Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye

August 17, 2015

We are welcomed into the National Gallery of Art, just past its pantheonic atrium, by the paintings of Manet, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Cassatt, Degas, Morisot — those visionaries who built a bridge between the classical tradition and the modern era.
The early Impressionists created some of the first work within the Western canon that does not require a religious, historical or scholarly key to be fully appreciated. These are secular images of mundane humanity — a woman reading a newspaper, a man staring out the window — and scenes of fleeting naturalism, like a sunset over an open field or fruit scattered across a wooden table.

Strange to think that this could be considered an act of defiance, but in the age of the French Academy the subject matter of art floated on a lofty plane; the depiction of laborers, pedestrians, dirty urban street scenes and ordinary wheat fields was renounced as vulgar, even depraved.

Say what you will about the brushwork and color palettes of the Impressionists (which are indeed heart-stopping), the real enduring power of that brassy and quarrelsome gaggle of painters is their work’s ability to connect to a mass audience — now for well over a century.

For two reasons, then, one is stunned to encounter the work of Gustave Caillebotte in the National Gallery’s current retrospective, “Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” on view through Oct. 4. First, his work is immediately iconic, with many pieces as bracing and unforgettable as established Impressionist masterpieces such as Monet’s “Woman with a Parasol,” which hangs nearby. Second, and in light of this, it is baffling that no one seems to have heard of him.

(It should be noted that Caillebotte is far from unknown among the many artists and curators with whom I have spoken. In fact, he is a frequent favorite, a sort of beloved secret.)

Poised to rectify Caillebotte’s status among the leaders of early Impressionism, the National Gallery exhibition tackles this conundrum head-on, revealing the odd circumstance that underscores Caillebotte’s relative anonymity: He came from money.
Caillebotte’s family owned a successful textile business. Being financially secure meant that he never needed to make money through his paintings. Because he did not sell his work, relatively few of his paintings have entered public collections. Furthermore, as a contemporary of Degas, Monet, Renoir and others, he was also an art collector. Upon his death much of his sizable collection was willed to the state, becoming the cornerstone of France’s national collection of Impressionism. Ironically, this bequest overshadowed his own reputation as an artist.

With his paintings shielded from public view, Caillebotte’s significant role in the development of Impressionism receded. He remained largely undetected until a series of exhibition late in the 20th century.

However, when finally confronted with his work, all this history suddenly seems like a trivial footnote. It is a feeling that takes hold the moment you enter the exhibition galleries, with the very first painting on the right, “Portrait of a Man.” The cool quality of the light as it breaks across the planes of the subject’s face and vest, with the delicate lace curtain and iron window guard so succinctly rendered, shows an artist in complete control of both medium and style.

There is also a tremendous sense of soul to the man in the painting. This chilling distinctness of inner life, of self and spirit, reverberates through of all of Caillebotte’s portraits. But to speak of the painter’s distinctive qualities is to say nothing of his noteworthy artistic evolution.

Caillebotte began his career exploring a Paris in transition, detailing the city as it was transformed by large-scale renovations, beginning in the 1850s, guided by Baron Haussmann. With immense street scenes and glimpses through parlor windows in his portraits, he examined the city’s new steel bridges, wide boulevards, ample sidewalks and uniform buildings. Through his still-life paintings of the Parisian markets — the butcher shops, patisseries and produce stands — we see the city’s lush offerings. Surprising and wonderful, these works are the missing link between the vanitas of near-nauseating banquet pieces from the Dutch Golden Age and Wayne Thiebaud’s window displays of cakes, pies and confections.

After showing with the Impressionists in 1882, Caillebotte stopped exhibiting regularly with them, and by the end of the decade he had moved from the city to the suburbs. There, he painted boating and garden scenes, and ultimately devoted himself to the pursuit of landscapes (likely influenced by his increasingly close friendship with Monet).

?As you proceed through the exhibition, you can actually watch as his brushwork loosens and his colors leave the pearly blue hues of the city behind, becoming far less restrained.

In the final gallery, there is a painting called “Linen Out to Dry, Petit Gennevilliers.” A small cottage sits on the edge of a river at what initially looks like the base of an unfinished mountain range. Then you realize that what you see are not mountaintops but white linens billowing in the wind. It is nearly a study rather than a finished painting — in many areas the raw canvas is visible between the loose brushwork — except that you can taste the air of the countryside.

As Impressionism goes, the conjuring of some Transcendental ether is quite a profound, if ridiculous-sounding, achievement. But it is one of the pleasures of this exhibition to get caught up and whisked away by the discovery of these new and eternal moments of painting.

Sinatra Tribute Concert at Kennedy Center Gathers the Old, Fans and Fun

June 22, 2015

People talk a lot about the Greatest Generation, that generation of Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II.  Every year, the World War II Memorial becomes a celebratory site of veneration and commemoration for dwindling numbers of veterans of the war, many wearing uniform jackets and medals from campaigns across world-wide theaters of combat.

Last weekend at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, a different and still lively group of members of that generation—maybe they were all the same—helped fill the hall to capacity for town.  Some surely must have  been veterans,  but most of them came not to remember the war but the songs and music that accompanied them through the war and beyond—and the one man who sang those songs to perfection to the point of being unforgettable.

They came to hear the songs and music of Frank Sinatra in a two-night program, “Let’s Be Frank: The Songs of Frank Sinatra,” by the National Symphony Orchestra Pops and its director Steven Reineke.

This was their music, some of it sung by a remarkably skinny kid from Hoboken, who arguably became America’s first teen idol and vocalist as superstar. Later, that very same man transformed into a sophisticated, tipped-hat, cool guy, movie star and catnip for the ladies and crooned unforgettable and emotionally true songs from the Great American Songbook.  That later incarnation was Frank, the cool leader of the Rat Pack, the soulful male torch singer of rueful romance at three in the morning.

They knew and, more importantly, remembered their man and their own lives.  “I was 15 when I heard him for the first time,” an 87-year old lady told us.  Sitting in front of me, two women snapped their fingers through many of the songs, in tempo.  Some of them were frail, and some had walkers, but all of them made it to their feet when singer Storm Large sang “My Way” and did it her way.

Reineke, who is the epitome  of  pops conductor as pied piper, led the proceedings orchestrally through “New York, New York” and “Mack the Knife.” Then, he introduced, one by one, and bore the responsibility of carrying the program through the canon of Frank Sinatra.  Maybe not everybody appreciated over a long career and life the personality of Sinatra, but nobody had ever had the gall to disavow his singing the songs that were as clean as as a cold Scotch on the rocks.

Frankie Moreno, Tony DeSare and Ryan Silverman all carried themselves, each in their own way as youthful versions of Sinatra—a little snap of fingers, light feet, the stance, the pop of classic pop music and each had his own version of fizz.  Moreno nailed the accepting defiance not far from the surface of “That’s Life,” and DeSare had a real soulful touch for “Night and Day,” “My Funny Valentine” and “I Have Dreamed” from “The King and I.”  Silverman added sheen and silver to the longing “Moonlight Becomes You.”

Moreno, DeSare, Silverman, Broadway and lounge stars all, had a cross to bear, which is that they were singing in the shadow of the Chairman of the Board.  

Storm Large, a remarkably original singer with a pedigree that goes from rock to torch in a rueful heartbeat, had no such goal.  She could be entirely herself, which is a tall, almost regal, blonde woman with a rangy voice and do the songs justice.  She didn’t wrestle with them. She didn’t parse and spin. She just sang: “The Best Is yet To Come,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and, of course, “My Way.”  Large sang those songs not with Sinatra stylings, but with Sinatra’s gift for getting to the heart of an emotion.

That was some generation, that generation. That was some music that generation lived, worked, fought and swayed to in a ballroom.              

Steven Knapp’s Wide Embrace: GW and the Arts

May 21, 2015

There is a lot more to Steven Knapp, 16th president of the George Washington University, than meets the eye.
Standing up and speaking at the George Town Club recently, the last of the spring speakers in Georgetown Media Group’s Cultural Leadership Breakfast Series, is one sort of person, an affable, impressive man talking about a range of subjects, but focused on the university’s rise to its own cultural leadership role in Washington.

But this is the same man who – when he became president of the university in 2007 after a stint as provost at Johns Hopkins – focused on building the stature of the university as an “intellectual contributor to the solution of national and global problems,” presided over the building of a new Science and Engineering Hall and hired a neurobiologist as president of research.

Talking with him later in a corner of the George Town Club, and reading about the man on paper, you get a sense of how it all fits together.

“You can no longer focus on one thing in terms of leadership, in terms of the kind of university we are,” he said. This, to him, is about being an urban institution of learning in Washington, “the most unique city in the country.”

What’s happened is also a reflection of the man who wanted to be a percussionist and still plays, who thinks that Dostoevsky is relaxing reading and who bonded with students who were initially skeptical of him by participating (at some risk) in a snowball fight.

His memberships and leadership in any number of organizations reflect a drive toward cross-pollination, not only of disciplines but of institutions and of intellectual and artistic taste. He has seen the future – for quite a while now – and finds it rife with opportunities for collaboration.

“Our world,” he has said, “has reached a level of complexity at which problems can no longer be solved by relying on the contributions of any single discipline.”

You have to think a little about his specialty: Romanticism, literary theory and the relation of literature to philosophy and religion. A longtime teacher of English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, Knapp is used to dealing with intersections in thinking and creating; he knows how poetry can become infused – in the case of a Blake or a Coleridge – with matters near-holy.

The arts were a place rife with opportunity. GW was a major player, along with Arena Stage and, later, other universities and theater companies, in the National Civil War Project conceived by choreographer Liz Lerman, a GW alumna. “It was something important, and it was a chance to work with other institutions for me and for us. It was a great experience.”

“The arts are the source of innovation, a constant search for innovation, and we have to do everything in our power to become involved, to innovate and lead, in the arts,” he said.

His belief and focus on enhancing partnerships with neighboring institutions couldn’t be better illustrated than by the moves GW and Knapp have made over the last two years.

In 2014, GW joined with the National Gallery of Art to assume responsibility for the Corcoran, saving the venerable museum and its art school, which was merged into GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Science. According to Knapp, there will continue to be art on display in the landmark 17th Street building – the National Gallery, which has control of the collection, is planning to mount “Corcoran Contemporary” exhibitions and to show works representative of the Corcoran legacy – free of charge. The college is now called the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, the plural suggesting that studies in the non-visual arts will be added.

The university also took under its wing the Textile Museum, a small, almost unassuming institution of the kind often described as a hidden treasure. Hidden no longer, the Textile Museum moved from its former location on S Street to its current one on the GW campus at 21st Street. Its new building, connected to historic Woodhull House, now home to the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection, is part of the complex called the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum.

In the May 6 issue of The Georgetowner, Ari Post called the Textile Museum’s “Unraveling Identity” exhibition “a well-earned retrospective of the museum’s historic collection of textiles, spanning centuries and almost every continent.”

In addition, the university has a high functioning, high profile performing arts center at the Lisner Auditorium, where Executive Director Maryann Lombardi oversees a program laden with global performers and artists.
It’s all of a piece for Knapp: science and pragmatics, the Economics Council as well as the NSO board, drums and snowballs, art singular and the arts plural, textiles and Washingtoniana, being part of the city and a citizen of the world. His wide embrace suits a university whose mission – from its namesake – was and is to “educate future leaders, not only for the nation, but for the world.”

‘Elaine de Kooning: Portraits’

May 11, 2015

In the decade following World War II, a 40-year-old Dutch immigrant named Willem de Kooning dominated New York City’s art scene. With a few fellow painters, he guided the evolution of Abstract Expressionism and defined an era of American art that would change the postwar world.

At this height of power and influence, de Kooning was – for fellow artists if not for the press, who favored in personality the cowboy brass of Jackson Pollock and the fierce erudition of Mark Rothko – a vortex, whose talent, sensibilities and ideas pulled almost any aspiring painter into its overwhelming influence.

This was when he married Elaine, an aspiring young painter who would become his first wife and, ultimately (despite periods of long separation), his lasting life partner.

While Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989) would have been the first to concede the great influence her husband had on her artistic development, she took her long and illustrious career down a road that almost no other painter successfully traveled, merging Abstract Expressionist aesthetics with portraiture.

Elaine de Kooning managed to navigate and manipulate the roiling tides of Abstract Expressionism, whose muddy, streaked and pock-marked canvases defied taming, to achieve nuanced faces and expressions, delicate gestures, postures and anatomy, without surrendering the style’s spontaneous energy and unpredictability.

At the National Portrait Gallery through January 2016, “Elaine de Kooning: Portraits,” takes us on a retrospective journey through de Kooning’s evolution as a portrait artist, covering the 1940s through the 1980s. A beautiful and refreshing exhibition, it shows that de Kooning is far too bright a talent to linger any longer in the shadow of her husband’s legacy.

The paintings from the 1950s, amidst the pull of her husband’s influence, have a sort of whirlpool effect: all lines and shapes are pulled as if by a black hole toward the center of the canvas – this epicenter sometimes being a pair of crossed hands, sometimes even just the button of a jacket.

Faces are often less defined, sometimes smudged out entirely. On the whole, these effects, while attractive (in fact, among my favorite in the exhibit), almost suggest that de Kooning was still struggling to reconcile an unwieldy abstract approach to fit the representational constraints of portraiture.

Her 1952 portrait of her husband is a good example of this, his entire face reduced to an aquiline nose and a tuft of hair on a muddy pink ring of paint – though it still manages to reveal the man clearly in caricature if you know what he looked like.

The second gallery devotes a great deal of space to de Kooning’s series of portraits of President John F Kennedy. While significant, these were ultimately library commissions and they feel a bit like that. The most interesting thing de Kooning achieves in these paintings is subconscious. She captures JFK, but the airy, almost hazy atmosphere surrounding him makes them portrayals of what it feels like to be in his presence: awe, reverence, reservation, timidity, even attraction.

In the galleries that cover the remainder of her life, we find hints of Matisse, Velázquez and Picasso, John Singer Sergeant, even Roman frescos and religious altarpieces, all intermingling in a subtle but profound painterly sophistication.

Her portrait of Aladar Marberger, from 1986, attributes the sitter with the ferocity and certitude of Pope Innocent X, but in an airy, Bonnard-like garden landscape. Marberger sits in a wicker chair on a pink cushion, purple socks covering his feet. Trellised vines and palm plants surround him, and the background dissolves into a pink and green tangle of thin branches and narrow tree trunks. This lovely and provocative interplay between severity and lightness of tone could easily collapse in on itself and fail utterly. But de Kooning turns it into something worth treasuring. [gallery ids="102057,134554" nav="thumbs"]

Kay Jackson at Addison/Ripley Fine Art


When we walk through a crowd of people, we don’t see everything. We see little glimpses or slices of movement. We see light, shapes, shifting expressions in a sea of faces. And those little fractured pieces—a gesture, a movement, a reflection—create a reality.

The steady density of urban living surrounds us all with these moments, these fleeting torrents of life that wash endlessly by. “And that’s what I am aiming at,” says painter Kay Jackson, discussing the paintings in her new exhibit at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, on view through May 2. “There is no whole picture, just little bits and fragments of an endlessly renewable composition that create and reflect today’s world.”

Kay Jackson is a painter’s painter. Perhaps this is pulling a tired phrase, but in Jackson’s case there is simply no other way I can say it. The first time I saw her work in 2012, I was struck hard by her remarkable draftsmanship and singular style. She applies Old Master techniques to contemporary settings, using oil glazing, gold leaf and virtuosic tonal control to create works that feel unquestionably of our era. While some painters today capitalize on these techniques as an erudite gimmick, Jackson employs them in service to the larger work with elegant subtlety and naturalness.

When asked about this, her response is unassuming. “That’s just the artwork that I admire the most,” she says. “It’s hard to improve on traditional oil painting techniques.”

Exhibiting since the 1980s, Jackson’s work frequently focuses on environmental concerns, such as pollution and the loss of animal habitats. Her last exhibition at Addison/Ripley featured immaculate gilded icons of endangered species (which you must see up close to properly appreciate their beauty). The subjects that drive her work have striking correlations to the endangered old world techniques—largely forgotten by artists today—which she uses to create them. It is also hard to ignore the preservationist aspect of these practices in parallel to issues like wildlife conservation.

Her current exhibit focuses on a different environmental risk, and one that has engrossed her for over a quarter century. The exhibition title, ‘Malthusian Paintings,’ refers to the theory of overpopulation developed throughout the early 1800s by English scholar Thomas Malthus.

It began for Jackson in 1988, with a series of vivid dreams: throngs of people replaced cars on the streets and moved in an endless herd through the city. To deal with the anxiety the dreams caused her, she began taking her camera out during rush hour traffic and snapping photographs of the crowds. She then used these photos as references for her first Malthusian paintings.

The canvases are crowded with moving figures, often faceless or submerged by darkness, connected in kaleidoscopic patterns of light and shadow. The allusions of movement border on abstraction, as suggestions of human figures collide with architectural gestures and patches of gold and copper leaf, layered between veils of paint to create a luminescent surface.

And yet the anonymous human figures throughout these paintings, even in the hint of but a few simple brushstrokes, are fully realized, taking on the air of apparitions.

Jackson is such a good painter that it is dangerously easy to overlook how expertly these works are conceived and rendered. They seem to have no composition at all, as natural to look at as a crowded city street. Reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler’s atmospheric naturalism, these “all-over” compositions are like movie stills plucked from the ether. They are immediately accepted by our eyes as simply right, meshing seamlessly with our living memories of the surrounding world.

And what is perhaps most astonishing is the whisper-like nuance with which she pulls this off. There is plenty to admire at a glance, but in a way these works beg patience and attention. These are paintings that will slowly unfold and evolve over many years, paintings to which you will keep returning. These are paintings that carry secrets. Their inner-life seems in many ways equal to their time spent resonating in the artist’s mind. Such is the rich beauty with works like this, which an artist works on for as many years.

“A lot of these canvases are multilayered,” Jackson says, “in the sense that if I did not like what I saw, I just kept painting over it. And that’s when the really magical stuff happens—you get the echo of other images coming through the painting.”

Addison/Ripley is a gallery that makes great use of its relatively modest space, and the 27 pieces of varying sizes lend a sort of retrospective quality to the exhibit. And as a body of work spanning 27 years, it is hard to think of it any other way.

“I’ve always made these paintings because I just love them,” she says, simply. “I can try to talk about them, but it is hard to find words that explain the non-verbal world of painting.”

To experience the steady, mesmerizing rhythms of Jackson’s paintings is to give into that world. It is a beautiful encounter.

Kay Jackson’s ‘Malthusian Paintings: 25 Years and Counting,’ is on view through May 2 at Addison/Ripley Fine Art: 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW. For more information visit www.AddisonRipleyFineArt.com [gallery ids="102066,134472" nav="thumbs"]

May 7 Cultural Leadership Breakfast: George Washington University President Steven Knapp

May 7, 2015

Wrapping up Georgetown Media Group’s spring round of Cultural Leadership breakfasts, Dr. Steven Knapp, president of the George Washington University since 2007, will speak the morning of May 7 at the George Town Club about the university’s expanding activity in the arts, exemplified by the bringing of the Textile Museum and the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design into the GW fold. Until recently, the District’s largest institution of higher education had not positioned itself as a leader in the arts.

Dr. Knapp will speak at 8:30 a.m. and a light breakfast will be served. Admission costs $15. For more details and to RSVP, contact Richard Selden at richard@georgetowner.com.

‘Mingering Mike’ at the American Art Museum

April 23, 2015

Our ideas of folk art are strangely and inherently conflicting. By nature, American folk art is that made by people who, through means of economy, location and a number of imposing and typically limiting factors of their lives, have managed to avoid contamination by the otherwise universally epidemic tradition of the Western canon.

Over the past century, these have almost invariably been black Americans living in small, rural isolation. Their art is intrinsic, pure, seemingly born from some chaste and chasmic human urge to create and communicate through ritualistic vessels. There is a fascinating and undeniably refreshing sparkle to this work, both alien and deeply familiar, which deciphers what we already know through wholly unique lenses.

Our rote and stressful world is born anew, like hearing a mundane story told by a child who must stretch the boundaries of their limited logic and experience to piece together their understanding of how things work. (In one great example, a little girl who just took off on her first plane ride turns to the man sitting beside her and asks, “When do we get smaller?”)

The way folk artists interpret people, architecture, nature, composition, is unaffected by the infinite textbook methodologies of these principles, as typically applied in contemporary practice. There is a defiant quality – however unintentional on the part of these artists – in simply proving that one can reflect on the world around them through art without any of the pseudo-philosophical toolkits and mechanisms the rest of us cling to like lifeboats.

I was taught to stand before “R. Mutt” with the sober reverence and resolute awe of the direly religious before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And I do just that. Now, that does not mean I’ve ever given time to actually face the question of why I do that. (Maybe I should, but that’s another issue altogether.) In the “art world” we all love to scoff at, the “Emperor is naked” fable ends not with throngs of disabused and enlightened townsfolk, but with a bunch of very smart, slightly bored aristocrats telling you to shut up and play along.

But can I observe folk art with an even-handed deference, without some degree of bemused condescension? More important, is it even possible for me to accept it on its own terms? The problem is this: as soon as this work and these artists are subjected to our reliable systems of cultural governance, they become permanently and inalterably defiled. To expose these artists to the public – and worse, to the relentless burrowing scrutiny of scholarly excavation – is to uproot and plow over the wild, billowing prairie grasses of their creative vantage. Once they are introduced to this new environment, their amplified professional awareness obliterates the rustic immaculacy of their id.

Think of it another way: When Europeans introduced rifles to Native Americans, they could not conceivably avoid using this tool and the advancements it afforded them. Or perhaps more appropriately, once we introduced them to our germs and diseases, there was no way they would not get sick.

This delicate navigation is a systemic concern of anthropological efforts today. How can we preserve the purity of small native cultures while also allowing observational access to the curious colossus of global society? In the arena of American folk art, the discovery of a small subset of self-taught, southern black artists from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia was a remarkable phenomenon in the 1970s. In 1982, here in Washington, the Corcoran Gallery of Art presented “Black Folk Art in America: 1930 –1980,” the first exhibition and publication documenting these previously unknown artists like Sister Gertrude Morgan, David Butler, Bill Traylor and William Edmundson (all of them worth poking around for online).

And then we have the crazy magic of Mingering Mike, whose exhibit and catalog at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is wondrous, unprecedented and seems to occupy an almost unimaginable crossroads in American art: both deeply resonant within the unmediated freeform heritage of folk art, and rooted entirely in popular culture. It brings together both sides of these hitherto mutually exclusive worlds, like a native flower long thought extinct found blooming in the cankered brickwork of a downtown alleyway.

The story starts with Dori Hada – a local DJ by night, a criminal investigator by day – who was digging through crates of records at a D.C. flea market. There he unknowingly stumbled into the elaborate world of Mingering Mike, a soul superstar of the 1960s and 1970s who released an astonishing fifty albums and at least as many singles in just ten years. But Hadar had never heard of him, and he realized why on closer inspection: every album in the crate, as well as the records themselves, were made of cardboard. Each package was intricately crafted, complete with gatefold interiors, extensive liner notes, and grooves drawn onto the “vinyl.” Some albums were even covered in shrinkwrap, as if purchased at real record stores.

Hadar put his detective skills to work and soon found himself at the door of Mingering Mike. Their friendship blossomed and Mike revealed the story of his life and the mythology of his many albums, hit singles and movie soundtracks.

A solitary boy raised by his brothers, sisters and cousins, Mike lost himself in a world of his own imaginary superstardom, basing songs and albums on his and his family’s experiences. Early teenage songs obsessed with love and heartache soon gave way to social themes surrounding the turbulent era of civil rights protests and political upheaval – brought even closer to home when Mike himself went underground, dodging the government for ten years after going AWOL from basic training.

In “Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits,” on view through Aug. 2, Hadar recounts the heartfelt story of Mike’s life and collects the best of his albums and 45s.

Mingering Mike, like folk artists, uses biblical and cultural imagery as subjects for his work. But Mike operated on an even deeper level of imaginative force, finding his inspiration in his own lyrics, his own song titles, his own obsessions. Mike shares another fundamental principal with other folk artists among this visual tradition: he is often teaching or commenting on moral and spiritual issues. In a way, public instruction is not so different from what Mingering Mike is doing, in his own miniaturized and eccentric domain. It is this impulse to communicate what he has learned, and what he feels about the power of visual art to express, that links him not only to other black visionary artists of his own and earlier generations, but to the very mainstream of American art.

For more information visit www.AmericanArt.si.edu [gallery ids="102021,134931,134930,134928,134926" nav="thumbs"]

National Portrait Gallery’s Kim Sajet Delights at the George Town Club

April 21, 2015

Kim Sajet is shy.

All right, she’s not shy. Not at all.

The new (relatively, since 2013) director of what was frequently referred to as the venerable National Portrait Gallery looks, moves, talks and thinks as if she’s been freshly minted, in the moment, and looking ahead and not too much behind. She demonstrated these qualities vividly as the guest speaker at the Georgetown Media Group’s Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club April 9.

Sajet, a striking blonde presence, is not the type to stand statically behind a podium (if there had been a podium). Personable and direct, funny with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Sajet proved to be rangy in both the way she managed to get to the heart of portraiture as art (and a pioneering art form of immediacy), and her role as chief embracer and explainer of an institution which, she said, she was surprised to be asked to head. She’s a gifted, natural storyteller, an emphasizer, a pacer and an embracer of the world of now and the next day.

Nothing stodgy here. Born in Nigeria to Dutch parents, raised in Australia, a mother (two young sons, ages 20 and 17 ), Sajet is bound to be an adept multi-tasker. Her credentials are diverse and impeccable—president and CEO of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania from 2007 to 2013, former senior vice president and deputy director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, curator and director of two Australian museums, a master’s degree in art history from Bryn Mawr College and one in business administration at Melbourne University Business School, arts leadership training at the Harvard Business School, the Getty and National Arts Strategies. That’s more than enough to give her resume arts gravitas and reason enough to get the job offer for heading the National Portrait Gallery. “Plus, I speak three languages, all of them with an accent.”

But wait, there’s more. She has a bottomless well of enthusiasm enriched by thoughtfulness, a love of challenge, a willingness to not only elicit and entertain new ideas, but to have a few herself.

The idea for an American portrait gallery came from the example set by the British who’ve had their own National Portrait Gallery since 1856.

“The British can be so annoying that way,” she quipped. “They have so many kings and queens and royals, it’s kind of irritating. But we do have Katy Perry with a tiara—and nothing befits a woman more than a tiara. But she’s here because of her accomplishments—how many millions of records?”

Sajat noted that the NPG, renovated and sparkling as part of the Reynolds Center with the Smithsonian American Art Museum downtown, is about accomplishment, about “people who have had an impact on history and our own lives.” “But,” she said, “it is a living thing, about living human beings, that’s what a portrait is. We are pursuing portraiture in real time, as well as the presidents, the first ladies (we are backfilling there), scientists, artists, athletes and so on.”

But to her it isn’t just about categories of achievement, but about human beings who made decisions in their lives on their way to becoming who they were.

“You look at people like Albert Einstein or Lance Armstrong, and they made decisions that led them to become who they are,” she said. “When you look at their portraits that’s what you think about .”

“We are different from other galleries and museums—we deal in persons and personalities as well as art. Art matters, but the person being portrayed matters, too.”

“We all come to art in different ways, and when we see portraits we see ourselves. I remember when I was thirteen , a young girl, and I saw an Edward Hopper painting, one of those diners, and there were sundry people in it. Young men, lost people, a lady of the night, and in the middle of all that was a clown, and he was so terribly sad, and I thought, immediately, that’s, me, that’s how I feel, exactly, it’s my life.”

And during the courses of that story, she gave a perfectly audacious and exaggerated physical portrait of her young adolescent self.

“To me it’s amazing what happens when people encounter portraits and how full of opportunity the process is,” she said. “It crosses generations—here’s a father telling a son all about Lucille Ball or George Carlin, or the teen talking about a contemporary singer.”

Technology, she says, draws people into museums and “that’s a good thing.” She adds, “People today have so many digital images at their fingertips, in the computer, the pads, the phones.”

She recognizes and talks with humor about the constant scrutiny the NPG is under, including on a recent portrait of President Bill Clinton which apparently has the shadowy presence of a blue dress recalling sex and scandal.

“You have no idea what it’s like to part of the Smithsonian Institution and what that means in terms of scrutiny, how much attention and feedback you get today as well. I check the social media all the time, how we’re seen or mentioned on Yelp,” she said.

She sees this sometimes maze-like place, with its holdings and collections, its videos and portraiture contests—“An Asian girl had done a portrait—because she noticed she was eating almost nothing but rice—a self-portrait made entirely out of rice”—as a kind of fun house full of ideas about how people see themselves, are seen by others, and remembered. And there’s room almost for everybody. “I’m interested in the concept of outsiders, of a different kind of categories, including more women, more minorities, we’re working now on an exhibition about members of today’s American military and the wars they haves fought,” Sajet explains.

The popular and very focused “One Life” series will include Dolores Huerta, who stood side-by-side with Caesar Chavez in his battles for migrant workers

She fairly bursts with ideas and stories. When you listen to her, the notion of the National Portrait Gallery as a somewhat stodgy record of triumphant lives of leading men begins to fade. “I noticed,” she said, “that the exhibition on Elvis Presley was our most popular.”

She talks about the academic rigor of the writing and labels that go with the portraits. She talks about possibilities—“We are a national institution, but we should also include the international.”

The world is clearly changing, and it appears the National Portrait Gallery isn’t so much adapting as pushing to the forefront.

And it’s Kim Sajet, chief ringmaster and pied piper, who’s leading the way, with an accent. [gallery ids="102049,134684" nav="thumbs"]

A Summer for All at Wolf Trap

March 26, 2015

Wolf Trap Foundation announced its first group of over 50 offerings for summer 2015 at the Filene Center in Vienna, Virginia, on the grounds of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.

Pop, rock, country, opera and classical, international music and dance groups and some things that go beyond category get their due.

Here’s an early sampling of what’s on tap this summer: You can go from pop-rock chanteuse Sheryl Crow in May to jazz legend Diana Krall in July, country stars Little Big Town in August, and classic rocker Santana, also in August.

There is no taste that’s unaccounted for. Wolf Trap will welcome “Weird Al” Yankovic, comic performer David Sedaris, the Cuban flavors of the Buena Vista Social Club, Frank Sinatra Jr., the brother-sister duo of Julianne and Derek Hough in “Move” and the National Symphony Orchestra – in residence at Wolf Trap – accompanying a screening of “Star Trek,” where you can say goodbye to the late Leonard Nimoy, aka Mr. Spock.

The Wolf Trap Opera lineup is Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” a concert opera performance of Verdi’s “Aida,” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles.”

Dazzling, Dizzying Iberian Festival Opens at the Kennedy Center

March 19, 2015

If you’re one of those people who drop by occasionally by plan, or just come as a tourist, the Kennedy Center often offers surprises of the sort that are both dazzling and a little dizzying.

That was the case on a cold and wet night when the center opened “Iberian Suite: global arts remix,” another one in a series of international festivals held yearly by the folks at the center, displaying to often wondrous effect the arts, culture, music, fashion, food, theater and dance arts of a particular region or country.

“Iberian Suite” is a vast, nearly month-long festival of the arts and many other things, focusing on the world-wide cultural offerings of Spain and Portugal, and how, Iberian explorers and artists had affected and influenced the rest of the world including the Americas, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, but had been in turn influenced by other cultures including those they encountered in their explorations.

If you just happened by on opening night or were there for the festival opening at the Eisenhower Theater, you could be forgiven if you ended up a little disoriented and pleased all at the same time. Right there in the nearly full length of the Hall of States, you were confronted with a spectacular fashion exhibition that told the story through a very cool display showing how the blue porcelain trade influenced fashion to this day, with works by Portuguese, Brazilian and Spanish designers.

While casual visitors as well as ticket-holders gawked at the mannequins decked out in 50 shades of blue, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter greeted guests for a 400-people, sit-down dinner who were also attending the opening performance. Tourists mingled more or less with black tie Spanish and Portuguese officials and diplomats, mixed in with critics, a senator (Tim Kaine, Democrat from Virginia) and media types. The former King of Spain – the dignified, regal and tall Juan Carlos – was also in attendance at the performance.

The performance itself was one of those events that is designed to make you salivate for the whole ball of festival wax. The evening also gave you sense of the powerful palate of Iberian visuals (a big exhibition of Pablo Picasso ceramics has been installed upstairs) and performance arts.

There were national and international treasures on stages, complete with a narrated story, film and video clips (including a to-be-treasured video of cello master Pablo Casals in concert at the White House watched over by Jack and Jackie Kennedy). Casals’s widow, Marta Casals Istomin, was in attendance.

Casals was present, with remembered honor, and a performance by the intense international cellist, Amit Pellet, holding and playing Casals’s very own cello, was like a living artifact.

Iberian styles of music and performers and singers were on hand, conducting a highlight lesson in range. There was the powerfully emotive Mexican legend Eugenia Leon—dubbed the soul of Mexico—who sang with great passion and a kind of supernatural royalty. Fado, Portugal’s brand of soul music, was exemplified by Carminho (aka Carmo Rebelo de Andrade), who was a sleek onstage presence, sliding easily between the deeper aspects of Fado into pop.

Periodically, you heard the voices and saw videos of the imagery of writers and poets—the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Jorge Armado of “Donna Flora and Her Two Husbands” fame and others. The language and the voices rose rich as a memory of landscapes locked securely in the mind.

Groupo Corpo, a vivid, tony and relentlessly beautiful and energetic dance troupe from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais wowed the audience with a perpetual motion dance coat of many colors.

If you wanted a historic moment, you got one when it was announced that the Spanish dancer Angel Corella, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, a native of Madrid and now the artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, would be retiring and making his last public appearance. It was a little hard to believe that the 40-year-old Corella was ready to be retired or retiring—he and his beautiful sister Carmen Corella dance with power and grace, spinning, springing across the stage. That was some moment, with a little boy delivering flowers to both.

The finale offered everyone who had performed a chance to sing together, gathered around like a bouquet that launched into “The Impossible Dream,” from “Man of La Mancha,” an eternal Broadway hit show about the great Spanish literary giant Miguel Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote.

It was a Kennedy Center night, the rhythms of the world, moving musically and physically back and forth from Portugal and Spain around the world and back again. In the hall earlier, designers and women in sleek black patron dresses mingled among the blue dresses, taking selfies. Rumor has it that the King of Spain did, too.