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.