Artswatch: December 2, 2015

January 11, 2016

The older of the Smithsonian’s two interconnected museums of Asian art, the Freer Gallery of Art will close for renovations Jan. 4 through the summer of 2017. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will remain open. On Saturday, Jan. 2, and Sunday, Jan. 3, the public is invited to say goodbye-for-now to the Freer in person, visit the building and collections, don “a mask and a Peacock Room tattoo” and pose for selfies with Freer and Whistler.

You can buy tickets to “Shear Madness” performances at the Kennedy Center through March, but the days of the tour-group-pleasing comedy, in which a murder takes place above a Georgetown hair salon, may be numbered. Senior Vice President for Artistic Planning Robert Van Leer is meeting this month with the producers of the show, which has occupied the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab since 1987. “Shear Madness” will be bumped by “The Second City’s Almost Accurate Guide to U.S. History” from June 19 to July 31.

A former church in Frederick, Maryland, will become the East Street Arts Center, with an art gallery, classrooms and a 180-seat performance space for the Landless Theatre Company. Led by Producing Artistic Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman, the 12-year-old company uses the tagline “Theatre for the Theatre-Challenged.” The soft opening is Dec. 5, with the grand opening Feb. 1.

Freer Gallery to Close for Renovations, Jan. 4


The Freer Gallery of Art, the oldest of the Smithsonian Institution’s art museums, will be closed for renovations from Jan. 4 through the spring or summer of 2017. The Sackler Gallery, to which it is linked underground — forming a bicameral museum of Asian art — will remain open.

Along with its extraordinary Asian holdings, the Freer is the home of a major collection of works by American expatriate artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, of “Whistler’s Mother” fame (that painting, formally known as “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” is owned by Paris’s Musée d’Orsay), including his stunning Peacock Room.

On the third Thursday of the month at noon, the Peacock Room shutters are opened, allowing its flamboyantly colored and decorated walls and ceramics-packed shelves to be bathed in natural light. The last opportunity to experience this for a year and a half is this Thursday, Dec. 17.

Jan. 2-3 is “Say Goodbye to the Freer” weekend, with many family-friendly activities from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Julian Raby, director of the Freer-Sackler since 2002, was the speaker at Georgetown Media Group’s Nov. 5 Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club. In his remarks, Raby brought to life the beginnings of the Freer Gallery of Art, dedicated in 1923 and spawned by the ideals of its founder, Charles Lang Freer, a full-cloth American self-made man.

“There was no silver spoon in the mouth of Charles Lang Freer,” he said, noting his beginnings as a maker and developer of railroad cars, which made him nearly a billionaire and allowed him to retire at age 47. He also had the good fortune, spurred by an interest in art collecting, to meet and be associated with Whistler, from whom he at first bought just a modest etching.

“The relationship was an extraordinary match,” Raby said. “Whistler was choleric, quixotic, and Freer was an extremely thoughtful man. It was a match that would lead to the acquisition of 1,300 works which formed the foundation of the collection and started a passion in Freer, and even obsession, with Asian art and culture, prints and screens and with China.”

“Imagine,” Raby said, “a relationship somewhat like what Velázquez might have had with the hidalgos” (a phrase you won’t hear every day). The complex history of the Peacock Room, created for British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland and setting off a bitter feud between patron and artist, is currently the subject of a special Sackler Gallery exhibition, “Peacock Room REMIX.” The show’s centerpiece is “Filthy Lucre,” a recreation of the room in ruins by painter Darren Waterston.
Regarding the original Peacock Room, says Raby, “when we open the windows and let the light in, it’s still spectacular.”

Art for the Holiday Season


John Blee at Cross MacKenzie

For John Blee, painting is poetry and color is its language.

“Color determines the voice of each painting,” he says. “It can never be exactly repeated. So when I find the right colors in the process of painting, they are like keys that open the works for me.”

His recent work, on view at Cross MacKenzie Gallery, 1675 Wisconsin Ave. NW, expands his “Orchard” series, which began in 2007. These lush, atmospheric environments of color and delicate shapes are a sensory envelopment, recalling the painterly geometric abstraction of Hans Hofmann and the alluring garden scenes of Pierre Bonnard.

Yet Blee finds much of his inspiration in poetry. The origin of this series is connected to the late French poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, specifically his collection “Vergers,” (French for “Orchards”).

Regardless, his paintings are for those among us who adore the secret life of paint itself. They are for those who lean in close to explore the trails of the brush, tracing its path and listening for the echo of colors scratched gently across the taut canvas. For this writer, paintings do not get much better. These are paintings I would like to live with.

Wolf Kahn at Addison/Ripley and Gallery Neptune & Brown

Wolf Kahn is one of the greatest living American landscape artists, able to evoke with his soft, exuberant palette the fleeting essence and particularities of time and place in nature. His work is beloved because he so beautifully communicates his own love for the world so clearly.

Born in Stuttgart in 1927, Kahn came to the U.S. in 1940. He studied painting with Hans Hofmann in New York before venturing across the country on his own, beginning to distill his visions of nature. Kahn’s current work at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, 1670 Wisconsin Ave. NW, is a continuum of his steadily unfolding oeuvre. There are trees, hills, fields and skies, painted and drawn in colors that feel as if they were plucked right out of the sky at dawn.
The exhibition at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW, presents Kahn’s limited editions and unique monotypes, suitable for seasoned collectors and recent devotees alike. It includes both early and recent works on paper that display his iconic use of gestural line, compelling composition and ever-evolving mastery of color and light.

Dana Westring at Susan Calloway

Dana Westring looks for the beauty found in timeless forms. Interpreting the grand, awe-inspiring ruins of Cambodia and Angkor Wat, his watercolors and drawings are meticulously created, with rendering both gestural and precise. Westring’s work, on view at Susan Calloway Art, 1643 Wisconsin Ave. NW, aims to draw us into shadows, scattered across the mysterious terrain of a lost history.

‘Wonder’ at the Renewed Renwick Gallery

November 19, 2015

Let’s cut to the chase: “Wonder,” the inaugural exhibition at the Smithsonian’s newly reopened Renwick Gallery, is the greatest experience you will have at a Washington museum this year.

It is a show about experiencing, about feeling, about living and engaging in the 21st century. Its lifeblood is the sort of here-and-now splendor that is a hallmark of this generation — for better and for worse — and certainly an example of all that is right about those attitudes. So I won’t play the usual game of art historical connect-the-dots, because in this context it really does not matter.

“Wonder” is the kind of cultural event that leaves rapturous feelings and surges of ecstatic words crackling in your mind like Pop Rocks, the kind of exhibition that at once caused my pen to ramble and my words to fail. I want urgently to say something grand, to alert others to share in this experience, but what foams up from my larynx is just a swooning, breathless yawp.

In short, this is a marvelous achievement, a contemporary tour de force of which I don’t think any of us figured the Smithsonian was capable. It shines a light into the future of contemporary art in Washington and brings our fair, lumbering city finally into the throws of the cultural conversation.

Walking into the newly renovated Renwick, you are greeted by a grand staircase with a swirl of red carpet that courses through its center like a winding river. Above hangs a new chandelier by Leo Villareal, the light artist who illuminated the moving walkway between the National Gallery’s East and West buildings like an astronomic vortex. You are tempted to take the stairs, but beyond them — down a narrow corridor and peeking through a small door — there is an enormous twist of reeds that seems to sprout like Jack’s beanstalk through the floorboards.

As you approach, the smell hits you before you see it: hemp, earth, the sweet smoke of a wet forest floor. Then you walk into a wonderland.

Tornadoes of sapling branches vault, swirl and contort all around you. The room itself is a forest of monumental, woven woodland spirals, like architectural tumbleweeds or the fantastical aftermath of a Seussical hurricane. Artist Patrick Dougherty has created a homespun vehicle of imagination and earthly whimsy, as if Andy Goldsworthy constructed the set of a fairytale.

Compared to the rustic tactility of Dougherty’s work, Gabriel Dawe’s installation in the conjoining gallery is ethereal. While made up of floss-thin string, the rainbow structure that vaults overhead in a threaded rainbow from floor to ceiling makes you feel caught in the split of a light spectrum. The installation is so fleeting and divine that it becomes hard to believe it is made of any physical material, as it pleasantly confounds your sense of space and perspective. (Just don’t bump into it.)

Tara Donovan’s Post-it Note stalagmites take the notion of material to the next level, recreating a landscape of the Badlands from office supplies. It takes mass-produced materials and creates something undeniably organic.

John Grade’s installation, “Middle Fork (Cascades),” plays similarly with our understanding of what is or isn’t natural. A full-sized hemlock tree hangs on its side, floating from suspensions in the middle of the room. However, it is not a real tree, but a tree constructed in a Jacob’s-ladder pattern out of small off-cuts of reclaimed old-growth Western cedar. Having made a plaster cast of the original tree, he built this model from the mold. If this is difficult to envision, then you better come revel in it for yourself.

There are too many great works to name them all, but I would be personally remiss if I didn’t make mention of Jennifer Angus’s gaspingly lovely “In the Midnight Garden.” It is basically a giant pink room covered with preserved insects that are arranged in patterns like Día de Muertos wallpaper. It is certainly peculiar, but I am curiously hard-pressed to remember anything I have found more beautiful or enchanting. I think Henri Matisse would have loved it.
Utilizing the works of these artists, this exhibition shows us what a contemporary museum should be: fun, beautiful, provocative, searching, mysterious and yet inviting, imploring you to think, explore and experience. It is very exciting to have this in our city.

Art has always had its own language, and a hallmark of modernity — the revelatory force that pushed us into the realm of abstraction — is our recognition and implementation of this phenomenon. Work like that in “Wonder” takes this idea to the next level, creating a bridge to connect the art with the very space we occupy, so that we are not just looking at something, but wrapping ourselves in it, truly existing in and as a part of the work.

The artwork in this exhibition is also extraordinarily attuned to the architectural space of the beautifully renovated galleries. They crawl up the walls, they hang from the ceilings, they spring up around you from the floor, they float.

Perhaps most importantly, this work is of today. Most of these artists would not have been able to conceive their installations without the help of computer design programs and digital renderings, and yet they are all singularly made craft objects built with human hands and using many traditional art processes. It is a seamless braid of digital influence and traditional craft, in many ways a laudable definition of today’s best contemporary art.

And it certainly does provoke a sense of wonder. This is a gut-check of a show. Do yourself a favor and go see it, for it will remind you of what you loved about art in the first place: that it made you feel and it showed you something you could never have imagined.
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Irving Penn at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

November 5, 2015

In preparing to write a piece on a new exhibition, I often sit down with the catalogue after my visit and bookmark certain pages with cut-up bits of paper, on which I write little notes and reminders to myself. If someone were to stumble upon one of these marked-up catalogues, seeing it stuffed full of paper shreds with scribbled words — “Victor Hugo,” “divine bones,” “gothic horror!” — they might well believe its owner to have been a mild schizophrenic.

But if someone found my latest catalogue, from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty” (on view through March 20), they?d be staring down the barrel of something more akin to an art student?s nervous breakdown.

Irving Penn is one of the most iconic photographers of our time. Both a commercial and art­house sensation throughout a greater portion of the 20th century, he is among the rare breed of artists who successfully survived for his entire career in the narrow, highly combustible space between mainstream and critical popularity.

Penn began as an art student in 1930s Philadelphia. After working as a freelance designer, he did a brief stint in 1940 as the artistic director of Saks Fifth Avenue, before dropping it all to spend a year traveling and taking photographs around the United States and Mexico (some of these shots are included in this exhibition).

Returning to New York, Penn took a design position with Vogue magazine, where his director suggested he try working with photography. His first cover shot for Vogue hit the stands in October 1943. Penn was not quite 26 years old.

Over the next sixty years, Penn took some of the most unforgettable photos of our time, with a meticulous eye that redefined and obliterated the perceived limitations of photography as art. He ran the gamut of fashion photography, commercial and advertorial work, portraiture, photojournalism, formal studies of still lives and Romanesque nudes, and the lid-popping delirium of avant-garde experimentation.

He composed and lit every subject with equally compulsive attention, from Truman Capote and Alberto Giacometti to used cigarette butts that he had his assistants pick up off the street. He played with chemicals and exposures in the darkroom the way a painter experiments with glazing mediums, extenders and stabilizers. His tones were rich and warm, and his manipulation of light and atmosphere bore such lush and striking contrast that his subjects seem to flower from seeds of darkness.

As fine as his technique was, however, this isn?t what made Penn?s work so beloved and admired (any more than Picasso is remembered for his brushstrokes). There are a lot of technically talented photographers in the world. It is the spirit of what he captured through his lens, the ineffable artistic matter of both beauty and relevance, that left such an indelible mark across the ether of American iconography.

I suppose it is this that I am expected to decipher as a writer and an observer of fine art, but frankly I?m not sure that I can. So many artists attempt to do exactly what he did and fall short. To make work that is emotionally charged, aesthetically fresh, innovative and transfixing is a colossal achievement. To do it for over half a century is nearly supernatural.

Penn could maneuver so deftly through such vast stylistic ranges it is mind­boggling. In some cases, his still life studies — stacked marrow bones and steel blocks — are as buttery, geometric and tonally delicate as those painted by Giorgio Morandi. In others, such as in “Composition with Pitcher and Eau de Cologne” of 1979, they take on the overwrought bounty of 17th-century Dutch still-life traditions.

His studies of muddy gloves and cigarette boxes buzz with the textural amplitude of Chuck Close’s immense portraiture. His own portraits, however, range in style from nightmarish surrealism (“Two Rissani Women in Black with Bread”) to formal (his portrait of Giacometti is a master class in value study) to Winogrand-like cultural snapshots and smoky, dreamlike odes to women and haute couture (fashion has never looked better than through his lens).

If there is a shortcoming to Penn?s work, it is clear that he was better in a controlled studio setting, over which he could exercise his aesthetic governance, than the uncooperative, disorderly environment of the outside world. The few images within the exhibition of urban street scenes and natural environments — all of them from very early in his career — are oddly disconnected from their subjects.

There is a mystifying painterly essence to his photographs. Your eyes traverse his terrains of texture, gradation and tone not like a typical photographic image — where you seek to gather the necessary informational content of “what is it?” — but with the nervous curiosity of a painted abstraction, for which we have trained our minds to seize esoteric intellectual feelings as literally as physical ballasts.

In a nutshell, this is why my brain blew an art fuse. Not that I mind. In fact, it?s one of the greatest meltdowns I?ve ever experienced.

Join Us at Our Oct. 8 Cultural Leadership Breakfast Featuring DC JazzFest Executive Director Sunny Sumter

October 15, 2015

The 11th Annual DC JazzFest will take place June 10 to 16. At this exclusive peek “backstage,” executive director Sunny Sumter will talk about the plans for 2016 and how the festival is building a new audience for jazz through education and partnerships. Be at the George Town Club at 8 a.m. to catch the action.

RSVP to Richard@georgetowner.com.

Hell, Purgatory and Heaven at the Museum of African Art

September 17, 2015

“The Divine Comedy,” the National Museum of African Art’s current exhibition, on view through Nov. 1, toys with the gravity of religious symbolism and points an ambiguous, often irreverent eye toward the grandeur of shared mythologies. It is also a sincere and moving exploration of the notions of faith, belief and tradition, which gracefully entwines many conventionally rigid boundaries of religion. Further, it deals with troubling histories of colonialism in Africa and the assertion of Christianity and Western ideals over native spiritual systems.

However, to put it more plainly, it is also one of the most beautiful, visionary and elegantly composed shows in the city this summer.

Curated by the internationally acclaimed writer and art critic Simon Njami, “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists,” reveals the ongoing relevance of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic as part of a shared, globalized intellectual heritage. This dramatic multimedia exhibition includes original commissions and renowned works of art by roughly 40 contemporary artists from 19 African nations and the diaspora. An ambitiously expansive show that runs in pieces throughout three full floors, it is also the first exhibition to take advantage of the museum’s pavilion and stairwells, taking over the space like vines spread across a brick wall.

Celebrated artists like Kader Attia, Wangechi Mutu and Yinka Shonibare explore the themes of paradise, purgatory and hell with video, photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, fiber arts and mixed-media installation. In so doing, they probe diverse issues of politics, heritage, history, identity, faith and the continued power of art to express the unspoken and intangible of this life and beyond.

Hell is in the basement. With a dark and cavernous open floor plan, the gallery is transformed into a harmonious chaos of navigable space, a cacophony of sounds and eerie spectacles where artworks and installations literally fall on top of one another. (This author chose to start at the bottom, preferring, if you will, the ascent to heaven to the descent into the netherworld.)

One of the most troubling if beautiful pieces in the gallery is a heavy boat made of burnt poplar by Jems Robert Koko Bi, “Convoi royal (Royal Convoy),” which is filled to the brim with roughly carved wooden heads. Reminiscent in spirit of paintings by American artist Kerry James Marshall, this is an incredibly redolent confrontation with the strange, spectral atrocities of the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent loss of identity among countless native African cultures.

In a similar vein, it is impossible to ignore “Tyaphaka” by Nicholas Hlobo, a lumpy, python carcass-like sculpture made from rubber inner tubing and ribbon that sprawls across the gallery floor. It feels almost nauseating, like a sack of bodies devoured by a monster, or the snake leaving Eden and taking with it in its belly the now tainted souls of man.

At the entrance (or in my case, the exit) sits a monumental sculpture by Wim Botha, “Prism 10 (Dead Laocoön).” Blurring the lines of historical connection, this sculpture is a take on the Greek Hellenistic masterwork “Laocoön and His Sons,” as if it were set on fire to reveal that beneath the white polished marble of the original sculpture lies a framework of brittle, jagged and black coal. It is the veritable fruit of the underworld, the destructive but necessary commodity of industrial progress that is excavated under oppressive labor conditions and transformed to smoke in order to fuel our economic consumption.

Purgatory lines the stairwells and the pavilion, and here there is no work more transfixing than “The 99 Series” by Aida Muluneh. A series of manipulated photographs of a woman covered in chalky white paint and wrapped in striped cloth, the duplicity and fractured spirit of the individual is starkly and breathtakingly rendered, as the disorientation of space, dimension and human anatomy speaks for a sort of judgment and inquisition, either by one’s self or a higher power.
Walking into the galleries of Heaven is bewitching, for this is a paradise represented not in the image of angelic Hollywood depictions or in the Vatican gift shop, but as a sort of pagan, polytheistic cabinet of curiosities, where all are welcome — but not as it could ever be imagined.

The toxic, ethereal beach scenes of Youssef Nabil have a violently saturated exuberance. The photographs show a man wrapped in cloth by the ocean with the sun setting radiantly on the horizon, portraying an almost overwrought notion of heaven’s divine beauty as something that we can’t really see, perceive or understand through our earthly lenses.

Of course, the relentless, bizarre, Hieronymus Bosch-like sculptural installation by Jane Alexander is totally unignorable. Like a fairytale nightmare, a bizarre, incomprehensible drama unfolds on a field of granular red clay, with figures of mice on men’s bodies leading a cart being dragged by bird-headed slaves. The cart is wrapped in freight packaging, and on the top sits a leather chest with an inlaid postcard of the Madonna and Child, upon which a lamb presides over the entire scene. There are more birdmen guarding and directing traffic up a rickety wooden ladder that leads through forced perspective up into the presumed heavens. There is also a sort of voodoo colonialist ghost with scythes and machetes on his belt, black feathers for a head and giant foam hands the likes of which you typically only see at a Green Bay Packer’s game.

There is almost nothing more I can say — or, rather, I don’t want to infect the curiosity by trying to connect it to literary or literal metaphors — but this exists and it has to be seen. I have never in my life experienced a piece of work provoke so much discussion among museum attendants.

Every one of us has a unique understanding of life, love, death and the beyond. Whether or not we believe in heaven and hell, our moral compasses are invariably catalyzed by that eternal logic of good versus evil, decency versus vulgarity. Through “The Divine Comedy,” the Museum of African Art helps reveal that one person’s vision of heaven, purgatory or hell might not match another’s, yet we are all driven by our conflicts and trials with humanity.

Fall Visual Arts Highlights

September 2, 2015

Surrealist sculpture at the Hirshhorn, five decades of a groundbreaking print studio at the National Gallery, a woman’s lens on mid-century America at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, modern art from the Phillips Collection’s Swiss counterparts — these are four of the most anticipated fall exhibitions at Washington’s art museums.

Surrealism is known primarily through painting, photography and film. But at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden this fall, audiences will get to experience its full force in three dimensions. “Marvelous Objects: Surrealist Sculpture from Paris to New York” (Oct. 29–Feb. 15) is the first major museum exhibition devoted to the sculpture of Surrealism.

Bringing together more than 100 works from across Europe and the United States, the Hirshhorn aims to reveal the breadth and depth of Surrealism’s greatest artists. Featuring masterpieces by Dalí, Miró, Giacometti, Duchamp, Man Ray and others, the exhibition will bring sculpture to the fore as a vital part of Surrealism, and one that has influenced artists well into the 21st century.

In an intriguing sidebar, the show will highlight the transition from Surrealism to the postwar sculptural era of metal constructions, displaying works by David Smith and Alexander Calder.

Running concurrently is a solo exhibition by a contemporary artist, “Shana Lutker: Le ‘NEW’ Monocle, Chapters 1–3.” This exhibition will focus on stage-set-like installations of sculptures based on historic fistfights involving Surrealist artists, in which the clashes of radical artistic ideas and ideologies led to physical violence.

Some of the most important and influential artists of the past half-century have conceived and produced limited editions of hand-printed works at Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited), the renowned Los Angeles artists’ workshop and publisher founded in 1966. Coinciding with Gemini’s 50th anniversary, the National Gallery of Art exhibition “The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.” (Oct. 4–Feb. 7) will shed light on the history of the studio and the phenomena it has produced.

The National Gallery will showcase a number of innovative and exemplary projects in their entirety, including fully realized series created by David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Claus Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and Frank Stella.

Esther Bubley (1921–1998) was a photojournalist renowned in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s for her revealing profiles of the United States, its peoples and its personalities. With a talent for creating probing and gently humorous images of the national psyche, she freelanced for publications such as Life magazine and Ladies Home Journal.

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Bubley’s work will receive a greatly deserved solo exhibition, “Esther Bubley Up Front” (Sept. 4–Jan. 17), which highlights her influence in the field of photojournalism, as well as the importance of a woman’s perspective to our understanding of America’s history.

Developing an interest in photography in high school, Bubley received her break in 1942 when she was hired as a darkroom assistant for Roy Stryker, the head of photography for the Office of War Information in Washington. After her first assignments documenting wartime in the nation’s capital, Bubley continued to work under Stryker at the Standard Oil Company.

One of Bubley’s landmark photographic series was a profile of the oil boomtown of Tomball, Texas. She immersed herself in the town, its people and its activities for six weeks. Her images of the community provide an intimate document of small-town America in the mid-20th century.

In a unique exhibition that focuses on, of all things, Swiss art collectors in the early 20th century, the Phillips Collection will exhibit more than 60 celebrated paintings. The development of Swiss collecting around this period — which could not have been more auspicious — found patrons looking beyond regional painters to broaden their definition of modern art. As a result, the pioneering patrons Rudolf Staechelin (1881–1946) and Karl Im Obersteg (1883–1969), both from Basel, championed the work of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and School of Paris artists.

What they ended up acquiring were staggering masterpieces, including van Gogh’s “The Garden of Daubigny”; Marc Chagall’s three monumental rabbi portraits from 1914; and a double-sided canvas by Picasso, “Woman at the Theater/The Absinthe Drinker.” Needless to say, they will all be at the Phillips.

This exhibition, “Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland, The Staechelin & Im Obersteg Collections” (Oct. 10–Jan. 10) marks the first occasion for these collections to be exhibited together in the United States. It is an intoxicating prospect that shouldn’t be missed.

Phillips Concert Series at 75


The Phillips Collection, one of Washington’s most esteemed and intimate art museums, is marking the 75th anniversary of its signature concert series in an artful way, true to the spirit of its founder, art collector and critic Duncan Phillips.

According to Phillips Collection Director of Music Caroline Mousset, who came to the gallery in 2009, the series is about “allowing the artist to have as much freedom as possible.” That means often reconciling tradition and history with the possibilities of new music and musicians, performing in a very special setting, the museum’s exquisite, dark-paneled Music Room.

“We have had many debuts here over the years,” she said. “And we’ve added different kinds of music as time goes on, going beyond but not excluding chamber music, into jazz and contemporary classical music.

“I like to think that the music reflects the art here, and the intentions of Mr. Phillips,” she said. “He was open to new art, but with a consistent spirit that was unique.”

The Sunday series, which opens Oct. 4 with Swiss pianist Olivier Cavé, will celebrate its historic connection to military music ensembles by presenting “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine band on Nov. 8 with a program centered on Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” It will also continue showcasing new and rising stars, including South Korean violinist Ji Young Lim on Nov. 1.

There will be some 30 concerts featured in the Sunday series. Also part of the season are three Thursday concerts and two concerts featuring the works of composers Avner Dorman of Israel, on Dec. 17, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir of Iceland on April 14.

A special occasion will come on Jan. 10 when Toronto-born pianist Stewart Goodyear will present a re-enactment of legendary pianist Glenn Gould’s 1955 U.S. debut at the Phillips.

Mousset sees the musical gatherings at the Phillips as opportunities to create special and serendipitous moments. “Who has not switched on the radio and stumbled upon an unknown piece of music so bewitching that you immediately search out everything by that composer? That’s serendipity, and its power to widen our musical horizons shouldn’t be underestimated, precisely because it hits us with something marvelous when we’re psychologically off guard.”

‘American Moments’ at Phillips Collection

August 17, 2015

One of the reasons that museum exhibitions of photography are so satisfying, I think, is because we connect with the way history looks and feels, even if the inexhaustible burden of its hard, underlying truths can be painful to confront. In a way, history is like Mel Gibson: it’s a beautiful face if you overlook the loathsome, backward ideology it conceals.

This pervasive but fairly unarticulated aesthetic fixation is responsible for a number of recent pop-culture fads, many of which exist among the urban hipster subspecies: the revival of fashion accessories like pinstriped fedoras and horn-rimmed glasses, the jaw-dropping surge in vinyl record sales, the general love for all things ‘vintage.’

Sometimes we want to look behind us to feel the past, but it’s tough to think about what we are actually looking back on. (For a good time, go watch Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”).

Take for example the unfolding national debate over the Confederate flag. My family is from North Carolina, and I have borne witness to the genuine affection that many Southerners feel toward the flag’s symbolism and the pride it elicits. This does not mean I agree with these sentiments (by all means, please take down those flags), but I understand what it means to be attracted to something that carries a burden.

Clearly, the Smithsonian Museum of American History is not hurting for attendance; it gets more visitor traffic on a given weekend than most of our art museums get throughout an entire summer season. But for those of us with cravings for a history, less moderated by textbook timelines and Hollywood endings, photography exhibitions at the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and other art-focused museums around the city offer refreshing alternative visions.

Right now, at the Phillips Collection’s wonderful new photography exhibition, “American Moments,” I could not help but embrace this strange feeling of guilty nostalgia toward ideas and realities that are better off left in the past.

“American Moments” showcases a selection of mid-20th century images of American subjects from the Phillips Collection, including Modernist work and street photography, documentary expression and photojournalism. It shows us our country’s past as we crave to envision it, without omitting the harrowing struggles, isolation and oppressive environments that bore not only great thinkers, artists and innovators, but the nameless huddled masses, long and forever forgotten.

Like the advent of photography itself, the exhibition starts with the city, the towering industrial wonderlands whose skyscraping mysticism and sprawling shadows have mirrored the ambitions of generations of dusty dreamers. The city became one of our most potent symbols after World War I, and photographs by Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand, among others, capture the roiling speed of its physical and cultural development.

Abbott documented the transformation of New York City. In “Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place” (1936), she points her lens upward toward the towering buildings that blot out the sky, and that dwarfing sense of scale in experiencing a new city will hit you in the gut.

The corresponding galleries explore more of the American landscape, areas of rural and industrial labor where cornfields and expanses of Standard Oil pipelines yield a menacing, inexhaustible geometry to the oppressive low-wage environments of the working class. Here the photographs of Esther Bubley prove to be an indomitable force, which threads throughout the entire show.

The next gallery, titled Scenes from the Road, are right from the grand tradition of American myth, from Lewis and Clark to Jack Kerouac, “Easy Rider” to “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” even my own father’s 1966 cross-country road trip at the age of 17 in a Volkswagen van. Traveling our country is like a rite of passage, a tradition of the singular individual, of the non-collective, which feeds the cultural ego-myth that Americanism so grandly fosters. These photos — notably Bubley’s photographs of Greyhound bus depots and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s stunning photograph of a crowded Union Station in 1934 — show the crumbling of the facade as well as the inner heroism of such journeys.

The exhibition then unfolds into a profound meditation on the conflicted humanity of a developing country, offering postwar portraits of punch-drunk (and flat drunk) soldiers in hazy bars with their spritely, well-tailored women, adjacent to suburban streets where young baby boomers run amuck. In some ways the show culminates with images from Bruce Davidson’s devastating “East 100th Street Series,” which documents desolated neighborhoods in New York City in the ’60s. These noble, sober-eyed portraits and street scenes lay out the generational resonance of our heritage and point to the dust-like impermanence of our lives, which are no less dignified and beautiful for it.

Yes, the photographs are enchanting, and they will make you yearn for something fleeting and implacable (if nothing else, an old-fashioned camera with black-and-white film). More important, and especially in light of a recent game-changing Supreme Court decision, they are an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come as a society and a reminder of the roads we ought not to go down again. We are fortunate to live in the present, but let’s not forget the grey areas, the tarnish and silvery moonlight of our past.
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