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.