NGA to Celebrate 25th Anniversary of Photo Collection

March 19, 2015

Three special exhibitions in 2015 will mark the 25th anniversary of the National Gallery of Art’s photography collection. Two will open May 3: “In Light of the Past: 25 Years of Photography at the National Gallery of Art” (through July 26) and “The Memory of Time: Contemporary Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Acquired with the Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund” (through Sept. 7).

The third, which will open Nov. 1 and run through Feb. 28, 2016, is titled “Celebrating Photography at the National Gallery of Art: Recent Gifts.” Displaying works donated to the museum in honor of the anniversary, it is likely to include gifts that have yet to be made.

Though the collection was launched in 1949 with a spectacular gift – Georgia O’Keeffe’s donation of the “Key Set,” more than 1,600 photographs by her late husband, legendary photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz – the National Gallery began to actively collect photography in 1990.

The collection has expanded under curator Sarah Greenough to nearly 14,000 American and European photographs from 1839 to the present. Photographs are fragile and deteriorate when exposed to light. Most of the collection has never been exhibited and the works that have been exhibited have been on view only briefly.

Curated by Greenough and assistant curator Andrea Nelson, the exhibition of contemporary photographs will include works exploring the complexity of time, memory and history, by photographers including Sally Mann (b. 1951), Vera Lutter (b. 1960), Hiroshi Sugimoto (b. 1948), Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) and Sophie Calle (b. 1953).

Cultural Ins and Outs

March 11, 2015

IN – Textile Museum

After nearly 90 years in Kalorama, the Textile Museum will open March 21 in a new Foggy Bottom facility as the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. The largest exhibition in the museum’s history, “Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories,” will display more than 1,000 pieces through Aug. 24. On the grand opening weekend, there will be free activities at the new museum, 701 21st St. NW, as well as a textile symposium on Saturday at the School of Media and Public Affairs, 805 21st St. NW.

The design, by Hartman-Cox Architects, links a new 35,000-square-foot structure with the former university police headquarters, Woodhull House, which will become the home of a collection of Washingtoniana – rare maps, drawings, documents and correspondence – donated to the university by Albert H. Small in 2011. The director of the two museums, also an associate professor of Museum Studies, is John Wetenhall, a historian of modern art who got his Ph.D. at Stanford and was executive director of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., among others.

The origins of the Textile Museum were similar to those of the nearby Phillips Collection. It opened in 1925 in the S Street mansion of George Hewitt Myers (a collector of what were then known as Oriental rugs) and grew to be one of the major collections of non-Western textiles in the United States. The struggling museum was taken over by George Washington University a few years after a plan to open an annex in Penn Quarter was canceled in 2008. The university is also building a conservation and resource center on its Loudoun County, Va., campus.

OUT – Franklin School

On Feb. 9, Mayor Muriel Bowser abruptly announced the de-selection of the Institute for Contemporary Expression as the developer, with Anthony Lanier’s East Banc, of the landmark Franklin School at 13th and K Streets NW. A new Request for Qualifications, due March 23, has been issued, with a Request for Proposals to follow in the fall.

ICE’s plan to create a space for the presentation of cutting-edge art, especially large installation and multimedia works – along with education programs, a bookstore and a restaurant by José Andrés – was chosen by then Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration in February 2014. The building, designed in 1865 by Adolph Cluss, the architect of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, became vacant when it ceased to be a homeless shelter in 2008. Several plans since then for its reuse went nowhere.

Collector Dani Levinas, executive director of ICE, has said that he was not consulted and his plan is solid. (Cost estimates vary from Levinas’s $13.2 million to more than $20 million.) It is not known if ICE will respond to the RFQ. In the meantime, there have been calls for revisiting the decision, with a letter circulating asking the mayor to “Please take this moment of public appeal to bring this matter back before the City Council.”

Ari Roth: a Legacy on 16th Street, a Launch on H

We caught up with Ari Roth, until December artistic director of Theater J, a few days before he spoke at Georgetown Media Group’s Cultural Leadership Breakfast last Thursday.

Now founder and artistic director of the Mosaic Theater Company of DC, he’d gone to New York exploring collaboration possibilities, seeking out new plays, new playwrights. He’s hitting the ground running after separating from Theater J in a series of events that were very public and often rancorous. Two months ago, Roth was “terminated abruptly” by the CEO of the D.C. Jewish Community Center, Carole Zawatsky.

Roth had also been thinking about issues of autonomy, of creating something different than what the atmosphere and very special situation at the JCC might have allowed.

The signs had been there all along. The JCC had decided to drop Roth’s brainchild, the annual “Voices from a Changing Middle East” festival, which included one mainstage play, readings, symposiums, discussions and interviews. The festival had often created controversy with some of its content: plays – almost always by Israeli or Jewish authors – which addressed conditions in Israel and its neighbors.

“Part of what happened was about, well, changing conditions,” Roth said. “We had done plays that had made some people unhappy and angry.”

One of them was “Return to Haifa,” staged by an Israeli-Palestinian company, about a Palestinian family returning to its old home, which they had been forced to leave in the 1948 war, and facing the Israeli occupants. It was performed in both Hebrew and Arabic. This writer remembers the heated discussions among some older members of the audience during intermission.

Roth had been thinking about something larger, though. “In this city, and everywhere else, things are changing, and I wanted to address some of that, be inclusive in a way that we could culturally and artistically talk about and create and stage plays that were about race, poverty, conditions and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and in our own neighborhoods in this city,” he said.

Roth had been at Theater J for 18 years, and in those years, in addition to controversies that had occurred, there was phenomenal growth for a theater that was Jewish-specific in its content and focus, but universal in its results, with plays that brought an expanded audience along. New plays – a few by Roth himself – were staged, along with the canon from great Jewish playwrights ranging from Clifford Odets to Arthur Miller to Neil Simon. Theater J’s production of Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lost In Yonkers” was in this writer’s opinion every bit as good, if not better than, the Broadway version which had its first stop at the National Theatre.

You could expect often to be surprised by a Theater J production – like an original musical about the young Biblical hero David, or a recent production of a play about Bernie Madoff, or the works of the always original Tony Kushner.

“I think I have a legacy there,” he said. But, as he told the Georgetown breakfast attendees, “it was kind of a divorce. I will miss all those I worked with. But they appear to have moved on, they’re doing the next play, looking for my replacement. I have an office at our new home at the Atlas Performance Arts Center on H Street, we are getting donations and funding and building a theater. In November, we plan to begin a full six-play season with the Voices from a Changing Middle East as well.”

Oscars 2015: Academy Awards Predictions

February 26, 2015

Nominations for this year’s Oscars are among the strongest in many a year. The films up for the golden statuette are almost all movies that will stand the test of time. I’ve seen them all except for “Into the Woods” and “Boyhood,” neither of which has played at any theater in Gulf Shores, Alabama. And if they do play here, I won’t go see them. I refuse to see any movie with Meryl Streep (“Into the Woods”). I am boycotting all of her movies after her pathetic performance with Tommy Lee Jones a couple of years ago in “Hope Springs.” By the way, I won’t go see any movie in which Samuel L. Jackson has a role (overacting always, never varying in his acting, and he’ll take any role, any time). So, “The Kingsmen” is already off my 2015 list of movies to see.

Back to the Oscars, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 7 p.m., Feb. 22, Hollywood, Calif., to air live on ABC. “Boyhood.” It sounds like one big crashing bore of a movie. I know, I know. It has already won its fair share of awards, but this is one of those movies that 10 years from now people will still be saying, “How the f—–g hell did this ever win an Oscar?” Don’t believe me? Check back with me in ten years.

For my money, the best films of 2014 are these: “Birdman,” “The Imitation Game,” “American Sniper” and “The Theory of Everything.” “Birdman” or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is a black comedy-drama that tells the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) — famous for portraying an iconic superhero — as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career and himself. I think the movie itself will win Best Film, Edward Norton Best Supporting Actor and Michael Keaton will earn the Best Actor award. But will it win Best Film?

Of all the movies this past year, I was most moved by Clint Eastwood’s brilliant anti-war movie “American Sniper.” And Georgetown University graduate Bradley Cooper gives a strong performance as Chris Kyle, the soldier who was highly decorated for his four tours of duty in Iraq, only to be killed back home in Texas by a deranged veteran of the same war. If Michael Keaton doesn’t win Best Actor, then Bradley Cooper certainly deserves the award. “American Sniper” is the only movie of all the contenders that I’ve seen twice.

By the way, “American Sniper” is the largest grossing film of 2014. But there have only been four box-office champs that won best picture in the past 30 years. “Rain Man” (1988), “Forrest Gump” (1994), “Titanic” (1997) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003). So, top grossing films do not necessarily fulfill the main criteria for Best Picture. That is why I am worried a film like “Boyhood” might win Best Film. Who has seen this movie?

I’d like to slow down here from the break-neck pace of this column and ask this question about the Oscars: How the hell did Peter O’Toole not win an academy award for Best Actor for his performance in “Lawrence of Arabia”? The Oscars has a big shadow hanging over it ever since this slight.

“The Theory of Everything” is the romantic story between physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife. The lead actors are brilliant. Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as his wife. In any other year, both could win the Best Actor and Actress Awards, but not this year.

Best Actress Oscar will go to Julianne Moore for her stunning performance in “Still Alice.” Best Supporting Actress will be Sienna Miller (“American Sniper”).

If there is a sleeper in all of the nominations, it is Wes Anderson for Best Director (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). But I just don’t see the academy doing him any justice.

So, there you have my predictions for the 2015 Oscars:

= Best Film: “Birdman”

= Best Actor: Michael Keaton (“Birdman”)

= Best Actress: Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”)

= Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton (“Birdman”)

= Best Supporting Actress: Sienna Miller (“American Sniper”)

= Best Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman”)

Beauty in It All: ‘Garry Winogrand’ at the National Gallery

February 16, 2015

Drinking coffee on a gray morning this past winter, I watched through the window of the cafe as a construction crew tossed a stack of red bricks, one-by-one, from the ground up to a scaffold two stories above. The man at the bottom would toss the brick just so, and his partner, leaning over the railing of the scaffold, would pluck it from the air as it floated momentarily at the peak of its arc and place it gently down beside him. A third man stood guard, keeping pedestrians clear of the narrow strip of sidewalk.

I watched this small production carry out in an irrelevant daze, sipping my coffee and avoiding the moment when I would get up, walk a block to my office and sit at my desk for the next nine hours. It went on like this for ten or fifteen minutes: me bluffing time’s inexorable momentum, and the men in hardhats and reflective neon safety vests making bricks leap from the ground and hover gently before plucking them like grapes from the dark sky.

Suddenly they stopped and turned their heads and I followed their gaze to a woman on the edge of the safety perimeter, standing with a small bristly dog at the end of a short leash, rustling her phone out of her pocket and squaring off to steady herself. She held the phone in front of her face, signaled to the crew with a thumbs up and what I can only call a ridiculous grin, and began clicking photographs with excitement as they resumed their small labor. After a moment, she said something, put her phone back into her pocket, readjusted her grip on the leash and tugged her dog away.

There are many ways to observe the world, but the view through a lens is an ever more common filter through which we look at even the smallest and most fleeting of details around us. That woman who photographed the construction team with her phone was so focused on getting the image that she will hardly remember what went on any better than someone who heard the story secondhand.

There are many people today who would consider this trend detrimental to something like social consciousness. But looking at the photographs of Garry Winogrand, it can be considered nothing less than genius.

At the National Gallery through June 8, the self-titled exhibit, “Garry Winogrand,” the first retrospective of the renowned New York photographer in 25 years, features hundreds of photographs and proof sheets that reveal the compulsive, ceaseless physicality of sheer picture-taking profuseness that defined Winogrand as a person, a photographer and an artist.

Even by today’s standards, Winogrand took more pictures than one would almost think was possible in a lifetime. When he died in 1984 at age 56 from bladder cancer, he left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls that had been developed but not contact-printed, and 300 untouched, unedited contact sheets. That is more than a quarter of a million pictures he took that he never even saw.

He was described as a man with ravenous energy and interest in the world, known to literally hurtle through crowds as he photographed. This might explain why so many of his images are fixed in a now trademark tilt—things are usually crooked in a Winogrand photograph, frozen in a restless, startled motion.

He made no distinction between subjects, either. The way he photographed a crippled war veteran or a union rally on the streets of New York is the same way he photographed President Kennedy or Mickey Rooney. Nothing was sacred to him because everything was sacred, and nothing was vulgar because he could find beauty in it all. A ferocious wit, he once quipped, “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”

He was always taking photographs. His first wife said, “Being married to Garry was like being married to a lens.” As a result his work comes at you like pages of an American encyclopedia caught in a tornado: a pageant winner, the mayor, a sailor, the struggling middle-class family, angry protestors, a tramp, the endless skies of the Southwest, the New England snow blustering over crowded city sidewalks, the ferryboat, the Greyhound bus, the cattle auction, the drunken socialites, the women, a diner, an airport, the smokers, the gamblers, the nuns and priests, the confused children, and a stray pony for good measure.

He took so many photographs, all of them very good, some of them great, and some of them heart-stopping. But I am not sure Winogrand himself would have been interested in the distinction. To pick one photograph as a focus, or even a dozen, would be to single out an image that inadequately represents the power of the artist’s cumulative lifework on display.

This exhibit makes you wish that Winogrand just existed with his camera in every lost moment that ever was because, somehow, he would have made it beautiful. So, the point of the construction worker story is that it is precisely as irrelevant and forgettable as anything, and Winogrand would have done exactly what I saw the woman do: he would have taken the picture, shelved it, and dealt with it some other time, knowing somewhere in his mind that he had recorded that moment. Was it an important photograph? Probably not. But could the photograph be important? Through the lens of Winogrand, it would be a certain possibility.

The content is simply the fabric of our society, which encapsulates everything, from the construction workers, to the overexcited woman with a dog and a phone camera, to the bored man drinking coffee across the street, to every passerby that broke up the scene in between.

And as the view through our own lenses becomes more and more common, it is increasingly clear that Garry Winogrand possessed a rare talent to pluck these moments from the ether, the same way the construction crew snatched the bricks out of the air before they would fall back down to earth and shatter into dust. Although Winogrand would surely scoff at the metaphor.

“Garry Winogrand” is at the National Gallery of Art through June 8. For more information, visit

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

Changing the Eyes of the World: ‘Van Gogh Repetitions’ at the Phillips Collection

February 8, 2015

Vincent van Gogh was a desperate and lonely genius, so the story goes. He had a compulsion visible in all his paintings, thickly built up with coarse and blocky brushwork that layered in hundreds of individually visible strokes, which alludes to an artist both besot by his subject matter and incredibly frustrated with his own interpretations of them. It is an anguish of morbid intrigue, a conflicting lust and discontent for all matters of life and art that points to van Gogh’s calamitous and fabled end. The images he made are so recognizable and his life so notorious that we sometimes forget how awfully damn good of a painter he happened to be.

In its surprisingly modest but scrupulous exhibit, “Van Gogh Repetitions,” the Phillips Collection strives to bring the focus of van Gogh back to his artwork, exploring his painting techniques and habits, whereby he reworked compositions and subjects with a fiery discipline to craft his indelible images. Audiences are privileged to observe how van Gogh borrowed from (and often outright copied) artists he admired, from Paul Gauguin to Jean-Francois Millet, and how he returned time and again to the people and places that so inspired him in order to pursue the rendering of not just their shape and character, but of their essence. Ultimately, we are enabled to judge his paintings on their individual merit, stripped clean of their often-overpowering cultural influence, which only makes us see him again, and for the first time, as the groundbreaking visionary that taught us to see the world in a new light.

In today’s era of third-generation visual glut, it is easy to forget how innovative van Gogh’s style really was; what he saw and put down on canvas was unprecedented. His tendency to over-saturate colors, for instance, with sun-flecked yellow fields and waxy, pulsing blue skies, is something we now readily take for granted. Instagram photo filters owe a lot to the sensibility of van Gogh’s color palette, in a way—anyone can now make an ordinary picture look good by blowing out its colors through preprogrammed filters, all of which end up looking a little bit brighter and richer than what was perhaps ever there in the first place. Van Gogh saw these colors in his mind, and maybe this is his legacy: he taught us to adore and romanticize what has always been there, just so long as we strive to see beyond its surface.

His paintings stand out so well in our cultural consciousness because his paintings are almost memories in themselves, distilled and concentrated explosions of color, light, people and places, that follow a unique visual language at once fresh and familiar. Just the mention of a van Gogh wheat field brings a myriad of images bubbling to the surface. His paintings are, in a word, laconic, like a worthy truism of which we remember its inherent wisdom even if we cannot recall its precise form.

Many of the artist’s most famous works are missing from the exhibit (The Starry Night, Café Terrace at Night, and any self portraits or floral paintings), which opts instead to display lesser known portraits and landscapes. This does not mean that you won’t recognize most of the paintings, and a number of his more famous works indeed made it onto the walls, notably a portrait of his obtusely angled bedroom in Arles in the south of France where he stayed during the summer of 1888. There he was influenced by the strong coastal sunlight, and his work grew brighter in color as he developed his singular and highly recognizable style.

There are multiple canvases devoted to single subjects in the exhibit, which ultimately serves to refocus attention on van Gogh the painter (instead of the cultural icon), and allow an appraisal of his work with fresh eyes. The point herein is not necessarily to judge which of the three is the best version of, say, The Postman Joseph Roulin—a close friend that van Gogh greatly admired—but to watch how van Gogh continually rediscovered and redeveloped his subjects. It is an act of stamina, and one by which many 20th century artists took a lesson. Think of Giacometti’s innumerable portrait busts of his brother Diego, or Willem de Kooning’s Woman series. All these paintings are strong on their own, but seeing them together is like witnessing a religious ritual.

That van Gogh became one of the world’s preeminent artists is indisputable. How he achieved this is less considered, typically passed off as some myth of a beautifully demented mind. But his many studies exhibited in Van Gogh Repetitions point to an artist with exceptional deliberation and methodical attention to detail. Van Gogh’s effortless genius, it seems, came from rigorous and deeply considered observational innovation. It changed our visual lexicon and helped us rediscover the beauty in all that surrounds us, from an aging woman or a grove of poplars, to a vase full of dried up sunflowers.

If there is ever an exhibit of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings in Washington, anyone would be remiss not to see it. With this exhibit in particular, it is a unique opportunity to see what it takes to change the eyes of the world.

“Van Gogh Repetitions” is on view at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 26. For more information, visit

Georgetown Arts 2015 Set to Open Feb. 12 at House of Sweden

February 5, 2015

The annual Georgetown Arts show will return next week. Sponsored by the Citizens Association of Georgetown and hosted by the House of Sweden, the visual arts exhibition is a chance to see some favorite local artists — and to discover new ones in Georgetown.

As in previous years, the House of Sweden at 2900 K St. NW has made space available for the CAG show in its embassy building on the Potomac River, next to Washington Harbour.

The opening reception will be 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 12. The show will continue through Feb.15, opening 11 a.m to 5 p.m., daily. During Saturday and Sunday, there will be several Artist Talks. The show is free and open to the public.

Last year, the show set a record with more than 800 attendees. Most works will be for sale; a few were on loan from private collections. The CAG show is chaired by Laura-Anne Tiscornia. For more details, contact CAG at 202-337-7313.

National Gallery Shows American Prints

January 29, 2015

In The Georgetowner’s last issue of 2014, I wrote about the National Gallery of Art exhibition “A Subtle Beauty: Platinum Photographs from the Collection,” which closed Jan. 4. One could see how advances in photography in the late 19th and early 20th century opened the door to an entirely new understanding of composition, value and spatial relationships.

The new photographic technology re-energized artists’ methods and creative visions. However, with the ability of the photograph to capture the existing world, painting and drawing were left to find a new direction of visual communication.

That new direction is traced in another exhibition at the National Gallery. “Modern American Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection,” on view through Feb. 1, looks at 20th-century developments in drawing and printmaking. This is a notable perspective to take, since many of art’s great evolutions begin at the molecular level of smaller-scale drawings and prints, where the artist has greater freedom to rapidly experiment.

The first room of this two-gallery exhibition covers the period leading up to World War II, in which artists such as Childe Hassam and Stuart Davis departed from strict representation. The second room moves toward pure abstraction in the postwar period, with works by Jackson Pollock, David Smith and Willem de Kooning.

A surprising piece is Max Weber’s “Repose (Peace)” (1928), a lithograph of three women which reads like a rich mash-up of Rubenesque beauty, impressionist line work and Picasso-Romanesque physiques. It is completely fun and lovely.

Stuart Davis’s lithograph “Place Pasdeloup, No. 2” (1929) is a whimsically minimalist scene that could have inspired every quaint caricature of France, from Looney Tunes to Steve Martin’s stage play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” Much less fractured than the other two works of his in the show, this is a lighthearted geometry of pleasant, simple luxury.

Louis Lozowick’s lithograph “Crane” (1929) is of a different ilk, with the stark depiction of the looming industrial machine like an oil rig out of George Stevens’s film “Giant,” echoing the menacing grandeur and architectural fetishism of the Futurists.

In the postwar gallery, there are many works, but none as powerful or enjoyable (to this writer) as those by Arshile Gorky and David Smith. The two drawings by Gorky, simple pen-on-paper from the early ’30s, show the height of the artist’s acumen as an innovator in visual abstraction. As he strived for surrealism and broke boundaries of traditional composition and form, his work would go on to profoundly shape Abstract Expressionism.

David Smith’s “A Letter” (1952) is cryptic and playful, like a Krazy Kat comic strip on hallucinogens. It is strangely intoxicating, occupying a rare arena of something that is both warmly familiar and refreshingly new.

‘TIP’ and Lots of Play at Carnegie Museum

January 16, 2015

In 1974, the stark exterior of the Sarah Mellon Scaife Galleries became the new gateway to Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. Forty years later, it is still bracing to come upon this brutalist addition, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, to the Carnegie Institute’s neoclassical buildings.

It was an inspired notion, then, last fall, to install “TIP,” a chaotic exhibit of wooden poles wrapped in steel mesh and colorful strips of fabric. “TIP” is the work of British sculptor Phyllida Barlow. It runs 131 feet from the Forbes Avenue sidewalk to the museum entrance, welcoming visitors to the 2013 Carnegie International, the world’s second oldest international survey of contemporary art (the oldest, the Venice Biennale, began a year earlier, in 1895).

The 2013 Carnegie International, curated by Daniel Baumann, Dan Byers and Tina Kukielski, kicked off last October and continues through Mar. 16. Since the next Carnegie International is at least three years away, it would do well to get yourself to Pittsburgh as soon as you can.

As the Barlow piece suggests, this Carnegie International is serious about play.

One of the largest sections of the show, filling the museum’s Heinz Architectural Center, is called “The Playground Project.” An immersive environment by Tezuka Architects, it combines projects by students in the museum’s summer camps with documentation of innovative 20th-century playgrounds from the United States, Europe and Japan. There is also a playground-themed “sci-fi road movie” by Ei Arakawa and Henning Bohl and – what else? – an actual playground.

Though there is plenty to see, with 35 artists from 19 countries represented, the show is more manageable than most survey exhibitions. However, with the decision to disperse the pieces throughout the museum – even in the attached Carnegie Museum of Natural History, past the dinosaur bones – visitors have to do some navigating. Wear comfortable shoes.

In some cases, the pieces are site-specific. But more generally this approach enables the curators to provide art-historical context and show off the permanent collection, including works from earlier Carnegie Internationals. It also adds a DIY sense of involvement and discovery.

Two of the most captivating installations are in the Hall of Sculpture, viewable both from “ground level” and a perimeter balcony. “The Bidoun Library,” by Negar Azimi, Nelson Harst, Babak Radboy and Ghazaal Vojdani, is an extensive, mobile display of books, magazines, comics and posters, most in Arabic, dealing with “that vast, vexed, nefarious construct known as ‘the Middle East.’”

On the other side of the court is “Disarm” by Pedro Reyes: seven bizarre, self-playing musical instruments making an oval around a sort of drum set, all of which he assembled using 6,700 weapons repurposed from the Mexican drug wars. As visitors wander among them, they go off (so to speak), sounding like electric bagpipes, a xylophone, a rock bass and temple blocks.
The Carnegie Museum of Art is open daily except Tuesdays, with extended evening hours on Thursdays.