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.