Saturday, October 14, 2017

Making Sense of the Fantastic

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through December 3, 2017

Jean Honore Fragonard was a well-known French painter of the 1700s, and his "fantasy figures" have been long admired.  Full of color and exuberantly painted, they're fun art - when the world is getting you down, these portraits will let you forget your cares for a while.  And anything that can lighten the mood in 2017 is worth seeing.

Uncertainty surrounded these paintings for many years until a sketch of 18 portraits turned up for auction in 2012.  Identified with names (presumably of the sitters or the commissioners of the work), the sketch answered the question, "Are these real people, or pure imagination?"

In addition, a painting of a young woman reading a book (my favorite of the group) has been scanned as part of a two-year investigation.  It turns out, the original work had the woman's face turned towards the viewer; the final painting shows her in profile.  Why the change?  It's possible the sitter didn't care for the work, and Fragonard had to re-purpose it.  Whatever the reason, I like it as it is.  We, the viewers, observe the woman reading, but we do not disturb her concentration.

Verdict: A fun escape into colorful costuming; a one-room show easily managed in a lunch hour.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Worshipping Color

Munch self-portrait
Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Ground Floor

When: through January 28 2018

If you're like me, you know that Edvard Munch was a Norwegian artist who painted "The Scream."   Turns out, he was much more than that.  He was also someone who believed that colors had certain powers and could see auras around people.  Oh my.

This small show (two rooms, about 20 works) shows several familiar Munch works, with discussion of the meaning of the colors he used.  The one pictured, which I remembered from another Munch show I'd seen some time ago, is a self-portrait, most noticeable for a lack of color.  That, and the skeleton arm at the bottom, that's pretty noticeable as well.

Interesting that at the same time that science was making advances, spiritualism should also enjoy a vogue.  Truly, the 19th century was one of contradictions.

I find Munch's work a bit hard to relate to, our shared Norwegian background notwithstanding.  The fact that he seems to have been a bit of a nut doesn't make it any easier.

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Concourse Gallery

When: through December 13, 2017

On the same day that I saw the Munch display, I also saw an installation of works by Matthias Mansen called "Configurations."  It's tucked away in that small room by one of the elevators, just as you leave the West Building and enter the concourse to go to the East Building.  They do nothing to direct your attention to the space; if you didn't know you needed to look in here, you'd figure it was just a small elevator lobby.  They need to put up a sign directing people to look in here.

I couldn't really relate to this show either.  It's large scale woodcuts, so it dovetails nicely with the Library display I blogged about last week.  I'm just not sure what it is, or what it's supposed to represent.  I think the set of nine similar pieces are meant to be self-portraits, but I'm not sure.  I have not even a guess about the others.

Verdict: If you're a fan of Munch, the show of his works is worth seeing.  Otherwise, you can skip it; many of the pieces have been exhibited before. As for the Mansen, if you like woodcuts, you should check this out on your way to see the Library display.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Woodcut Illustrations

Where: National Gallery of Art Library, East Building

When: through January 5, 2018

The Library at the NGA has another small display in the glass cases in the library reading room.  So lovely to escape the crowds and look at some of their holdings.  The current offerings are examples of woodcuts, including one of Durer's (hooray).  These are pieces from the apogee of woodcuts as an art form, and if you are a fan of woodcuts, or a student of art history, this is worth seeing.

Verdict: Probably for the hardcore art historian, but also a way to become acquainted with the medium.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Best Thing I've Seen Ever at the Postal Museum

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through January 1, 2018

Okay, first of all, how is it that I'm already seeing things closing in 2018!?!?  I'm sure both the National Gallery and the Smithsonian will add in more shows that will close in November and December, but at the moment, there are none.  There are exhibits closing in October, and then it's on to January.  Crazy.

I confess, I'd considered eliminating the Postal Museum from my rounds not too long ago.  It's inconvenient to get there for a lunch hour visit, and the shows are usually, well, kind of dull.  The sort of thing I would probably review more kindly if it didn't take me so long to get there and get back.

But, wow.  This show, called "Post Secret: The Power of a Postcard," is amazing.  Truly amazing.  The Post Office has a program, whereby anyone can send an anonymous postcard to Frank Warren, the found of the program.  On the postcard, the sender writes a secret that is both absolutely true and has never been shared before.  The project started in 2004, when Warren handed out postcards to strangers within a mile of the museum (by which time, I had changed jobs and moved across town, hence I knew nothing about this).  He's written books full of the cards he's received and he posts new ones at this blog:  If you can't get to the show, check this out.

The photo above is of one of the object people send in, in addition to postcards.  I love everything about it, except obviously, that this person has a Mom with a boyfriend he/she hates.  But, it really grabbed me - the colors and the whimsy of the plate, juxtaposed with the pain of the message.  Fantastic.

Verdict: You've got plenty of time to see this show, and if you won't be in DC before January, check out the blog.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Cats Were a Thing Even Before They Owned the Internet

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through October 29, 2017

The Archives of American Art is riding on the capacious coattails of Internet cats, in the interest of showing their collection of cat depictions.  Turns out artists own cats, like cats, take cats as subjects of their art and draw inspiration from cats.

So we who live in the age of the information superhighway didn't discover the many wonderful qualities of the cat, we have merely put them online and shared them with a wider audience.

Verdict: A fun small show that would pair admirably with the "Recent Acquisitions" exhibit for a lunch hour trip.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Party Time at the Hirshhorn

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through October 1, 2017

Today's the last day for this show I really liked (imagine!) at the Hirshhorn.  It wraps around the 3rd floor inner circle of the concrete donut (which I found out today has an official nickname of the Brutalist Donut).

I love the vibrant colors and depictions of nature at the beginning and end of the day.  I walked around to look at the whole thing and was surprised how quickly I made the trip - sort of the opposite of one of their Bataan Death March exhibits.

Obama's remark after the 2016 election, that no matter what happened, the sun would rise in the morning was the inspiration for the work, which was created specifically for this space.

Verdict: Worth a look, if you're on the Mall today.

Monday, October 2, 2017

A Look Back at the Future of America

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through September 17, 2017

As I believe I mentioned when I blogged about the Kennedy photos at American History, it's hard for those of us who see the 1960s, particular the early 1960s, as history to realize how much it was the future to those living it.  The world was changing; a young new leader was taking over, and everyone was anticipating a new chapter in the American story.

Kennedy was the most photographed president ever, and for good reason.  He was photogenic, as was his wife and their two small children.  My favorite shot in the exhibit is one of JFK and Caroline.  Both in this show and in the photos at American History, the ones with her seem less staged, more real.  Her love for her father comes through, and I don't think a child that small can fake emotions.

The other aspect of the show that I loved was the emphasis on the arts.  JFK believed that the arts were a crucial part of American life, and Jackie was instrumental in both bringing the Mona Lisa to the National Gallery of Art for three weeks (I had no idea!) and in saving the Renwick - which I did know.

Verdict: A fine exhibit that gives the visitor a real look at a vibrant time. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Clang, Clang, Clang Goes the Trolley

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through September 10, 2017

This display was under the escalator on the lower level of the museum, what they call the "Franklin Foyer," as there's a statue of Benjamin Franklin close by.

Beginning in St. Louis in the 1890s, the Post Office used trolleys to deliver mail in cities, with workers sorting the mail on board.  The practice spread to other cities, and even during the trolley strikes at the turn of the century, post office trolleys were generally allowed to proceed on their way.  Eventually, the trolleys were replaced by trucks that could handle packages; the last service was in Baltimore in 1929.

Verdict: A glance into the past courtesy of the Postal Museum, interesting, but not what you'd call a blockbuster show.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Every Year: Nature's Best

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through September 15, 2017

First, my apologies for the long silence.  Between the National Book Festival and my class, I've had no Saturdays free for blogging since August.  But, I'm back now, so on with the show...

Every year, the Natural History Museum displays the winners of the Nature's Best Photography Competition, and every year I recommend you go and see this show.  Every photograph is stunning; I walk out each time feeling a sense of wonder, both at the beauty of our planet and at the talents of all those responsible for these pictures.

Verdict: This year's display has finished, but whenever they put up next year's winners, go to see them.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Yet Another Trip to the Hirshhorn

Where: Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

When: closing dates throughout September 2017

There are times throughout the year when there seem to be so many exhibits closing so soon that I can hardly make time to see them all.  Right now is one of those times.  I usually set aside two days per week to visit museums, but lately, I've had to increase my attendance at the Smithsonian and National Gallery.  My yoga practice has suffered, I'm sorry to say, and I'll be glad when things settle down a bit.  Of course, this is a great (First World) problem to have.

One of the museums that's got lots of shows closing in September is the concrete donut.  In addition to the Yoko One pieces, there's also a "Masterworks" show and an exhibit of Markus Lupertz works.

I went over to the museum I love to hate on Tuesday and saw a Yoko One item I hadn't seen with my niece when we visited last week.  It was called Sky TV, and that's exactly what this is.  It's a TV set showing the sky.  The wall notes tell me Ono got the idea for this when she lived in a windowless apartment in New York City and longed to see the sky.  It occurs to me that, if you're seeing this in a museum, you've been outside and been able to see the sky "live," so perhaps this isn't the best way to show it.  Maybe it should be something you could see on your own TV, like the fireplace log burning that they show on TV on Christmas Day?  Or something you could stream on your computer?

I also saw the "Masterworks" show, which I think I've seen before.  "Big Man" was out front, with his baleful stare.  Hard to say he's welcoming you, but when you see him, you know you're at the entrance.  "The Weight of History" is also here, where the artist depicts the writings of history's monsters as blocks of toner - the longer the tracts, the bigger the block.  Hitler is the biggest, for what it's worth.  "Venus of the Rags" is here too, which makes me smile.  I thought their Yinka Shonibare piece was included (as it should be), but I didn't see it.  Perhaps it's on loan?

Finally, I went to the Lower Level and saw the Markus Lupertz exhibit.  This is a survey of his works from the 1960s and 1970s.  They weren't really to my taste, to be blunt.  He's a Neo-Expressionist, which seems to be similar to being an Abstract Expressionist, as nothing's terribly attractive.  I do appreciate his works condemning war and militarism, particularly German militarism, responsible for so much of the 20th century's loss of life.  Still, a little of this goes a long way.

Verdict: It's the Hirshhorn; expect little, and the few things worth seeing will be that much more worthwhile.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Artfulness of the Everyday

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through September 4, 2017

This photo shows my view as I walked up to the Tower (now called Tower 3) to see the Theaster Gates exhibit.  "What on earth is this?" was my reaction.  As I approached, I saw it was a gigantic bookshelf, really a book-box, as it had four sides and a space in the middle.  All of the books are bound volumes of Ebony magazine.  I'm not entirely certain what this means, but it was intriguing.

There are several other pieces in this room, with a map on the wall to tell you what each piece is.  It's a bit confusing to figure out, so I just stood back and took it all in.  There are more pieces in the room with the elevator just off this room, and they were a bit tricky to decipher as well.

One of the wall notes read that the artist "...stakes a claim for the artfulness of the everyday."  I don't really have anything to add to that, other than to say the pieces are well-executed and hold your attention.

Verdict: If you don't mind the time it takes to get to Tower 3, I'd recommend looking at this small show. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Day with my Niece

I spent Friday with my niece, and we went to the Botanic Garden and to the Hirshhorn.

I chose the Botanic Garden because they have three corpse flowers that are ready to bloom.  See the picture in the bottom left for a look at the most advanced of the specimens.  It hadn't actually started blooming when we went to see it, and I'm not sure if I'm glad or disappointed.  It was pretty impressive, even with no odor, but I feel as if we didn't really get the "full Monty."  Of course, we also didn't have to experience the stench, and on a hot day like Friday, that was probably a good thing.  And we didn't have to wait in line for hours to get in either, so all in all, I'm think I'm going to go with glad.

We walked around the whole garden, at least the inside part, and I realized I hadn't visited since 2010.  They've made some improvements since the last time I was there, and I was reminded of what a lovely venue it is.  One of those places that lowers my blood pressure as soon as I walk in the door. Although I love my office location, as it allows me to walk to the Mall on my lunch hour, I do wish the Botanic Garden were closer.

After lunch, we went to the Hirshhorn.  "That's an odd choice," those of you who read the blog regularly might be thinking, since I usually miss no opportunity to bash the concrete donut.  In this instance, we went to see the Ai Weiwei show, which I recommend.  He's created portraits of dissidents from around the world, done in Legos.  What I didn't realize until we went, was that this is the same show he put on in Alcatraz.  I was sorry to miss that, so very glad to see it here.  I think I would have gotten more out of it, if I had known more of the people portrayed (I knew Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King), but that's my fault, not Ai's.

We also saw the Yoko Ono pieces about mothers (in the main lobby) - people put up comments about their mothers on a big wall, and her Wish Tree in the sculpture garden.  We put up our own wishes (mine was for civility in political discourse - good luck to me with that), which was fun.

All in all, a great day, despite the heat.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tiny Garden Models

Where: Ripley Center

When: no closing date

I went over to see this small display in the Concourse last week, as the original closing date was early September (and I'm now on to September closings - where does the time go?!?!).  Now, however, they've decided to keep it up longer and the closing date has been changed to TBD.  So no need to rush out and see this.

It's a display of several models of gardens, done in miniature.  You also get a photograph of the real garden (from the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens - who knew?), so it's not just a little toy.  It's an actual small replica, designed to spur you on to great feats of garden design.  Or at least, give you some ideas of what to do in your back yard.

My only problem with this is that the notes are printed in small type and set mostly in the center of the display.  And since the models are set in the middle of large brick pedestals, the middle is rather far from where the viewer is standing.  Very hard to see, if one doesn't have eagle eyes.

Verdict: Worth a look, if you're on your way to something else.  Basically, just a nice way to decorate the Concourse.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Glory that was Camelot

Where: American History Museum

When: through August 27, 2017

If you'd like a glimpse of what America was like before "the 60s" or if you're a fan of the Kennedys, head over to the American History Museum to see the Richard Avedon photographs of JFK and family.  They were taken just before he was inaugurated, and it's like looking into a time capsule.

The museum is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kennedy's birth (so is American Art, just by the way - I'll have a review of that show once I've seen it), and it's interesting that they would choose this collection of photographs, over something to do with his Presidency or WWII service.

They were taken just as America was about to step into a new phase; Kennedy was the first of the "Greatest Generation" Presidents, who occupied the White House until Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1992.  So they represent both a look forward for those who saw them in 1961 - looking towards a new generation of leadership, and a look back for us in 2017, who see a time before so many cultural upheavals.

The family is depicted against a plain white background, and one can't help but feel that they were carefully posed.  Both JFK and Jackie Kennedy are carefully looking into the camera, projecting a certain youthful seriousness, as if to say, "Yes, we are very young and glamorous, but we're ready to take on our new responsibilities."

The exception to all this message sending are the photos with Caroline.  She's quite young, and clearly very happy to be with her father.  She looks completely authentic, the way kids do before they learn they have to "smile for the camera."

Verdict: There are only a few photographs, so this won't take very long.  They're in the Presidents exhibit, and you can have a look at Warren Harding's flamboyant pajamas on your way to see them.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Beauty and the Beast at the Renwick

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: through August 20, 2017

I went over to the Renwick yesterday, and because it's a bit of a hike for me, I saw two shows in one trip.  The first was an exhibit of gorgeous enamels by June Schwarcz; I liked them so much I took two photographs to share on the blog.

This is one of her earlier works, called "Nut Bowl."  I'm not sure if this comes out in the photo, but the inside looks like a nut.  It is both beautiful and a pun, which is an uncommon mixture.  The colors of her works are stunning; I felt as if I could take them home and live happily ever after with them.

Although this piece could certainly hold nuts, some of her work is non-functional, or as she herself put it, "They just don't hold water."  One gets the sense that she didn't take herself too seriously, which is another reason I like her art.

She took inspiration from nature, fashion and the work of other artists.  Only last week, I'd been craving some Durer in that show on French art, well, see the piece below which was inspired by him.

It's an abstract, where Durer was a realist, but the precision is there.  So, I'm now a June Schwarcz fan - any friend of Durer's is a friend of mine.

Then I moved on to the Peter Voulkos show, which is in the rooms just behind Schwarcz.  What a change, and not for the better.  Big clunky, ugly pieces, all sharp edges and looking like failed experiments.  The items pictured below are the least awful.

The rest of the show is all mangled clay; all I could think was, "This is so un-beautiful."  The wall notes provided my a-ha moment.  Turns out he was inspired by Abstract Expressionism, so no wonder it's so beastly.

The final room of the show features some of his "blackware."  One of his friends said of it, "It wouldn't surprise me if the pots had been made in the dark."  It wouldn't surprise me either!

Verdict: The Schwarcz show is wonderful; Voulkos you can skip.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Trip to Rococo France

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through August 20, 2017

The National Gallery's show, "America Collects," on now through August 20th, is a trip to France before the Revolution.  The title of the show refers to the fact that all of the pieces on display are from collections in the United States, as Americans love French art.

It all started with the arrival in 1815 of Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon) with a large number of paintings, presumably to console him while in exile in the U.S.   This excited an interest that was taken up years later by Gilded Age tycoons, who collected these pieces to decorate their grand homes and then donated them to public institutions, where they continue to reside and attract visitors.

I confess, Rococo art is not to my taste - all the frippery and finery and exuberance makes me long for the precision of a Durer, but when one goes to an exhibit of 18th century French art, one must be prepared for some gaudy frills.

I was interested to see "The Bath of Venus" and "The Toilette of Venus," now displayed together for the first time since the 1700s.  Long-time readers know that I'm always eager to see works that rarely travel or that haven't been exhibited in ages or that are reunited after many years apart.  Right up my street.

Much to my delight, I saw a piece with a dog that looked very like my own four-legged friend.  A black and tan Spaniel-esque canine, the one in the painting had a bit more black in his coat and a smaller snout than my Sherlock, but they could easily have been siblings.

I thought as I made my way through room after room of Gallic excess, "But we all know what happens to these people in 1789..."  And of course, art changed quite a bit after the Reign of Terror.  Gone were the bright colors and opulent settings; a gritty realism took over.  The work that stuck with me most strongly was a piece entitled "The Drunken Cobbler."  It depicted a derelict man, besieged by his wife and her barefoot children.  I use the old saw "the cobbler's children have no shoes" on a regular basis - here it was in front of me!

Verdict: I liked this show more than I thought I would.  Even if much of the style is not my favorite, it was well presented, and the wall notes were quite interesting.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Thinking of my Brother

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through August 14, 2017

There's a fine exhibit on the National Park Service, complete with gorgeous photos, on now at Natural History.  Last August marked the 100th birthday of the NPS, and the museum is doing its part to honor one of the things that makes America great.

My use of the national parks consists of the National Mall and Wolf Trap (the only national park for the performing arts!), but I am a supporter of the National Park Service Foundation and hope that someday, I'll be able to see the great parks out west.  Plus, my brother works for the NPS (in fact, he is somewhere in the photo above), so I have plenty of reasons to support them and the great work they do.

"There is nothing so American as our national parks."  - FDR, 1934

This quote is printed at the beginning of the exhibit, a fitting way to start.  No matter how bad things may be in the economy (keep in mind, Roosevelt said this in the midst of a depression) or in the world at large (you'll recall, things weren't looking good overseas either), our national parks are always a worthwhile investment of the nation's time and money.   This show gives you a feel for the variety of parks throughout the country.  Photos of Peacefield (John and Abigail Adams' home) and Mount Vernon reminded me of trips I've taken; Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are trips I'd like to take in future.

In other news, the Korea Gallery has closed, and a "Garden Lounge" is under construction.  I'm not sure exactly what this will be, but I'm guessing some sort of eatery?  When it opens in November, I'll be sure to check it out.

Verdict: If you are a lover of nature photography, don't miss this show.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Two Small Shows at the National Gallery

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through August 6, 2017

It hadn't occurred to me until just now that I saw two shows on urban landscapes this week.  Perhaps because they're so different, both in style and content?

This one is a very small (two little rooms, across the hall from the large exhibit spaces on the Ground Floor of the West Building) display of works spanning the 20th century.  They are part of the NGA's print collection, which is quite large, especially with the addition of the Corcoran pieces.

The piece I photographed for the post is by Louis Lozowick (whose work I feel certain I've seen before - the name is familiar) called "Allen Street."  The sun coming through the elevated tracks to make geometric shapes on the street below really caught my eye.

Verdict: Nice small show, worth a look if you're there for one of the larger shows.

The other display I saw was in the library, in the East Building and it runs through August 25.  It's called Companion Pieces and it's a collection of items that accompanied avant garde art shows.  If you're interested in the history of modern art, it might be worth a look, but otherwise you can skip it.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Latino Art

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through August 6, 2017

I don't know how it happened, but 2017 has rushed by in a blur.  It doesn't seem possible that it's more than halfway over, but since I've started seeing shows that close in August, I have no choice but to believe it's so.

I saw several things this week, the largest of which is this show of photographs by Latino photographers, depicting life in urban neighborhoods.  The time frame is early 1960's through the 1980's.  The series I chose for the blog photo is by Camilo Jose Vergara, and it's called "65 East 125th Street, Harlem."  It's the same storefront as it changes over the years.  It starts out as a lounge, with a rather "dive bar" look to it and winds up as a church.   I don't know if this is due to changes in the surrounding neighborhood, or just the vicissitudes of business, but it makes you think about the passing of time, which, I guess, brings us back to the whole "I can't believe it's already July" idea.

I found myself remembering the photography show I saw at American Indian recently; it's really a similar idea - documenting the people of an area that is often overlooked by mainstream society.  The portraits of children especially made me think of that other show.

I also liked the "Long Beach Documentary Survey Project, 1980" by Anthony Hernandez, which is bus stops and people waiting for buses to arrive.  Been there (well, not exactly there, but in that same situation); done that.  I can remember, as a graduate student with no car, wishing I lived at "Not in Service" since that was where all the buses seemed to be going.

Perhaps the most interesting piece was Ruben Ochoa's "What if Walls Created Spaces?" which is a lenticular print mounted on aluminum composite.  As you walk past, the highway wall pictured opens up and green space is revealed.

Verdict: Nicely laid out show; interesting photographs made by a group (Latinos) that I don't see enough of in my lunchtime travels.  I'm hoping more Latino art will go on display in future. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The American Landscape Isn't All Out West

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through July 16, 2017

When I think of great American landscapes, my mind inevitably turns to the West: Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains.  What I forget is that the Eastern part of the U.S. has great landscapes too.  Having spent a lifetime in the Mid-Atlantic, there's no excuse for my overlooking the natural beauty so near by!  Happily, this show has opened my eyes, and I hope will open those of others before it closes in another week.

This collection of 19th century photographs starts with early daguerreotypes, some of which are so sensitive to light that they are covered with little curtains.  I found it hard to see the images but didn't want to stare too long for fear of making matters worse, so gave these only a quick glance.

The next room featured stereographs - which reminded me strongly of my old "Viewmaster Viewer."  Two identical images set side-by-side create a 3-D image, if you look at them with a special viewer.  Great fun, largely due to the trip down memory lane.

There were also several examples of photographs and paintings of the same view, exhibited together - a great idea I thought, showing how artists in different media see the same thing.

The Civil War got a bit of space as well, not surprising, since it was the first war to be photographed.  Just as Vietnam brought the war to America's living rooms by way of television, people were far more aware of what was happening in this conflict due to photography.

I noticed among the offerings, several from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  It made my wonder how often the two institutions share things for special exhibits - are they more colleagues than competitors?

Verdict: A fine show, one worth seeing.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Like Father, Like Daughters

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Ground Floor

When: through July 16, 2017

Ian Woodner was an art collector, especially fond of drawings.  He began collecting in the 1940s, and did not limit himself to any particular historical period.  His daughters, Dian and Andrea, joined in his passion, and gave a substantial portion of his collection to the National Gallery in 1990, after Ian's death.  In addition, they have promised more pieces to the NGA, some of which are on display in this show.

It covers a wide span of time, from the 1300s through to the present.  I was very happy to see some Durers among the offerings; I love the precision of his works.  A piece entitled "Initial Q with a Procession of Children" by Zanobi Strossi caught my eye - painted in 1430, but vividly colorful.

Leonardo da Vinci was among those present, with "Grotesque Head of an Old Woman," pretty far away from the Mona Lisa - more like something out of Dr. Seuss. Hendrick Avercamp's "Winter Games on the Frozen River Ijsse" I saw in the small exhibit of art from the "little ice age" period.  I very much like seeing things again - makes me feel full of artistic knowledge to recognize something.

Louis-Leopold Boilly's "The Public in the Salon of the Louvre, Viewing the Painting of the 'Sacre'" was a piece I liked, as it depicts people in a museum, a subject of which I never tire.  In the final room, we had modern pieces, including two I recognized by Louise Bourgeois.

Verdict: Although I'm not a big fan of drawings as an art form, I do recommend this show.  Nicely arranged (chronological order - my favorite kind) and a fine tribute to one family's generosity.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Saying Good-bye to the Sackler

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through July 9, 2017

As many readers may know, the Sackler Gallery is my favorite Smithsonian museum.  I've loved it for years, full of beautiful Asian art, both in its permanent collection and in the special exhibits it hosts.  I'm always excited when I see a new show is coming, as it gives me an excuse to visit once again.

My visit yesterday was a melancholy one; the museum is closing on July 10 for three months.  So no Sackler to welcome me into its cool interior through the heat of the DC summer!  You will doubtless recall that the Freer has been closed for quite a while now (I think about 15 months, although it seems much longer...).  Now that the big renovations are done there, both spaces will be closed for a time in order to reorganize and reinstall the entire collection.

It's hard to view this closure as a good thing, but as much as I will miss it in the short run, in the long run this is the right thing to do.

I saw many things while on this visit, including the exhibit of three immense paintings by Utamaro: Snow at Fukagawa (missing for nearly 70 years before turning up in Japan recently)Moon at Shinagawa (purchased by Charles Lang Freer and now in the Freer's collection) and Cherry Blossoms at Yoshiwara (owned by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut).  Reunited after 140 years apart, these three paintings would be wonderful separately, but are astounding together.  Each piece bears close examination; if you saw them every day, you would find new elements with every look.  The entrance to the display is marvelous - big banners with examples of both Western and Asian art, all of tall, beautiful women.

I thought it a nice touch that, at the end of a show glamorizing the "pleasure quarters" of Edo, the Sackler included some information on the reality of these women's lives.  Needless to say, the truth is rather less pretty.

This is the Cosmic Buddha, a Chinese work from about 575.  I love antiquities and the connection they provide to people living so long ago, in circumstances so different than our own.  One thing we have in common is art, and this is a lovely example.  Although the sculpture is old, the technology now being used to study it is new - 3D printing is allowing scholars to examine this piece in great detail.  There's a bit you can actually touch (and you know how much I love tactile exhibits) that's been printed with a 3D printer, and you can even order your own Cosmic Buddha online!

This is Ganesha, one of the most popular Hindu gods; his elephant head makes him easily identifiable.  He is revered as the remover of obstacles, which is probably another reason for his popularity - who doesn't need some help removing obstacles in life?  He and this Buddha below (I really like his blue hair) are part of the permanent collection.  I hope they'll be back on display in October.

The last piece I saw on my visit was this one (see below) from Michael Joo.  It's in the entryway, so you can't miss it.  I took the time to read the wall notes, and it's a representation of cranes that winter in the DMZ between North and South Korea.

Verdict: Visit the Sackler before it closes for renovations.  And be sure to visit again in October when it re-opens!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Unanswered Question of Frederic Bazille

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through July 9, 2017

I had heard of Bazille before I went to see this show, and I'm pretty sure I'd seen at least one of his works at the National Gallery, but I wasn't really familiar with his work, in the way that I am with the bigger names of Impressionism.

I suspect that's true of many people as regards Bazille: vague sense, but no real knowledge.  This show should change that, and that's a worthy goal.  The one thing the show doesn't do, and perhaps it really can't do it, is answer the great question of Bazille's life: why did he give up a promising artistic career, leave his friends behind and join the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian War?  It was a decision with tragic consequences, as he was killed in his first battle.

Bazille had a comfortable upper-middle class upbringing.  His parents wanted him to be a doctor, and he studied medicine for several years before giving it up to become an artist.  He became friends with a who's who of Impressionist luminaries: Monet, Renoir, etc.; he lived, worked and exhibited with them throughout his very brief career.

The show begins with several portraits, then moves on to still lifes, including one called "The Dog Rita, Asleep" which caught my eye, as Rita looks very much like my own dog, Sherlock.  I would have taken a picture, but it was labeled as "no photography,"  so I was out of luck.

His largest, and in my opinion, best work comes towards the end.  The Family Gathering is considered his masterpiece, and it is wonderful.  It's the sort of painting that makes me imagine a backstory for those pictured; I think there's more going on than just a family enjoying the sun on a summer afternoon. Summer Scene and another piece of a fisherman (I've forgotten the name now) are also marvelous.

The show ends with a room of floral paintings, which seems sort of tacked-on, as if there wasn't any other space for these, so they were put in where they fit.  I think it would have been better to end with the large works, but I understand that sometimes, the physical space has other demands.

Verdict: I highly recommend this show; a welcome exploration of an overlooked artist.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

JFK and the Greek Slave

Where: National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum

When: through July 9, 2017

 I saw two exhibits in one trip this week.  They were small and in the same building, which helps.

The first was Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave.  This was the most famous sculpture of the 19th century, and its full nudity meant that, in some venues where it was shown, men and women had to view it separately.  Some claimed that the statue was not indecent, as it was "clothed all over with sentiment."  Yeesh.  SAAM allows everyone in at the same time, and it doesn't seem to be a problem.

There was an X-ray of the statue on view, which I always find interesting - what's going on beneath the surface?  Not as surprising as the Rodin dancer X-ray I saw at the National Gallery a while back, but still a treat to see.

Powers received several patents for the tools he used in his artistic work, so that tied in neatly with the building's past identity as the home of the Patent and Trademark Office.

On display was the plaster model of the statue; there were several marble replicas made for private patrons - wonder where those are now? Minton & Company made small porcelain replicas that were sold as souvenirs and are now collected in their own right.  There is a human desire to own great art, even if it's just a little copy.

On my way out, I stopped by the "Celebrate" wall, where a portrait of John F. Kennedy is on display.  It's the centenary of his birth, and there are any number of Kennedy-themed shows up, so watch this space for further reports.  This is a pastel on paper by Shirley Seltzer Cooper from 1961; he looks both young and serious.

Verdict: Both of these are worth seeing; don't leave the JFK portrait too long, you know how those "Celebrate" works will go down in a moment if that space needs to become the "In Memoriam" wall.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Trip to Korea

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through July 5, 2017

The Korea Gallery is located at the back of the 2nd floor of Natural History, and amidst all the hubbub surrounding the Hope Diamond and the gem collection, it's easy to overlook.  The easiest way to get there is to take the stairs by the Constitution Avenue entrance, the ones surrounding the totem poles.

This one room show highlights various aspects of Korean culture; there's some history, some art, some ceramics and some discussion of societal norms.  I learned that Korea (both North and South put together) is the size of Minnesota, a state I've visited several times.  So it's pretty decent size, but small in comparison to the entire United States.

Did you know that Koreans had moveable type almost 200 years before Gutenberg and his Bible?  I didn't, but I do now.  It's a bit embarrassing to have been educated in such a Euro-centric way, but all I can do is try to fill in the gaps now.

The picture above is of two bowls.  The one on the left is from the 12th century, and the one on the right is from the 20th century.  Both of them feature a celadon glaze, for which Korea is famous.  Pieces of ceramic that the visitor could actually touch were just next to these - I love a tactile exhibit, and one sees them so seldom.  Good job for including this, Natural History!

Verdict: Informative displays in a small space - the out of the way location is my only criticism.

Saturday, June 3, 2017


Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through June 4, 2017

I left this visit very late in the show's run, so you need to go see this today or tomorrow.

Walter McConnell is the artist and he's created two big piles of porcelain.  The one pictured here is the "White Stupa"; the other is called "Dark Stupa."  There are meant to be a riff/satire/homage on the Victorian craze for Chinese blue and white porcelain and on our modern day craze for acquisition.

You can walk around these creations for quite a while, picking out pop culture representations - Disney characters, religious icons, even E.T. makes an appearance.

The larger question, of course, is left unanswered.  Why do we want so much stuff?  How much happiness does it truly bring us?

This is in the same area as the "Peacock Room/REMIX" installation - another reflection on acquisition.  I'd seen that before, but took the opportunity to enter the space again.  A really wonderful take on Whistler's masterpiece.

Verdict: Well worth seeing.  Both fun and thought-provoking.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Window on an "Invisible" World

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through June 4, 2017

This is one of those exhibits that was different than I thought it would be.  I knew it would be photographs, but I wasn't expecting the type of pictures on display or the intriguing nature of the photographer.  Just goes to show, you need to go to the show.

Horace Poolaw was a Native American living in Oklahoma, at a confluence of tribes, all pushed together by the federal government, who wanted them to give up their traditions and culture and acclimate into white America. He photographed his people as they truly were, keeping their culture alive while adopting some of white culture.  While outsiders came to see "authentic Indians," Poolaw recorded the lives of real native people.

Poolaw was not a professional photographer, in that he never made a living by his work, but he was trained by professionals and judged his own output against what he saw in Life magazine.  At the time of his death, he had not labeled most of his negatives, and he never had the money to print them.

Happily, the Horace Poolaw Photography Project at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma is seeking to remedy that situation.  The current display is the fruit of their labors, scanning the negatives and researching the people in the pictures.

This is in the large special exhibit space on the 3rd floor, and the set-up is really good.  Each photo has a lot of wall space, so you can focus on each image without other shots competing for your attention.  There are also cut outs in the dividers (see my photo above) that gave me the idea for the "window" description.

Poolaw's daughter, Linda Poolaw, said that her father never took these photographs in order to be remembered, but so that people would remember themselves.  I hope that both the people and their photographer can be remembered by those that see this exhibit.

Verdict: Fine show: both the artist and his subjects are engaging, and the design of the exhibit space supports the work.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In Living Color

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through June 4, 2017

Usually, when you look at sculpture, it's white.  Think of Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo's David - all white.  The Della Robia family, had other ideas, more colorful ones.  Their sculpture is in blue, and green, and yellow and purple.  They developed a glazing technique that allowed them to create art that was beautiful then and is just as beautiful now.

How often have you looked at a painting and been told, "It would have been much more vibrant when it was painted."  I always feel frustrated when I hear this; I can appreciate the technique or the subject matter, but I'm not having the full experience.  With the Della Robias, you get it all.

Ironically, the great masterpiece on display is in white - Elizabeth and Mary greeting one another.  It really is a great work, worth a visit all on its own.  It was what I saw first, as I entered in the middle of the show.  This is my only complaint; the set-up is weird.  The beginning of the show is outside the garden court, in the hallway, and the rest of the show is off the main court in a series of rooms.  It makes for a disjointed presentation, and if you come up from the 7th street entrance, as I did, you start in the middle.

Another display I really liked was two versions of the same piece.  One Madonna and Child is owned by the National Gallery and the other is owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Putting the two side-by-side shows how you could customize your artwork to have just the piece you liked.  Personally,  I like the NGA's piece better; it's a simpler piece and feels less cluttered.

Verdict: Don't let the odd arrangement spoil the many pleasures of this show.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Two Bites of the Apple

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through June 4, 2017

This small exhibit is in what I call the "low-light alcove," a small nook close to the archives room and the One Life space.  I'm assuming the items displayed here are fragile, as it's quite dark.  When I read that this show featured daguerrotypes, I knew I was heading over here.  I'll admit, my eyesight is not the sharpest, so it can be challenging to really look at what's on offer.  Better to see them dimly, however, than not at all!

There are seven people pictured here, each with two daguerrotypes.  The point of the show is that although a picture may be worth a thousand words, two pictures are worth even more.  When we get one image in our minds, it can become fixed as "the" way a person looked.  This is especially true of historical figures who lived long before modern photography or television (let alone smartphones or the Internet).  Even those who posed for daguerrotypes (which were lightning fast compared to a painted portrait) look wooden and dour, mostly because they had to hold still for so long while the picture was taken.

This show offers an opportunity to see two glimpses of its subjects.  With some,  the advances in technology mean that although they look pretty grim in one picture, they look more natural in a second, taken years later.   I used to think, "Their lives must have been awful" when I looked at old photos; now I have a better appreciation for the fact that perhaps technology just hadn't caught up to their smiles.

Verdict: Worth a look (or two?), and easy to combine with a trip to see the Babe Ruth display or the archives' look at cats before the Internet.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Our Robot Overlords

Where: American History Museum

When: through May 21, 2017

Evil hackers are everywhere, and DARPA (a defense group that was one of the creators of the internet) hosted a competition in 2014 to find out if computers could essentially protect themselves from harm.

Several groups set up their computers with anti-hacking code, and then stood back and watched them get attacked by malicious software.  The winner of the competition is the computer pictured here, called Mayhem.  I especially liked the head hanging from the chain in the middle.

You'll notice that there's a monitor to the left - that's playing a video of the competition, which you really need to watch in order to understand why you're looking at this thing.

For the sake of human job security, I'm happy to say that Mayhem lost out to human coders later in the contest.

Verdict: Worth a few minutes of your next trip to American History.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Caliph of Clout

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 21, 2017

This is the latest in the "One Life" series - a one-room examination of a famous American.  I've been mostly positive in my reviews of previous shows, and I liked this one as well.

Babe Ruth was the first really big baseball celebrity.  He was larger than life, both on and off the field.  This show covers his life, his  career and his legacy - nicely done in a small space.

Only 53 when he died, Ruth is, even today, one of the sport's most recognizable players, and his accomplishments are impressive, even if his biggest records have been broken.

I noticed a "curatorial statement" included in the wall notes - we need more of these!

Verdict: Another fine offering in an informative series.

Monday, May 1, 2017

All About Color

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through May 15, 2017

This is a display on the lower level of the museum, put up by the Smithsonian Libraries.  These are usually in two facing display cases, on either side of the hallway between the restaurant and the gift shop.  Amidst all the hustle and bustle, they usually don't attract a lot of attention, and I have the exhibit to myself.

Color is scientific and artistic, historical and cultural - a little something for everyone.  We have Sir Isaac Newton to thank for the color spectrum, a building block of scientific achievement.  Did you know that peacock tail feathers have no color pigment?  Their appearance is a trick of the light.  That fabulous red-orange Fiestaware color that you don't see anymore?  It contained uranium oxide, which
made it slightly radioactive.  Learn all this and more!

Verdict: A small informative display, worth a look as you head off to one of the other exhibits.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

One of the Best Things I've Ever Seen

Recently, I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to see the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  I got the ticket through the local law librarians organization to which I belong, so I have no idea how long it took to obtain the passes or how difficult the process was.  My understanding is that it's both long and arduous.  Even if that's true, it's still worth the wait and the trouble, because this is an amazing and incredible museum.

What you can see of the building from the outside is only about half of the space.  The History Galleries are all below ground.  So the museum is far larger than it appears.

When you enter, you take an escalator or stairs down to the concourse level and from there, you get into a large (room-sized) elevator to go to the very bottom level.  Then, you make your way back up to the concourse by walking through African-American history.  I'll be honest, it's not always an easy trip.  The beginning is especially intense; it's the slave ships.  The horrors can make you doubt the basic decency of humanity, and the exhibits are (I believe deliberately) cramped and dark.

Then, we have the years of slavery.  The image that stayed with me was of a woman, put up for sale, who was beaten until her infant was wrenched from her grasp, so that the child could be sold separately.  Even now, I find it hard to discuss; there are some things for which I have no words.

After the Civil War, there is segregation, and the Civil Rights movement, and the final decades of the 20th century, when African-Americans began to appear more frequently, and as real characters (as opposed to caricatures) in popular culture.  Finally, there is the inauguration of Barack Obama, and I'm not someone who gets choked up easily, but I felt a catch in my throat.

Back on the concourse level, I headed to the restaurant.  This is not to be missed.  Set up in stations (like the restaurant at American Indian), I opted for the friend chicken and macaroni and cheese.  This entailed a wait in line, but it was worth every minute - so delicious.  When I go back, I'll get something else, but only because I'd like to try other offerings, not out of any dissatisfaction with what I had.

Above ground are the Culture Galleries, which I decided to skip.  I was exhausted, having spent two solid hours, mostly on my feet.  I will tackle them next time, for sure.

My advice: get tickets for as early in the day as possible - there's lots to see.  Wear the most comfortable pair of shoes you own.  Go to the restaurant.

Verdict: Simply amazing.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Art at the Postal Museum

Where: National Postal Museum

When: through May 14, 2017

I confess, I wasn't intending to see this show.  The closing date had been earlier, and I just didn't want to spend the time to go over to Union Station in bad weather to see what I thought would be another ho-hum display.

Then, the run was extended, and I had taken a day off to run some errands, and I was able to see it after all, with very little trouble or inconvenience.

And I'm glad I did, because this is a nice little show, featuring art used on stamps.  So really, it's not a stamp exhibit, it's an art exhibit, and that's my thing!

The subject matter is the city of New York, in a variety of aspects (all positive, of course), including the one pictured, which is of Grand Central Station, in all its Art Deco glory.  These are from the Postmaster General's collection, which is on long-term loan to the Postal Museum.

While there, I also saw the inverted Jenny, which is a great rarity - sort of the Honus Wagner baseball card of stamps.  If you have an interest in philatelic history, I'm pretty sure this is not to be missed.

Verdict: Better than I thought - I had considered dropping the Postal Museum from my rounds, but now I think I'll keep going, at least a little while longer.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lost in the Kusama Whirlwind

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through May 14, 2017

It occurs to me that you really don't want to be an artist with a show at the Hirshhorn right now.  Sure, there's a crowd here, but they're not here to see you.  Who would go to the concrete doughnut and brave the insanity if they weren't going to see Kusama?  Well, me obviously, but almost no one else.

Linn Meyers has a show up now, especially created for the Hirshhorn's 2nd floor, and I walked around to see it recently.  Once I got past the crowds in the inner galleries, I had the place to myself.  Which was great for me, but not so great (I assume) for Meyers.  She's put these line drawings on the walls of the building; they struck me as looking like feathers or hair or fur.  The time and work involved must have been enormous, but it's all to be painted over when the show closes.

And somehow, that makes it worse that the work is getting so little attention.  If something's going to have such a short life (367 days), you'd like it to be really popular.  I'm gong to hope that before Kusama showed up, lots of people saw this.

Verdict: Go see this work before it's gone forever.  And not like those stores that run constant going out of business sales and never seem to close, but for real.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Orchids + Hirshhorn = Why?

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through May 14, 2017

One of the shows I look forward to with eager anticipation is the bi-annual orchid exhibit at the Natural History Museum.  They set up a room full of flowers; it's like entering a different world.  I like to go when it's a particularly unpleasant day; it's like taking an hour long vacation from winter.

This year, for reasons that are unclear to me, the Smithsonian has decided to put the orchid display in the Hirshhorn.  It's in the main entryway, on the shelves depicted here.  The problems with this are as follows:

1. The plants are right in the middle of the hustle and bustle, which means one is not transported to a gentle, spring-like atmosphere.

2. The plants are a mere side-show, especially since the Hirshhorn is now a madhouse for the duration of the Kusama show; these are lovely flowers and deserve pride of place.

3. Although one might think that such a location would be damaging to the plants, it turns out that orchids are not fragile little snowflakes; they are quite hardy - how do I know this?  I read it on the wall notes at an earlier show.   Which brings us to the next problem, which is that there are no wall notes.

I can only hope that next year, I will be able to enjoy this event at Natural History.  Or at the Sackler or African Art - the smaller number of visitors would allow greater enjoyment.  Or at the International Gallery in the Ripley would be a great place.  Or, dare to dream,  maybe there would be a room in the Arts and Industries Building?  Or at the Freer, since it will be open again...

Verdict: Poor plants and poor visitors - deprived of a winter break by a bad location.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Celebrating Ella Fitzgerald

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 14, 2017

It's the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth, and a great photograph of her (as well as Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Jackson) is on display in the "Celebrate" space.  You may recall that this is also the "In Memoriam" space, and if someone famous dies, that person's portrait goes up.  With the celebrity death toll of the last year, you may want to see this sooner rather than later.

Verdict: Great action shot of Fitzgerald, and the expression on Gillespie's face is priceless.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"Scary" Videos at the Portrait Gallery

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through May 7, 2017

The Portrait Gallery's first display of entirely video art is up for another couple of weeks, and it's worth a look.  I wouldn't recommend standing in line for hours for it, but it's intriguing in spots.  Of course, I love going to exhibits that are the first, or last or largest or rarest of something, so that's part of the appeal for me.  Your mileage may vary.

A practical consideration: this is mostly in very low light.  You may find it a bit difficult to get your bearings or navigate, so be prepared for that.  There's really no problem with sound bleed-through, as most of the videos have no sound to speak of.

I liked the piece entitled "Reflecting Pool."  It seems to hang suspended in mid-air, which adds a sort of ghostly quality.  You see people's reflections in the pool, but not their actual bodies walking around.  I could see this forming the basis of a dramatization of one of E.F. Benson's spook stories, if he'd written one about a mysterious pool.

If you're thinking, that's all very well, but what I'm really looking for are videos of naked old people, you're in luck!  There's a pair (diptych?) of videos: one man and one woman.  Each is completely naked, mostly just standing and looking at the camera.  It's possible more happens in the part of the video I didn't see, but action doesn't really seem to be the point, so I doubt it.

The piece that I watched the longest was one of the artist holding his breath.  I kept thinking, "He'll exhale any second now," but it turns out, he can hold his breath a good long time.  When he does exhale, it's with a loud gasp, which is rather disconcerting.  I started at the sound, even though I was waiting for it.

The whole show is a bit off-putting in some way that I can't quite pinpoint.  A young visitor who was standing close by described it as "scary."  That's not exactly the word I would use (although it's the title of the post, so I did use it), but it's vaguely creepy.

Verdict: Spooky pool scenes, breathing and not breathing, plus naked seniors - what more can you ask?

Monday, April 17, 2017

You Learn Something New Every Exhibit

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through April 30, 2017

When I say this is at the Sackler, that's not quite right.  It's actually in the hallway between the Ripley's main concourse and the International Gallery.  You can enter from the Sackler, but I think that's a misleading location.  If you're in the Sackler, go down to the S3 level and before you walk into the Turquoise Mountain exhibit, turn left.

I know almost nothing about Kung Fu and about as much about hip hop culture, but the one has had a great influence on the other.  Bruce Lee, especially, is idolized in the world of hip hop and rap, and this interest has led two artists to incorporate his image into their work.

MC Yan's work is a series of blocks, with architectural details in the background, and Bruce Lee paintings over top.  The blocks fit together rather like a puzzle; they're both a painting and a 3-D work.

Fab 5 Freddy also uses Bruce Lee's image, reproducing a picture of him, with graffiti and self-portraits.  There is also the occasional scratch mark, as if a bear has come along and clawed the work.

I'm not sure what all of this means, but it's certainly outside my usual museum experience, so I'm happy to have my world expanded a bit.

Verdict: A good reminder that Asian art, broadly defined,  has influenced many cultures. A clever way for the Sackler to celebrate the opening of the NMAAHC.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Dance is the Thing

Where: American History Museum

When: through April 30, 2017

Before I talk about this small display at American History, let me just give you a word of advice.  DO NOT go to American History, Natural History or (I'm guessing) Air and Space until next week.  Just don't do it.

The line to get into American History was long; the only reason I was able to enter in under 15 minutes was because I didn't have a bag to be checked.  I was out yesterday and passed Natural History on my way to the Sackler, and the line was out the door and almost to 12th Street.  Since A&S is always packed, I'm sure it's a nightmare as well.  The combination of Passover, Easter, spring break and nice weather seems to have propelled everyone and his brother to the Mall.  If you need a museum fix, head to the Sackler or African Art.

And it's not just the crowds, it's the stepped-up security as well.  You have to empty your pockets, even if you have no bag, so it takes longer to actually enter.  And, of course, there are plenty of our fellow visitors who can't follow directions, so that adds to the wait.  Again, Sackler and African Art are the way to go - I suppose they'd have a look in a bag, but there's no metal detector, and I just sailed right in.

But, this post is about American History and its display case devoted to ballet, so let's get back to that.  I'm sure the curators were not thinking of politics when they set this up (or perhaps they were, I shouldn't make assumptions...), but this is a lovely reminder of the value of allowing immigrants into the United States and welcoming all talented people into the art world, whether they "look the part" or not.

Costumes of Misty Copeland (first African American woman to be named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater), Marianna Tcherkassky (Russian/Japanese immigrant) and Violette Verdy (French immigrant) were on display.  Where would ballet be without immigrants?  Why shouldn't we see the best dancers, regardless of race or ethnicity?

Verdict: If you can get in, have a look at this gentle reminder that not all those who are different are dangerous.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Crowd in the Library!

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through April 14, 2017

For the first time ever, I encountered other people when I went to see an exhibit at the National Gallery Library.  Perhaps that was because the subject was Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who are/were far better known than most of the subjects of these exhibits, or perhaps this was a group of very thorough visitors, determined to see everything the National Gallery had to offer.  Whatever the reason, I'm glad I'm not the only one coming to see these displays; I have some experience with putting this sort of thing up, and it's quite disheartening when no one looks at the fruits of your labor.

Speaking of putting things up, that was the focus of the photographs.  Wrapping enormous things takes a lot of work, and wind damage can destroy everything in a few hours.  Whether you like these installations or not (and I can take them or leave them alone), you have to admire the resiliency that allows them to put in weeks of work, watch it get blown away in the storm and start over again.

Verdict: If you like having a look behind the curtain (no pun intended), this was worth stopping in to see.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Good Bye Johnny B. Goode

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through April 9, 2017

The National Portrait Gallery's "In Memoriam" section was up pretty much non-stop in 2016, and it seems as if 2017 will provide lots of subjects as well, sadly.  The most recent person to be so honored is Chuck Berry.  It's a great portrait - lots of color and action, just like the man himself.  I love the blue, orange and hot pink - invigorating and attention-grabbing.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

No Trip to the 3rd Floor is Wasted

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through April 2, 2017

I went to see Gene Davis: Hot Beat at the SAAM, and at least I got to see the wild and wonderful 3rd Floor.  As you can see from the picture, the floor, walls and ceiling are all patterned - no minimalism or austerity here.  Plus, that skylight is a beauty.  Good thing I was happy with this, as the show itself, well...

Davis painted stripes, some wide, some narrow, most colorful.  And I have nothing against colorful stripes, but is that really enough to get you a show at the Smithsonian?  Obviously, the answer is yes, but I just don't see that this is great art.  I'll grant you, it made me think of jazz and the piano, and if they'd had a sound track running, that would have been a great touch, but it just doesn't seem enough to make an artist.

Verdict: If colorful stripes are enough for you - this is a show I hope you didn't miss.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Note in Favor of the NEA

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through March 26, 2017

My apologies for my absence and the fact that I'm reviewing exhibits that have already closed.  I was under the weather last weekend and am only now getting back to blogging.

This was a fine display of photographs by Carl Van Vechten, who began making portraits in 1932.  He wanted to show the breadth of American culture and was proud of his depiction of African Americans.  His studio became a crossroads for those involved in the Harlem Renaissance.

These portraits were originally published with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the cultural agencies under threat in the recently released Presidential budget.   This show serves as a reminder that the NEA does a great job of providing artists with the money they need to make their works known.  It would be wrong to put an end to our investment in American art.

Verdict: Another part of the Smithsonian's celebration of the opening of the African American Museum - a way to participate in the opening, even if you can't get tickets to see the museum itself.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

(Adaptive) Technology - Making Our Lives Better

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through March 26, 2017

If you enter the American History Museum from Independence Avenue, the first thing you see is a set of large glass display cases lining the main hallway.  The contents of these cases change periodically, and I believe they're used to highlight the museum's collections; you get a quick idea of what's on offer, and the museum is able to show off more of their holdings.

Two displays on view until tomorrow are on medical technology: one has to do with the artificial heart, and the other shows devices for athletes who have suffered injuries.  I remember well when heart valve replacement was a rare event, and the medical advancements in dealing with heart problems since my grandmother died of heart disease in 1970 are astounding.

I was even more impressed with the stories of athletes who have overcome what could easily have been career-ending injuries to continue to compete.  Lack of limbs has not kept these people off the slopes or the tracks.

Verdict: Great displays to see on your way to larger exhibits.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Celebration Continues

Where: Archives of American Art

When: through March 19, 2017

I've been cutting some deadlines short recently - trying to fit in all of the shows at the Smithsonian and National Gallery in the few days I've had available recently to visit museums.  The Archives of American Art has a display up through tomorrow that is their part of the celebration of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The display is a selection of their papers and documents of African American art and artists.  I was delighted to see some notes made by Judith Wilson, whose papers the Archives holds, for an article she was planning to write on African American women artists.  As I looked, my eye lit on the name Elizabeth Catlett, whose work I have seen and very much enjoyed in a couple of different Smithsonian exhibits over the years.  I felt like an art world insider!

Verdict: Worth a look, if you're at the museum to see one of their other shows.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Missing the Wall Notes

Where: American Art Museum

When: through March 19, 2017

I've learned, throughout my years of visiting museum exhibits, that sometimes you don't appreciate what you have until it's gone.  Notably, I thought I'd manage just fine without the National Gallery East Building, but I was very happy when it re-opened.  Nothing like seeing modern art hung in the West Building to make you long for all those I. M. Pei angles.

I had a similar experience this week at American Art, when I went to see the Isamu Noguchi show.  I found his art difficult to fathom - the picture in the post is typical.  My reactions to the works were variations on the theme of "what is that?"  I gather they're meant to be both ancient and modern, but I could have used a bit more guidance to understand them.  And this is when I realized how much I rely on wall notes.

Up to now, I confess, I'd taken them for granted.  I walk into a show, I read the general explanations of whatever's on display, and then I read about individual works as I make my way through.  Granted, not every piece has a note, but enough of them do that I feel like a kindly friend is providing information.  Well, this show has none of that.

There's an introduction at the beginning (or end, depending on where you enter) and a couple of paragraphs for each section of the display, and that's it.  For some pieces, I couldn't even find a name tag.  The tags that are there are the color of the wall paint, so they're hard to see, which doesn't make one's experience any easier.  In one section, there are two couches and a coffee table - I'm pretty sure they're art, but a group of people were sitting on the couches, which made me wonder.  Surely the guards would have shooed them away if they weren't supposed to sit there?  Who knows?!

Ironically, the idea that I think will stick with me from this show was from the bit of information concerning the "outer space" section: outer space is always associated with the future, but is billions of years old, and mostly rocks.

Verdict: You might want to read up on Noguchi before you see this show, as there's not much info on offer.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Solution to American Art's Video Noise Problem

It's not often I hold up the Hirshhorn as a model for anything, but this is the exception that proves the rule.  They have a multi-video show on now (yes, there's actually something other than the Kusama show you can see there), and they've got a great way to prevent sound bleed-through.

First of all, it's one video to a room.  This not only allows for plenty of people to see the videos at the same time, but also means you don't have two screens competing for attention. Secondly, they have glass doors between the rooms.  The doors aren't terribly heavy, but they block the sound.

Bravo to the Hirshhorn for getting something right.  American Art, wander over and see what's up on the lower level of the concrete donut.

Verdict: Oh, and what about the videos themselves?  They're all right.  I don't think there's anything truly spectacular there, but not a bad way to pass some time.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Five Years Has Sped By

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through March 11, 2017

First years ago, two group portraits from the Netherlands went on display at the National Gallery.  Since they were on loan for five years, I'd glanced at them while on my way to see something else, but hadn't really paid them much attention.  Well, their time is up, and soon they'll be making their way back across the Atlantic.  2017 seemed so far in the future back in 2012; it makes me realize it will soon be 2022.

The earlier of the portraits was painted by Govert Flinck and the later by Bartholomeus van der Helst.  It's interesting to compare the works side by side and see the difference in clothing and painting style that 13 years made, but one can also see the similarities in the two works.  Both of them feature one person turned around to "look" at the viewer - it's a technique that draws you into the work, that makes you realize these were real people.

Verdict:  It's easy enough to pause a moment to say goodbye to these large works on your way to see a show

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through May 14, 2017

So I signed up for the Hirshhorn newsletter and got a ticket to see the Kusama exhibit as soon as I got the email and as fast as my fingers could click on the link, and last week I went to see it.

Frankly, it's hard to decide what I think about this show.  I find that my experience of going to see it colors so much of my opinion that it's hard to determine what I really think about the art itself.  I've tried to imagine what I would think if this had been just another Hirshhorn show: walk in, walk through the exhibit and leave, but it's such a "phenomenon" that it's hard to do that.

I think I also feel sort of guilty criticizing the work of a mentally ill person, as if I'm just piling on, adding to the misery of her life.  But then I remember that 1) when you put your art on display, you have to be prepared for whatever reactions to it come back, 2) the rest of the world seems to think she's an absolute genius, and the show has been praised high and low and 3) she's never going to read this blog post anyway.  So here goes:

Kusama does work in a variety of media: sculpture, video, performance art, paintings and immersive rooms.  The rooms are the big deal; the other stuff is basically what you look at to pass the time while you wait to get into a room.  And you know what phrase has been going through my head since I saw this show?  One trick pony.  Each room is really a big box.  Her art (pumpkins, penis-shaped sculpture, etc.) are on the floor, and the rest of the box is mirrors - sides and ceiling.  So the art is multiplied in all directions, along with you and whoever else is in the box with you.  Okay, I don't usually stand in a mirror box as part of my daily life, so it was different.  But if you've done that once, it's just the same thing over and over again, with different art.  There are also some boxes that you just put your face in to look at - there are lines for those as well.  Again, it's a mirror effect.

At the end of the show, you go into a totally white room - everything is white: walls, floor, and all the objects in the room.  A guard gives you some brightly colored stickers, and you put them wherever you want in the room.  The idea is that, by the end of the show, the room will be covered with dots (which, along with the pumpkins and penis-shaped sculptures, is a big part of Kusama's art).  That was kind of fun.

If you decide to go, here is some advice:

1. Go during the week.  The lines for each box were impossibly long on a mid-day Friday; I can't imagine how long the wait would be on the weekend.

2. Go as early in the day as you possibly can.  I went at noon, and things were already nuts.  If I had to do it over again, I'd get tickets for the first time available.

3. Realize you'll be standing in line for a LONG time.  You get about 20 seconds in a box, but you easily wait 30 minutes to get to the front of the line.  And there are a lot of lines just to get into the line for the first box.  I waited in a line outside to enter the museum, then in a line to enter the exhibit, then in a line for each box I entered (I went into three of them - there were some I missed, but life is short).

4. Bring something to do while you wait.  This could be a book, a phone, a friend, but you will need a distraction from the prospect of spending upwards of three hours at the Hirshhorn, to spend about ten minutes actually seeing the art.

5. If you don't like crowds, don't go.  I chatted briefly with a guard while I was waiting to go into a box, and I quipped that there were more people in the exhibit at that moment then all of the people I'd ever seen at the Hirshhorn in all of my previous visits.  She said they are expecting to have more visitors in the 12 weeks the show is on than in a usual four year span.

The big winner in all of this is the Hirshhorn.  People have been joining as members (for $250, to get tickets that let you jump the line) in such numbers that the website says they are at member capacity!  They have taken in so much money that they don't have the ability to take in any more!  You can (or at least you could when I visited) also buy a $50 ticket that doesn't give you membership, but let's you jump the line in the show (maybe it's just one line).  No idea if that's still going on.

Whoever got this show and has been promoting it as the "must see" event of 2017 is a genius.  Prior to this, all the news about the Hirshhorn was bad.  Their bubble was a bust; they fired a bunch of docents for being too old; there was some sort of leadership controversy that I can't remember the details of now.  All this is forgotten - the Hirshhorn is the darling of the DC art scene; they've got a show that's a license to print money.

Verdict: The mirrors are doing the heavy lifting in this show that's more about the event than the art.