A Joyful Reunion With The National Gallery’s East Building

Three years ago, the National Gallery of Art began a major renovation and expansion of its East Building, one of the greatest bastions of contemporary art in the country. Washingtonians heaved an ambivalent sigh.

Though we were intrigued by the prospect of reinvigorating our city’s most iconic museum space — I. M. Pei’s architectural Xanadu of marble, glass and natural light — the temporary closure of the building left a noticeable dent in the energy of the National Mall. It also seemed to signal a bleak lull in the city’s museological vitality.

This is not to belittle the monumental efforts of the Smithsonian museums, the Phillips Collection or our other spectacular arts institutions, but something big was obviously missing. Culturally, Washington performs on a global stage, and a sprawling modern art venue is one of the requisite expectations of a major international city. The East Building’s absence loomed like a heavy shadow.
But now it is back, and it was worth the wait.

The Washington Post said it best. It is “like greeting an old friend. She still has the same familiar qualities, and conversation picks up as if no time has passed at all. But you also can’t help but notice: she looks good.”

It’s true. There is something remarkable about the scope and style of this renovation, which seems to have doubled the space devoted to the gallery’s permanent collection (at an additional 12,250 square feet, this is almost true) and carved out new and better spaces for temporary exhibitions. Yet it maintains the same vocabulary of spacious intimacy we have long adored in the museum.

So excited was I to reacquaint myself with my old friend that, in my great haste to make the rendezvous, I forgot to pocket a pen for my notes. This was a very solvable problem, but for one unexpected obstacle: as soon as I set foot in the door, I was whisked off by sheer joy into the French galleries on the left.

Just a peek, I told myself, for I had not seen those gorgeous little Vuillard studies in three years. Take a quick look, then go get a loaner pen from the information desk and diligently reacquaint myself with this fresh and familiar terrain.

But wait, that Bonnard is exquisite. I am sure I haven’t seen that one before. It must be just out of collections storage. And look at this stunning Raoul Dufy, sailboats scattered like confetti about the rippling blue sea — I never knew they had that one.

Now, to get a pen. Wait. Is that a staircase? In the French galleries? This was not here before. I wonder where it leads. German Expressionism: Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Golly, an entire room of Fauvist masterpieces. Look at that Matisse, and that André Derain … wait, that’s Braque — I didn’t know he could do that.

I looked at my phone. I had been there for an hour.

Perhaps the writer’s time constraints are not advisable matters to discuss in an art column, but here’s the thing: there is no way to write a walk-through of these new galleries in under 1,000 words — other than as a Power Point-like outline. The NGA website has a comprehensive breakdown of all the new galleries and exhibitions, and Maura Judkis’s coverage in the Post does a great job as well.

Furthermore, this is not a situation where there is a single “must-see” treasure (although Katharina Fritsch’s 15-foot, cyanide blue rooster on the new roof terrace and the adjacent Alexander Calder survey in the Tower 2 gallery come close).

If there is one thing I would like to communicate in this column, it is an exclamation. This article is for locals and for art lovers, for those among us who want to spend time in museums, wrap ourselves in beauty, return and revisit, see things again and for the first time.

The rest of my visit followed this pattern. I barreled through the galleries like a hound chasing a curiously familiar scent, looking for something in an abstract way, stopping frequently to interrogate a particularly powerful bouquet, then moving on, enraptured by the sheer joy of the chase.
I left clutching my empty notebook, my heart pounding and my mind electrified.

The new galleries are simply outstanding. There is a monumental Max Ernst landscape that will unhinge your jaw. The new gallery of Minimalist art completely redefines and illuminates the genre (oh, Agnes Martin). The selection of works by West Coast artists from the ’60s and ’70s like Ed Ruscha, John McCracken and Edward Kienholz establishes an overlooked golden age of American art in its rightful place beside the legendary midcentury New York School.

The photography galleries will have you enraptured, from the Southern Gothic intrigue of Sally Mann to the towering works of Thomas Struth and the Düsseldorf School.

Downstairs, on the concourse, the exhibition “Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery, 1959–1971” is on view through Jan. 29, spotlighting the remarkable career of American gallerist and patron Virginia Dwan. Related film screenings and talks continue this month and next.

And there is more. Much more.

The National Gallery is back. There is no way to truly see it all in one visit, but the good news is that we don’t have to. It is free. It is down the street. And it is open. I, for one, look forward to returning soon.

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