank you curators for giving visitors more information!

Verdict: A fine small display - if you're there to see another show, set aside a few minutes to check this out.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

What exactly is a digital loom?

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 5, 2016

One of the differences between the Sackler and the Freer is that the Sackler exhibits the works of contemporary Asian artists.  One of the ways in which it does this is through a series called "Perspectives."  The works are on display in the pavilion, which is the main entryway, and I usually see them when I'm at the Sackler for something else.

The current display is a work by Lara Baladi, who is an Egyptian-Lebanese artist, born in 1969.  She's taken photographic images, some her own work, others she has found and made them into a photographic collage.  In 2007, these were transferred to a cloth, made of wool and cotton, via a digital loom.  I'd love to know what a digital loom is exactly, but the wall notes offered no explanation.

The work is entitled "Oum el Donia" which translates as "Mother of the World," a common name for the country of Egypt.  You get the sense, looking at this piece, of sand and water or earth and sky.  A guard, seeing me looking at the work, told me the blue color comprising the top half of the fabric was painted on by hand, literally by hand, not using a brush.  What an enormous job!

Verdict: This is a strange and interesting piece - give it a look the next time you're at the Sackler.

This is an exhibition about a painting that does not exist.

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through May 30, 2016

Although the Freer is shut until some time in 2017, items related to the Peacock Room are still on display at the Sackler.  On sublevel 1, the "Filthy Lucre" show is on, and one part of that is devoted to Whistler's "Lost Symphony."

Whistler (who comes off as a nut job in this show) had agreed to create a painting for Frederick Leyland, his then patron, that would be a symphony in white.  He intended to incorporate both classical Greek and Asian elements in a work that would involve three women.  Whistler worked on this piece for ten years, but was never satisfied with the result.  He was striving for perfection, and one of the things I've learned in my life is that striving for perfection is a one way ticket to the madhouse.

Finally, Whistler and Leyland quarreled over the payment the artist was due for the Peacock Room, and Whistler destroyed the painting that he had intended to hang opposite his "Princess in the Land of Porcelain."  The only things left out of all his labor are a fragment of the painting, showing a young woman in a diaphanous gown, and the frame he created to house the finished work.

The fragment is lovely, and one can only assume that the finished painting would have been a seminal work, had it been completed.  A sad loss for art lovers.  The frame is on display twice in this show: once in a modern copy, hung in the horizontal orientation that would have been used in the lost painting and then the original frame is on display, in a vertical orientation and encasing Whistler's scathing portrait of Leyland, entitled "The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre."  Note the spelling - it's a play on words; Leyland had a fondness for frilled shirts.

I very much enjoyed the show and recommend it highly.  Whistler, however, comes off quite badly as a person.  As much as I like his art, he sounds like an absolute drama queen.  Not the sort of person I'd want to live or do business with.

An added bonus is that "The Princess in the Land of Porcelain" is on display in the "Filthy Lucre" room.  You can get quite close up to it, which you can't in the Freer (it's displayed over the fireplace and there's a barrier keeping you back a few paces); it's worth going over to the Sackler just to see that.

Verdict: Don't miss this interesting show.  I commend the Sackler for making lemonade out of the lemons that are the Freer's closing.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Happily, There is an Exit

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through May 15, 2016

I had high hopes for this show of Louise Bourgeois works.  I'd never heard of her before, but I read a quote, "At the mention of surrealism, I cringe," and thought we might be soul sisters.  "I cringe too!" I exclaimed to myself; "This is someone whose work I must run out and examine."

Well, it turns out that just disliking surrealism is not enough to ensure I'll like your art.  Bourgeois' problem with the term is that people kept applying it to her work, when she identified as an existentialist.  There's a difference, and I see it, but I still don't like her stuff.

To me, surrealism is just ugly.  I wouldn't want it in my home, and I don't like looking at it in a museum.  If great art is uplifting, surrealism is the opposite of that.  Bourgeois' art is not repellent; it's just unfathomable.  What is it?  I kept asking myself, but I wasn't able to come up with an answer.  Many pieces are titled "Untitled," and if you've read this blog for any period of time, you know how I feel about that.  For newbies: I don't like it.  If I can make the time to come out and see your work, you can make the time to give it a name.

The picture above, is probably the most understandable - it's her hand, done in the color red.  Fine.  The rest of the works left me scratching my head.

Verdict: Unless you're a fan, you can give this a miss.

Still There?

Where: American History Museum

When: through March 21, 2016

Yet another long period between blog posts - more bad weather, more work craziness, but also a new dog in the Museumgoer household, I'm happy to say.  All time consuming, but I'm hoping that I'll be back seeing and reviewing exhibits on a regular basis going forward.

The archives center at American History has a display up now on George Sidney, an Oscar-winning director from the "Golden Age" of Hollywood (roughly the 1930s - 1950s).  He pioneered new techniques in film, including underwater sequences, think Esther Williams for those of you old enough to know who she was, the mixture of live action and animation, shooting on location and 3-D (no, youngsters, that's not a new invention).  It's the 100th anniversary of his birth, so out of storage come documents about his life and work.

Among his more famous works was "Anchors Aweigh," starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.  The advertisements for the film exhorted moviegoers to "Get Gay!"  Ah, how slang has changed...

Sidney did a lot of the cinematography himself, and his sequence with Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse was groundbreaking.  Later in his career, he became one of the founding members of Hanna-Barbera.

Verdict: Another interesting, if not wildly exciting exhibit from our friends at the archives center - if you're a fan of old Hollywood, or if you'd just like a moment's rest from the crowds, give this a look.