Melissa Chiu: ‘The Hirshhorn Wants to Lead the Conversation’

October 23, 2014

Melisssa Chiu walked up to the podium gingerly.

“I’ve only been here two weeks,” said the new director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. “People were asking me if I really wanted to do a talk and that maybe I should get settled in first before I tackled something like that.”

Chiu looked fresh and undaunted as she faced an enthusiastic audience at the Georgetowner’s monthly Cultural Leadership Breakfast at the George Town Club Oct. 9.

“Maybe it’s because I was born in Australia, but I thought it seemed like a good idea, to see for myself, and to present myself and a little bit of what’s happening at the Hirshhorn.”

Chiu succeeds director Richard Kashalek, who resigned a year ago. His tenure included the controversial Seasonal Inflatable Structure project.

“I think the Hirshhorn is an exciting opportunity,” said Chiu, who made a stellar reputation as director and senior vice president for global arts and cultural programs at the Asia Society Museum in New York since 2004 before being named the Hirshhorn director. “It’s an ideal place to explore contemporary art, and global art and modern art in relation to technology.”

“The way art is made, the way it’s communicated, the kind of art that is made is changing rapidly, every day, it’s truly a global kind of thing, and that’s what I’ve done at the Asia Society Museum,” she said. “What happens in China is as important as what happens here, and that kind of environment—when people not only talk about art on their iPad, but make art on a tablet—is very is very conducive to practicing cultural diplomacy.”

She talked about mounting an exhibition around the time of the Olympics which were held in Beijing. “It was focused on the art of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,” she said. “Now, that for a long time was a subject that was simply not dealt with in China—we had talked with artists whose work was hidden away during that time. “ Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that officialdom in China had decreed that that period would not be mentioned, Chiu’s exhibition—“Art and China’s Revolution”, was hugely successful.

“I think art in China has always been between antiquity and modern art,” she said. “I think contemporary art—not just contemporary Chinese art—is about having direct relationships with contemporary artists.”

“My parents were Australian and Chinese, and I grew up in Australia,” she said. “So, I think I come by globalism naturally.”

She is known to be a great fundraiser, networker and innovator, which is probably a boon for the sometimes troubled Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. She comes loaded with charm, a self-deprecating sense of humor, global experience, an appreciation of the opportunities that are inherent in a rapidly changing world. “It’s not just about sculpture and painting, it’s about the opportunities technology presents in ways of making new art, it’s about sharing those experiences. Today, you can learn about what’s going on in China or Pakistan, in a second, and I think a museum like the Hirshhorn can be a leader in recognizing those opportunities.” She recalled that she grew up in Australia when the Internet didn’t have a name. “Now, look where we are,” she said,

“Art historians are looking at contemporary art with a broader social, political and cultural trajectory and context,” she said. “The Hirshhorn has always had an impressive collection—I love the sculpture garden, and we need to build on what’s there, what the site and the building offer in terms of displaying art, the kind of art that fits here, we’re going to be building broader public programs like our After Hours events, we’re looking to the young audience of what they call millennials, we should have exhibitions that look to the future, and be leaders of conversations about innovation.

“Basically, we have a culture that is constantly being shared through our technological tools, and that makes for exciting possibilities, for challenging art,” she said, pointing to the upcoming exhibition “Days of Endless Time,” which includes 14 installations.

“Right now though, I’m looking for a house and schools,” Chiu, who has a four-year-old daughter, said. “My trustees tell me that I must move to Georgetown.” [gallery ids="101882,136808" nav="thumbs"]

Franklin School to Become Modern Art Center

February 20, 2014

Mayor Vincent Gray announced Feb. 3 that the partnership of Georgetown-based Eastbanc and the Institute of Contemporary Expression has secured plans to redevelop the historic Franklin School. The space will be transformed into a venue that will be part exhibition and performance space.

The renovation of the 1869 building at 13th and K Streets, NW, will offer Washingtonians as well as visitors a center to showcase contemporary works and performances of artists from all over the world. The man behind this vision is the institute’s founder, Dani Levinas, who is a local art collector and joined with developer, Eastbanc, Inc.

The destination will also feature a ground-floor restaurant by celebrity chef Jose Andres as well as an arts bookstore. A flexible art space where easy transitions between installations can occur has been something many D.C. art organizations have been seeking. The space was backed by the Logan Circle advisory neighborhood commission last December, beating out three other bids, including a boutique hotel, office building, or technology campus (a work space for tech entrepreneurs).

According to the local ANC vice chair Walt Cain, the criteria the commission had for the proposal was that it engaged as many people as possible and allowed the community the greatest access to the Franklin School.

The transformation of taking a historic space and redeveloping it into a contemporary space requires a number of considerations that need to be made in regards to its construction. For instance, making sure the technology is least invasive as possible as well as making sure the building is up to load-bearing capabilities. The building has fallen from its once pristine condition and has been closed since 2008.

Before renovations begin on the building the city estimates that it will cost at least $30 million to stabilize the building. The bidding process for Eastbanc, Inc., and ICE’s vision began last April and will continue.

In addition to this new modern art museum, Eastbanc plans to partner with the National Park Service to revive the adjacent Franklin Park, also under renovation.

James McNeill Whistler Before He Was Whistler At the Freer Gallery of Art

January 29, 2014

In the summer of 1858, a young James
McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) left Paris
and set off on a walking tour of the
Rhineland, in what would be one of the
most important experiences of his early career.
His goals were to visit Amsterdam—the home of
Rembrandt, an early and lasting influence—and
to make his mark on the artistic world. “Off the
Beaten Path: Early Works by James McNeill
Whistler,” on view through September 28 at
the Freer Gallery of Art, explores the artwork
that the young Whistler created on his journey
and its lasting importance to his subsequent

He never made it to the Netherlands that
summer. However, Whistler created numerous
drawings, etchings and watercolors of the country
life and towns he encountered along the
way. These charmingly casual depictions of
kitchens, innkeepers, doorways and shopkeepers
reflect Whistler’s enthusiasm for his craft as a
young artist. He filled his notebooks with quick,
impromptu sketches, some of which were later
turned into watercolors and etchings in a series
that Whistler referred to as his “French Set.”

A wonderfully infectious dimension to these
drawings is their ability to bridge the expanse of
time between now and the 150 years since their
making. These studies and observations of architecture,
atmosphere, people and places – feverish
sketches that explore the streets, alcoves and
dark cloistered rooms of Europe and the people
who occupy them – show a wide-eyed young
Whistler intoxicated by the romance of the Old

There is at least one major distinction among
these collective
drawings that
separates them
from other artists
– their sheer virtuosity.
It is not
difficult to see
the magnitude of
the young artist’s
abilities, who
would later gain
i n t e r n a t i o n a l
renown. There
are small gestures
and compositions
these studies that
are remarkably

In one drawing,
a man sits in
a dark room with
his back to the artist in front of a single window
raked with light, like a study for a lost Vemeer.
The exposed beams of the ceiling and the
provencal farmer’s table finish the rough scene
with a dreamy, bohemian dankness that predates
the maudlin allure of Parisian artist Toulouse

These early works reveal traces of Whistler’s
later, signature style. Recurring motifs, such as
doorways and stylistic choices, including dense
cross-hatching, appear in etchings created nearly
30 years after his journey.

To allow visitors to follow these visual connections
as Whistler’s style matured, the exhibit
includes a selection of etchings from the Venice
(1879-1880) and Amsterdam (1889) sets, groups
of etchings that were published and exhibited

The exhibition is also accompanied by an
online gallery of the exhibition’s objects, a map
showing Whistler’s journey and digital scans of
archival documents from his travels.
Sometimes, it takes a keen eye to recognize
a blossoming artist. With Whistler, however,
it is easy to see that he was destined for greatness.
The Freer Gallery of Art has perhaps the
most impressive collection of the artist’s mature
work, and this exhibition supplements the collection,
offering remarkable insight into the
history, influences, development and mastery of
Whistler’s craft and artistic vision.

For more information visit [gallery ids="101615,146759" nav="thumbs"]

‘Munnings: Out in the Open’ At the National Sporting Library and Museum

November 7, 2013

Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878 – 1959) is regarded as among the true masters of equine art. His paintings of foxhunting, racing and equestrian society are benchmarks of the genre, exemplified by the artist’s unparalleled ability to capture otherwise ethereal moments of untamed grace. Animal, nature and man come together on his canvases in tenuous harmony, evincing both the grand theatricality and quiet naturalism of equestrian life.

Through Sept. 15, “Munnings: Out in the Open,” a retrospective of the artist’s work at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Va., finds new and rarely traveled terrain in the artist’s long and fruitful career. It exposes a man who kept himself well concealed behind a sweeping talent and gregarious character, the dedication and commitment that drove him to success, and the recurring solace he found in the transcendental expanses of the English countryside.

Though long since deceased, Munnings was drawn back into public attention in 1996 with the publication of “Summer in February,” by novelist Jonathan Smith. The book focuses on Munnings, introducing him to modern audiences at both ends of his life: as a successful, respected but conflicted man in the twilight of his career who harbors a dark personal secret, and as a brash, young Bohemian painter finding his voice and falling in love in an artist’s colony by an English fishing village.

This distressing secret, as many now know, was the suicide of his first wife Florence in 1914. Following her death, Munnings immediately abolished her from his personal history, excluding her even from his extensive three-volume autobiography.
All of this, of course, makes for a lyrically cinematic tale. And as it goes, “Summer in February” was adapted to a movie (with the excellent Dominic Cooper in the title role) that was released in the U.K. last June, and was screened in conjunction with this exhibit as part of a fundraiser at the NSLM last April before its release.

However, “Out in the Open” goes beyond the narrative limitations of a movie or a novel, offering audiences a three-dimensional portrait of the artist as told through the perspective of his paintings, which are more revealing and vulnerable than anything he or anyone ever wrote about him.

“We wanted to take advantage of the film and this recent popularity, but we also wanted to mount a real retrospective,” says Claudia Pfeiffer, head curator of the museum. “Munnings is such an important artist, especially for our museum—he was one of the few sporting artists who crossed over to a broader cultural and critical recognition.”

The time Munnings spent in the artist’s colony in the fishing village of Lamorna—where the book’s story is derived and where he and Florence spent so much time together—is where the exhibit begins, but it expands far deeper into the artist’s career, covering his work through the early 1950s. Still, that undeniable energy between his personal and professional life helped steer the development of the exhibit to focus on Munnings’ “passion paintings.”

“He made a healthy living off of equestrian commissions,” says Pfeiffer, “But we developed this exhibit around the paintings he pursued for his own passion, because that offers a better understanding of who he was as a man and an artist.”

Even the title of the show is a double entendre, referring both to the open-air painting style to which he was so devoted, and to the revealing of Munnings’ true character, which in many ways he concealed from his friends and patrons throughout his life.
Among the show’s highlights are two portraits of Florence on horseback and two portraits of his second wife Violet. These paintings alone show what a remarkable and dynamic range he had—both in color, tone and technique, as well as in the communication of mood and atmospheric texture to influence a scene. His creativity in fact feels forged by these relationships.
Florence is painted with an almost divine softness, first wistfully as she rides through the forest flecked with light through the eaves, and then in a harrowing portrait surrounded by grey skies and riding aside in black riding attire, which seems to foretell her sad fate just a few months later. This ephemeral portrayal, seemingly despite Munnings’ best painterly efforts, betrays the closeted fear he must have felt toward her afflicted spirit, as if at any moment she could—and ultimately did—disappear forever.

Then Violet. She holds the reigns of her horse firmly, standing in line with the creature with her foot turned out and her other hand on her waist, unquestionably in control of her time and place—a portrait of a 20th century woman. Indeed, Violet managed Munnings’ practical affairs, from money to property, sheltering the artist from mundane aspects of his life that always affected him negatively. Even in his clear affection towards her, in a garden portrait where she darns a pair of stockings, Munnings conveys a sense in her expression that she was a woman of great consequence and determination.

Out in the Open gives the audience a crisp and beautifully rendered biography of one of the last great painters of the classical European tradition. It not only broadens Munnings’ growing place in art and popular history, but amplifies it, validating the narrative of his life while clearing the fog of rumor and lore, and proving that nothing gets into the essence of an artist’s character like the artwork itself. Here, Munnings is brought magnificently to life on his own terms, using the very work that defined him. [gallery ids="118833,118838" nav="thumbs"]

Women’s History Museum: Reclaiming Missing Half of the Story

October 21, 2013

In many ways, even though there is still no such thing as an actual, physical place called the National Women’s History Museum, it’s been something of a banner year for NWHM supporters, who number in the hundreds of thousands.

You could see it in the spring when legislation to create a federal commission to determine the feasibility of constructing a National Women’s History Museum was introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introducing a companion bill in the Senate. The hope is through successful lobbying for the legislation and private funding that a museum will rise and come to fruition hopefully within five to seven years, and that women would be the principal designers and architects.

You could see it in May, when Joan Bradley Wages, president and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, and Steven Knapp, president of the George Washington University, signed a memorandum of agreement to collaborate on public programs that will engage the local community on topics of historical relevance to women, called “Initiating Change/Adapting to Change.” The first program took place Oct. 2 with a lecture focusing on the hot topic issue of women in the military, a forum on “A New Order: Change for Women in the U.S. Military,” with Leisa Meyer of the College of William and Mary and retired USAF Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the board of directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc., moderated by journalist and columnist Eleanor Clift.

An even more vivid manifestation of the identity and effectiveness of the NWHM will take place Wednesday, Oct. 9, with the Third Annual NWH’s presentation of its 2013 Living Legacy Awards, the de Pizan Honors ceremony at the Mead Center for American Theatre at Arena Stage. The event and gala, chaired by former Senator and past president of the Red Cross Elizabeth Hanford Dole, a former de Pizan recipient, and former Virginia First Lady Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon Johnson.

The honors are named after Christine de Pizan, a 15th-century Western woman and author of “The Book of the City of Ladies,” written in 1405, which was written to combat existing ideas about women’s nature, making her the first woman to chronicle women’s history at a time when women appeared to have no documented place in history. The honors were created in 2011 to recognize women of historic achievement.

This year’s award recipients are Washington native and renowned mezzo soprano Denyce Graves, breast cancer pioneer radiologist Etta D. Pisano, environmental preservationist Sally Jewell, and Tony Award-winning actress and television legend Phylicia Rashad.

To get a full sense of the spirit of and the hope for the National Women’s History Museum, you might want to check out Wages, who has since the beginning of the creation of the museum as an organizational institution in 1996 has been its most tireless and public face. Wages, as head of the NWHM, is its most vocal and visible supporter. Smart and charming, she brought her lobbying experience in Washington with her Alabama background, an admitted stubbornness, to the mission of helping to create a museum that highlighted the achievements and the cause of women, many of them forgotten .

“Officially, the NWHM has existed since 1996,” said Wages, a former lobbyist and public relations executive. “But before that, a group of women, headed by our founder Karen Staser, were brought together, sitting and talking together where we lived and we had all noticed the absence of not just a women’s museum, but statues, dedicated spaces, things like that, which celebrated the achievements of women. I know we have women’s history month, gender studies and the like, where you certainly find out just how forgotten women are in the annals of historical achievement.”

One of the first things—at the beginning—was getting the statue of women’s suffragettes moved from a crypt into the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. That was in 1997, and it was the first success of the NWHM, of which Wages is a founding board member. “That statue—it’s pretty powerful—wasn’t being seen by anyone,” Wages said. “We worked with other women’s group. Now, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony can be seen my millions every year.” Then, House Speaker Newt Gingrich took time out from the big budget negotiations that year to attend the congressional ceremony honoring the women.”

“I probably didn’t know what I was getting into, or the difficulties involved in this, but I do have a certain stubbornness,” Wages said. “We, all of us are committed to this, to have a women’s museum on the Mall.”

Past recipients of the de Pizan honors include poet Maya Angelou, photographer Annie Leibovitz, Yahoo president Marissa Mayer, broadcaster Cathy Hughes, medical pioneer Helen Greiner and actress Meryl Streep.

Legendary documentary producer Ken Burns will receive the Henry Blackwell award. “Dr. Pisano, Denyce Graves, Phylicia Rashad, Sally Jewell and Ken Burns, each represent the type of world-changing accomplishments that carry on de Pizan’s groundbreaking work of documenting and highlighting women’s achievements,” Wages said.

What would a National Women’s History Museum look like? It’s hard to say, but a part of what the institution and organization does is “to research, collects and exhibit the contribution of women to the social, cultural, economic and political life of our nation in a context of world history,” per its mission statement.

The results of that mission—while not yet in a physical building—makes itself felt on the NWHM’s website in an archive of exhibitions that reveal a range of diversity and subject matters to enrich all. Some of the subjects have included the role and progress of African-American women, women publishers, printers and journalists, a century’s history of women entrepreneurship, women reform leaders, women in industry, women who ran for president, women in World War II, an exhibition entitled “Daring Dames,” women in early film, spies in American history, women in motherhood, early Jewish American women and more. These are the kinds of exhibition that could easily fill a museum, just for starters. And Wages, no question, will be there when that happens.
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End of Summer Wrap-up

September 12, 2013

**[Freer and Sackler Galleries](** “Perspectives: Rina Banerjee” *Through June 8, 2014* The Sackler Gallery will feature the work of Rina Banerjee (b. 1963), an Indian born artist working out of […]

Visual Arts: Now & Later

After a few sunless months holed away in electrically heated offices, and with the final weeks of winter testing both stamina and patience, the collective mind is caught in a temporal schism. It tries to propel itself beyond the current moment, projecting even its short-term plans and ambitions somewhere just past the wintry horizon, where the warm and ardent embrace of spring lies patiently waiting for adventure. Then the diet and exercise will commence, muscles and ligaments will be dusted off, and the adventures will be had. Spring?is an opportunity for reinvigoration, and it has come early to the visual arts of Washington, D.C.
Here is a look at what is on view NOW and a peek into what is coming LATER.

NOW: The Pre-Raphaelites?Through May 19
The National Gallery is taking things back to the 1850s with an expansive exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848 – 1900. Featuring sculptures, works on paper, and decorative objects, the exhibition details the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
LATER: Albrecht Dürer March 24 – June 9
The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471– 1528) is widely considered one of history’s?true artistic geniuses, prized across cultures and centuries for his transcendent integration of scientific and artistic innovation. While Dürer’s paintings are prized, his most influential works are his drawings, watercolors, engravings, and woodcuts, which allow scholars and viewers alike into his process of creation, executed?with highly refined precision and breathtaking craftsmanship. Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina pulls together the finest collection of Dürer’s drawings and watercolors from the Albertina in Vienna, Austria.

NOW: Angels, Demons & Savages Through May 12
With Angels, Demons, and Savages, The Phillips Collection constructs a visual narrative between the works of three renowned 20th century artists who helped dismantled the narrative tradition. The exhibit reveals an intimate story in the wild and furious tumult of American abstract expressionism, focusing on the relation- ship between Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), French painter Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), and a lesser known American artist and patron Alfonso Ossorio (1916–1990).
LATER: Georges Braque | The Laib Wax Room?June 8 – September 1 | March 2
Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 will be an in-depth study of Georges Braque’s (1882–1963) groundbreaking work with the still life—which he pioneered through cubism alongside Picasso in the first decades of the 20th century—framed within the context of Europe’s revolutionary political climate.
Meanwhile, the Laib Wax Room, opening March 2, will be the first permanent installation at the Phillips since the beloved Rothko Room opened in 1960. Lined with fragrant beeswax and lit by a single bare lightbulb, the Laib Wax Room, by German artist Wolgang Laib, will offer a small fragrant cubby in the original Phillips house, offering a personal meditative encounter that recalls the origin of painting with encaustics around 100 AD.

NOW: The Sultan’s Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art
Through March 10, 2013 Ottoman art reflects the wealth, abundance, and influence of an empire that spanned seven centuries and three continents. The Sultan’s Garden chronicles how stylized tulips, carnations, hyacinths, honey- suckles, roses, and rosebuds came to embellish nearly all media produced by the Ottoman court beginning in the mid-16th century. The Sultan’s Garden unveils the influence of Ottoman floral style and traces its continuing impact through the textile arts—some of the most luxurious and technically complex productions of the empire.
LATER: Out of Southeast Asia: Art that Sustains?April 12 – Oct. 13
Historical textile artworks from The Textile Museum’s magnificent Southeast Asian collections will be displayed alongside the work of four contemporary textile artists and designers and weavers.

NOW: Out of the Ordinary Through May 19
Starting with Marcel Duchamp and his “Readymade” artwork of ordinary mass-produced objects, modern and contemporary artists have dealt head-on with this preoccupation of the banal, creating works that use the process of copying, faking and duplicating as strategies of artistic invention. With their current exhibit, Out of the Ordinary, The Hirshhorn uses sculptures such as Robert Gober’s oversized stick of butter and Christo’s sealed-off storefront to present?the immaterial grandeur of life’s most common occurrences.
LATER: Directions: Jennie C. Jones: Higher Resonance?May 16 to Oct. 27, 2013
Music, art history, and African-American culture intermingle in the art of Brooklyn-based artist Jennie C. Jones (b. 1968), who creates audio collages, paintings, sculptures, and works on paper that explore the formal and conceptual junctures between modernist abstraction and black avant-garde music, particularly jazz.

NOW: Nam June Paik: Global Visionary Through August 11
The artwork and ideas of the Korean-born artist Nam June Paik were a major influence on late 20th century art. Nam June Paik: Global Visionary offers an unprecedented view into?the artist’s creative method by featuring key artworks that convey Paik’s extraordinary accomplishments as a major international artist as well as material drawn from the artist’s personal archive, which was acquired by the American Art Museum in 2009.
LATER: Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color April 12 – July 28
Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color fully examines the remarkable career of Thomas Day (1801–1861), a free African American who owned and operated one of North Carolina’s most successful cabinet shops prior to the Civil War. Day combined?his own unique motifs with popular designs to create a distinctive style readily identified with his shop. Beginning in the 1820s, Day produced fine furniture for prominent white citizens, and was noted for both designing interior spaces and the furnishings. His surviving furniture and architectural woodwork still represent the finest of nineteenth-century craftsmanship and aesthetics.

NOW: Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s? Through April 7
Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s explores our city’s thriving cultural underground during the 1980s, giving visual form to the raucous energy of Go-Go music and a world- renowned punk and hardcore scene, demonstrating its place in the history of street art as well as that of America’s capital city.
LATER: David Levinthal: War Games May 11 – September 1
David Levinthal (b. 1949) is a central?figure in American postmodern photography. His work stages uncanny tableaux using toys and miniature dioramas, which stand as a?heavy critique of the way society deals with and perceives conflict. His groundbreaking project Hitler Moves East (1975–77), a series of imagined scenes from World War II’s Russian front, first established his reputation, becoming a touchstone for the iconoclastic generation of American photographers.?

Art Soiree Hosts 3rd Annual Cartoonist Exhibit at Malmaison

August 15, 2013

Art Soiree hosted its third annual cartoonist exhibit, a retrospective of President Barack Obama’s first term, at Malmaison on Water Street Jan. 18.

Artists, whose work was on display, included Kevin KAL Kallaugher (the Economist), Daryl Cagle (MSNBC), Tom Toles (the Washington Post), Mike Keefe (Denver Post), Jimmy Margulies (the Record, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, USA Today), Ann Telnaes (the Washington Post, Signe Wilkinson, Philadelphia Daily News), Christo Komarnitski (Sega, Sturshel), Damien Glez (Le Monde, Courrier International, La Gazette).

Only two cartoonists were at the event, Kevin KAL Kallaugher is the artist-in-residence at University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Tom Toles, who performed with his rock group Suspicious Package.

According to Zeina, an employee at Napoleon Bistro, Malmaison — the 4,200-square-foot space with a bakery and cafe and owned by Zubair Popal — will officially open this spring. Tonight, the space is hosting a networking event with Fashion Group International and the Georgetown BID. Click here for more information on the event.

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Lichtenstein Blockbuster Proclaims Power of Print

Of all the painters I can think of, none seem to grate on the nerves of people I know quite like Roy Lichtenstein. They might roll their eyes at the abstract dribblings of Jackson Pollock or seethe at one of John McCracken’s plywood plank sculptures leaning against a wall — which is exactly what it sounds like — but never is there such a mix of exasperation, perplexity and annoyance as when they confront one of Lichtenstein’s colossal comic book panels in a museum gallery.

The whole situation is preposterous to them, for in truth the paintings do often look out of place. Each one is eternally stranded in its own little world—these vein and diluted cartoons, embroiled forever in their melodramas of love, longing, domesticity or enemy airstrike. They do not cooperate with other paintings around them, they stick out.

The initial disillusionment is usually in thinking that Lichtenstein just copied a bunch of stuff from newspapers and comic books, with a certain wit and panache. But this reaction stems from a deeper root: a lot of people have a hard time accepting this as high art. It isn’t quite absurd, but it can’t possibly be serious. It does not fall into the parameters of abstraction or realism—it’s more of a pliable schism. It has no real atmosphere or painterly richness (save for a sort of prepackaged 1950s nostalgia and a handful of tawdry brushstrokes), nor is it purely conceptual. And the compositions are weird.

Even by the steely Warholian standards of Pop art—the movement that Lichtenstein conceived with the very comic book paintings that brought him his fame in the early 1960s—his work floats alone in a bubble of unflattering self-effacement. Before our eyes, it seems to be rubbing itself out against the endless stream of media and mundane cultural symbolism that it has appropriated, like Snoopy bouncing between the funny pages and MetLife insurance commercials.

Yet, here it is. The National Gallery’s major fall exhibition: a monumental retrospective of the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. His artwork has enjoyed uncommon success and still fetches dizzying prices at auction. Over the course of his career, his work has been the subject of more than 240 solo exhibitions (the last full survey organized by the Guggenheim in 1993). Some audiences tend to be irrationally, blindly adoring of him. Others would toss his work in the recycling with the Saturday Evening Post.

Both polarizing and encumbering, Lichtenstein’s work often feels like it is beyond specific scrutiny simply by nature of its existence. In some immeasurable way, it did what it was supposed to do. In the 1960s, it harked immediately back to a post-war era of cultural bloat that had laid the foundation for a society we see up to this day, where access to lived experience is mediated by signs and symbols endlessly replicated by a pervasive mass media.

The cool thing about seeing Lichtenstein’s work in 2012 is that the guy was basically prescient. The relevance of his 50-year-old concept has been widely amplified in recent years by the onslaught of social media and viral networking. Today, everyone shares and manipulates text and image with a personal flourish, from Facebook to Twitter and customized memes, whose entire structures rely upon a cache of shared, immediately recognizable symbols and icons.

Ironically, the decline of print media gives his work even further authority. Lichtenstein spent his career working in an aesthetic language culled from newspaper printing techniques of the day, using predominantly primary colors, black and white, and mimicking the process of Ben-Day dots to create gray tones and secondary colors (ultimately, the dot became his lasting visual signature). The employment of these printing techniques is now all but extinct. An audience under the age of 15 might not intuit Lichtenstein’s visual language at all, which defeats the work’s purpose almost entirely.

This now post-retro appeal adds a eulogizing loveliness to his work and shows us how far we have traversed the path. If half a century ago, Lichtenstein was already aware of media oversaturation, and since then we have continuously expanded and streamlined its outreach, are we even aware of its effects anymore? Who knows how many symbols we are numb to? Like myself, most of you readers probably make your living by running your fingers over identical keyboards, whose patterns you trace and retrace endlessly.

This in itself proves to be a fundamental nature throughout Lichtenstein’s surprising and expansive career: it is not the idea that is unchanging—it is the medium, the language that stays the same.

Looking at his oeuvre, the appropriation and stylization of pre-existing material is constant. It did not start or end with the Comics page. “I think even the old audiences still think of Roy as just doing cartoons,” said Dorothy Lichtenstein, who previewed the exhibit. “There were three years really that he did that, and then there’s a body of work that’s so different.”

In an early work on display from 1951, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” Lichtenstein took the iconic image and reduced it to something like a child’s art homework. It bares no resemblance to the clean graphic style he would develop a decade later.

The exhibition follows his career from the 1950s to his death in 1997, offering an extensive look at his various styles and interpretations. His first pop painting, “Look Mickey,” part of the National Gallery’s collection, is a centerpiece of the show. Lichtenstein’s stark and nearly unfashionable portrait of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck not only launched the artist’s career, but helped change modern notions about art.

A walk through the exhibit begins with paintings of sneakers, a hot dog, a cup of coffee, a sponge, and the ominously vague painting “Spray,” which could be anything from window cleaner to pesticide.

When shown together, his landmark 1960s paintings of war and romance comic panels carry a unique and unexpected punch; the shock and interest feels like it must have when they were first displayed in major New York art galleries.

He reinterpreted works by Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, de Kooning and Gilbert Stewart. He ventured into the realm of ancient Egypt, architectural moldings, often amalgamating genres—his cartoon nudes fall somewhere in between Renoir and Li’l Abner.

More surprising and nearly breathtaking are his landscapes composed of fields of his small dots, which go hand in hand with his interpretations of Japanese woodblock prints. The harmony, balance and beauty Lichtenstein achieves are almost an antidote to his rigid, pulpy, high-strung comic paintings.

Throughout this exhibition there is a wonderful humor, irony and curiosity. As Dorothy pointed out, it is a reflection of her late husband.

Lichtenstein said in 1964, “The things I have apparently parodied I actually admire.” This is not art meant to incense, but to invigorate, to carry with us as we leave the gallery. Perhaps this is why the paintings can seem out of place in a museum—they are meant for the outside world. Let it pervade our collective consciousness a little, and it might shed light on our time, our place, and each other. With a wink and a smile, of course.

A smile was indeed on my face as I walked back to the metro, looking for that giant white “M” as a thousand Starbucks mermaids flirted with me from the cardboard latte cups in the hands of every passerby. Although maybe that was just a coincidence. I was, after all, within a block of two Starbucks.?

“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” will be on view at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 13, 2013. For more information visit

BELLOWS AND MIRÓ: Painting the Cultural Fabric

Within the stone walls of the National Gallery of Art, the calm, quiet rooms are always cool and astonishingly breezy. Perhaps this is in order to preserve many of the collection’s centuries-old masterpieces, but to all who enter it is simply a fine refresher. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, for this writer, there is no better way to escape the oppressive summer heat than to dip into one of the exhibits and look around.

This summer, however, a different kind of heat is emanating from inside the gallery walls. It is almost imperceptible, but if you look closely you can see it, like gas rippling up from the stovetop. It is a political and social heat that radiates from the canvases and wraps itself around you. It is coming from the works of George Bellows and Joan Miró, both the subjects of major exhibitions at the National Gallery.

At first glance there are not many similarities between the two artists, in their style or their history. Miró (1893 – 1983) was born in Barcelona, Spain. He was a member of the European avant-garde, an artist-activist who shot into prominence on the coattails of cubism and surrealism. Fusing the artistic innovations of his day with the heritage from his native region of Catalonia, Miró forged a voice and vision in his paintings that would influence future generations of artists worldwide. The current exhibition at the National Gallery, “Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape” (through August 12), showcases the artist’s political engagement and his battle for a collective Catalan identity throughout the militaristic and social tumult of the 20th century.

Bellows (1882 – 1925), on the other hand, was an American realist painter born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, a gifted draftsman and athlete who almost took the route of professional baseball player before moving to New York City to study painting. An original member of the Ashcan School, Bellows is largely remembered for his portraits of contemporary American society, urban subject matter and the working class—and, memorably, the seedy underbelly of early New York City boxing culture. The National Gallery is exhibiting a retrospective of Bellows’ work through Oct. 8.

Aesthetically, there could not be a more dissimilar pair of artists than George Bellows and Joan Miró. One offers a gritty, unflinching portrait of American realism, the other an effusive and ever-evolving synthesis of the folkloric, the abstract, the subconscious and the colorfully raw. But there is a bridge between these two monumental and otherwise incongruous exhibits that brings the artists to common ground. Both expose men of dire social conscience, whose painting careers and cultural sentiments wove together to create bodies of works that transcended a singular time or place and carry on their lasting legacies.

In the first room of the Miró exhibit, you are met with intricate canvases of farms and gardens, corroded stucco houses cankered with vines and ivy, detailed to the point of compulsion—every seed, blade of grass and cracked windowpane is meticulously, if simply, rendered. The paintings are enchanted with that sense of something greater, as if we are just getting a surface glimpse of a rich and endless landscape. This plays out most pointedly in “The Farm,” which, according to the artist, “was a resume of my entire life in the country.”

This early painting, completed in 1922, roots Miró firmly in an ideology that would thread itself through his oeuvre. The scrutiny over familiar landscapes is the first sign of his engagement with political identity: the cultural specificity, locality and autonomy with which he renders the land of his ancestors is a cry for Catalan culture.

“Miró was reaching back to Catalan Romanesque art as a way to resurrect his ancestry,” says Harry Cooper, curator of modern art at the National Gallery. The narrative forms of Miró’s earlier work point toward these characteristic church murals, while the shapes, structures and colors combine influence from cubism, fauvism and the breathtaking architectural work of fellow Catalan, Antoni Gaudí.

Around this time, the Spanish government outlawed the Catalan flag and language, and a series of events unfolded that would lead to the Spanish Civil War. The political turmoil outraged Miró and as his feelings grew deeper, his paintings became increasingly disturbing and violent.

Cooper notes how just a year after “The Farm,” Miró’s painting, “The Hunter” took these sociopolitical allusions to a far more scathing level. “It was painted only a year or so later, but the difference in style and voice is pretty astonishing. The Catalan flag and the French flag hang side by side, and the Spanish flag hangs alone on the other side of the canvas. You can see that things got political pretty immediately with Miró,” Cooper says.

Perhaps what is more astonishing is that Miró executed these ideas in an entirely distinctive, individual language all his own (a pursuit also likely inspired by Gaudí).

“I understand the artist to be someone who, amidst the silence of others, uses his voice to say something,” Miró once wrote, “and who has the obligation that this thing not be useless but something that offers a service to man.”

Just ten years before and across the Atlantic, Bellows had spoken up loudly against New York City’s social and economic class structures. His paintings of tenement children, construction workers and the cheap leisure escapes of the working class are treated with a painterly regard previously reserved for only the Dionysian pursuits of the most affluent. Imagine seeing Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” but swap out the airy middle-class Frenchmen with puffy-faced, malnourished orphans and haggard bricklayers. The titles alone are enough to give an idea: “Paddy Flannigan,” “Frankie the Organ Boy” and “River Rats.”

Imbuing New York City’s immigrants, laborers and impoverished families with the rites of the societal elite suggests how Bellows perceived these communities as the brick-and-mortar foundation of his country. Throughout his career Bellows painted men and women in almost every walk of life, yet these paintings remain his most powerful and haunting.

Through the somber shadows surrounding these men’s works, an undeniable joy nonetheless permeates. You can see it in Bellows’s rhythmic, effusive brushwork, songlike in their fluency and syncopation. It is visible in Miró’s sun-kissed color palette and his wholly liberated, original forms, like new life taking shape before our eyes. There is love amidst the rage, serenity is found in the chaos, beauty and bile are all interwoven, just as they are throughout every town and country in the history of mankind.

George Bellows and Joan Miró shared this understanding, this gift for portraying true life. Go see it play out before they’re gone.

For more information, visit ? [gallery ids="102467,120695" nav="thumbs"]