"Wapping," 1860 - 64

“Wapping,” 1860 – 64

Each of the Smithsonian museums has a character of its own, but they all have one thing in common: that feeling of safety and calm, the way a sacred space must feel to the religious. At the Arthur M. Sackler Asian Art Gallery you descend below-ground to the gallery space, leaving the world behind, sinking into yourself, as you enter a new, sandalwood-smelling, realm.

“An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” running now until August 17, 2014, is magical. The show gives us glimpses of James McNeill Whistler’s mid-nineteenth century London in all its gritty, booming tumult along an increasingly industrialized river. One of my favorite painters, I’d see any show of Whistler’s work, anywhere, any time. Here, as you walk from dusky room to dusky room, the painter’s evolution unfolds, with his earlier realistic images giving way to more and more impressionistic ones, as if the London fog is stealing into the gallery itself.

"Symphony in White, No. 2, The Little White Girl," 1864

“Symphony in White, No. 2, The Little White Girl,” 1864

“Wapping,” 1860-64, depicts Whistler’s Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, enjoying the company of a sailor and another man. Originally painted as a prostitute, the model is, after four years of reworking, an ambiguous, contemplative figure. The view from the porch of The Angel, a public house near Whistler’s own Chelsea rooms, gives out on the bustling wharf. Painted with painstaking detail, the realistic image makes you feel as if you’ve just arrived, joining the group to have a pint. All the painting-over seems to have muddled Joanna’s image a bit, as if her head is bathed in, or merging with, the light coming off the river.

In “Symphony in White, No. 2: the Little White Girl,” 1864, we see Joanna again, wistfully posed in Whistler’s porcelain and azalea-filled dining room. She holds a fan decorated with an image by Utagawa Hiroshige, one of the famous views of Edo (now Tokyo). Next to the painting is the woodblock fan print itself, “The Banks of the Sumida River,” 1857. The wall placard tells us this view is from the middle of the Azuma Bridge, a similar positioning to Whistler’s paintings of London’s distant Crenmore Gardens, with its nightlife, cafes, and fireworks.

"The Banks of the Sumida River," by Utagawa Hiroshige

“The Banks of the Sumida River,” by Utagawa Hiroshige

“Japonisme,” all the rage in France and Europe, was to have a profound effect on Whistler, who owned an extensive collection of Japanese woodblock prints, and who sought to incorporate characteristic Japanese compositional elements into his work. He enjoyed posing European models in “oriental” costume, as he does here in “Caprice in Purple and Gold: the Golden Screen,” 1864. Here Joanna is dressed as a Japanese courtesan, sorting through an array of woodblock prints. Hiroshige and Hokusai were “…the filter through which Whistler later re-envisioned the industrial views of London out his window.”

"Caprice in Purple and Gold: the Golden Screen," 1864

“Caprice in Purple and Gold: the Golden Screen,” 1864

“Chelsea in Ice,” is the view from Whistler’s bedroom on one particularly cold February day in 1864. His famous mother, staying with him at the time, said she nearly froze to death as he painted, in a frenzy, with the window wide open. The slabs of ice are suggested by broad, flat brush-strokes, in his new gestural, almost abstract style.

The link between Japanese prints and “Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge,” 1872-73, can be seen by comparing Whistler’s painting with Hiroshige’s “Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge,” 1857.

"Chelsea In Ice," 1864

“Chelsea In Ice,” 1864

This painting—of Old Battersea Bridge—was the one I’d come to this exhibition to see. On loan from the Tate, London, this incandescent painting, draws the viewer in, the spray of fireworks overhead like something otherworldly. It’s encased in a gorgeous gold and turquoise frame that looks like it was cut from the wall of the famous “Peacock Room,” designed by Whistler for his patron, the shipbuilder Frederick R. Leyland, now reconstructed in the neighboring Freer Museum. The very informative accompanying notes tell us that Whistler first calls these ephemeral night visions “moonlights,” until Leyland suggested the term “nocturne.” Whistler defined the nocturne as a work valuable as art only, without any “…outside anecdotal interest.”

"Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge," by Utagawa Hiroshige

“Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge,” by Utagawa Hiroshige

We can see what he was getting at here, a suggestive impression of urban night, but the prevailing Victorian sensibility was not prepared to follow where Whistler was leading. Indeed, the critic John Ruskin gave the Old Battersea Bridge painting such a scathingly bad review that Whistler sued him for libel in 1878. And won. Not that it made much difference to the public, whose tastes still ran to realistic, often moralizing pictures. Whistler’s style was so radical—with its almost monochrome palette, low perspective and murky aspect—that many had trouble making out what the picture represented.

From our perspective, the painting is itself a bridge, connecting the Victorian age to the age of modernism.

"Nocturne in Blue and Gold--Old Battersea Bridge," 1872-73

“Nocturne in Blue and Gold–Old Battersea Bridge,” 1872-73

In Whistler’s words, he wanted to paint the point at which “…the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night…Nature…sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master—her son in that he loves her, her master in that he knows her.”

See more at http://www.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/An-American-in-London-Whistler-and-the-Thames-5141

"The Peacock Room," 1908

“The Peacock Room,” 1908

Also, “The Peacock Room Comes to America”



Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

Lately I can’t get enough of the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington, DC. Opening in mid-morning, the gallery closes at 7:00PM. Once you’ve gobbled up your fill of art, you have time to sit under the magnificent floating roof to people-watch, be mesmerized by the fountain, or have a coffee. For future reference, it’s a wonderful place to sip a glass of wine during the winter—the atrium is magical after dark.

"Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris," by Barkley Leonnard Harris, 1972

“Sir Charles, Alias Willie Harris,” by Barkley Leonnard Harris, 1972

And then—there’s the portraiture. There’s something so compelling about portraits, especially ones that show us more than a likeness, that offer a glimpse into the sitter’s inner life—his or her aspirations, fears, dreams, tragic flaws—or show us what it might have been like to live in a bygone era.

On view until January 2015, the exhibition “Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction” offers all this and more. During the period of 1945-1975, painting a portrait was a heretical act; most artists of the day disdained figurative painting in favor of pure abstraction. A few flew in the face of this trend to rediscover and reinvent portraiture.

The first image you see as you enter this exhibition is a knockout: “Sir Charles, alias Willie Harris,” by Barkley Leonnard Hendricks, oil on canvas, 1972. The wall placard tells us that the artist borrowed the coat from a seventeenth century Anthony van Dyke portrait, but I see Sir Charles as all about seventies black awareness, fashion, and presence. Each image shows a different expression: cool, diffident, in control, seeing all, missing nothing. A man to be reckoned with.

"Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background," by Andy Warhol, 1976

“Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background,” by Andy Warhol, 1976

"Andy Warhol," by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

“Andy Warhol,” by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

Portraits of each other by Jamie Wyeth and Andy Warhol caused a sensation when they were first shown in 1976 at New York City’s Coe Kerr Gallery. “The patriarch of Pop paints the Prince of Realism,” chortled a critic in The New York Times. Warhol’s “Portrait of Jamie Wyeth with Tan Background,” 1976, glamorizes the artist, embellishing his image with carvings in the thick paint, and giving the artist a wistful, romantic cast, with a peach-stained set of lips hovering, ghost-like, over his own. Wyeth’s image of “Andy Warhol,” 1976, on the other hand, gilds no lilies. Mercilessly detailed, Warhol’s eyes are blank under his alarmed-looking eyebrows, as if a flash bulb had just gone off. His pet dachshund, lovingly cradled in his arms, appears more engaged in the process than his master, peering with interest at the viewer/painter.

"Hugh Hefner," by Marisol Escobar, 1966-7

“Hugh Hefner,” by Marisol Escobar, 1966-7

“Hugh Hefner,” by Marisol Escobar, 1966-7, pokes sly fun at the urbane Playboy publisher, here seen as a blockhead with two pipes—bit of an oral fixation, eh, Hef? This bigger-than-life polychromed wood creation was made for a Time magazine cover, part of a trove of cover art given to the gallery by the publisher.

loftStar of the show may well be “Loft on 26th Street,” by pop art trickster Red Grooms (plywood, cardboard, paper and wire), 1966-7. This delightful piece shows us the studio apartment of Mimi and Red Grooms, “Home of Ruckus Films,” and its denizens partying up a storm. Grooms himself is slicing potatoes at the right of the diorama. Endless wonderful things to look at here: the art lining the walls, the detailed clothing, the contents of the fridge, even a recognizable china pattern my friend Pat had when we were living in New York’s lower East Side.

Jacob Lawrence’s 1966 portrait of Stokeley Carmichael (ink, gouache, and charcoal on paper) was commissioned to be a Time magazine cover, but the publishers, put off by Carmichael’s increasingly militant rhetoric, never printed it. A shame. It’s so raw, so powerful. At least it now can be seen in the Portrait Gallery’s collection.

"Stokeley Carmichael," by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

“Stokeley Carmichael,” by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

"Ginny in Striped Shirt," by Alice Neel, 1969

“Ginny in Striped Shirt,” by Alice Neel, 1969

Alice Neel has the knack of visually nailing the inner person, as we see here in “Ginny in a Striped Shirt,” oil on canvas, 1969. The sitter, Virginia Taylor, then the girlfriend of Neel’s son, Hartley, puts it well, saying Neel caught “…a certain passionate anxiety for life…[the artist] sees in me all the aspiration, conflict, determination … [of someone] who has seen enough to doubt, but still wanted to believe in a utopian future.”

Don’t you love the sense of play in the Larry Rivers sketch of Jack Kerouac? Made in 1960 (graphite on paper), Rivers was playing jazz sax and the musicality of this piece is evident. Fairfield Porter, an artist and leading art critic said that Rivers’ “…self-control comes from conscious spontaneity and constant awareness.” Interesting comment: control and letting go are seen as the yin and yang of the creative process.

David Park, with Richard Diebenkorn, was a California artist who returned to figuration in the fifties, saying, “Art ought to be a troublesome thing and one of my reasons for painting representationally is that this makes for much more troublesome pictures.” His portrait of San Francisco art patron, Ellen Brantsen, “Woman with Red Mouth,” 1954-55, with her garish mouth, blood red fingernails and brandished cigarette, is guaranteed to stir up

"Jack Kerouac," by Larry Rivers, 1960

“Jack Kerouac,” by Larry Rivers, 1960


"Woman with Red Mouth," by David Park, 1954-5

“Woman with Red Mouth,” by David Park, 1954-5

Another Bay Area artist, Joan Brown, gives us “Self Portrait with Fish and Cat,” oil enamel on Masonite, 1970. She hopes to convey “…the connection and the psychic response that the animal picks up from the person,” often dreaming exactly the scene she later paints. This work does have a dream-like quality with the figure floating,

"Self-portrait with Fish and Cat," by Joan Brown, 1970

“Self-portrait with Fish and Cat,” by Joan Brown, 1970

unmoored before the brilliant red background.

As you can see, there is much to enjoy in this show of some 50 paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints by 44 artists, including Elaine de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Romare Beardon, and more.

Now, I think I’ll go have a coffee in the atrium. Maybe I’ll go back for more portraits later.