Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

WONDER at the Renwick Gallery

Monday, September 5th, 2016

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The reopening of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, was celebrated over a period of 8 months with an exhibition featuring the work of nine contemporary artists. Five women and four men created site-specific installations that occupied and transformed the museum’s refurbished gallery spaces. Visitors such as myself found themselves immersed in wonders indeed.

Official photographs of the event can seen at the online gallery, here.  To add to the record, below are scenes of three of the rooms that I captured during a visit in April.

[Note: Descriptions of the artists’ works quoted below are taken from the Renwick Gallery’s text found here.]

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Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake (installation, 2015)

 
“Growing up in Ohio in the 1960s, Lin watched her father participate in the fledgling studio glass movement then gathering steam in nearby Toledo. The marbles used in this installation are the same industrial fiberglass product Henry Huan Lin and other glass-blowing pioneers experimented with then, which were soon abandoned by artists as technical knowledge matured. Folding the Chesapeake marks their first use by Maya Lin and a new chapter in her decades-long investigation of natural wonders. By shaping rivers, fields, canyons, and mountains within the museum, Lin shifts our attention to their outdoor counterparts, sharpening our focus on the need for their conservation.”

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Do you see Philadelphia?

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Gabriel Dawe, Plexus A1 (installation, 2015)

“Dawe’s architecturally scaled weavings are often mistaken for fleeting rays of light. It is an appropriate trick of the eye, as the artist was inspired to use thread in this fashion by memories of the skies above Mexico City and East Texas, his childhood and current homes, respectively. The material and vivid colors also recall the embroideries everywhere in production during Dawe’s upbringing.”

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Tara Donovan, Untitled , 2014, © Tara Donovan, courtesy of Pace Gallery

“Employing mundane materials such as toothpicks, straws, Styrofoam cups, scotch tape, and index cards, Donovan gathers up the things we think we know, transforming the familiar into the unrecognizable through overwhelming accumulation. The resulting enigmatic landscapes force us to wonder just what it is we are looking at and how to respond. The mystery, and the potential for any material in her hands to capture it, prompts us to pay better attention to our surroundings, permitting the everyday to catch us up again.”

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Paintings from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art integrated into National Gallery of Art Collection

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

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Earlier this evening while visiting the National Gallery of Art I saw how smartly the museum has integrated a few of the thousands of American works of art it acquired last year from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art (founded 1869, dissolved 2014).

For example, the pinnacle of the Corcoran’s collection of Hudson River School paintings, Niagara (1857) by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), has been given pride of place in this room at the National Gallery of Art — where it has become the painting people invariably stop to admire:

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"Niagara" (1857) by Frederic Church, now at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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"Niagara" by Frederick Church, now at National Gallery of Art

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(For a memento of how the painting looked when it used to hang at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, click here.)

A strength of the Corcoran museum, and an element that in my personal experience over the years turned that institution into an enlightening museum of American history as well as a fine museum of American art, was its collection of genre paintings — depictions of everyday life in our nation. Here are four gems belonging to that category, newly huddled in a corner where they are adding vitality to visitors’ experience of the National Gallery of Art.

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Four American genre paintings, Corcoran/NGA Collection: RIchard Norris Brooke, William Sidney Mount, Richard Caton Woodville, Frank Blackwell Mayer

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The large canvas on the left is a picture I made certain to pay my respects to on dozens of visits (starting in the 1970s) to its former home. Titled A Pastoral Visit, it was painted in 1881 by Richard Norris Brooke (1847-1920). A powerful narrative executed with controlled sentimentality, the painting succeeds in a way that Norman Rockwell — our most beloved genre artist — all too often does not.

On the right side of the photo, the three other paintings that came to the NGA from the Corcoran share Brooke’s ambition and achievement. But these are scenes of more modest scale, with a tone unique to each artist. From left to right: The Tough Story–Scene in a Country Tavern (1837) by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868); Waiting for the Stage (1851) by Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855); and Leisure and Labor (1858) by Frank Blackwell Mayer (1827-1899), an early political commentary conveyed via posture and dress (while beautifully composed and painted, too).

Now I look forward to the NGA hanging on its walls additional, equally bold works from the Corcoran trove. Two suggestions, if I may: The Longshoreman’s Noon (1879) by John George Brown, and Nearing the Issue at the Cockpit (1879) by Horace Bonham.

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The White House: An Evening Tour during Christmas Season

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

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Just returned from an evening tour of the White House, now decorated for the Christmas season.

The entrance to the East Wing is guarded by stalwart Penguins — volunteers, one imagines, from Santa’s polar region.

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Penguins guard the West Wing entrance

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Once inside, your journey down a hallway turns magical under a canopy of paper snowflakes:

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White House hallway with paper snowflakes

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When you reach the White House proper, a succession of public rooms greets you. One of these is the Green Room, which displays a spectrum of American art, including paintings by John Marin and Jacob Lawrence (for a daytime photo of the Green Room, click here):

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The White House, Green Room

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The White House, Green Room, with paintings by John Marin and Jacob Lawrence

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Of the many Christmas trees on display, this one in the East Room is my candidate for best (neither the fellow in the lower left nor the one on the back wall expressed an opinion):

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The White House, East Room

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Visual Literacy – 3

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

The so-called War on Christmas may be a fiction, but there is no doubting that contemporary Americans, even those you would expect to know better, are much less familiar with Christian iconography than in the past. I previously posted an idle observation on this subject, here.

A new example came to my attention this week, in an auction catalog posted online by an auction house in Connecticut. In the listings for the sale there is an item labeled, “TOMAS PENNING (1905-1982) CARVED CROSS.” It’s accompanied by several photos and the following description:

“Carved slate, marked NR above figure, Dimensions: H 36″ x W 22.5″ Condition: good”

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Here’s one of the photos showing the segment above the figure:

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One can suppose the cataloguer mentioned that two letters, NR, appear above the figure for some reason beyond mere diligence (it’s standard cataloguing practice to indicate for the benefit of remote bidders who can’t examine the object in person, all of the marks, initials, dates and other inscriptions found on it). But why mention just the N and the R?  Did the cataloguer not see within the rectangle the “I” before and the “I” after the letters NR? Was he or she not familiar with the four letter inscription, INRI, that appears in representations of the crucified Jesus? Was there no one around who knew the significance of the acronym INRI? That it comes from the Latin phrase ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum’ — ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’?  That according to the crucifixion story in the Bible (John 19:19), this was a notice Pontius Pilate posted over the head of Jesus as he lay dying on the cross? That this imagery has been a part of our cultural conversation spanning centuries?

Two unforgettable examples:

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Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), The Crucifixion, 1459 (detail)

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Emile Nolde (1867-1956), Crucifixion, 1912

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The New Whitney Museum – In the Galleries

Monday, September 21st, 2015

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In New York at the Whitney Museum this afternoon.

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Whitney Museum, 9-21-2015, Paintings by Cy Twombly and Alma Thomas

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Whitney Museum - Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring

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Two Centuries, Two Halls, Two Ceilings

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

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Here are photographs I took this month of the interiors of two notable buildings in Washington, DC — the grand halls and ceilings of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building (Great Hall, 1897) and the U.S. Institute of Peace Headquarters (Jacqueline and Marc Leland Atrium, 2011).

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View from the floor of the Great Hall, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

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Six large skylights above the Great Hall, Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

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Ceiling decoration of the Great Hall,  Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

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View from the Great Hall’s second floor west corridor, June 15, 2015

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U.S. Institute of Peace, Leland Atrium (one critic disparaged its “lazy glass wing dangling rather drunkenly over the main atrium.”)

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The space, regimented with chairs, can be chilling.

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Yet there’s no denying the ceiling is intriguing.

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Feminist Graffiti: “We Are In Charge”

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Stencil graffiti spotted at 17th & R Sts., NW, Washington DC, April 30, 2015, 5:51 PM.

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Note: In a search of Google Images I could find only one other example of this particular stencil graffiti, here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexiares/2449433511/. The uploader of that photo didn’t indicate its location.

Atlas and Patience in NYC

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

A gray afternoon in Manhattan on Wednesday.

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Atlas at Rockefeller Center, 04/08/2015 at 4:00:13 PM

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Patience the Lion at New York Public Library, 04-08-2015 (first at 4:12:00 PM; second at 4:12:12 PM)

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Visual Literacy – 2

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

When an unsympathetic viewer confronts an abstract painting, an easy jest for him to declare is: “I can’t tell whether it’s hanging upside down or right side up!”

Uncertainty of that kind rarely arises when the art being looked at comes from the realist school. There are enough cues in a figurative piece to set the image aright.

Last month, while looking through a catalog of paintings, drawings and prints up for auction at a local auction house, I found an exception.  It was a case of someone — most likely the cataloguer who handled the photos of the art and arranged them on the catalog page — literally turning the artist’s intention upside down. The cause of the snafu is beyond my knowing; it may well have been a simple mistake by someone otherwise familiar with our visual heritage. But whatever the cause, in both the printed catalog and auction house’s online presentation, an eighteenth-century pencil drawing of a male figure was shown this way:

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(Screenshot of online catalog, cropped)

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It’s a fine drawing. The artist, a French engraver named Bernard Picart (1673-1733), demonstrates himself to be a skilled draftsman. Picart well qualifies for his own Wikipedia page, here. He is renowned for the book illustrations he produced for editions of the Bible, and Ovid’s fables for which he depicted scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.

What interested me in the drawing is the clues it reveals about Picart’s working methods. Here, I thought, is evidence that Picart used a live model as the source for initial studies that would ultimately become his final engravings. This was an example of the preliminary drawings he likely relied on to generate insights and solutions when composing a final picture.

But before speculating further there was another matter to address. Picart’s drawing was arranged on the catalog page in a way that placed the figure in a head up, feet down position, To me this looked, well, mighty awkward. There was something not right about the configuration of the man’s limbs, something strange in the outbound spray of his hair. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t the artist establish what his model’s feet are resting upon? What’s prompting the inexplicable sense of weightlessness to his stance? Surely the artist did not mean for the man to look as if he were pinned to the ceiling, wriggling like Spiderman. I suspected others who looked at the catalog also were momentarily confounded, unable to make sense of this human figure, uncertain of the purpose he was meant to serve.

What is the figure’s raison d’être?

Ah! Might it look different if the figure were turned . . . upside down, head-over-heals, like this? —

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Now we understand intuitively what’s happening. The figure is meant to signify a man in free fall, falling through space, unmoored from his body’s natural protections against gravity. His implied trajectory is as dramatic and as horrible as one can imagine. His arms splayed out like helpless wings, he will come to a terrible end. That is what Picart wanted to capture.

The artist could not very well ask his live model to remain freely suspended, head pointed downward, from the ceiling of the artist’s studio. Cleverly, like a modern-day photographer who place a model on an evenly lit stage, to stand on and in front of a stark white, smoothly-papered, shadow-free backdrop, Picart discovered an expedient. He would place his model in a supine position, his torso on a low stand, with his feet pressed up against a wall. He may well have used white drapery to make disappear these supports. This was a pose his model could assume with minimal discomfort. It allowed for easy changes in positions, various shifts to the head, arms, torso and legs, as the artist might choose to visualize. It well served the artist’s goal of capturing the falling look he needed.

Needed for what?

To reenact a narrative of a man’s fall that his contemporary audience would immediately recognize as the Fall of Icarus.

Below is Picart’s engraving, The Fall of Icarus, for which I believe the auctioned drawing was a preliminary study. The engraving is one of the illustrations Picart contributed to an edition of the Metamorphosis of Ovid published in 1733.

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Note: The auction house correctly hung the framed drawing during the exhibition held during the week prior to the auction:

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The Sorry State of Visual Literacy?

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

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This small painting is among the items up for auction next month at a prominent West Coast auction house. The catalog description identifies the work as a “religious painting (18th/19th century)” depicting a “man with tail carrying child and globe with cross.”

Really? This is just some unknown guy? With a tail? Carrying some unknown child on his back? The scene is some unfathomable concoction by a quirky artist?

Make that, artists (plural).

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