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

Chinamania

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.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Hooray! Hooray! Thomas Struth

Where: National Gallery of Art, East Building

When: through March 5, 2017

The National Gallery has had a very large number of photography exhibits over the past year or so.  I seem to recall it's an anniversary of the founding of the collection, and they acquired a large number of photographs when they took over the Corcoran.

This show is a celebration of the promised gift of 33 photographs from Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker.  These are important photographs - ones that changed the medium.  Not being an expert in this field, I'll leave it to others to determine if that's an accurate description.

What I want to highlight is the inclusion of several works by Thomas Struth.  He's a German photographer who takes photos of people visiting museums.  I've seen one or two of his works before and just loved them.  I was delighted to see more of his work, and in this case, familiarity has NOT bred contempt.  I love the clean, crisp look of his photos, and of course, the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.

Verdict: Interesting show, made me wish for a Struth retrospective!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

It's Got That Swing

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building
When: through March 5, 2017

How nice to have to include the particular building for the locations of exhibits at the National Gallery again; I didn't think I'd miss the East Building that much, but I was quite wrong.

This week, I went to see the Stuart Davis retrospective, "In Full Swing."  Davis said he wanted to capture in his art "the thing [Walt] Whitman felt - America."  If jazz is America, I think he got his wish.

Influenced by the Cubists, you might mistake some of his early work for that of Picasso.  His work is never entirely Cubist, however, it's unique.  Reminiscent of many things, it's derivative of none.  In fact, the artist he most borrows from is himself, reworking old pieces into new works.  The curators have wisely forgone a strictly chronological arrangement in order to show this recycling to most effect.

Verdict: A good show, both as to the subject matter and the hanging.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The latest Watch This!

Where:  American Art Museum

When: through March 6, 2017

The SAAM has, quite laudably in my view, decided to include videos in its collection.  Movies are, after all, an art form, and Americans are among the best filmmakers in the world.  Bravo to the Smithsonian for including this genre.

My favorite of the current offerings is "Caught in the Act," by Eleanor Antin.  It's a video of the artist dancing, along with still photographs from the film.  If you looked only at the photos, you might think she was a fine ballerina.  The video, however, tells a different story.  So the question becomes: which is more true?  You might think the answer is obviously video, but is that always the case?  In today's climate of lies masquerading as "alternate facts," what can you believe?

"Face in the Crowd," by Alex Prager is another pick of this litter.  I saw it in an almost empty room, but with the screens full of people in front and on the sides of me, I felt crowded.  There's something hypnotic about this - I felt as if I were making my way through the throngs, along with the people in the film.

My only complaint is the noise bleed.  They really need either a larger space for this, or to show fewer videos at one time.

Verdict: Nice to see a Smithsonian museum other than the Hirshhorn showing films.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

From Fact to Fiction

Where: American History Museum

When: February 26, 2017

The Dibner Library sits on the first floor of the American History Museum, and the staff puts up a display in the outermost room to show off some of their holdings.

The current display is on 19th century science fiction, which was inspired by the tremendous discoveries of that time period in a wide range of scientific fields.  Flight, machines, exploration and electricity all played their part in advancing human knowledge and in serving as the basis for exciting reading.

Of course, viewed from the 21st century, it's clear that science fiction in tern inspired a new generation of scientists, inventors and explorers - a great example of a virtuous cycle.

Verdict: Have a glance at this small display while you're at the museum.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Text as Art

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 20, 2017

This show is the first major exhibit in the United States on the Koran; the works on display come from Istanbul's Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.  Because figural imagery is not allowed, the artwork in these books is geometric and abstract, with some vegetal images as well.  I was reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright's window designs when I looked at some of the pages.

One of the Korans on display is a monumental size - I didn't realize there was a size after elephant, but monumental makes that look small.  The Koran on display is one of the largest in the world, so it was great to see it.  Long-time readers will know how much I enjoy seeing the largest, or smallest or rarest of something.

I was also reminded of illuminated Biblical manuscripts, so perhaps there's some universal tendency to combine religious texts and art?

Verdict: A fine show, one I'm glad I made time to see.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Here, There and Everywhere

Where: American Art Museum

When: through February 28, 2017

In honor of the opening of the African American museum, the SAAM is promoting its collection of art by African-Americans.  You pick up a brochure at the information desk and make your way around the museum, picking out the works described.  It can be challenging, as you don't get a photo of each work, and not all of them are on display at any one time.

My personal favorite work by an African-American (in fact, my favorite thing at any Smithsonian Museum) is the tin foil sculpture pictured above.  It has a new display area, which I like very much.  Its message, "Fear Not" is one we can all relate to from time to time.

When I went treasure-hunting for the featured works, I also walked through the Hall of Presidents, which will shortly close for refurbishment.  I'll be sure to report on what the new display looks like when it re-opens.

I also took a quick look at the Trump portrait.  He's tossing an apple, which I think is both a nod to Magritte's famous work, and to Trump's success in Manhattan real estate.  In my opinion, it's also a representation of his own character - a rotten apple, indeed.

Verdict: I like the idea of pointing out works by African-Americans to visitors, but a more detailed brochure would have made finding the pieces easier.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ming vs. Rothko

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 20, 2017

The Sackler has gone in for juxtaposition, putting together a Mark Rothko painting and a Ming dynasty porcelain dish.  Advantage dish, hands down.

I'm no fan of Rothko; his paintings just don't seem to be of anything.  This is no different, just some red paint.  It left me cold; why is this considered so wonderful?

The Ming dynasty porcelain dish, on the other hand, is gorgeous.  The color is amazing, and the process used in the 1400s has not been completely duplicated.  You look at this piece and you feel as if you're looking back in time.

Verdict: Dish 1; Rothko 0

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Passage to a Very Different Part of India

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 12, 2017

This is a collection of photographs of very poor people in a remote part of India.  Galli, the photographer, focuses her work (no pun intended) on women and girls.  One of the first images in the show is one of a young woman with an incredibly intense gaze that I found captivating.

One of the series of photographs on display is of the Belika Mela, a fair for girls; you can't help but wonder what the future is for these young women.

Verdict: It's a small show, but one with some very memorable images.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jazz Pictures

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through February 20, 2017

Herman Leonard, a protege of Yousef Karsh, took his considerable photographic talents to New York jazz clubs and made them come alive for those who could not visit them.  If you can't smell the smoke, taste the cocktails and hear the music, then that's your failure of imagination.

Perhaps the most interesting portrait is one of Lester Young; it's a still life of a hat, some music and cigarette smoke - very intriguing.

The thing that struck me was how many of these talented musicians died young; it adds an air of melancholy to the show.

Verdict: A fine way for the Portrait Gallery to celebrate the opening of the African American museum.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Little Taste of What Awaits

Where: Smithsonian Castle

When: through January 31, 2017

If, like me, you're still waiting to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, seeing a model of the museum will either give you a tiny substitute until you're able to go, or make the waiting all the more excruciating.

For me, I was able to savor it as a preview of coming attractions, as I have a ticket to see the museum in April!  Expect a blog post on my experience, obviously.

Verdict: Great or awful, depending on your point of view.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

You Are There

Where: Museum of African Art

When: through January 31, 2017

I don't believe I'd ever been to an exhibit of "sound art" before, but I'm quite happy to hear more.  The Museum of African Art specifically commissioned this piece, which features sounds from a market in Lagos, Nigeria (over 5,000 miles away), played in a small room.  You feel surrounded by the sounds of people buying and selling, and since I experienced it (hard to say I saw it, since there's nothing to see) right after going to the Turquoise Mountain show in the International Gallery, I had no problem imagining the scene.

Verdict: Great fun, and very easy to add on to another show.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Afghan Craft Fair

Where: Ripley Center International Gallery

When: through October 29, 2017

Ordinarily, I wouldn't visit or blog about a show closing so far in the future, but when I went, the closing date was January 29, 2017.  Not sure if the website had (or has) a typo or if the stay has been extended, but, assuming you really do still have time to see this show, take advantage of that opportunity.

The International Gallery is set up as an open-air market (minus the open air, of course).  Elaborate carving greets you as you enter, and, best of all, you can touch it!  Tactile exhibits are my favorite, but they are very rare.

I love this quote from one of the artists, Sughra Hussainy, "I believe that while the body needs food to live, the soul needs art."  You'll see beautiful calligraphy and beautiful painting.  There's so much to see, that it's hard to single any one thing out, but I think I was most struck by Nasser Mansouri's latticework, which reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs.

Verdict: See this show and step into another world.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Virginia Dwan, You Have a Lot to Answer For

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 29, 2017

I realize I'm blogging about an exhibit that's already closed, but if you missed this one, count yourself lucky.

I had never heard of Virginia Dwan before, but it turns out she encouraged a lot of people whose art I do not like.  So thanks for nothing, Virginia!  She had two galleries: one in LA that exhibited NY and European works, and one in NY that exhibited works from LA.  I like the idea of providing people access to works they wouldn't ordinarily see; I just object to what those works were.

You start with abstract expressionism, which I think is just so ugly, and you move onto to Yves Klein and his ridiculous selling of the experience of throwing gold ingots into the Seine (literally: a fool and his money are soon parted) and Dan Flavin and his flourescent lights.  And let's not forget our friends, the monochrome painters.  A great big bunch of YUCK is the best way I can describe this.

Also on view, in the Library, was some materials from the Dwan Archives.  All I can say is that if one liked this art, one would be interested in the documents, but one does not.

Verdict: This sort of thing belongs in the Hirshhorn, where one expects to see it.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Lengths People Would Go to Gather Bird Droppings

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 29, 2017

To be honest, I don't usually expect an exciting show when I go to the Small Documents Gallery at American History.  Not that the displays can't be interesting, but documents don't generally lend themselves to blockbuster exhibits.  The current display pushes the arcane aspect to the limit, I think.

In the 1800s, people began to use bird droppings (guano) as fertilizer.  Apparently, the stuff is tremendous, increasing yields exponentially.  And if there's money to be made, people will do anything, including sailing to remote islands to gather bird crap and cart it back home to sell.  Which they did.

The centerpiece of the display is the Norie Marine Atlas, which is considered the pinnacle of the printmaker's art, and the only copy in a public collection.  It's quite large (a double elephant folio) and not in the best of condition, but it's impressive nonetheless.  Coastlines were well filled out, but the interiors of South America were largely blank.

Of course, the guano trade ended in the way so many of these stories do: humans stepped in and harvested all of the bird crap (which was 200 feet high to start), destroying the sea birds' habitat in the process.  Sort of like the passenger pigeon, except with droppings.

Verdict: If you skip this, it's okay.  Unless you're interested in 19th century navigation or the history of man's relationship with birds.  Then you should see this.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

That's One Big Blue Rooster

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 22, 2017

So I finally had a chance to see the new and improved East Building of the National Gallery of Art this week.  There are now three towers; the original one is called Tower 3.  I mention this as I spent a lot of time walking around Towers 1 and 2 before finally asking a guard how to find the Barbara Kruger exhibit.  I wound up pretty much back where I started, so I made notes in my trusty journal about how to get up there from the Concourse.

On my way, I went out on to the rooftop garden, which I think will be lovely in the warmer months, and saw the pictured statue.  If you're looking for a big, blue rooster, you can't do better than this.

I really enjoyed my time with the Kruger pieces, once I found them.  They are very large photographs of images she's found in popular magazines or in advertising, with her own text superimposed.  My favorite was one of two children: a boy flexing his muscles and a girl looking on admiringly.  The caption?  "We don't need another hero."  Amen to that, Barbara.  Amen to that.

So it's been a surprising couple of weeks: first I loved something I saw at the Hirshhorn, and now I thought the trek up to the Tower at the National Gallery was worth the trip.  Will wonders never cease?

Verdict: Go see these commentaries on modern society; the cardio workout up the spiral staircase is not the only attraction.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Stashed Away Under the Escalators

Where: The Postal Museum

When: through January 16, 2017

The Postal Museum doesn't often have special exhibits, so I don't visit very mjuch.  When I worked close by, I saw the permanent collection, so I only go if there's something temporary up.  The last thing I recall really liking was a show about Franklin Roosevelt and stamps.

This week, I went over to see two documents, borrowed from a private collection, that are important to the history of the British mail service.  The first was a declaration from Charles I that the Royal Mail could be used for private purposes, dating from 1635.  It's in very fine condition, for being almost 400 years old.  The second is comparatively recent, from 1840; it's a letter sheet proof for the first stamp for individual use of the post office.  From 1635 to 1840, the mail was used largely for business purposes; this allowed private persons to use the mail as well.

My only quibble is that this display is literally under the escalators running between the museum's first and second floors, so it's very easy to overlook them.  Perhaps they wanted something that wouldn't get a lot of light, but surely they could have managed something a bit better than this?

Verdict: Worth seeing if you're a British history buff.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

An Invitation I'm Happy to Accept

Where: Renwick Gallery

When: through January 16, 2017

Every other year, the Renwick showcases four artists that it believes deserve wider recognition.  Based on what I've seen over the years, I hope they get it.  I still have vivid memories of the knitted superhero costumes I saw several years ago.

This year's offerings are wonderful.  The pic is from the works of Steven Young Lee - I really wish I could buy one of those cups.  They are incredibly inviting somehow; I can imagine myself sitting down with one, full of tasty chai, enjoying a good book.  Lee's ceramics are just great - as I walked through the display of vase and pots, each with a hole in it, or deformed in some way, I was reminded of a show I'd seen at the Freer (which is supposed to re-open this year - hooray!) about the art of mending pottery.  And lo and behold, what should I see but a jar with exactly that sort of repair work.  Such a sense of self-satisfaction!

I also loved the jewelry of Jennifer Trask - stunning colors, particularly in "Sea Change Brooch."  Norwood Viviano traces human migration patterns to make his art, and Kristen Morgin uses clay for her "created nostalgia."  You think you're looking at a deck of cards or a lunchbox or "Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds," but it's all clay.

Verdict: The Renwick Invitational is always good; when you go, remember that preparations are well underway for the inauguration, so you may have to walk a bit out of your way.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Not Quite as Memorable as the Last Time

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 8, 2017

Every three years, the National Portrait Gallery holds an art competition.  This year, there were 2,500 entrants (professionals and non-professionals), and 43 of the finalists' work is on display.   I liked this show, but it wasn't as good as the previous display three years ago.  Of course, that was one of the best shows I've seen, each piece would have been the star of any other exhibit, so that's an amazingly high bar to meet.

There were a couple of interesting pieces:  "A Moment in Time" was a series of portraits of the artist in period costume, taken with period photographic technology and displayed in period frames.  Starting in 1850 and ending in 2010, you can see the changes that 260 years have brought to clothing, technology and design.  "Caja de Memoria Viva II: Constancia Colon de Clemente" was a multimedia display hung from the ceiling - you walked under it and were immersed in an audio-visual display.

Verdict: Good, but not great.  Worth seeing, but nothing you have to run to see.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

In Memoriam: John Glenn

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through January 9, 2017

One of the great losses of 2016, a lousy year if ever there was one, was astronaut, Senator and all-around great person, John Glenn.  If more public servants could show his courage and decency, the world would be a better place.

The work itself is unfinished, or at least, it looked so to me.  My thought was that perhaps it is meant to evoke the unfinished nature of our exploration of our world, whether here on earth or in the wider universe.

Verdict: If you're at the museum before Monday, add this to your visit. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A New Favorite in a Most Unlikely Place

Where: Hirshhorn Museum

When: through January 8, 2017

If you've not been to see Ragnar Kjartansson's mid-career retrospective at the Hirshhorn, stop whatever you're doing and run right over there this minute to see it before it closes tomorrow.

I've not been this excited about an artist since Yinka Shonibare, and regular readers of this blog will know how much I love his work.

My only regret is that I didn't see this show earlier in its run, so I could have seen it again.  Yet another argument against procrastination.  I confess, I thought it would be yet another Bataan Death March show on the Hirshhorn's second floor, a slog I'd be happy to see end.  In the event, nothing could have been further from the truth.  When I realized I'd made the full circuit, I was surprised and sorry that it was over.

So many great things in this show.  "Woman in E" is getting lots of press and deservedly so, so I'll refrain from adding my voice to the chorus of praise.  The video in the first room, where Death walks with children was creepy and funny all at the same time.  "You're just an elf with a stick," says one perceptive child - hilarious.  One of the wall notes speaks of "...the inevitable disappointment of romantic desire."  And the piece in the photo above (taken by me - another resolution for 2017, to use my own snaps) was described as referring to "...long-suffering Scandinavian icons of gorgeous misery."

Perhaps my favorite part was the enormous video installation, with multiple screens, of the artist and his friends all playing the same tune in a large house, each on a different instrument.  They wander about from screen to screen - you almost feel as if you're there with them.

Verdict: Great stuff - do not miss this!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Day Brightener

Where: American History Museum

When: through January 8, 2017

I really love the Muppets.  I loved them when I was a kid watching Sesame Street, I loved them as a teenager when The Muppet Show was on, and I love them still.  I headed over to American History last week to see what I thought would be Fozzie Bear and the Swedish Chef, but somehow, turned out to be Cookie Monster and Elmo.  Since the Swedish Chef is one of my absolute favorites, I was somewhat disappointed, but seeing Cookie Monster from 1969 was pretty amazing.

The original Kermit is also on display; I'd seen him before, but if you haven't seen him, you really need to do so.  The Muppets attracted quite a crowd, which gladdens my heart.  Miss Piggy is still in the front display case with Carole Burnett's scrub woman costume and a dress belonging to Phyllis Diller, and she (Miss Piggy) generated a lot of interest from those in line making their way through security.

I took a photo of the incredibly long line to get into American History, but my phone and my email are not on speaking terms at present, so just imagine a line stretching from the door all the way to Constitution Avenue, and you have an idea of what the crowds are like.

Verdict: It's always a good idea to see a Muppet whenever you can.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Uncomfortable History of the 50th State

Where: National Museum of the American Indian

When: through January 2, 2017

Today's the day, people!  Head to NMAI and travel to Hawaii.  Keep in mind, this is not a travelogue of sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, but a serious look at the history of Hawaii, which is far less beautiful then its scenery.

The United States conquered Hawaii and annexed it, actions for which President Clinton apologized in the 1990s - good for him, I say.  The island's history is a cautionary tale of what happens to native people when big business runs a country.  Spoiler alert: it's not good.  The only laudatory thing that those who came to conquer did in Hawaii was to teach everyone to read.  Their literacy rate was, at one time at least, as close to 100% as you can get.

The question one is left with at the end of the exhibit is: where does Hawaii go from here?

Verdict: Quite interesting overview of a part of American history of which I was heretofore ignorant.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Waste No Time

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through January 2, 2017

You've got one day, tomorrow, to see this show.  I saw it a few weeks ago, but I've not been blogging recently, due to family obligations and the holidays.  My New Year's resolution?  Blog regularly no matter what!

This is worth seeing, if you're a fan of photography.  It includes photography and videos from the National Gallery's collection and the recent additions from the Corcoran's collection.  Long time rivals must now live together - perhaps a lesson in that for all of us?

There were several pieces I really liked in this large multi-room show, but my notes are scribbled, and it's been so long since I visited that I'm not sure exactly what I wrote.  Sigh, yet another reason to blog more frequently.

The show is divided into five sections: Movement, Sequence, Narrative, Studio and Identity.  It's a good way to show the pieces and make sense of them, as it gives you a a theme to focus on while you're seeing an almost endless number of photographs.  One artist I was very happy to see again was Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan born artist, who I'd seen previously at the Museum of African Art.  Her photographs of women with Arabic script written on their skin are really thought-provoking.

Verdict: If you have a chance to see this tomorrow, do so.