Visual Arts Spring Preview

February 24, 2016

‘Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan’
(opens March 5)
Freer – Sackler

Decades of civil unrest that began in the 1970s nearly destroyed Afghanistan’s distinct artistic culture, a blend of traditions from India, Persia and Central Asia. Many of Afghanistan’s artisans were forced to leave their country or give up their craft. The old city of Kabul, once a bustling center of craft and commerce, fell into ruin. The British non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain, founded in 2006 at the joint request of the Prince of Wales and the President of Afghanistan, has transformed the Murad Khani district of Old Kabul from slum conditions into a vibrant cultural and economic center, founding Afghanistan’s premier institution for vocational training in the arts.

To share this transformative story of people, places and heritage in Afghanistan, the museum will recreate a visit to Old Kabul, transforming galleries into an Afghan caravanserai, complete with artisan stalls, architectural elements, immersive video, large-scale photographs and demonstrations by visiting artisans from Murad Khani.?

‘Hollywood and Time: Celebrity Covers’
(opens April 1)
National Portrait Gallery

“Hollywood and Time” presents a selection of original cover art commissioned by Time magazine, highlighting Hollywood personalities who once graced theater marquees across the country. Focusing on 32 celebrities whose vision and talents carried us to different eras and exotic places, the exhibition displays vintage portraits and photographs of, among others: Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Diane Keaton, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen.

‘Senses of Time: Video- and Film-based Works of Africa’
(opens May 18)
National Museum of African Art

In “Senses of Time,” six internationally recognized African artists examine how time is experienced — and even produced — by the human body. Bodies stand, climb, dance and dissolve in seven works of video and film art. These time-based works by Sammy Baloji, Theo Eshetu, Moataz Nasr, Berni Searle, Yinka Shonibare MBE and Sue Williamson will repeat, resist and reverse the expectation that time must move relentlessly forward.

‘Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse’
(opens May 21)
National Building Museum

This exhibition reveals the stories behind iconic antique dollhouses from the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood, taking visitors on a journey through the history of the English home, everyday lives and changing family relationships. The small stories of 12 dollhouses from the past 300 years are brought to life by imagining the characters that live or work there. “Meeting” the residents, visitors will discover tales of marriages, parties, politics and crime. The exhibition encompasses country mansions, the Georgian town house, suburban villas, newly built council estates and high-rise apartments.

‘Intersections: Photographs and Video from the NGA and the Corcoran Gallery of Art’
(opens May 29)
National Gallery of Art

Nearly 700 photographs from Eadweard Muybridge’s groundbreaking publication “Animal Locomotion,” acquired by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1887, became the foundation for the institution’s early interest in photography. The Key Set of more than 1,600 works by Alfred Stieglitz, donated by Georgia O’Keeffe and the Alfred Stieglitz Estate, launched the photography collection at the National Gallery of Art in 1949. Inspired by these two seminal artists, Muybridge and Stieglitz, the exhibition brings together highlights of the recently merged collections of the Corcoran and the National Gallery of Art by a range of artists from the 1870s to today. The connections between the two photography collections will be explored through five themes — movement, sequence, narrative, studio and identity — found in the work of the two founding photographers.

‘Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions’
(opens May 27)
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Martin Puryear had his first solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. His drawings and prints are less well known than his elegant and playful sculptures, but they are equally essential to the artist’s studio practice. “Multiple Dimensions” is the first major exhibition to highlight these paper works, featuring over 50 drawings and prints, as well as 12 sculptures — many borrowed from the artist and never displayed before.

Several drawings and a maquette in the exhibition relate to his major outdoor sculpture at D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Building. The exhibition also features 14 works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection, including a portfolio of woodcuts and a major wood sculpture.?

‘Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World’
(closes March 20)
National Gallery of Art

A rare opportunity to view about 50 bronze sculptures from the Hellenistic period — between the fourth century B.C. and the first century A.D. — this exhibition draws on the collections of archaeological museums in the United States, Tunisia, Georgia and throughout Europe. [gallery ids="102257,128826,128821" nav="thumbs"]

Museums in Winter: Art Without the Crowds

February 18, 2016

As we wring the slush off our pant legs and break up the sheets of snow that cover our vehicles, doorsteps and walkways, just getting to work and back seems bad enough. How does this sound: trudging through knee-deep puddles of dirty ice water and pinballing around taxicabs trapped in lawless traffic patterns dictated by the randomly zigzagging pathways scooped out by overworked DPW drivers … all to visit an art museum? Show of (frostbitten) hands?

I would imagine that, over the next two weeks, museums around Washington will see their lowest attendance numbers in the past few years. With public transportation struggling to get back on schedule and most of us behind on work (and probably domestic chores), a museum excursion is most likely the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

However, if you have the time, that might also be the best reason to go to a museum right now: there’s a very good chance you will have the place to yourself. So if you’re willing to brave the elements and journey downtown, here are two stellar exhibitions to take in during the hushed and intimate state of D.C.’s museums in winter.

‘The Lost Symphony: Whistler and the Perfection of Art’
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Through May 30

From 1867 until 1877, the American-born artist James McNeill Whistler painted, scraped, repainted and finally destroyed his large-scale painting “The Three Girls.” From the outset of its creation, he had envisioned it as his masterpiece, tying together all of his artistic philosophies and stylistic innovations.?

“The Three Girls” was a monumental painting, meant to hang in Whistler’s now-famous Peacock Room — in the same location where the infamous mural of the fighting peacocks currently resides. Yet Whistler was never satisfied with the work. His mother Anna (the subject of Whistler’s most famous work, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” popularly titled “Whistler’s Mother”) wrote that the painting eluded him precisely because “he had tried too hard to make it the perfection of art.”

All that remains of “The Three Girls” is a rescued fragment of the large unfinished painting, salvaged from his studio; numerous studies; and the frame that Whistler decorated specifically for the painting. These are among the clues on display in this unique show at the Sackler, hinting at the masterpiece that might have been.

The exhibition also includes Whistler’s “Princess from the Land of Porcelain,” which has not been shown outside the Peacock Room since 1904. (The Peacock Room, and the entire Freer Gallery, are closed for renovations through the spring of 2017.)

The destruction of “The Three Girls” — called “the lost symphony” in the exhibition title because it was to be part of Whistler’s series of “Symphony in White” paintings — and the afterlife of its frame illuminate the artist’s preoccupation with patronage, payment and professional reputation. These themes are at the heart of the complementary Sackler exhibition, “Peacock Room REMIX: Darren Waterston’s ‘Filthy Lucre,’” which reimagines Whistler’s extraordinary room “in a state of decadent demolition.”

‘Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today’
National Museum of Women in the Arts
Through Feb. 28

In the 1950s and ’60s, an era when painting, sculpture and architecture were dominated by men (yes, even more so than today), women artists had a considerable impact working in alternative materials such as textiles, ceramics and metals. Pioneers in these fields — including Ruth Asawa, Edith Heath, Sheila Hicks, Karen Karnes, Dorothy Liebes, Alice Kagawa Parrott, Lenore Tawney, and Eva Zeisel — became influential designers, artists and teachers. They helped to shape the way art was made and understood in the decades that followed, and their work continues to inspire artists, as this exhibition makes clear.

“Pathmakers,” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, presents dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today. It is a diverse group, ranging from artists represented by New York galleries to participants in the Santa Fe craft scene (Magdalene Odundo’s earthenware vessels are standouts) to creators of large-scale art for General Motors, the Ford Foundation and other high-profile organizations.

Among the contemporary female artists and designers whose work builds upon that of midcentury predecessors are Polly Apfelbaum and Michelle Grabner, whose installations center on woven and knitted patterns; Anne Wilson, who focuses on the processes of textile manufacture; Magdalene Odundo and Christine Nofchissey McHorse, who adapt traditional techniques while absorbing global influences; furniture and fixture designers Vivian Beer, Front Design and Hella Jongerius; and Gabriel Ann Maher, whose work looks at the ways gender is constructed by the clothes we wear.
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Winter Museum Openings

November 19, 2015

Relatively few museum exhibitions open in the winter months, but here are a few that are taking the polar plunge.

“Frank Sinatra at 100” pays tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes with an exhibition of photographs, sheet music, album covers, posters, the trench coat he wore in the 1957 film “Pal Joey” and bowties made by his first wife, Nancy, to throw to fans at concerts. National Museum of American History, opens Nov. 20.

“New York City: A Portrait Through Stamp Art” will display 30 pieces of original postal artwork under the headings: Baseball, Broadway, City Life, Icons, Politics and Government and Music. National Postal Museum, opens Dec. 10.

“Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” will exhibit about 50 sculptures and related works from the Greek-dominated Mediterranean of the fourth to first century B.C., lent by archaeological museums in Europe and the United States. National Gallery of Art, Dec. 13 through March 20.

“Shakespeare: Life of an Icon” assembles books and documents — such as deeds for his real estate purchases and diary entries by audience members — from the Bard’s lifetime, providing context for his work and a tangible sense of the elusive author and man. Folger Shakespeare Library, Jan. 20 through March 27.

“Renée Stout: Tales of the Conjure Woman” displays work in various genres by this D.C.-based artist, who uses the alter ego Fatima Mayfield, a fictitious herbalist and fortune-teller, in her explorations of personal and social issues. American University Museum at the Katzen Center, Jan. 23 through March 13.

Note: Stout’s work is also on view at Hemphill Fine Arts through Dec. 19 in a solo show called “Wild World.”

Freer-Sackler’s Raby: a Studious Man Firmly in the World of Art—and the World

November 16, 2015

Sometimes, we forget just how lucky we are to be living in Washington—never mind the presence of politicians.

We have the zoo, the National Gallery, museums new and old, we have the mall, we have art and artists and their explainers and caretakers, we have places and people so unique and singular as to qualify as treasures.

And we have the Freer|Sackler Galleries, the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art.

We have Julian Raby, the Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery since 2002. He was the second speaker in the Georgetown Media Group’s second season of its Cultural Leadership Breakfast Series at the George Town Club Nov. 5.

If, in the midst of a crowd, you had to pick out a man who might have the touch of an antiquarian, an Oxford graduate, an author, lecturer and expert on Asian and Islamic art, who spends many of his waking hours in the presence of works of art from across the globe itself, you’d probably hone right in on Raby, even before he said a single word. He has the air of an explainer, the grace of a man who carries enough knowledge to water numerous university gardens without making a show of it. You would just say,“that’s the one.”

Raby, 65, had his passion on display before the attendees at the breakfast. You got not only the history of first the Freer and then the Sackler, but the personalities and quirks of James McNeill Whistler, the rise of art in America in a particular place and time, and the role of the artist in it. He explained the importance of the collections among the sister museums, their mutual mission to “expand knowledge” and the importance of the arts of foreign lands, civilizations and times.

Ask Raby a question, and he speaks not in slogans, but in punctuated and grammatical sentences, in whole paragraphs, and probably in tongues and tomes as well. He is impressive without being intimidating. He is, these days, also a man concerned with antiquities and art that are being threatened by destructive, nihilistic forces in the Middle East, where 2,000-years-old structures and objects that make up ancient Palmyra in Syria are all but destroyed.

“What we do and can do is very important,” he said, “living as we are in a time of increasing intemperance and hostilities which threaten the preservation of our historic past.”

Raby brought to life the beginnings of the Freer Gallery, the first museum of art on the National Mall (dedicated in 1923), spawning from 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.”

Freer endowed the museum with his collection—some 7,500 works.

Freer also endowed his passion for Asian art to Teddy Roosevelt, who understood the developing significance of the East and Far East to the culture, trade and global politics of the United States.

The fascination with Asian art, and then Islamic art, on the part of Freer was an expression, “of the universality of art,” Raby said. “There was a view that art had a core spirituality, that it could be therapeutic.”

The Freer Gallery became a part of the Smithsonian, which by a famous phrase was, “a collection of objects,” and included “that musty phrase and description, ‘the nation’s attic,’” Raby added.

Initially, the Freer Gallery was a “closed institution.” There was to be no lending or borrowing, but it is now a haven for scholarly work and research.

If you listen to Raby talk, you can see how he perceives the museum and its purpose. “There is a responsibility here, and an opportunity, it has always done so—the responsibility to help create empathy and understanding across the cultures, to gain a respect for other cultures,” he said.

That respect and love arises in his description of the famed Peacock Room, made for British shipping magnate Frederick Richards Leyland by Whistler. “Imagine,” Raby said, “a relationship somewhat like what Velasquez might have had with the hidalgos.” A phrase you won’t hear every day.

“It’s not what it used to be, but when we open the windows and let the light in, it’s still spectacular.”

There are times—when he talks about “magical buildings,” about Orientalism and antiquity, about great discoveries of beautiful objects from lost civilizations—when Raby sounds like a pied piper, a master of the dance of appreciation. He has been in Washington since the 1980s, a city that he obviously loves. “Living in Georgetown is a privilege,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

He is as alarmed as any museum director and caretaker of antiquity about the already disastrous damages that have been done to towns and places in the Middle East.

“It is of course terrible, but it’s not just about ISIS, it is about everything, natural disaster, wars. We have to do more than merely lament losses, we have to prevent further losses. People—museum directors—are working on protocols to create safe havens where objects of art and antiquity can be stored in a kind of interim time, until this is over. But there is this: In some ways, all of these things are part of memory, safely stored there in our minds. In some ways, in this age, nothing disappears. We must make sure that things remain that way also.”

For a man who deals so much with the remnants and glories of the past, Raby is excited about the future: “This city, and other cities, are changing. It’s becoming younger, smarter. It’s losing some of that stiffness. We can look at new ways to appreciate and display, to show all the beauties of cultures from all over the world.”
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17 Series at the National Gallery

October 26, 2015

It is typically single works of art that survive in the public consciousness, becoming the iconic masterpieces by which we gauge our cultural evolution. Picasso’s “Guernica” gives us the resonant anguish of World War II, while Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm” seems to express the frenzied, explosive momentum of postwar America.

Necessary landmarks in our sociological timelines, pieces like these take on momentum as they sink more indelibly into our cultural identity. They become chapter markings in art history and bulwarks of generational progression, almost to the point where — unburdened by outsized symbolic density or perversely cheapened by sheer popularity — they are impossible to admire as works of art.

I have seen T-shirts with Warhol’s portrait of Che Guevara. I have seen the immaculate groin of Michelangelo’s “David” screenprinted on men’s underpants. I have seen Munch’s “The Scream” sold as an inflatable doll. I have seen “Mona Lisa” Halloween costumes, complete with handlebar-mounted picture frames.

These things cannot be unseen, and (as ludicrous of a complaint as this is) the experience of these artworks is inevitably, inalterably affected. If I want to truly, earnestly look at a painting by Van Gogh, for instance — to lose myself in its raw artistry and lap up its formal beauty — it almost has to be one I’ve never seen before. Otherwise, I find myself standing in front of a historical artwork “document” and thinking nothing more than, “How important!”

These days, I find myself most intrigued, fulfilled and overjoyed as a viewer by smaller works and multi-part series, which artists have been undertaking for centuries. It is here that artists can deal with subjects on a scale not possible in larger single works, exploring process, materials, color and theme — the meat of it all — that make up their daily practice and inform their larger works.

This type of artistic production was especially prevalent in the 1960s, as artists dedicated to conceptual, minimalist and pop approaches explored the potential of serial procedures and structures, as well as the rapidly expanding influence and implications of 20th-century mass media.

In the 1960s, Los Angeles became home to a printmaking boom. Founded in 1966, Gemini G.E.L. (Graphic Editions Limited), a fine-art workshop on Melrose Avenue, started collaborating with prominent artists, creating innovative prints that helped launch a renaissance of the graphic arts.
Coinciding with Gemini’s 50th anniversary, “The Serial Impulse at Gemini G.E.L.,” on view through Feb. 7 at the National Gallery of Art, sheds light on this phenomenon.

Some of the most important and influential artists of the past five decades have conceived and produced groundbreaking series — both print and sculptural — at Gemini. The exhibition showcases, in their entirety, 17 innovative series created at the workshop over the past five decades, including seminal early works by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, as well as more recent serial projects by John Baldessari, Julie Mehretu and Richard Serra.

At Gemini G.E.L., artists are encouraged to do “projects in depth,” says Sidney B. Felsen, co-founder and co-director.?As living proof, this exhibition reveals the wide range of artistic approaches to serial production from all decades of Gemini’s history. What is perhaps most exciting about these series is seeing firsthand how the sequence is essential to the way the group is understood — quite a different way of looking at art than the classical pattern of standing in front of a single painting, then clearing it from your mind to observe the next one.

Another interesting aspect of the exhibition is that it lacks a traditional entrance and exit. As a way of “exploring the potential impact of alternate sequences,” it is structured so that it may be entered at either end of the gallery.?This is a chance to see work from familiar artists with fresh eyes, to delve into the machinations of their process.?It has been a long time since I could look at anything by Roy Lichtenstein or Jasper Johns without being unconsciously distracted or prematurely exhausted by the postmodern implications that cling to their very legacy. With this exhibition, I was free, and I felt like the artists were too.

Art Collector Olga Hirshhorn, 1920–2015

October 22, 2015

Olga Hirshhorn, 95, fourth wife of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden founder Joseph Hirshhorn, died Oct. 3 in Naples, Florida.

After their marriage, in 1964, she received an education in art from her husband and from the artists with whom they socialized: Calder, Chagall, Giacometti, Man Ray, Miró, O’Keeffe and Picasso, to name a few. She began to acquire art herself, stepping up her collecting after Joe Hirshhorn died in 1981.

In 1995, Olga Hirshhorn donated more than 600 works not to the museum with her name on it but to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Though she pledged the rest of her collection and one-third of her estate to the Corcoran, this promised gift was withdrawn after the 2005 departure of then-director David C. Levy and the cancellation of the museum’s Frank Gehry-designed wing.

A five-foot dynamo well into her 80s, Olga Zatorsky was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, to a chauffeur/gardener and a cook. Twenty-one years younger than Joe Hirshhorn, she first attracted his attention over the phone. Having married and separated from her English teacher at Greenwich High, she was running an employment agency and he was looking for domestic help at his Greenwich estate.

The gift of 6,000 works and an endowment that created the Smithsonian’s museum of modern and contemporary art came two years after they married. The Hirshhorn Museum opened in 1974.

Olga Hirshhorn served on the boards of the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran and the Baker Museum in Naples, which hosted the exhibition “The Mouse House: Works from the Olga Hirshhorn Collection” in 2009 (the show also traveled to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich). That collection of some 200 works was later donated to the Baker Museum.

The “mouse house” was her name for a converted, art-filled carriage house she owned on Embassy Row in Washington. She also owned houses in Naples and on Martha’s Vineyard.

She is survived by her sons John and Denis from her first marriage, to John Cunningham

GW’s Textile Museum Unravels Identity

May 11, 2015

Walking through the Textile Museum’s new exhibition, “Unraveling Identity,” I became aware of just how meaningful a role fashion plays in my life.

I am not a fashionable sort of person. “Nice outfit” is never a compliment I have received. Striving at best to blend into the background of a well-dressed workplace, my wardrobe takes on a monochromatic economy of blue-gray with occasional fits of red. The only goal here is for the plainness of my outfits to avert any deeper third-party appraisal of how well the clothes actually fit (not very).

But that doesn’t mean I don’t stand in front of my closet every morning in utter defeat, staring hopelessly at my modest assembly of overworked shirts and pants for a moment of fashion inspiration that never strikes. So, I put on the shirt I presume was worn least recently, smooth out my rumpled chinos with a few brisk swipes, walk out the door and try not to think about the whole sad ordeal.

Even as I write this, I struggle to focus on the subject of clothing.

From a vague and squinty distance, I can recognize the general overwhelming significance of cloth to human history. Along with things like language, architecture and religion, it exists in the rarefied pantheon of the earliest and most essential and lasting inventions that defined humanity. Across oceans, the disparate tribes of early man each devised the same solution to a problem no animal had ever considered: how to cover their bodies.

For millennia, textiles and clothing have functioned in the world as products and symbols of social status, industry, currency, religion and even – in some notable 20th-century cases – human rights.

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island in South Africa in the 1960s, one of the first causes for which he fought (and won) was the inmates’ right to wear pants instead of shorts; shorts were for boys and he and his comrades were civilized men.

The simple act of making yarn on a spinning wheel was elevated to almost a religion by Gandhi in the 1920s. A symbol of resistance against British colonial rule, Gandhi spun for an hour a day as a call for Indians to achieve self-sufficiency, refusing British cotton goods and readopting the use of local handicrafts.

All of these conversations surround “Unraveling Identity,” a stunning exhibition on view through August 9 in the Textile Museum’s beautiful new space at George Washington University. Taking up all three floors of the museum, it feels like a well-earned retrospective of the museum’s historic collection of textiles, spanning centuries and almost every continent.

Loosely arranged by categorical themes, the show explores the international history of textiles as sources and signifiers of political, cosmopolitan, religious and spiritual identity.

What we find are far more than garments: Incan crowns made of radiant yellow bird feathers, the shockingly tiny silk slippers worn by Chinese women after excruciating foot-binding rituals, Iranian silk and metal ground panels from the 17th century which once functioned as international trade currency in Southeast Asia (they required over a year to weave and were perhaps used as throne covers in the Siamese courts).

On the second floor, a profound and powerful display of grand hangings and rugs from the 16th-century Ottoman Empire confronts visitors.

We are also greeted with more modern pieces that turn out to be no less exquisite or peculiar: Audrey Hepburn’s famous black feather dress from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the chess-like Royal costumes from the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (like something out of Lewis Carroll, both hallowed and alien), even a hand-knitted Batman suit made of yarn by contemporary artist Mark Newport, which hangs hysterically limp on a closet hanger and casts a skeptical eye toward our own culture’s bizarre fetishistic superhero worship.

And here I sit, in a pair of khaki shorts and a moth-eaten tank top that used to belong to my mother. What does this mean? Would it make any difference if I were writing this column wearing a tailored suit and an ascot? Is this my small way, as someone otherwise devoted to aesthetic principles, to cast my arty pretensions aside and play the part of the bedraggled creative genius?

Prior to now, I would have insisted that the very idea was a load of rubbish; I simply don’t give a damn and I’m comfortable. But after seeing this exhibition, I am forced to concede that this is probably exactly what I am doing. Like it or not, what we wear is a choice, a reflection of who we are. It is deeply rooted through a lifetime of looking through old family albums at the black wool suits our grandparents wore, and watching the silly debates over Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and enduring the endless Style Weekly barrage in checkout lines and the wonderfully irreverent fashion policing of Joan Rivers on Hollywood’s red carpet.

It is who we are, how we define ourselves for friends, family and strangers alike. It is how we compare ourselves to one another, to our past and to the emerging generations of defiant, tacky teenyboppers. It is how we step out into the world and say, “This is me.” It is indeed how we unravel our identity.

‘Conversations’ at the Museum of African Art

April 23, 2015

As titles go, “Conversations” is a perfect distillation of the sprawling body of work now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. To celebrate its unique history, the museum has mounted “Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue” as part of its 50th anniversary.

The exhibition, on view through Jan. 24, 2016, brings together pieces from the museum’s collection with others from the landmark African American art collection of Camille and Bill Cosby.

And, yes, it is that Bill Cosby. It would be foolish to ignore the inevitable wave of vitriol that his name now conjures, and which will very likely haunt him for the remainder of his life. However, it is just as irrelevant and naïve to condemn a successful and moving museum exhibition in order to admonish a television celebrity who owns some of the artwork on loan. So, as regrettable as it is to begin this way, let us clear the air in order to move on.

First, it takes a very long time to mount a museum exhibition. By the time the allegations against Cosby were brought forth last year, this show was, for all purposes, mounted, funded and finished.

Second, we must make a distinction between art and current affairs, which includes forgoing who the owner of a painting is at a given point in time. As an enormously unfair (but bluntly effective) example, the Vermeer painting, “The Astronomer,” today under the stewardship of the Louvre, was for a time among the prized possessions of Adolf Hitler. Do we censure the museum? Destroy the painting? Of course not.

The point is that, by and large, art has the capacity to move through time, outliving the fickle temporality of social and political tangles. We can stand before an Aegean fresco from the 15th century B.C. and subject it to the same terms as Jeff Koons’s flowery “Puppy” sculpture in Bilbao. Art is relative, and that is a piece of its great and lasting beauty.

So let’s talk about this exhibition, which is exceptional. “Conversations” offers virtually endless connections and perspectives into the ways that artists have explored complex ideas about the social, political and aesthetic roles of art in African and African American contexts and identities.

To this end, nearly every work in the exhibition is shown alongside a related counter-work, offering a clear and real juxtaposition of similar or divergent ideas. “Benin Head,” a painting by American artist David Driskell (b. 1931), hangs beside a commemorative Nigerian portrait-carving from the 18th century made in the court style of the Kingdom of Benin. Here, the contours and planes of the carved head illuminate the clear influence upon Driskell of the African work of that period.

A nearly identical – if less direct – line can be traced in the thematic section titled The Human Presence between male and female figures carved in wood by a mid-20th-century Senufo artist from Côte d’Ivoire and a marble sculpture by African American artist Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), “The Family,” depicting a man and a woman raveled in an embrace. Works like these are marked by their aesthetic relationships: bound by style, subject and a conscious effort by contemporary artists to unite with the heritage of their forebears.

But there are less direct conversations within the exhibition as well, in many cases presenting fascinating challenges to oversimplified presumptions. Take, for instance, an untitled pastel drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), the prodigal New York graffiti artist. This is a quintessential Basquiat drawing, a gritty, visceral scribble. Its broken, aggressive lines and dented circles seem to come together through some act of cyclonic magnetism, forming a proto-grunge voodoo doll of a human figure on the mutilated surface of the paper.

Beside this drawing is a neat colonial portrait of a white American woman and her daughter in white lace. The biracial artist, Joshua Johnson (1763-1824), a portraitist of prominent Marylanders, is often viewed as the first person of color to make a living as a painter in the United States.

The exhibition is too smart and too thoughtful for this pairing to be coincidental. Both Basquiat and Johnson were near-isolated minorities who single-handedly cracked the code of the white-controlled mainstream art culture, shifting the vantage point in both periods.

Masterworks abound in the exhibition, from “Nexus” by Martin Puryear (b. 1941), a beautifully crafted, evocatively minimal ring-shaped sculpture made from bent saplings of laminated wood, to “The Thankful Poor” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), a delicately hazy, brilliantly atmospheric oil painting of a black boy and his grandfather praying at the breakfast table.

There is also a myriad of unclaimed gems that skate the border of art and historic treasure, such as an Orthodox-style Ethiopian icon – sharply juxtaposed beside Tanner’s painting – and a collection of musical sculptures and carved drums from Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The latter forms the centerpiece of the unmissable “music” gallery.

This facilitation of contextual connections is something too often lacking (or otherwise poorly executed) in a museum experience. The National Museum of African Art has mounted a terrific exhibition, which fills the deep and seemingly unresolvable gaps between the devastating estrangement of African and African American heritage. [gallery ids="102041,134725" nav="thumbs"]

New Exhibitions at D.C. Museums

March 11, 2015

Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

“How the Civil War Changed Washington”?
Feb. 2 – Nov. 15
This exhibition examines the social and spatial impact on Washington, D.C., of the Civil War, an era of radical population growth. The growth in the African American population continued until, a century later, African Americans became the majority in the District. This was also a time when women joined the federal workforce and neighborhoods were built out of the hilly terrain, expanding the city’s footprint. The exhibition contextualizes these and other changes while telling the stories of individuals who came to Washington during the Civil War.

National Building Museum

“Scaling Washington: Photographs by Colin Winterbottom”
Opens March 21
Over 20 years ago, photographer Colin Winterbottom began taking dramatic, highly textured photographs of Washington, D.C.’s many architectural masterpieces. Always determined to create imagery unlike any he’d seen before, he quickly recognized the power of scaffolding to provide up-close – and high-altitude – access to these historic structures. As sole photographer for restoration efforts at the Washington Monument and National Cathedral following the August 2011 earthquake, Winterbottom blends documentation with artistic expression, crafting photographs that share his unusual access to remarkable vantage points.

National Museum of African Art

“The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists”
April 8 – Aug. 2
Curated by the internationally acclaimed writer and art critic Simon Njami, this dramatic multimedia exhibition reveals the ongoing global relevance of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic as part of a shared intellectual heritage. Including original commissions and renowned works of art by approximately 40 of the most dynamic contemporary artists from 19 African nations and the diaspora, this visually stunning exhibition will explore the themes of paradise, purgatory and hell with video, photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, fiber arts and mixed media installation.

National Portrait Gallery??

“Elaine de Kooning: Portraits”
March 13 – Jan. 10?
Elaine de Kooning’s gestural portraits of friends and family were much admired during her lifetime, and included such well-known Americans as poets Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, critic Harold Rosenberg, choreographer Merce Cunningham and painters Willem de Kooning (her husband) and Fairfield Porter. De Kooning made both abstract and figurative paintings and drawings during the height of Abstract Expressionism in New York City. In her portraits, de Kooning sought and worked to capture the “instantaneous illumination” of recognition.

Smithsonian American Art Museum??

“Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits”
Feb. 27 – Aug. 2?
In 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired a collection of artwork made between 1969 and 1976 by a self-taught local artist known only by his alter ego, Mingering Mike. This exhibition comprises artworks constructed as part of his youthful fantasy of becoming a famous soul singer and songwriter, including LP albums made from painted cardboard, original album art, song lyrics, liner notes and self-recorded 45 rpm singles. The works are a window into a historical moment when black radio was new and Washington-based performers such as Marvin Gaye were gaining national attention and transforming American music.

“The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi”?
April 3 – Aug. 30?
This exhibition is the first overview of Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s work in more than twenty-five years. Born in Japan, Kuniyoshi (1893-1953) came to the United States as a teenager. He came into prominence during the 1920s through his distinctive modern figural style, original subjects and humor. Classified an “enemy alien” after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he worked with the Office of War Information to create artworks indicting Japanese atrocities. After the war, Kuniyoshi developed a compelling late style, with bitter subjects and paradoxically bright colors.

National Gallery of Art

“Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence”
Feb. 1 – May 3
A contemporary of Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo, Piero di Cosimo was known in his day for his versatility as a painter of many different subjects, from the sacred to the profane, the latter often of beguiling meaning. His fantastic inventions rivaled the verses of the ancient poets whose myths and allegories he set out to transform in a wonderfully strange language all his own. The first major retrospective exhibition of paintings by this wildly imaginative Italian Renaissance master features 44 of the artist’s most compelling paintings, including fanciful mythologies, powerful religious works (one on loan for the first time from the church in Italy for which it was created 500 years ago) and sensitive portraits.

“American Masterworks from the Corcoran, 1815-1940”
Feb. 7 – May 3
In 2014, the National Gallery assumed stewardship of over 6,000 works of art from the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s renowned collection. Thankfully, they have wasted no time in getting that work back out to the public. Two installations featuring highlights from the Corcoran collection are now on view in the West Building, including such celebrated paintings as Frederic Edwin Church’s “Niagara,” Albert Bierstadt’s “The Last of the Buffalo,” Sanford Robinson Gifford’s “Ruins of the Parthenon,” Samuel F. B. Morse’s “The House of Representatives” and Edward Hopper’s “Ground Swell.” And of course there is Frederic Remington’s bronze sculpture of a lively depiction of cowboy revelry – for what American collection is complete without that?

Freer and Sackler Galleries

“Seasonal Landscapes in Japanese Screens”
March 7 – Sept. 6?
Cherry trees bloom in this selection of folding screen paintings from the Freer Gallery. These landscapes from the 16th and early 17th centuries combine ink painting techniques assimilated from China with the vibrant color and gold of traditional Japanese paintings.??

Art Museum of the Americas??

“Libertad de Expresión: The Art Museum of the Americas and Cold War Politics”?
Feb. 19 – June 7?
Drawing from the Museum’s permanent collection, this exhibition surveys the taste and cultural diplomacy of founding director José Gómez Sicre, featuring artists who have worked in many of the influential styles at mid-century – Surrealism, Concretism, Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism – and who also experimented with forms and themes drawn from Pre-Columbian civilizations. Sicre lauded the diversity of expressions in Latin American art. This support also allied him with U.S. Cold Warriors, who used freedom of expression as a tool in the cultural and intellectual struggle against the Soviets. [gallery ids="101995,135308,135311" nav="thumbs"]

Whimsy and Worship: the Eccentric Piero di Cosimo at the National Gallery

February 23, 2015

Piero di Cosimo’s paintings never reached the canon of High Renaissance art inhabited by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and even Giorgione works. Yet his pieces, a myriad of which are on exhibit now at the National Gallery, show a fun-loving, eccentric artist bounding from style to style all while demonstrating the aristocratic tastes of that period in which both whimsical mythology and devout adoration were sought after for personal consumption.

Piero’s birth, in 1462, proceeded Michelangelo’s and preceded Leonardo’s by about a decade each, respectively. Like other artists of the era, the Florentine Piero was given biographical treatment by the one and only Giorgio Vasari in his “Lives of the Artists” writings, which chronicled with debatable veracity of exactly that. Vasari, Piero’s only biographer, painted a picture of bizarre, even outlandish man in his writings.

He wrote that Piero suffered from such bad pyrophobia that he subsisted solely on eggs that he boiled (fifty at a time) with the glue he worked with. According to Vasari, Piero lived “more like a beast than a man” with regard to cleanliness, preferred animals to humans and had a propensity for seeing beauty in the lowliest street scene.

Vasari’s passages on Piero ring truest and with most relevance for today when he writes that Piero “changed his style almost from one work to the next.” That much is apparent in the National Gallery’s six-gallery-spanning retrospective “Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence.”

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by Piero’s “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Sts. Peter, John the Baptist, Dominic, and Nicholas of Bari,” a painting clearly influenced by colleague Fillipino Lippi (and the International Gothic Style) but with the High Renaissance in mind. Piero uses Lippi’s bright palette and fanciful adornments in dressing the figures, whose sharp contours flatten the painting. There is balance though, which carries through in three paintings in the predella where scenes involving St. John the Baptist, St. Dominic and St. Nicholas of Bari are neatly arranged with figures, slopes and vegetation that create a sense of balance.

“The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos” continues the Lippi-esque style in the next gallery, but with pagan subjects, flirtatiousness, nudity and highly detailed deptictions of flowers, birds and plants. In “Vulcan and Aeolus,” Piero shows a naturalist tendency again, including, most notably, a giraffe but also a number of birds and smaller mammals in a pagan scene. (The giraffe was given to Florence’s leader Lorenzo de’ Medici as a gift from the Sultan of Egypt but met an untimely death after hitting its head on a low palace entrance.)

Nature runs wild in a subsequent piece, “The Hunt,” depicting lions, tigers and bears (oh my!), not to mention satyrs, deer, beavers and the men who have ignited a fire in the woods in order to slay all of these animals. The organized chaos of Piero’s “Hunt” comes to a serene end in “The Return from the Hunt,” where women take stock of animal carcasses and even nurse a bear cub that’s been separated from its mother. Oddly enough, the set was a wedding gift for

In the epic “Perseus Freeing Andromeda” Piero is near-Boschian in constructing the peculiar sea monster sent by Poseidon to capture Andromeda, the daughter of Ethiopian king Cepheus. Piero doesn’t quite nail human skin tone in th work, as Andromeda and other figures meant to be black appear sickly more than anything else. But Flemish inspiration leads to incredibly detailed illustrations of water, landscape and architecture in the background. (Details in the background of “The Visitation of Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot,” too.)

Piero’s devotional tondi come as a surprise then when juxtaposed with his fanciful, mythological works. Traditionally, a tondo is a circular piece of art given to a bride upon marriage. Piero’s works in the medium vary in style with Piero giving some a Flemish attention to detail and others the forms of a Leonardo painting. Nonetheless, all of the works are rife with devotion and matronly emotion showing, perhaps, a more devout artist than his mythology suggests. “Mary Adoring the Child” and “Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels” stand out the most in this regard.

The National Gallery’s retrospective makes clear that Piero di Cosimo, despite and maybe even because of his eccentricities, was a masterful painter. Had he stuck with and built one style or streamlined his subjects more effectively, maybe he would be considered a master today. But then the National Gallery’s exhibit wouldn’t be so much fun.