This Week: New York’s Winter Antiques Show

The loan exhibition from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a treasure chest, but so are the booths of the 70 exhibitors, all of which showcase objects of museum quality.

Remembering the Washington Gallery of Modern Art

If the Washington Gallery of Modern Art were mentioned in conversation, most would not register the name. It would likely be assumed that whomever speaking had been referring to any number of alternative DC art institutions – the East Wing of the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the American Art Museum, The Phillips Collection (famously America’s first museum of modern art). However, though few may remember it now, the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (WGMA), while only open for seven short years in the 1960s, was a major force in establishing the District in the forefront of contemporary art. After the mid-century shockwave of painters like Jackon Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning, who had together incinerated centuries of artistic boundaries and limitations, the direction of fine art was aberrantly unclear to many. With such an undefined and endless landscape of possibilities, painting became an entirely new, somewhat chaotic domain, ushering in a wide influx of late abstract expressionism and countless subsequent movements and conceptual innovations. New York City, as the perpetual colossus of world culture, had claimed near authoritarian control of the fast-paced society of modern art. Prophetic gallerist Leo Castelli had built a personal infantry of loyal artists led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The MoMA was acquiring amplitudes of new work and declaring the immediate genius of new artists almost as soon as they emerged from school – Frank Stella became among the elite museum acquisitions at the age of 23. Most major contemporary artists were working out of the city. There didn’t seem to be much noise coming from anywhere else. On October 28, 1961, the WGMA opened its doors, bringing serious attention and notoriety to Washington’s art community, championing this new era of fine art and introducing one of DC’s own art movements into the vernacular. Co-founded by Alice Denney – matron of the Washington avant-garde who went on to found the wildly successful community darling, Washington Project for the Arts – the gallery brought a wealth of influential American artists and works to the District, while garnering national attention to working artists within the city. Incorporated as a nonprofit organization, the gallery resided in Dupont Circle, converted from the large carriage house of the headquarters of the Society of Cincinnati. (The Society of Cincinnati, founded in 1783 by the officers of the Continental army, is still the nation’s oldest patriotic organization, dedicated to preserving the memory of the American Revolution.) The gallery’s first director, Adelyn Breeskin, had just recently retired as director from the Baltimore Museum of Modern Art. One of the gallery’s earliest exhibitions, which caught the attention of the art community at large, was the Franz Kline Memorial Exhibition in October 1962, put up almost immediately following the artist’s death in May of that year. Denney was curator of the exhibition. The gallery’s collection included works from Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Marcel Duchamp, and a cultivation of contemporary American art movements from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Late abstract expressionism, color field painting, minimalism, and pop art were all represented. Their “Popular Image Show” in 1963 brought to the District many of the most highly prized contemporary artists of the day; Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, George Brecht, Claes Oldenburg, and James Rosenquist among them. At the gallery’s turbulent “Pop Festival,” also in 1963, composer John Cage performed with the Judson Dancers, and Rauschenberg debuted his now famous performance piece, “Pelican.” However, what propelled the WGMA to the forefront of the artistic community was its 1965 breakthrough show, “Washington Color Painters.” Touring around the nation, the exhibition introduced the art world to a group of local DC painters now known as the Washington Color School, which included artists Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, and Morris Louis. With bold, thick lines of colors, harmonious compositions, and clean shapes, the Washington Color Painters created iconic reflections of Matisseian joy and the subconscious melancholy behind all beauty. Towards the mid 1960s, with the expansion of the National Gallery of Art, a more active contemporary arts program at the Corcoran, and the loudly touted development of the Hirshhorn Museum, the WGMA, small and relatively modest, lost its unique foothold in the Washington art community. The Oklahoma Art Center, now the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, purchased the WGMA’s 154-piece collection in September 1968 and the gallery shut down. The WGMA came and went like many of the art movements of its time: riveting, innovative, and short-lived. The Hirshhorn still frequently displays pieces by the artists of the Washington Color School, including masterworks by Noland and Louis. While the gallery is long since closed, it brought life and national attention to Washington’s art community when it was in dire need. And in the richness of the DC art community, the echoes of its spirit can still be felt today. [gallery ids="99188,103298" nav="thumbs"]

Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ Is a Call to Action (photos)

Michael Moore made an appearance at the D.C. premiere of his documentary, "Fahrenheit 11/9," on Sept. 17. The two-hour film is about the 2016 election and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump.

Weekend Round Up May 3, 2018

What will you celebrate this Saturday, May 5: the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby at the Willard's Bonnets & Bow Ties party or Karl Marx's 200th birthday at the Goethe-Institut?

Richard Diebenkorn: Everything All At Once

The moment I saw the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn for the first time was one that shifted the course of my life as an artist. I was an 18-year-old student wrestling with things like color, form and, more onerously, ways to convey my ideas and break free from the self-aggrandizing egotism that artistic practice so easily brings about. Something in the style of my complaints must have triggered my teacher to offer me a book of Diebenkorn’s work. I had never been so affected by paintings. Even in the cramped dimensions of a catalogue, his works felt huge—they carried the visual grandness of a mural in a few square inches. His endless washes of color, falling through and beneath one another in farm-like grids, conveyed a vibrant and somehow weathered atmosphere, like sunlight piercing through morning fog. It was dilapidated doors, smoke, hot asphalt, sweat, fields, style, color, shape, geography, line, form, joy, peace, war. It was paint. And it had never looked better to me. I remember wanting to run my hands all over these paintings, these fields and strips of color that looked like Mondrian charged with a scuffed, pulsing static. I wanted to lift up the veils of yellow paint to explore the oceans of red ochre and blue-grey beneath the surface. Diebenkorn lets viewers into his process in this way, allowing us to know his paintings inside and out—and he offers this portal to us without reservation or anxiety. In his time, Diebenkorn was a famously generous and patient teacher, and this comes out in his work—even his paintings are good teachers. Unlike so many artists of the past century who went to great lengths to hide their techniques, Diebenkorn unveils his methods to us garnished on a plate. This was a man who wanted painting to survive when others denounced it as dead, to move the arts into the future in a way that connected and involved audiences. For the second half of the 20th century, Diebenkorn was the painter’s painter. You would be hard pressed to find a working artist today that does not adore this man’s work. It is painting as the idea in itself, which seems to speak about everything—about an artist in his environment, but also about things transcending any singular time, place or individual. “The idea is to get everything right,” Diebenkorn once said, rather prophetically. “It’s not just color or form or space or line—it’s everything all at once.” Take a moment to spend time in front of his paintings and you will know what he’s talking about. Through the end of September, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is hosting “Richard Diebenkorn: The Ocean Park Series,” a retrospective of the artist’s landmark series made between 1967 and 1988, which marks the first major museum exhibition focused on these luminous, grid-like paintings. Small works on paper, prints, drawings and collages—even some “cigar box” studies—share space with his signature massive canvases, many of which are over eight feet tall. “These works are powerful investigations of space, light, composition, and the fundamental principles of modern abstraction,” said Philip Brookman, chief curator and head of research at the Corcoran. “Diebenkorn investigated the tension between the real world and his own interior landscape... These are not landscapes or architectural interiors but topographically rooted abstractions in which a sense of the skewed light and place of that time emerges through the painting process.” A lifelong inhabitant of the west coast, Diebenkorn (1922 – 1993) served in the U.S. Marine Corps after attending Stanford University and afterwards took advantage of the G.I. bill to study art at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Among his teachers was Mark Rothko, the acclaimed abstract expressionist who doubtlessly effected his perception of modern art. A look at Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series leaves no doubt that Rothko influenced his sense of composition and color palette. (And as The Georgetowner’s Gary Tischler often points out, “Washington is the Rothko City.” All the more reason to welcome this show to our town.) As a young painter in the 1950s, it was no small feat to reckon with the wild assault of abstract expressionism on the contemporary art scene. To come into your own at the tail end of one of art history’s most explosive, brazen and contentious periods was a considerable strain on many emerging artists. But with that pressure came a certain liberation for Diebenkorn. Willem De Kooning later would say that the abstract expressionists (and Jackson Pollock, specifically) “broke the ice”; afterwards, art could go anywhere and be almost anything. During this time, however, Diebenkorn did a rather unusual thing: he pioneered a representational movement, at once a gesture to the tradition of art history and an outright rejection of modern art critics like Clement Greenberg, who argued for “advanced art” that renounced subject matter and representation for the “purity” of abstraction. Along with fellow artists such as Wayne Thiebaud—most recognized for his over-saturated paintings of cakes and patisserie treats— they together founded The Bay Area Figurative Movement, which pioneered an expressive, representational style that brought together the thick, lustrous brushwork and wanton impasto of abstract expressionism with the earthy romance of the Impressionists. Though a far cry from his later work with the Ocean Park series, Diebenkorn began in his early paintings a pattern of weaving the threads of familiar people, family members and California landscapes with a grand intimacy that connected his quiet, precise observations to the collective subconscious of postwar America. It was a mutual search for peace, balance and beauty. He learned what it meant to be a modern painter as the world around him learned to see as a modern audience. His work was met with acclaim from critics, viewers and patrons alike. In the mid 1960s, Diebenkorn took a teaching position at UCLA, moving from San Francisco to Santa Monica. It was during this time that he moved away from his figurative style, for which he had by now become quite popular, and began work on his Ocean Park paintings, a pursuit that would last him the rest of his life and become one of the most influential bodies of work in the second half of the 20th century. Named for the beachside community where he set up his studio, the Ocean Park series cemented Diebenkorn at the forefront of his generation as an artist dedicated not just to his own work, but to the history and future of his medium. The shift happened gradually but surprisingly, according to the artist, and in a way he always had trouble explaining. “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen,” he said in an interview in the late ’60s. “But I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again... I did about four large canvases—still representation, but, again, much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.” But looking at these paintings, what we see in fact is an unprecedented balance of abstraction and representation. These paintings are not just shapes that resemble things, like looking up at the sky and seeing a cloud shaped like a poodle. They are distillations of whole environments from which they are born. Within the canvases are the layouts of suburban neighborhoods, the aluminum siding and split-level houses of mid-20th century America, power lines and clotheslines, interstates and parklands, oceans and shorelines, even the great frontiers of the Wild West. But while these visual tropes are tangible and intriguing, no one theme sits within any particular canvas. You will not find a painting in this exhibit titled “House by the Sea.” Diebenkorn named each piece in this series with a number in the order by which he made them. The numbers become markers of the passage of time that denote the changing and shifting of the artist’s environment as he lived it. Just as Monet painted the Rouen Cathedral in different lights of day and Matisse evoked the emotional sentiments of his era with the wild, dissonant color palette of Fauvism, so did Diebenkorn acknowledge his time and place by sweeping his brush across his own physical and cultural landscape. He captured the grand, clean-shaven, perhaps diluted idealism of his time in wash- worn, infinitely expansive color fields, cut up with arbitrary vanishing points and the stark measurements of clean, straight lines. Still, the paintings impose almost nothing upon us as viewers. We are free to explore the pictures in our own way and at our own pace. Diebenkorn’s postwar American abstraction offers glimpses of harmony and calm, a generalization of that “American Dream,” the sincerity and earnestness of which has not really been seen since. I still wrestle with the same issues as I did when I was first introduced to Diebenkorn’s work, but he helped me to learn that these artistic dilemmas are not just equations that you solve and move past. These issues are themselves the pursuit of art. Diebenkorn’s work inspired me beyond myself. When that happens, you cannot help but to believe in art. ? [gallery ids="100901,128322,128315,128302,128310" nav="thumbs"]

Last Chance: Thursday’s Cultural Leadership Breakfast

Rachel Goslins, director of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, will speak at Georgetown Media Group's Sept. 13 Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club. RSVP to richard@georgetowner.com.

Weekend Round Up August 2, 2018

“La donna è mobile” — just ask the Duke of Mantua at Wolf Trap Opera's "Rigoletto" or Sarah Fraser at her live podcast taping on Friday. On Sunday: the Citi Open finals and Signature Theatre’s open house.

Man Ray at the Phillips: Surrealism and My Discontent

I need to get something off my chest. Surrealism annoys me a little. It always feels like a cultish charade of midcentury intellectuals: the aggressive anti-rationalism, the unnecessary visual lexicons of the pseudo-Freudian subconscious, the exploration of the mind’s mysterious fissures, the creation of new realities that defy constraints of earthly existence…it’s all just a little much for me. I find its sensibilities much better fitted to a Loony Tunes parody than a deadly serious museum wall (for a good time, Google “Porky in Wackyland,” 1938). This is not to say Surrealism never had its time or place. An evolutionary offshoot of the Dada movement, it was born in France as a retaliation against the societal trauma caused by World War I. All across Europe cities were leveled, communities were displaced and national currencies were tanked by hyperinflation. A flu epidemic had wiped out nearly six percent of the world, and a generation of European men were lost to the trenches. The world was no longer rational, so writers and artists determined to dig beyond their rational intellect to decipher it – perhaps in search of deeper meaning, but likely as much an act of defiance and self-preservation. Surrealism was founded in 1924 by the French writer André Breton. He defined it as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express...the actual functioning of thought.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. Surrealism rapidly caught on across Europe, and the outset of World War II found many of its leaders taking refuge in New York City. The wide exposure of their work to American artists was one of the major catalysts in New York’s later development as the epicenter of postwar art and culture. Though Surrealism broadened the boundaries of art profoundly, its arcane ideologies and strange elitism rendered the movement insular and prohibitive – a perception that fine art has never really overcome, and now seems largely to have embraced. (Such vainglorious and esoteric practices arguably foreshadowed the profligate economic culture of today's contemporary art market.) Furthermore, its initial nobility of concept gave way to a hackneyed commercialism by second-rate imitators. All of this, oddly enough, is to say that I had a damn good time at the Phillips Collection’s latest exhibition, “Man Ray – Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare,” on view through May 10. I experienced frustration, complexity, humor, disappointment, apathy, interest, excitement and occasional moments of great beauty; perhaps not dissimilar from a given day inside my head. From the standpoint of Surrealism, this is a smashing success. My fundamental conflicts with the subject matter never waned, but I walked away with renewed – if weary – reverence for the accomplishments of Surrealism, and particularly those of Man Ray, the only true American Surrealist. Working in Hollywood in the late 1940s, Man Ray (1890-1976) created a series of paintings called the “Shakespearean Equations,” which he considered his defining creative vision. They were inspired by a series of photographs he had taken a decade earlier of 19th-century mathematical models and sculptures. The Phillips exhibition displays the paintings, photographs and models together for the first time in history, along with other paintings, photographs and assemblages by the artist. The show illustrates Ray’s conceptual fixation with human/object interrelation: making people that look like things and things that look like people. In many ways it shows how Surrealism has affected our visual notions of the subconscious as much as the subconscious has affected notions of Surrealism. For all his clear ambition, Man Ray was not a great painter. Unlike Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico or Max Ernst, whose eyes for phantasmagoria were on par with their painterly finesse, Ray’s canvases are tedious and inexpertly rendered. However, his photographs are stark, lucid and remarkable. They hold their own against the best Surrealist work, as well as any photography from this era. In Ray’s photographs, the complex intermingling of object and anatomy, light and shadow, atmosphere and geometry get distorted both physically and emotionally. For instance, in two corresponding plates we see the formal juxtaposition of a peach and a deceivingly racy perspective of a woman’s bum, hands and toes. The illusion is so effective that it takes a moment to understand what we are even staring at. In his famous “Le Violon d’Ingres,” a model’s body transforms into a violin, inspired by Ingres’s Neoclassical paintings “Valpinçon Bather” and “Le Bain turc.” It’s impossible not to appreciate the whimsy. To a lesser extent, Ray’s models are clever, but they feel like carnival games: charming, enjoyable, but of little consequence. Ironically, what are always more impressive are his photographs of these models. A great demonstration of this point is the series of “Non-Euclidean Objects” in the corner of the fourth gallery. There is the model itself, a geometric soccer ball of sorts. Then there is a photograph of the object, and a drawing of the object. Even with the object directly before us, its photograph, hanging on the wall behind it, is far more powerful. The way Ray manipulates the gradual value of shadows against the shifting planes of the object’s surface is stunning. He makes the photograph express what reality does not. And I don’t even remember what the drawing looks like. Black-and-white photography was Ray’s greatest achievement; he saw something truly original through the lens of his camera. Using shadows and light, he made images of mundane objects that maintain their essence but exist simultaneously as beautiful earthly abstraction. His silver prints of an egg beater and photographic equipment are notably exceptional. But this is never clearer than in the final gallery, with the “Shakespearean Equations.” (As a point of interest and debate, the arrogance of which I earlier accused the surrealist movement is on full display in the very title of this series, as the exhibit text admits Ray chose it for no particular reason. He just seems to have liked it—and it also happens to be preposterously smug.) Each of the paintings try to wring out its nebulous intrigue like water from a vaguely damp cloth. Meanwhile, the objects on display are interesting to admire in the same way as a Tim Burton movie miniature might be; their intricacies and sheer existence are strange and lovely, if not achieving quite the force of a true sculpture. Then there are the photos of the models, which transcend the objects themselves. All sense of scale, proportion and space are elevated; Ray’s use of composition culls an emotive visual vocabulary of the grandest Roman architecture. They are disconcertingly anthropomorphic, too, drawing us in and pulling us out through their undulating rhythms of shadows and light. The photographs discover an internal logic all their own that never betrays a haunting essence of the unknowable. Looking at them, we don’t even have to try – they take us ever so naturally along for the ride. At its best, this is what the art of Surrealism can do: capture our minds and usher us into its alternate reality. Here, we exist momentarily in a world we can never truly enter, for it survives like a flickering candle in the dark recesses of our minds. “Many Ray—Human Equations” is on view through May 10. For more information visit www.PhillipsCollection.org

On the Mall: Armenia and Catalonia

At the 51st annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which runs through July 1 and from July 4 to 8, visitors are invited to engage with the traditional arts and food right on the Mall.

Weekend Round Up December 21, 2017

In addition to Christmas music, shows and meals, there are jazz, beer and comedy options this weekend — not to mention a Falafel Frenzy and a Matzo Ball on Christmas Eve.