Lichtenstein Blockbuster Proclaims Power of Print

August 15, 2013

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"]

End of Summer Wrap-upAugust 7, 2013

August 8, 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 New York City, who draws on her background as a scientist and her experience as an immigrant. Her richly textured works complicate the role of objects as representations of cultures and invite viewers to share her fascination in materials, both personally and as it relates to world histories. By juxtaposing organic and plastic objects?such as combining ornate textiles and animal forms with tourist souvenirs?she concocts fairy-tale worlds that are both enticing and subtly menacing.

Combining elements of collage, pop art and contemporary installation work with a keen sense for the memory effects that textures can impart, Banerjee?s vision has an explorative theatricality about it, as well as a sort of twisted, gothic whimsy. It is like the excavation of conflagrated multiculturalism, and it is a wonder to behold.

Touching on themes of migration and transformation, the installation?s lengthy title likewise conveys the sense of a long journey: ?A World Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after the seas? corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated … this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this.?

**[The Hirshhorn](**
?Peter Coffin: Here and There?
*Through Oct. 6*
Throughout his career, Peter Coffin (b. 1972); lives and works in New York) has created an unpredictable and eclectic array of works, including many that express a sense of joy and sometimes, humor. Born in Berkeley, Calif., the New York-based artist?s practice includes photography, assemblage, performance, time-based media, installations, sound art, and sculpture in many forms, often drawing inspiration from odd facts or obscure theories. To emphasize the artist?s chameleon-like virtuosity, the works in the exhibition, rather than being concentrated within one exhibition area, are installed in spaces around the Museum. Nature, science, pseudo-science, psychological displacement, urban happenstance, and ?what if? brainstorms are among the myriad departure points for his pieces, but what is constant is the undercurrent of his unique, exuberant subversiveness.

**[The Textile Museum](**
?Out of Southeast Asia: Art That Sustains?
*Through Oct. 13*
Southeast Asian textiles first served as markers of ethnic identity, distinguishing neighboring communities by pattern, color and technique. Now, commercial production challenges these practices, yet the artistic wealth of these several hundred groups continues to inspire artists from around the world. ?Out of Southeast Asia: Art That Sustains? explores the intersection of these rich traditions and their interpretation within contemporary art and design.

Historical textile artworks from the Textile Museum?s magnificent Southeast Asian collections?including batiks from Indonesia and brocades and ikats from Laos?will be displayed alongside the work of four contemporary textile artists and designers: batik artists Nia Fliam, Agus Ismoyo, and Vernal Bogren Swift, and weaver Carol Cassidy. All of their works originate in Southeast Asian concepts, realized in certain design elements, technical details, and philosophical underpinnings. ?Out of Southeast Asia? demonstrates how contemporary artists are preserving the traditional arts even as they interpret them in new and innovative ways.

As the Textile Museum prepares to move to its new location, ?Out of Southeast Asia? provides a fitting visual link between the past, present and future while demonstrating the continued relevance of traditional textiles.


Dupont Circle Gallery Walk

May 9, 2013


2026 R Street NW

Cross Mackenzie Gallery is presenting “Pier Three Warehouse 2012” through June 5, an exhibition of work by up-and-coming architectural photographer John Cole. The images in this series, “Walls,” are about observing mindfully, seeing thoughtfully, paying closer attention and looking anew. Cole explores his relationship with his surroundings through his subtle framing of the seemingly mundane, recalling 20th century American photographers Lewis Baltz and Harry Callahan. In Cole’s photographs, a building wall becomes more than just a façade, revealing histories of weather, abrasion, sunlight and the shadow of human presence. In Cole’s exhibit, the “writing on the wall” is worth reading.


2108 R Street NW

Through May 18, Studio Gallery will be featuring the work of Elizabeth Grusin-Howe, a Maryland-based painter, photographer and printmaker. The current show, “When the sky is clear the horizon is visible,” scenes from Venice, Italy are composed of manipulated prints and photographs that evoke the romance and weathered historic grandeur of this beloved city. Her figure paintings marvel in a similar contrasting beauty, balancing coarse brushwork with delicate, graceful form, and give us something at once permanent and ephemeral. Opening May 22 is the work of Suzanne Yurdin, which depicts centuries old architecture and picturesque villages in rich layers of mixed media. Also inspired by journeys to Italy, Spain and France, these paintings represent elements of Europe’s many glorious spaces in loose, geometric forms, offering as a suggestion of place more than a demarcation.


9 Hillyer Court NW

Cut paper elegantly balances simplicity of form with intricacy and complexity of line and detail. An artwork may consist of only one sheet of paper, but the design and cutting techniques transform it into a surface as fine as lace. When put to rice paper, the hand-held blade creates a crisp, controlled, yet gestural line. This month, Hilyer will host an exhibition of the cut-paper work of Melanie Kehoss, in her exhibit “InterGrowth.” Like paper cutting traditions of China, Mexico and Judaism, these pieces relate to celebration. Kehoss’s banner format, reference to cross-cultural holidays, and inclusion of romantic poetry all speak toward the idea of ritual and occasion. Images from nature serve as symbols of these traditions, while suggesting the organic way in which cultures grow and merge. Also on view this month are the paintings by Lara Bandilla, whose current works are a narrative of light and movement, which suggest certain emotional states without naming or defining them.


2025 Hillyer Place NW

From May through July this year, Jane Haslem Gallery is exhibiting “The Mind/The Line/The Creation,” a show of sixteen American artists focused on the process of drawing. The foundation of any artist’s career, drawing is an often overlooked medium in the commercial art world, but in this exhibit it is brought center stage, highlighting the point from which each artist approaches drawing. Different artists draw for different reasons. For some, it is the preferred medium. Others use drawing as a tool to work out problems in paintings and larger works. Still more use the juxtaposition of line and shape to create illusions and trick the viewer’s eye. And then there are artists who use drawing as a way to tell a story. Perhaps the highlight of this show covers the ladder spectrum, showcasing drawings by Charles Schulz, the cartoonist behind Snoopy and the Peanuts gang, and other seminal American cartoonists from the 20th century, like Walt Kelly (Pogo) and Martin Branner (Winnie Winkle). This exhibit is an exploration of the last 100 years in line, and one that ought not to be missed
[gallery ids="101286,149574,149565,149570" nav="thumbs"]

Book Hill Gallery Walk

April 19, 2013

Thanksgiving came early this year, and the Christmas lights went up faster than you can say “Black Friday.” The season is upon us—the season of parades, of family, of thanks, of beauty and of giving. We understand that artwork makes an exemplary gift for its beauty and uniqueness. What is most transcendent about a truly magnifi- cent work of art is its generational permanence. It carries with it an innate history, story and feeling that few other objects can. A painting is created by its artist, but it is not brought to life until it is displayed and appreciated by its owners.

The Georgetown galleries on Book Hill, clustered among a few blocks of Wisconsin Avenue, enliven our community with art. This group of galler- ies offers a great variety of works to explore, from renowned glasswork to master prints to the contemporary and avant-garde. Their collective neigh- borhood holiday event last weekend was an unforgettable occasion, and one we hope becomes an annual Georgetown tradition. Here’s a look at what’s happening in Book Hill this month. For more information on the George- town galleries on Book Hill, visit

At Neptune Fine Art, gallery director Christine Neptune specializes in Modern and Contemporary art, with an extensive collection of artists ranging from contemporary masters such as Mel Bochner and Alex Katz, to the timeless works of the Cubists and Impres- sionists. She also boasts an unmatched collection of etchings and prints by lauded but lesser-known contemporary artists, and with exhibitions such as last month’s “All About Etching: Start Your Collection,” provides expertise on connoisseurship, authentication and condition for first-time art buyers and younger audiences. She is currently exhibiting small oil paintings by longtime gallery artist and contemporary still life painter Colleen Cox, who paints with a simple beauty and soft texturality of timeless appeal.

Gallerist Robert Brown specializes in 20th-century and con- temporary works as well as rare Chinese advertising post- ers from the early 1900s and Chinese antiques. Currently on exhibit is a show of drawings and prints by renowned Scan- danavian artist Per Kirkeby, which informally but powerfully complements the artist’s retrospective at The Phillips Collec- tion in Dupont Circle. This is Brown’s first exhibit of Kirkeby’s work, which illuminates Kirkeby’s sophistication of line and form while detailing his fascination with objects and natural elements that spawns from his training as a geologist. This is a chance to experience Kirkeby on an intimate and internal level, through Dec. 15.

Through Jan. 5, Heiner Contemporary is hosting the exhibit Housebound, a group show exploring the depiction of home environments and domestic spaces, featuring work by Rachel Farbiarz, Bella Foster, Allison Gilder- sleeve, Allison Reimus, Ann Toebbe and Augusta Wood. Working in a variety of media, these artists address “home” as a reflection of the self, where rooms become extensions of one’s personality, where memories are held and lives are recorded. Augusta Wood memorializes her grandparents’ former home by projecting family snapshots in layers onto the walls of the now vacant house. Her haunting photographs provide an interesting comparison to Ann Toebbe’s cozy, created-from-memory cut paper and painted rooms.

The grid can be traced back to the beginning of human civilizations, and artists have often used grids as simple tools. Still others, like Sol LeWitt to Agnes Martin, used them as the objective in itself. For Natasha Karpinskaia, grids represent a structural and compositional device. Instead of working on a single surface, Karpinskaia creates separate paintings and organizes them in a grid format, turning individually functioning pieces into a unified element, where the pieces enrich each other and produce an even stronger statement. Sometimes, abstract and sometimes playful, her use of grids helps her to achieve a unique rhythm and elegance in her work. Her exhibit of monotypes and paintings at Susan Calloway Fine Arts, Variations on a Grid, is on view through Jan. 5.

Spring into the National Children’s Museum

April 10, 2013

Now that spring is upon the capital city and parents are looking for activities to entertain the little ones, consider a visit to the National Children’s Museum.

The new museum picks up where the Capital Children’s Museum left off when it closed its doors in 2004 after Congress designated and renamed it as the only nationally recognized cultural and educational museum devoted to children.
Relocated to National Harbor, Md., the new, interactive 18,000 square foot museum is designed with children ages eight-years-old and under in mind.

“One of the things we do is promote child directed, open-ended play,” said NCM president, Willard Whitson. “All of our exhibits allow kids to create their own narrative.”

The museum includes two exhibits designed with specific age groups in mind.

The 3 & Under gallery aims to help little ones develop and discover their fine motor skills and stimulate their senses.
Babies ages one year and younger can experience the gallery’s Infant and Crawler Zone, while toddlers can engage in “pretend play” and navigate climbing structures surrounded the classic Sesame Street characters.

“We have a significant partnership with Sesame workshop, evident in the 3 & under,” said Whitson “They helped develop other areas in the museum. It’s the home for Sesame Street in the D.C. area.”

The Our World gallery invites older children (ages 3 to 8) to explore community and the world around them with interactive exhibits. Visitors can actively engage in their own hypothetical community through the My Town exhibits that features a pizza parlor and a campaign center. The other exhibits, Map Zone and World Cultures, uses touchscreens and collaborative maps to show kids the similarities and differences between global societies.

Whitson says the exhibits aim to inspire children to use their imagination and learn to play cooperatively. “We provide the props and sets for them to interact in a different way every time they visit,” said Whitson. “The purpose of that is to show we have common needs but there is a diverse ways we meet those needs.”

In addition to the galleries, NCM houses a 130-seat theatre that presents original productions by the in-house theater company, as well as guest performances.

The NCMs Center for Learning and Innovation, winner of the Judith P. Hoyer Award for Outstanding Service to Children, presents educational programs that reflect the core initiatives of the museum, including literacy, culture and art, health and wellness, and global citizenship.

The museum also offers a Free Family Night sponsored by GEICO the third week of each month that includes free admission to the museum and themed hands-on activities.

Since opening its doors on December 14, 2012, NCM has welcomed approximately 65,000 visitors and anticipates 200,000 visitors annually.

Open seven days a week, admission to the museum is $10 and parking is available in the National Harbor’s parking garage.
For information on hours or to plan your trip, visit (note website url) [gallery ids="119381,119388" nav="thumbs"]

Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet at the Phillips Collection

Abstract Expressionism is forever the American art movement. Like the myth of the Old West, with its solitary heroes and uncompromising visions of greatness, it has become an archetype of the freedom, boldness and gut instinct brilliance that, despite doubts, convolutions and conflicting social mores, is synonymous with our Land of the Free.

Among the mystifying surface aspects of Abstract Expressionism, and one that also borrows from the Wild West playbook, is the seeming lack of narrative convention. It alludes to an intelligence of history from which it stands drastically apart, searching in its wildness for something new and bountiful that lies beyond the horizon.

There are many artistic predecessors of Abstract Expressionism—from the Russian painters Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich, to the European surrealists and early American modernists like Arthur Dove—but for much of the American public around 1950 who had not been privy to this work, it was a cultural ambush. Picasso was still the apex of contemporary, and French Impressionism was still perfectly in fashion. Then Jackson Pollock walked through the door with his cowboy’s swagger and a cigarette dangling from his mouth like a weathervane and began flinging paint like he was fighting off demons.

The creative force of Abstract Expressionism impelled the global shift of artistic prominence from Europe to the United States, and its singular significance in shaping postwar American culture is widely noted. What is less broadly discussed, but equally important, is the movement’s effects on Europe, which up until then had been sole sovereign of its artistic legacy since before the Roman Empire.

At the Phillips Collection through May 12, “Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet,” examines this transcontinental arc with a gorgeous exhibit that focuses on the relationship and mutual artistic influence between Pollock (1912-1956), the French painter Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), and Alfonso Ossorio (1916-1990), a lesser known American painter and collector who served as conduit and liaison. Featuring major works by all three artists, as well as ample prints, drawings and works on paper, “Angels, Demons and Savages” takes its audience into the rapidly evolving process of these artists during the postwar period of 1945 to 1958.

The great thing about Pollock’s representation in this show is how clearly his process and influences are displayed. Pollock has become an artistic entity since his death, referenced more frequently as a signifier than a painter. Here he is shown not as Pollock the myth, but as Pollock the artist, with drawings, prints and collages exhibiting a deeper contemplation and calculation behind his work than his adulated drip paintings allow.

A small, untitled ink drawing shows a paw-like foot in the bottom corner spiraling out of a tornado-like black mass. Here Pollock’s exalted slashes and curls are more determined, coming not from the unrestrained momentum of a paint-sopped mixing stick, but executed directly by hand. This and other stylized figurative works on paper illuminate his ongoing pursuit of figural expression, as well as his compositional tendencies, which owe greatly to Eastern calligraphy and tapestries.

It is worth noting, however, that Pollock’s large drip canvases on display are still among the most stunning painterly opuses ever created. They are even more powerful when displayed beside Dubuffet’s soil-deep landscapes.

A master of surface texture and comic brutality, Dubuffet, with his signature “low art” art brut style, simultaneously lambasted and reinvigorated the European scene. Dubuffet littered his paints with sand, tar, rocks pebbles and other earthy materials, and his subject matter at the time walked a fine line between abstraction and visual mockery. The result was as if all the landscapes and portrait studies from the previous centuries were scorched and burned, and all that remained were ashes and mutilated fragments, completely unraveled and deformed.

More so than Pollock or Dubuffet, Ossorio is was driven to implement his philosophy and intellect directly into his work. Like the surrealists that influenced him, he was interested in the idea of art as actively permeating the subconscious. He was a technical dynamo—he worked as a medical illustrator during the war—and his smaller works are like ghoulish illustrations. His paintings, whether figurative or abstract, are like gaping holes in the earth, out from which the core boils. He contained and manipulated his expressions and gestures impressively, turning drips into faces or bodies, as if taming an explosion.

Early into their developments, Pollock, Dubuffet and Ossorio all mastered the understanding of a structure and insistency that thread their oeuvres together. There is a successful suggestion, if nebulous, that finds the proper marriage of mood, color, tone and style.

The artistic and conversational exchanges between these three artists can be traced throughout the rest of cultural history up until now—our collective appreciation of overcoming traditional boundaries and ceaseless interest in innovation that has now reached a subliminal level can probably find its roots in the unpredictable art of the 1950s. As the focal point of the art world shifted from Europe to America, the exchange between these protagonists helped bridge the ever-widening gap between the continents and paved the road for generations to come.

“Angels, Demons and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet” at the Phillips through May 12. [gallery ids="101214,144986,144983" nav="thumbs"]

Exquisitely Evil Arrives at Spy Museum

December 5, 2012

Nov. 16 marked the opening of Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains at the Spy Museum. Tied in with the recent 50th anniversary of Dr. No and the release of Skyfall, the exhibit commemorates a different side of the James Bond franchise – the villains of the series. Exquisitely Evil looks at Bond each villain and how his nemeses have evolved over time.

This was one of the first times that the villains of the series were a main focus, and many of the museum staff were eager to see the franchise in this light.

“Where would Bond be without villains?” asked Milton Maltz, founder and chairman of the Spy Museum.

Exquisitely Evil aims to cater to a wide audience. Accordingly, the Spy Museum worked for fifteen months on an exhibit that would engage everyone, from Bond aficionados to families with children. Numerous articles are on lend from EON Productions, the London-based producer of the James Bond films. The exhibit’s displays are both interactive and static and are full of Bond related information and artifacts.

Items on display include Jaw’s teeth from The Spy Who Loved Me, the destroyed satellite from Goldeneye and Dr. No’s infamous tarantula from the first Bond film. The exhibit’s interactive displays include a very dynamic, motion activated shark tank and the opportunity to create a villainous persona and lair.

“My favorite part of the exhibit is the shark tank,” Maltz said, “People will find it interesting – it’s safe danger.”

Profiles of Bond villains can be seen throughout the exhibit. These feature a biography and a summary of their evil schemes. All of Bond’s major nemeses are present, from Irma Bunt to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

The exhibit also features stories from real spies, made possible by former members of the CIA that shared their experiences.

With the 50th anniversary of the series, Bond has been on everyone’s mind recently. Exquisitely Evil brings the villains to the forefront, and the exhibit’s visitors will be surrounded by characters that so many have loved to hate.

Many people have their personal favorites among Bond’s nemeses.

“Rosa Klebb [is my favorite villain],” Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5 and attendee of the exhibit’s opening, said, “When I first became head of MI5, I had a journalist tell me that I wasn’t at all like her, like she had expected. I was kind of offended.”

Exquisitely Evil will remain at the Spy Museum until 2014.
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No ‘Doubt’ about Barbara Kruger at the Hirshhorn

November 6, 2012

Words civilize us. They separate us fair-haired and dexterous animals of intellect from the world of beasts. A baby’s first word is perhaps the first great milestone of their life because words denote the very wonder and intelligence of humankind.

Words can also make us stupid and unbearable.

We often use our words to equivocate, deceive and inflict pain. With them we can distort reality, underscore prejudice, betray one another, and lie to ourselves.

This sort of linguistic relativity—the intention versus perception of our words—is a chance we take every time we open our mouths or put pen to paper. We try to deliver out into the world our thoughts and imaginings, in essence our very selves, and this is perhaps where words seem to falter. Words fail us ¬– or we fail our words – when they do not do justice to what we feel inside.

In her current installation at the Hirshhorn Museum, Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) takes this chance on a monumental scale, releasing her words to form a lexical portrait of our country. With phrases, questions and verbal symbols cramming the walls and floors of the gallery, “Barbara Kruger:

Belief+Doubt” paints a contemporary silhouette of a thoughtful but frustrated American society.
By the 1980s, Kruger was at the forefront of artists who brought photographic illustration and mass media techniques into the mainstream. Pulling from her experience as a magazine photo editor and designer, she reproduced large-scale photomontages from old books and magazines emblazoned with banners of her own text, turning conceptual art into a vibrant public discourse. For instance, across a Rockwellian image of a grade-school girl sweetly poking the curled bicep of her young friend (triggering an image of innocence, sentimentality and the romantic heroism of the 1950s), a bold red banner reads, “We don’t need another hero.”

Since the 1990s, Kruger has focused increasingly on creating environments that immerse the viewer in language. She has employed sound and video projection, orchestrated landscapes of words and, as in this current installation, enclosed her viewers in entire rooms wrapped in text.

However, this installation does not just stand out for its satirical witticism. In “Belief+Doubt” Kruger moves beyond pointing at the vagaries of our social mores in an effort to tackle them head-on.
Descending the escalator to the Hirshhorn’s basement galleries, the trim beneath the ground-floor banisters has written on it four questions. “Whose body?” “Whose beliefs?” “Whose power?” “Whose values?

This is the primer for the sociopolitical labyrinth you are about to enter.

The front wall of the installation, covered from corner to corner in white letters that stretch from floor to ceiling, reads, “Belief + Doubt = Sanity.”

With three words, Kruger offers a hopeful equation that encapsulates our country’s current state of erratic political discord. Though we are at polarizing odds, we all have our tenets and our reservations—and these are often things we struggle to put into words.

Taking up the walls and floors of the large room, including the adjoining gift shop and undersides of the escalators, Kruger’s words become an accumulation of social taboos, moral inevitabilities and political ponderings. “Believe anything. Forget everything. Look for the moment when pride becomes contempt. You want it. You buy it. You forget it.”

The words point to bigger questions beyond themselves. “Who prays loudest? Who is free to choose?”
There aren’t any answers, and maybe these words form the wrong questions, but she is unafraid to ask them. This project is wildly sincere and yet, in a way, unsettlingly ambivalent. These cultural ellipses are bracingly direct, but without the usual soapbox posturing we are inured to witnessing from the political milieu. I think Kruger just wants us to think, to confront our angels and demons in ourselves and in each other, honestly and simply.

“Barbara Kruger: Belief+Doubt” is on view through 2014. For more information visit