Monday, 24 January 2011

December 8, Phillips Collection, Corcoran, Renwick

The Phillips Collection was showing Side by Side: Oberlin's Masterworks at the Phillips, which closed on January 16. This innovative exhibition of one museum's masterpieces in another museum's collection has been traveling while the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College is under construction. I saw it last spring at the Metropolitan Museum and was curious to see how the concept would be presented at another venue. At the Met I had accidentally come upon Hendrik Terbrugghen's St. Sebastian, and while I was admiring this painting that I have loved since I was an undergraduate, a guard handed me the guide that indicated where in the museum the other paintings in this "exhibition" were located. Each work was installed in the Met gallery most appropriate for it, and it became like a treasure hunt to find all of them. In the process of searching, I found myself deep in the reinstalled 19th-century galleries, where I discovered rooms of early 19th-century French and German paintings I had not seen at the Met before, so the Oberlin collection led me to discover more about the host museum's collection. This use of one museum's collection to provide a fresh view of another's seemed an great way for viewers to see the familiar in fresh ways.
At the Phillips Collection, with its focus on the 19th and 20th centuries, the Oberlin paintings did not always fit as clearly into historical periods as they had at the Met, so a person thinking about it might continue to learn about how display affects the way we respond to works of art. At the Phillips, the Terbrugghen had pride of place as the first thing you saw on the second floor of the museum. Although the other 16th-century Italian and north European paintings - as well as the Goya and Rodins near it - did not seem to relate to it in any illuminating way, it looked terrific in the space.

In an adjacent gallery I was starting to complain to myself about juxtaposing Rubens The Finding of Erichthonius (1632–33) from Oberlin with the Phillips's masterpiece, the Renoir Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), until I started to notice the similarity of loose brushwork and thick paintstrokes that make up the figures in both. That Renoir copied works by Rubens adds historical fact to the visual evidence.

Renoir detail

Rubens detail

Oberlin's impressionist pictures fit in perfectly with the impressionist pictures of the Phillips. In fact, I was amazed that a trio of paintings had nearly identical frames and dimensions, to the degree that they appeared to belong together completely. Outside the Rothko Room several abstract expressionist works from Oberlin added some context to Rothko. I really like this idea of showing works from one collection in the context of another collection; it encourages one to look at both with fresh eyes.

The Phillips also hosted TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845–1945, organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery and George Eastman House. Pictorialism in photography was a part of the movement to have photograph acknowledged as the equal of painting as an art, and many pictorial photographs suggest some of the atmosphere and narrative qualities of paintings. Some, like those of Julia Margaret Cameron, have people posing as historical figures or emotional states. Others depict landscapes, cityscapes, important monuments, or still lifes. A series of images of The Seven Last Words of Christ by F. Holland Day, who also posed himself as Christ, was startling in its proximity to what I imagine Christ looks like. A harbor view reminded me of the wonderful Whistler I had seen the day before. All in all, this was an exhibition of marvelous, beautiful images, and an enormous pleasure to explore.

My purpose at the Phillips was the Side by Side exhibition and I came upon TruthBeauty almost by accident. In fact, I wasn't sure I wanted to spend more time looking at early photographs after the strange show I'd seen the day before at the National Gallery. The experience reminded me that it's always worthwhile to try an exhibition, whether you think you'll be interested or not.

Another surprise at the Phillips was the beautiful installation Force of Nature (through Feb. 20) by Korean-born artist Jae Ko of reams of rolled kraft paper lining the walls of a gallery space, creating waves of movement throught the room. This was part of the Phillips Intersections series of contemporary interventions in the galleries and there's a YouTube video of the artist doing the installation. The web is wonderful, but the impact of this work has a lot to do with scale and with relating your own size to the rolls on the walls.You need to be there...

Wandering down to the Corcoran, I ran into Tom, who had completed his role as a lay person on a National Endowment for the Arts panel. We looked at the cloud images by Spencer Finch, most of which seemed more to have satisfied the artist in his explorations of a vast range of approaches to the idea of a cloud than to be of any particular connection for us. And we went backwards through the show of Washington Color Field painting that included many wonderful examples by artists familiar and not so familiar, and a few that seemed a bit repetitive. We also wandered through the amazingly wonderful permanent collection of the Corcoran, of French, Dutch, and American paintings and sculpture, some of it installed in salon style, with paintings filling the walls of high galleries. I pointed out the wonderful Renoir landscape that inspired a blog entry when we were in DC last December.

Finally, we took a look in the Renwick, where I wasn't sure I wanted to go, but we had time and entry is free. They had a nice show of a recently donated collection of contemporary turned wood, with a few objects of spectactular virtuosity.

But the amazing exhibition was The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946 March 5, 2010-Jan. 30, 2011), an unexpectedly beautiful and touching gathering of works of art made in the many concentration camps the United States where Japanese Americans were confined during World War II. After seeing this exhibition with its catalogue listing all the camps and their locations its descriptions of how the Japanese were ordered to leave their homes and move to these usually desolate camps, I had another thought about the tolerance of American citizens for the concentration camps the Germans had made for the Jews and others during that war. Granted, the conditions were not the same, but if you have concentration camps in your own country, you might imagine that those of your enemy would be similar.

The objects were examples of extraordinary creativity, using the most banal materials, usually scavenged from the surrounding territory or from the stores and trash of the camps. The curator, Delphine Hirasuna, began with a bird pin she found in a box in her parents' storage room and was able to locate and borrow a host of beautiful small carved wooden birds and seashell flowers made as pins, lovely complex pieces of furniture made from scavenged wood, teapots carved from slate, dolls, toys, playing cards and paintings. The exhibition catalogue is beautifully illustrated and includes a helpful history of the camps. A photograph in the catalogue by Dorothea Lange of the camp at Manzanar, California bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the remains of Birkenau we saw last summer.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

December 7, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery

On my second day I particularly wanted to see the well-received Arcimboldo (1526-1593): Nature and Fantasy show at the National Gallery and the controversial Hide/Seek show at the National Portrait Gallery. But several other exhibitions also called for attention.

Entering the National Gallery through the West Building, again nearest the Metro stop, I wandered through the enticing shops, checking out cards, ties and scarfs, tschotchkes, and the latest art books on the way to the East Building and the Arcimboldo exhibition. To give an engaging context to the few paintings in the show, the curator had chosen to include nature studies, including the fabulous Hans Hoffman Red Squirrel, 1578, a 1526 Durer of cowslips, and several ink caricatures generally attributed to Leonardo. In addition, the exhibition includes publications and drawings, not only of exotic animals but also identifying medicinal plants in carefully illustrated herbaria, 16th-century Italian bronzes of animals and a French Bernard Palissy platter depicting plants and animals. The National Gallery generously provides a lovely illustrated brochure in the exhibition and an illustrated checklist online.  The relatively small gallery reminded one of a Wunderkammer or Studiolo, the cabinets of curiosities sprang up at Renaissance courts.

I've seen paintings attribute to Arcimboldo often in museums and knew some of his works from illustrations, but the extravagantly detailed sea creatures in his Water, 1568, the strangely 20th-century look of Librarian, ca. 1566, and the amusing double images in the three paintings that showed a different aspect of the portrait when turned upside down were all revelations. A lovely video narrated by Isabella Rossellini also gave the exhibition additional context, showing bits of the castles of his major patrons, Maximilian II (1527-1576) in Vienna and Rudolf II (1552-1612) in Prague. But still it consisted of only 16 paintings (checklist total objects: 48) and I went to the bookstore to see if I could get an idea of how many Arcimboldos are actually identified. I still don't know.  I do think that seeing many more would have felt repetitive and tiresome, especially if they were of lesser quality, and that 16 made an excellent revelation of his work and its scholarly and princely context.
Big sign for a small show
The National Gallery was also featuring the Chester Dale Collection, a key component of its 19th-entury painting holdings. I think many works in this exhibition, which meandered through the lower exhibition gallery in the West Building, are not generally on view, and I was really struck by how significantly Chester Dale enhanced the impressionist and other 19th and early 20th century holdings at the National Gallery. One of many examples I enjoyed was a pair of Monet paintings of Rouen Cathedral.

Then, branching off from this exhibition were three more: two of them displaying German drawings, one from the National Gallery collection and the other of works recently acquired from a private collection. The labels indicated that the private collection had been purchased by various patrons rather than donated by the collector. The two included hundreds of drawings, many beautiful, but altogether more than I felt I had the stamina to examine or think about. I stopped at a few of the more beautiful ones, the Friedrichs, a Blecly hen, landscapes by artists whose names I have forgotten, and continued on. But surely this makes the National Gallery a major resource for the study of German drawings, particularly of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The third show was presented as being about the influence of photography on the pre-Raphaelites. The Wall Street Journal recently mentioned this exhibition in a review of the two photography exhibitions in DC in December. I agree with the reviewer that it seems quite unlikely that photograpy could have influenced the painters by offering more detail of observation, since I'm finding more and more that photographs do not usually capture detail with the same attention that painting can. And paintings are in color and early photograpy was not, so it's quite difficult to make a case for photograpy being more realistic. I did find the photographic portraits by Watts quite engaging, was interested to see Julia Margaret Cameon's work looking persistently  more pretentious, and to find through photographs that Rossetti's model looked more like his paintings than one could imagine a real human being could.

On to the National Portrait Gallery, on a cold day, passing a wonderful Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, where we later ate dinner. To get to Hide/Seek, I had to pass through an exhibition of photographs of Elvis Presley taken in 1956, just as he was bursting on the music scene. There was a video of him performing "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Heartbreak Hotel" that brought back memories, although several people my age just passed right though and ignored it.

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which seems to call attention to the gay and lesbian impact on 20th-century art, is an odd show in juxtapose with Elvis. The exhibition publicity refers to "sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture," but in other statements their terms are more specifically "gay and lesbian." I had wanted to see it since I'd heard Susan Stamberg talk about it on NPR earlier in the fall, but the protests and removal of the David Wojnarowicz video had made it mandatory. The show was very interesting, but also quite confusing, John O'Hara, Andy Warhol's videos of beautiful people, the Carl van Vechten photograph of Anthony Tudor and Hugh Laing secretly holding hands, Romaine Brooks's self portrait and in drag portrait of Una, Lady Trowbridge, 1924 were all understandable, as were the paired images by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. But what's Georgia O'Keeffe doing here and does that slightly female image of a red goat's horn have something to do with portraiture or gayness? Does it really mean the subject is gay if a Grant Wood portrait includes two guys skinny dipping in a rural stream in the background? Was Agnes Martin sexually different in some way because she did self portraits with bare shoulders that she later tried to destroy? I couldn't tell.  Why just show an unfinished Keith Haring and no others? I kept getting sidetracked, wondering what the exhibition was really supposed to be about, at the same time it seemed that just about everybody in the art world was gay, something that shouldn't have been a surprise to me, There certainly were a lot of gay artists and gay subjects, and they certainly did have an important role in the development of some modern art (I don't recall reference to abstract expressionism.).

The exhibition culminates in the age of AIDS, with a few select works, including Robert Mapplethorpe's Self Portrait  and the Felix Gonzales Torres pile of candy in the corner (to be taken away piece by piece, like life). The David Wojnarowicz video would have been essential to that part of the show, since he and his furious reponses to the plight of gay artists in the 80s and early 90s dramatize the agonizing helplessness we in the art world felt as artists and art world leaders succumbed to a disease we couldn't counter. Nonetheless the huge photograph by General Idea, Felix, June 5, 1994, taken hours after Felix Partz's death from an AIDS-related illness made a powerful impact and relived the horror of those times. I'm glad I could see it at the Portrait Gallery, upsetting as it is. The request to remove it in protest to the removal of the Wojanarowitz video also seems totally appropriate and, as a former art museum director and AAMD member, I'm disappointed that the National Portrait Gallery could choose to have a spine in response to the demand of an artist but has none in response to the comment of a legislator. In New York, at the New Museum, I watched a small part of the Wojnarowitz video, didn't have the patience to see it all, but what I saw was clearly not worthy of the exaggerated criticisms of the Catholic whatever it was and any congressman with a sense of honor.

The second bizarre juxtaposition with this show was at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is in the same building as the National Portrait Gallery. It was showing Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas's collections of paintings by Norman Rockwell. Despite its persistently uplifting presentation of illusionary small-town life, this show was more appealing to a professional than might have been expected. Rockwell was a wonderful painter and seeing the amazing color combinations in just the skirt of a figure, and the virtuoso brushwork in shaping a face or an arm made it a delight. Spielberg and Lucas also chose some of the more narrative, sometimes amusing but also occasionally more substantive subjects of Rockwell.

Monday, 10 January 2011

December 6, Sackler, Freer, Hirschhorn

Heading for new exhibitions at the Sackler, I entered through the Freer, which was closer to the Metro Station. I spent hours at the Freer, first admiring and struggling to understand the small exhibition of neolithic jades in shapes the purpose of which seems still to be unknown. Bi, beautiful discs of varied colors of stone and cong, squared vessles from neolithic times were found in profusion in tombs from the Liangzhu culture, dating from 3300 to 2250 BCE.

Cong, often found arranged around the body in tombs
Bi - these are all quite large, too big to wear as pendants

Glyph scratched onto a bi
Next door was a display of the Freer's Chinese bronzes. The only thing I remember from the Chinese Civilization course I took in college is that Shang bronzes have never been equalled in virtuoso casting technique and I've marvelled at the intricate designs on these strangely shaped vessels for decades. A greenish one that combines three animals in this grouping particularly fascinated me.

Ewer in the form of a tiger, owl and water bird, ca. 1300-1200 BCE

Then there was a large and comprehensive exhibition of ceramics from Southern Japan, from Kyushu. There were very few people in the museum and we occasionally commented to each other on how amazing the objects were.

After the obligatory stop in Whistler's Peacock Room, I wandered into galleries with a focus on Whistler's Nocturnes, amazingly modern paintings of atmospheric landscapes, including moody views of London. I was particularly struck by Symphony in Gray: Early Morning Thames, 1871. It seemed totally contemporary, capturing the scene and the feel of the scene in so few details as to approach abstraction but still have substantial narrative content. I've seen the Freer's Whistlers before, but this group seemed especially powerful, innovative and evocative. Later in the Sackler three photographs by Fiona Tan (West Pier Brighton, 2006) reminded me of this painting. There are several images of it on the web, but to me they all look boring and washed out. Seeing it in the frame helps a little, and the dark red walls also helped to focus attention on it.

Having recently done some research on contemporary Chinese art for a women's research club I belong to, I wanted to see the Xu Bing Monkeys Reaching for the Moon in the Sackler. It's still a charming manifestation of the concept - a chain of wooden carvings of the word for "monkey" in multiple languages - stretching from the skylight to a reflecting pool at the bottom of the staircase.

I was particularly interested in a show at the Sackler of bronzes from the National Museum of Cambodia, which I visited in 1987, a time when that museum was in poor condition - there were many bats on the ceiling - and I saw for the first time the flowers and coins left by people who still worshipped the Buddhist images on display. The exhibition at the Sackler is relatively small and quite representative, but hardly amazing.

The Sackler also had a small exhibition of the Shahnama, the epic poem of Iran's legendary and quasi-historical story up to the Arab conquest in the seventh century, completed by the Persian poet Abul-Qasim Firdawsi in 1010 CE. As "the most potent expression of Persian literary and national identity to this day," (exhibition brochure), it sparked magnificently illustrated editions commissioned by rulers of the area for centuries. The Sackler exhibition included just a few selected paintings of scenes from the narrative, but by the time I had looked at them, I had a good idea of the gist of the story and had also enjoyed the beauty of their lush detail.

I quickly wandered through the Fiona Tan display, not having patience to give the videos their due, and a show of Chinese objects, watching as a small child ran around the galleries and hid behind the pedestals and I hoped she didn't knock something over. I left before she did. By the time I left, I had spent 5 hours in the museum, admittedly a few minutes of that time captured by a Bollywood video starring Akshay Kumar being played in the museum shop.

Next stop was the Hirschhorn where there was a Guillermo Kuitca exhibition. Kuitca is an artist who has fascinated me for many years. The first works I remember by him were partially obscured maps of places I couldn't identify and so decided they didn't exist. Later I'd seen mattress works and some painted floor plans. My notes indicate that the first work in the exhibition was worth the entire trip. It  is From 1 to 30,000, 1980, ink on canvas of all of those numbers, memorializing the disappeared from Argentina's Dirty War of 1978-1983.

In the Sackler show his maps were mostly on mattresses, and instead of being of obscure places (probably in Poland or Czech Republic) they centered on the stretch of the United States between Kansas City, Oklahoma City to the south and Salina to the west. I could locate Lawrence and Baldwin City! Home!

Much of the work relates to theater in some way. Some dark paintings, suggesting Euro-trash stage sets and titled Seven Last Songs (seems a conflation of Strauss's Four Last Songs and Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ) suggested a tragic life view, and a recurrent theme of the floor plan of a relatively small house also suggests some sad recollections. Later Kuitca's works depict the insides of historic theaters, using collage rather than painting, sometimes collage black or red lines. The show is huge, with a lot of maps, theater proscenia or floor plans, and floor plans of large institutions. The latter were four of the seven canvases of the Tablada Suite, 1991, acrylic and graphite paintings of detailed floor plans of huge institutions - hospital, prison, cemetary and stadium - on huge soft-toned canvases - buff, gold, lavender and cream. A large composite painting using posters from Wagner's Ring also connects to the theater, as did many of the small works on paper depicting programs and announcements that seemed to have been damaged and distorted by water. At the beginning and end of the show Kuitca included a particularly sterile image of an airport baggage carousel, which he likened to an empty stage in the cell phone voice over. In the end I found many of the works inspiring and thought provoking, but the exhibition went on a little too long.

12 days, 2 museums a day

In early December we spent three days in Washington, DC and another 9 in New York City. Each day I set out to see whatever new exhibitions interested me and by the time I returned to Kansas I could count that I'd been to at least two museums a day. Most days this meant I went to many more than two exhibitions, since the major museums now schedule multiple large exhibitions at a time. I rarely had time to re-visit permanent collections, and in New York especially I skipped perhaps a dozen major venues. In some cases I just glanced at the shows and in others I tried to recod appropriate review materials. But in the end, it seems better to itemize most of what I saw.

One of the larger conclusions I made from this trek was that museums are still making major exhibitions out of rather few objects, for example the National Gallery's Arcimboldo exhibition, which has an enormous banner for a show of 16 paintings, three of which are copies (presumably by the artist). Often the small shows are delightful, informative and envigorating, although occasionally I thought the musuem was making an event from not much. Contrasted to these smaller and often delightful displays are still some extremely large exhibitions that might have benefited by more aggressive editing. Some of these are perfectly enchanting, but others went on well beyond my own ability to stay interested. The obvious conclusion is that the size of an exhibition might well be determined by the type of works being shown, that fewer objects might tell the story more effectively than more, but that any type of object has a critical mass necessary to give it appropriate attention and scholarly weight.