“Lorenzo Pagans,” 1871-72, Musee d’Orsay

At my reserved time slot, properly masked and distanced, I walked into the National Gallery of Art on a beautiful September day. It was like going home after a six-month exile and I was more than ready to see some art, in the flesh, so to speak. And what a treat awaited – Degas at the Opéra, a celebration of the Paris Opéra’s 350th anniversary. The Musée D’Orsay, the Musée de l’Orangerie, and the National Gallery joined forces to gather paintings, works on paper, and one sculpture by the great opera and dance devotee.

Degas adored the Paris Opéra – the wonderful old building, the dance classes and rehearsals, and the fantastical stage performances. He also didn’t shrink from the seamier side of the Opéra ballet of the mid-to late 1800s. Had the #metoo movement been afoot (pun intended), the young women of the corps de ballet would have been tweeting their hearts out.

 

“Portrait of Mille Fiocre in the Ballet La Source,” 1867-68, Brooklyn Museum

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Degas, born into a well-to-do family, was introduced early to the joys of music at salons in his home. This portrait of the soulful Lorenzo Pagans was also a portrait of Degas’ father, seen with his head framed by sheet music. It was the only portrait Degas ever painted of his father of whom he was very fond. Unfettered by the need to earn money, and with encouragement from his well-to-do parents, Degas was free to develop both his talent and his love of the opera, in which dance had a starring role.

“La Source,” likely Degas’ first opera ballet painting, depicts what appears to be an idealized history scene, but is a faithful rendering of the ballerina Eugenie Fiocre, dressed for her role as the melancholy Nouredda, bride of the khan. Glad you asked. Yes, the set did have a stream running through it and a live horse made an appearance, too. Look between the legs of the horse and you can make out a discarded pair of pale pink ballet slippers.

“Friends at the Theater,” 1879, Musee d’Orsay

Degas was just as interested in the patrons of the Opéra as he was the performers. In “The Two Friends,” we see his dear friend, Ludovic Halévy, conversing with another gentleman. It was Halévy, an avid connoisseur, who first introduced Degas to the Opéra. I love the strong vertical element setting off the two men, and how their dark suits and tall hats are crisply silhouetted against the painted stage flat.

“Robert le Diable,” brings us down to the orchestra level, the vaunted territory of season ticket holders, all men. (Women were seated upstairs, in the boxes). At this point, the Meyerbeer opera was somewhat shopworn, and, as you can see, the  gentleman with the opera glasses to the left is far more interested in who might be up in the boxes than he is in the action on the stage. Floating above the orchestra we see reprobate nuns, risen from the dead, performing a suggestively bacchanalian dance, as only a fallen nun can.
 

“The Ballet from Robert le Diable,” 1871, the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Throughout this lush show, Degas’ use of color—in his marvelous pastels and oil paintings—is a standout. I loved “Yellow Dancers,” both for the eye-popping citrus yellow, but also for the wonderfully intimate poses of the dancers in the wings. First and foremost, Degas thought of himself as a draftsman and used line to express his love of the human form. He would sketch the same pose over and over, finding the volume, weight, and characteristic expression in each. He created a vocabulary of dancers’ poses – yawning, back scratching, stretching, flexing the foot, extending the leg—which he could draw upon when a composition called for it.

“Yellow Dancers in the Wings,” 1874-76, Art Institute of Chicago

In “The Curtain,” a dancer flees from a top hatted man. Her panicked eye is barely visible as she disappears out of the frame, her red sash trailing. Men also lurk to the left, and from behind a flat their trousered legs mingle with those of the dancers. Wait. What’s going on here? As season ticket holders, these men enjoyed the privilege of openly stalking the young dancers, ogling them from the wings or the front seats of the orchestra. Degas depicts them with a stark and sinister air; their constant presence serves as a reminder that the dancers—often only girls—were generally from poor families. If they showed talent, they would be pushed into a profession that was only a cut above prostitution. Several paintings here show the girls’ bonneted mothers coaching them at auditions or seated in the galleries watching rehearsals. They were complicit; surely they knew what peril their daughters might face in the life of a dancer.

“The Curtain,” 1880, National Gallery of Art

Around 1880, inspired by Renaissance alter panels and Japanese woodblock scrolls, Degas began to create frieze-like pictures such as “The Dance Lesson,” the first of these horizontal compositions. An exhausted dancer in a red shawl slumps on a double bass while the strong line of the dark brown panel draws the eye to two other dancers, one adjusting her sash, and on to a group of dancers by the barre in the strong light of the windows.

“The Dance Lesson,” 1879, National Gallery of Art

The same elements appear in “Dancer Climbing the Stairs,” but are now radically changed. A dancer climbs a staircase to the rehearsal room as two other dancers follow, just barely visible at the far left of the picture. One turns to the other, as if in the midst of conversation, and, even though we barely see the third dancer’s face, the swirling motion creates a sort of eddy in the wake of the climbing dancer which increases the sense of upward momentum. All this arrested action is even more impressive as we learn the staircase never existed.

“Dancers Climbing the Stairs,” 1886-90, Musee d’Orsay

Across the room from the frieze paintings are a series of fans Degas created in a time of financial pinch when the Degas family banking enterprise went belly-up. Here, too, we see the Japanese influence as Degas plays with compositions in a constrained space. One has a special significance. Among the first he created, this fan features Spanish dancers and musicians. Although he’d planned to sell the fans, he gave this one to his friend, Berthe Morisot. Later, she featured the fan in her own painting, “The Sisters,” also found in the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

“The Sisters,” 1869, by Berthe Morisot, National Gallery of Art

And now – the moment you’ve likely been waiting for: “The Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen,” the only sculpture Degas exhibited in public in his lifetime. The National Gallery proudly owns a large collection of Degas waxes, and this young girl, with her perfect turnout, forward thrust hips, and pensive, long-suffering face, is perhaps the best known. She wears tights, a real fabric tutu, dance slippers, and a satin ribbon in her hair (human and horsehair). I gazed into her face and wondered what she was thinking as she posed for the artist. Today, we find her charming—I certainly did—but in her day, most viewers did not find her charming at all. When she debuted at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, the critics, fed on a more conventional diet of idealized classical sculpture, savaged her as “odiously ugly,” an “Opera rat” unworthy of elevation to art.

On that melancholy note, the show came to an end, and as I walked out of the last gallery, I found myself in a makeshift gift shop, where our dear little Opéra rat adorns everything from scarves to tote bags.

“Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” 1878-1881, National Gallery of Art

Do try to get there, if you’re anywhere near DC. This glorious show, featuring a number of video clips of the ballets depicted in the paintings, is up until October 12, 2020, proof that not everything in this blighted year is toxic.

Indeed, Degas at the Opéra is a tonic.

You can get your timed entry slot here:

https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2020/degas-opera

 

 

“Spanish Dancers and Musicians,” 1868-69, National Gallery of Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sculpture near Hirshhorn Museum

Hey, howdy! What’s keeping you sane-ish in these strange and trying times? For me, it’s been hour-long walks near our Southwest DC condo. But with museums and galleries closed, I’m really missing art. Sure, I could tour museums online, but, as we all know, there ain’t nuthin’ like the real thing. One day, as I trekked up to the National Mall, I woke up to the art right under my nose. I’d walked past sculptures by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Anthony Caro, without—shame on me—really seeing them.

Truth to tell, works on paper or paint on canvas have always spoken to me more strongly than sculpture. But if sculptures are all I’ve got, I vowed to go back and really see them. First, I dove into Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art, by art dealer Michael Findlay. If I’d walked by all those works of art for the past three months, all the while bemoaning the lack of art in my life, I clearly needed help. Findlay, despite his many years of scholarship, figured out how to see works with new eyes. Easy-to-master tactics result in a state of mindfulness in which we can be open to art and—maybe, maybe not—be deeply moved by it. There is no right or wrong. If the piece moves you, that’s all you need to know.

So, off I went again to the Mall, first stopping to sit on a bench, close my eyes, and breathe deeply for several minutes. (Step One in the Findlay method.) Next, I tried to let the art pick me (Step Two), rather than looking around for something “important,” or a piece by a well-known artist.

The giant red sculpture just ahead spoke to me—loudly. Step Three: DO NOT read the identifying plaque. You don’t need to know who made it. Let it speak to you on its own. Findlay suggests spending at least three minutes with a work to see what it might give us (Step Four). I checked my watch and started looking. The sculpture looked familiar and I was pretty sure I’d seen similar works crawling hugely over hill and dale at the outdoor Storm King Art Center in upstate New York, but I tried to put that out of my mind.

At first, I saw only the enormous red-orange I-beams arranged at various angles, with one V-shaped piece dangling by a cable. As I gazed, words began to float up in my mind: forthright, masculine, audacious, thrusting, grounded. But that V. That V was oddly touching, hanging out there at the mercy of the wind, moving and changing as it turned. I noticed several other Vs in the composition and, as the light changed, the sculpture began to look like an enormous drawing.

And then something happened. I felt a welling of emotion, of mysterious communion, of awe. The sensation was all the more delicious for being unexpected. In the end, I’d spent eight minutes with the piece and was reluctant to leave it. I suspect I’ll return again and again, seeking it out like an old friend.

Next, a bright and shiny object caught my eye: a life-sized stainless steel character out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale – a peddler? I noticed all the stuff in his basket: a floppy rabbit, eggs, loaves of bread, cheeses, a ham. In the early days of Covid food shortages, this guy would have been a welcome sight. With his antique clothing – spats, clogs, a flowing smock, a jaunty cap, and that pipe – he was a kitschy voyager, back from “olden days.” Standing in front of the flying saucer Hirshhorn Museum, the effect was jarring.

I circled the sculpture, all burnished and gleaming in the late-morning sun, I wasn’t sure how I felt about him. After about three minutes, a creepy sizzle from his eyes gave me the sense he was watching me. As I moved, his eyes followed. He seemed to say, with a leer, You have no idea who I am or where I came from, do you, honey? I shuddered. No epiphany with this guy, no communion, no awe.

I was relieved to move on and soon came upon two large shapes on a pedestal. Dappled under trees, this piece of abstract art sits overlooking the brooding Rodins in the Hirshhorn’s sunken sculpture garden.

Now I was reminded of another Findlay dictum: to adopt an attitude, not only of seeing, but of watching a work of art. What does it do? Is it alive? As I walked around the sculpture, the bronze shapes did feel animated. I sensed how they yearned toward one another. With their bronze hide-like surface, they sported flippers, fins, arms, leg-like stumps. The shape on the right had the most inquisitive beak and the figure on the left reminded me of Martha Graham writhing in a tube-like sock, her arms protruding now and then to create an alien animal.

After three minutes of circling, I returned to the front of the sculpture. As I watched, the space between the figures began to vibrate and I swear I saw them move toward each other. The energy charge between the two creatures was electric. As I circled the sculpture again, it struck me that those shapes could never have taken any other shape that the ones they’d become. Broad and comforting, maybe male and female, maybe not, the pull they exerted on one another was palpable.

The six-minute experience with these two figures was entirely satisfying, but far quieter than my encounter with the big red sculpture, and far more pleasant than my encounter with Mr. Peddler.

So there you have my experiment in seeing slowly. I highly recommend trying it with the public art where you live. Fortunately for me, Washington, DC is blessed with a large quantity of outdoor art, and as I get more and more hooked on sculpture, I’ll return to this space with more slow observations.

If you’re not in the least curious about who made these works, you can stop reading now.

But if you are, the ten-ton red sculpture, “Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore),” was created by Mark di Suvero in 1967. Moore’s poem, “What Are Years?” seems a remarkably apt one for our times. Click here to hear di Suvero reading it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2l8TNZvLCPs

Or scroll down to the end of this post to read it yourself.

Marianne Moore

The stainless steel peddler, “Kiepenkerl,” was—yikes!—made by Jeff Koons in 1987. I hate Jeff Koons and his corny balloon dogs! But this work—a transitional one between his repurposed “readymades” (think latter-day Duchamp) and more original (if still outrageous) art. After listening to a Hirshhorn Museum curator’s talks on our man “Kiepenkerl,” I began to have some grudging respect for Koons. You can listen here: https://hirshhorn.si.edu/explore/fgt-kiepenkerl/

Finally, “Two-piece Reclining Figure, Points,” was created by Henry Moore in 1969-70 and cast in 1973. I love what he said about the two figures:

“The Two-Piece Reclining Figures must have been working around in the back of my mind for years, really. As long ago as 1934 I had done a number of smaller pieces composed of separate forms, two- and three-piece carvings in ironstone, ebony, alabaster and other materials. They were all more abstract than these. I don’t think it was a conscious or intentional thing for me to break up the figures in this way, but I suppose those earlier works from the thirties had something to do with it. . . . I did the first one in two pieces almost without intending to. But after I’d done it, then the second one became a conscious idea. I realised what an advantage a separated two-piece composition could have in relating figures to landscape. Knees and breasts are mountains. Once these two parts become separated you don’t expect it to be a naturalistic figure; therefore, you can justifiably make it like a landscape or a rock. If it is a single figure, you can guess what it’s going to be like. If it is in two pieces, there’s a bigger surprise, you have more unexpected views; therefore the special advantage over painting – of having the possibility of many different views – is more fully exploited.

The front view doesn’t enable one to foresee the back view. As you move round it, the two parts overlap or they open up and there’s space between. Sculpture is like a journey. You have a different view as you return. The three-dimensional world is full of surprises in a way that a two-dimensional world could never be.”

[Henry Moore quoted in Carlton Lake, Henry Moore’s World, Atlantic Monthly, vol.209, no.1, January 1962, p.44]

 

What are Years, by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt,—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourages others
and in its defeat, stirs

the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every time I see the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company perform, I wish I could watch each dance over and over again.

The Company Rehearsing

On Saturday, my wish came true.

My friend Jeanne and I were privileged to observe a rehearsal for the up-coming DTSBDC show, “Portraits.” This June 15th and 16th performance at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater will celebrate the company’s 25th year of delighting audiences as Washington, DC’s preeminent dance company.

The first dance rehearsed was “Confluence,” reviewed in this space on April 19, 2014 when it premiered in the magnificent Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery. http://ellenkwatnoski.com/premier-confluence-dana-tae-soon-burgess-at-the-national-portrait-gallery-april-19-2014/

Even though this was a rehearsal, with stops and breaks for Burgess’s and Katia Chupashko Norri’s (associate rehearsal director), inventive notes to the dancers, this piece still took our breath away. Choreographer Burgess was inspired by the moody 1938 portrait of modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey by Barbara Morgan. The portrait was part of the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery’s show, “Dance the Dream,” which featured portraits of legendary dancers, Burgess himself among them.

Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

Fraught with psychological overtones, this dance expresses “an emotional terrain of the mind”—in Burgess’s words—the uncomfortable state brought about by short meetings—trysts—in which unresolved feelings abound.

The dancers became lit from within as they got into character—even though still working out spacing, timing, and minute changes in hand gestures, arm shapes, and where the dancer’s eyes should be focused. These and many other adjustments will ultimately combine to form the intention, emotional content, and musicality of the final performance. We were struck by Burgess’s and Norri’s precise and sometimes amusing notes to the dancers: “After the contact lens moment,” (a dancer plucks something invisible from the floor), “The music is pulling you in,” “Picture lasers in your arms carving the space into a figure eight.”

From the 2014 National Portrait Gallery Premier

The music for this piece is haunting. Ernest Bloch’s “Hebraic Suite” pumps up the emotional content, building tension as the dancers lift each other, fleetingly touch, curl to the ground, and pepper their lyrical movements with highly original hand gestures: pecking, stabbing, caressing, striking, and swooping in crane-like arches.

From the Premier

Next, the company worked on “I Am Vertical,” a dance inspired by Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name. Again, as the first-ever resident choreographer at the National Portrait Gallery, Burgess took his inspiration from a small but devastating NPG show of Plath’s art and writing. The dance opens with several couples dancing a spirited lindy hop to “Take the A Train.” When the music morphs into a surreal warp, a disembodied voice begins to read Plath’s poem: “I am Vertical…But I would rather be horizontal.” The dance plays with planes – upright and utterly still lying down. Following the poem’s haunting ending, “I shall be useful when I lie down finally,” we hear Plath interviewed about her fateful meeting with fellow poet and husband-to-be Ted Hughes. The role of Plath is danced by Sarah Halzack, with three other women dancers appearing as muses or influences on the poet; they change roles now and then, with each seated, miming typing on an invisible typewriter.

Sylvia Plath 1932 – 1963

Again, the dancing is sublime, the choreography original, and the emotional content utterly riveting.

After the rehearsal when the associate artistic director Kelly Moss Southall began literally to roll up the floor, we chatted briefly with Dana regarding the Plath piece. Jeanne, my friend, is a dance lover and a poet herself. Dana told us a bit about his process in creating a dance, how each dancer has her or his own motivations, inner desires, and character arc, and that each section of the dance corresponds to a chapter in a book, or an act in a play.

Once again, we could have watched for hours – and luckily, we will all get the chance to see these gem-like pieces—among others—performed at the Kennedy Center on Friday, June 15th and Saturday, June 16th at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, 7:30PM. Tickets are on sale now!

http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/RSXAL

I hope to see you at this much-anticipated event in celebration of the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company’s 25th year. We are fortunate indeed to have this stellar dance company performing in Washington, DC, but, in the words of the Washington Post’s dance critic, Sara Kaufman, “This artist is not only a Washington prize, but a national dance treasure.”

I am Vertical
by Sylvia Plath

But I would rather be horizontal.
I am not a tree with my root in the soil
Sucking up minerals and motherly love
So that each March I may gleam into leaf,
Nor am I the beauty of a garden bed
Attracting my share of Ahs and spectacularly painted,
Unknowing I must soon unpetal.
Compared with me, a tree is immortal
And a flower-head not tall, but more startling,
And I want the one’s longevity and the other’s daring.

Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars,
The trees and the flowers have been strewing their cool odors.
I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.
Sometimes I think that when I am sleeping
I must most perfectly resemble them —
Thoughts gone dim.
It is more natural to me, lying down.
Then the sky and I are in open conversation,
And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.

 

 

 

 

 

Infinity Mirror Room

After what seems a long hiatus away from this space, your intrepid art blogger is back, excited to tell you about “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. This popular show has been mobbed with fans during its entire run. More often than not, timed passes on offer at the museum’s website are gobbled up at precisely noon each Monday. My dear friend Jeanne somehow managed to score two passes.

Despite the hassle of getting to see the show, it’s gratifying the excitement this 87-year-old artist has kicked up, especially among young people. Jeanne and I were among only a handful of older people at the museum last Thursday afternoon.

“Violet Obsession,” 1994

This exuberant show is vast — more than 60 paintings, works on paper, sculptures, and installations, including six “infinity mirror rooms” in which banks of LED lights, balloons, and the viewer him or herself repeats endlessly in the mirrored walls.

The show opens with a series of striking works on paper, particularly “Pacific Ocean,” 1959, watercolor and ink. This image, inspired by sun on water as seen from a plane, sparked Kusama’s later “infinity net” paintings.

Next, we came to another seminal work of 1994, a phallus-bedecked rowboat in a room covered in black wallpaper dotted with repeating photographic images of “Violet Obsession,” also the name of a small volume of poetry by the artist.

Gallery of “Accumulations”

Much of this prolific artist’s work has been shaped by her life-long experiences with anxiety and other emotional disorders that have at times erupted into full-blown psychosis. So fragile is her mental state that she voluntarily lives in a psychiatric hospital not far from her studio in Tokyo. Such challenges could well have derailed her creative career. Instead, the soothing aspect of the repetition and duplication of images formed the basis of her work, spurring her on to greater and greater achievement. And she’s not done yet. She still paints daily, from her wheelchair, with canvasses resting on the floor or tables in her studio.

In an effort to rid herself of her fear of sex, Kusama create whimsical “accumulations” of hand-made stuffed tubers affixed to objects and surfaces. Who’s to say if they helped the artist with her fears? All we can do is enjoy them.

“No. Green No. 1,” 1961

Several large mesmerizing “infinity net” paintings are hung together in the same gallery as the accumulations. Beginning at the age of ten, Kusama began painting repetitive polka dots and nets to calm her agitation due to a turbulent family life. Formed of countless loops, with some paint texture visible and bathed in luminous color, these works are utterly absorbing. Hauntingly ethereal, they form a fascinating counterpoint to the stuffed protuberances across the room. The wall text observes that Kusama’s infinity nets happened to jibe with the “painterly qualities of abstract expressionism and the restraint and monochrome [palate] of minimalism,” both on display in “No. Green No. 1,” 1961.

Waiting line for the first of the “infinity mirror rooms,” (using mirrors was Kusama’s way of continuing her theme of repetition without destroying her fingers and hands sewing and stuffing fabric tubes with kapok), we took in a slide show of the artist’s 1966 14th Street “Happening” in which she appears to pop in and out of a phallus be-decked box.

“14th Street Happening,” 1966

The six infinity mirror rooms on display here create a dazzle of reflections of themselves and the viewer. “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,” 1966, was our favorite. Kusama’s family was in the plant seed business and she remembers being charmed by the dumpling-shaped gourds as a child. The acrylic pumpkins are indeed charming; begging to be touched. We resisted, but evidently one of the pumpkins was damaged by a viewer, causing the show to be briefly closed while curators rearranged the pumpkin field.

Once inside each of the mirrored rooms, our images, along with a seemingly infinite number of pumpkins, phalli, balloons, polka dots and pin-point lights were multiplied to the vanishing point. Viewers are allowed exactly 30 seconds before the next pair of attendees is let in. These structures are fun, make no mistake, but for me, at least, they caused nothing like the enveloping merge-with-the cosmos sensation we were led to expect. Instead, they come off as a side-show/fun house sort of gimmick. And the waits are LONG, my friends. After three mirrored infinity room, one feels like it’s taken at least a millennium to get to the next one.

“All the Eternal Love I have for the Pumpkins,” 2016

On the other hand, a series of collages are unexpectedly subtle, moving, and mysterious. Look for “Soul Going Back to its Home,” 1975, a touching homage made for Kusama’s friend the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell who had recently died.

The exhibit closes with the made-for-the Hirshhorn “Obliteration Room.” Each museum goer, or pair of them, is given specially made stickers to apply to the all-white room. Furnished with donated Ikea furniture, books, lamps, and other household objects furnished by museum staff, the room’s surfaces are slowly being obliterated by colorful dots.

If you choose to make the trek, and if the gods of the Hirshhorn’s balky website are with you, bring water and wear comfy shoes, and, of course, bring your phone or a camera. You won’t be able to resist at least one selfie.

“Obliteration Room”

Once the Hirshhorn show closes on May 14, good news: it will move on to the Seattle Museum of Art, June 30-September 10; the Broad, Los Angeles, October 21- January 10, 2018; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, March 3-May 27, 2018; the Cleveland Museum of Art, July 9-September 30, 2018; and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, November 18-February 17, 2019.

http://hirshhorn.si.edu/kusama/infinity-rooms/

 

 

Aerial view of the NGA roof terrace

Aerial view of the NGA roof terrace

Well worth the three-year wait, the newly redesigned and refurbished East Building of the National Gallery of Art has reopened. Perry Chin, a colleague of I.M. Pei, architect of the original, undertook the extensive, if subtle reworking. First opened in 1978 to house modern and contemporary art, the building is comprised of interlocking triangles reflecting the shape of the original parcel of land.

The works now on view incorporate more than 200 of the NGA’s plunder of the now defunct Corcoran Gallery’s collection (an astonishing 8,766 works). As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, the NGA got to choose whatever it wanted from the Corcoran’s collection (dream job, or what?) after the dear old gallery’s financial demise. Now many choice pieces benefit—as do we—from the smart reworking of gallery space.

"Hahn/Coick," 2013, by Katharina Fritsch

“Hahn/Coick,” 2013, by Katharina Fritsch

For my first visit, I decided to start at the top—the new outdoor roof terrace—and work my way down. Never made it to the bottom. Another day, another blog!

With a sweeping view of Pennsylvania Avenue, the terrace houses modern sculpture, including George Rickey’s mesmerizing “Divided Square Oblique,” 1981. I sat on a bench and watched those stainless steel wand swing and dip to form seemingly endless combinations. Soon a museum employee scuttled around to polish the “Do Not Touch” signs embedded in the floor near each sculpture. A good thing, too, as Katharina Fritsch’s “Hahn/Cock,” 2013, polyester resin, begged to be touched. Seen here through the stainless pipes of Kenneth Snelson’s “V-X,” 1968, the monumental rooster is sure to become a favorite selfie spot.

"Three Motives Against a Wall No.1" 1958, by Henry Moore

“Three Motives Against a Wall No.1” 1958, by Henry Moore

Just inside the door leading from the sculpture terrace to Tower One, I was captivated by the amusingly named “Three Motives against a Wall, Number One,” 1958, a small Henry Moore bronze. This mix of small delights and monumental construction is one of the charms of the East Building. Unlike, for example, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose vast entry/atrium seems to exist more to elevate the architect than to house art. I could go on—think “starchictects” we know and don’t love—but why, when there’s so much to love here?

"Stations of the Cross," 1966, by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Classic Paintings

“Stations of the Cross,” 1966, by Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, Classic Paintings

Namely, the spare “Stations of the Cross,” 1966, in the new tower gallery. Comprised of fourteen paintings by Barnett Newman, this work was first exhibited at the Guggenheim in 1966. Since then, these paintings have received lots of critical acclaim and a good bit of distain as well. Newman has said that the line in his paintings—he called them “zips”—symbolized an individual man or woman, reduced to his or her most essential representation. Raised Jewish in New York City, are we to think from the title that Newman converted to Catholicism?  No, as the wall text explains. These works, meant to be seen sequentially, explore a single theme. Jesus’s cry on the cross—“Why have you forsaken me?”—is also our existential question as humans. What are we doing here and what comes next?

"Shell No. 1," 1928, by Georgia O'Keeffe

“Shell No. 1,” 1928, by Georgia O’Keeffe

The adjacent gallery, also lit by filtered tower light, gives us “Mark Rothko: The Classic Paintings.” Here in early works, the artist explores basic human emotions of “…tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” Stepping into this gallery, we Washingtonians think immediately of the Rothko room at the Phillips Collection. The comparison works in favor of both institutions. The small room at the Phillips allows viewers to be immersed in the pulsing color of the paintings, up close and personal. And although the tower room is considerably larger, the same reverential feeling abides. Taken as a whole, the Newman and Rothko tower galleries feel like a sacred space.

Walking down the staircase leading from Tower One to the Upper Level (Modern Art from the Collection), it seemed as if every inch had been buffed and polished. Or maybe the staircase is one of the new ones. I’m hoping to take a tour that will make clear how the building was renovated. As it stands, it all feels so fresh and new that it’s hard to recall how the original spaces were configured.

"Germinal," 1967, by Louise Bourgeois

“Germinal,” 1967, by Louise Bourgeois

In the “Dada and Beyond” gallery, the curators have filled a case of small oddities that coexist so beautifully it’s as if they were made to be together. Georgia O’Keeffe’s beguiling “Shell No. 1,” painted in 1928, hangs with several Joseph Cornell boxes. These are kindred spirits of Betye Saar’s “Twilight Awakening,” made fifty years after O’Keeffe’s luminous shell. “Germinal,” a 1967 marble sculpture by Louise Bourgeois possesses the sly humor of its casemates. Notions of theft flit through the mind. They’re all small enough to fit in…oh, never mind.

Walking through the gallery entitled “Birth of Abstraction,” I passed a flock of Brancusi sculptures, each mounted on gorgeous wooden bases, to find Wassily Kandinsky’s “Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle),” 1913. The piece does roil and splash, colors hitting colors with exuberance, but not quite the violence suggested by the title. How fresh and modern this picture feels103 years later.

"Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)", 1913, by Wassily Kandinsky

“Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)”, 1913, by Wassily Kandinsky

Color also rules in Hans Hofmann’s “Autumn Gold,” 1957. I can get lost in this composition, enjoying the tactile application of paint, how colors slap up against other colors. Clearly the artist loved paint for paint’s sake.

Much more controlled is Gene Davis’s “Black Popcorn,” 1965. Hung in the space entitled, “Color Field and Edge,” it’s an old friend from the Corcoran collection. Here the color is sparked by black stripes. The so-called “Washington Color School” gets ample billing here, thanks to the NGA’s Corcoran windfall.

autumn-gold

“Autumn Gold,” 1957, by Hans Hofmann

Nearby hangs Sam Gilliam’s “Relative,” 1969. Gilliam, now 82, is breaking new ground with a monumental piece commissioned by the Museum of African American History and Culture. Can’t wait to see it. Gilliam’s work, always hard to categorize, evolved from figurative work to the breakthrough in which he abandoned the frame entirely. In the “draped” paintings, the canvas is painted with abstract images and then hung—from walls, ceilings, even the front of a building in Philadelphia. Rather than hanging limp or inert, “Relative” seems to march across the wall with great energy.

"Black Popcorn," 1965, by Gene Davis

“Black Popcorn,” 1965, by Gene Davis

After an hour and a half, I’d savored the art (oh, those shimmering Morandi still lifes!), and also reveled in the building itself, gleaming and full to bursting, topped off by that friendly alien, the Alexander Calder mobile. Later, I was stunned to learn that it was the final monumental piece commissioned from Calder, and that he died shortly after the untitled mobile was installed in the East Building. Knowing that, I’ll see it just a bit differently, but always with awe and affection.

"Relative," 1969, by Sam Gilliam

“Relative,” 1969, by Sam Gilliam

Good news: the terrace café has reopened, albeit offering packaged food and get-it-yourself coffee, sadly, but still…you can sip your coffee and nibble on your scone and watch the Calder mobile languidly traverse that extraordinary space.

"Untitled," 1978 by Alexander Calder

“Untitled,” 1978 by Alexander Calder

For a glimpse of how the precision work was done to create the building in the 1970s, click the link below and view a twelve-minute documentary which also shows Calder, Robert Motherwell, and Henry Moore in collaboration with architect I.M. Pei and then-museum director, the stylish impresario,  J. Carter Brown.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeXiV3L-f3E

"Hide and Seek," 1888

“Hide and Seek,” 1888

For years I’ve loved a painting in the permanent collection of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. “Hide and Seek,” 1888, by William Merritt Chase, never fails to bewitch me: the play of dark and light, the sense of a photo having been snapped in mid-action, the feeling that you’ve entered a world that propels you back to your own childhood. You feel the excitement of the game; hear the tapping of feet on that gleaming floor. Yet the picture has a mysterious element, one that hints at thresholds, leaving childhood behind, even going through a final door into blinding light: is it harsh or benevolent?

 

"Portrait of Dora Wheeler," 1883

“Portrait of Dora Wheeler,” 1883

Enough of that blather. You get the idea. But while the picture knocks me out, I knew next to nothing about the artist. A recent Phillips Collection retrospective of this influential artist’s career—spanning the late 1800s and early 20th century—was a revelation. Chase, an American who trained abroad as a young man, cut a dashing figure in his ornate 10th Street studio in New York City. Despite his eccentricity and reputation as a bon vivant, he was a devoted family man and a respected teacher whose Chase School became the Parsons School of Design.

 

The show—some 70 works drawn from museums and private collections all over the country— was organized chronologically and by subject: historical genre paintings, landscapes, the seaside, domestic interiors, public parks. All were delightful. But on my second visit, I found myself most drawn to Chase’s portraits.

 

"James Abbott McNeil Whistler," 1885

“James Abbott McNeil Whistler,” 1885

“Portrait of Dora Wheeler,” painted in 1883, was intended as an exhibition piece, showing off Chase’s formidable skills. Dora Wheeler, a former student, was a textile designer in the same 10th Street building as Chase’s studio. This large oil painting, with its thoughtful sitter and brilliant yellow background, won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon, but was generally panned by New York critics, as far too “radical a departure from convention.” The image of Wheeler was thought to be “lost” in the sea of textured brocade.

 

"The Young Orphan (At Her Ease)," 1884

“The Young Orphan (At Her Ease),” 1884

Surprise! I did know another of Chase’s paintings. Coming upon his portrait of James McNeil Whistler was like running into an old friend. Bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1918, I’d seen it many times. In 1885, Chase, long an admirer of Whistler, paid him a visit in London on his way to Madrid. The older artist suggested the young Chase stay and allow time for each of them to paint the other’s portrait. Chase’s portrait was intended as an homage, using many of Whistler’s own techniques and conventions: free brushwork, a somber palette, the figure floating in space. Whistler, though, thought it an unflattering “abomination,” and may well have destroyed his own portrait of Chase in a fit of pique.

 

"Meditation," 1886

“Meditation,” 1886

“The Young Orphan,” painted the year before, is arresting. It’s only paint on canvas, we know that, but we also feel that we are looking at a real person who once lived and is still alive somehow. The model likely came from the quaintly named Protestant Half Orphan Asylum next door to the 10th Street studio. The exquisitely detailed hair, and lush rendering of the chair is tour de force painting. The picture evokes the influence of Whistler and John Singer Sargent, as the girl floats in a sea of crimson, her black dress an almost abstract shape.

 

"Lydia Field Emmet," 1892

“Lydia Field Emmet,” 1892

Chase also shows off his ability to render texture in “Meditation,” 1886. The drapery in the background looks like watered silk, or imitates brushstrokes. This intriguing portrait (presumably of his wife to be, Alice Gerson, whom he married the following year) is done in pastel, not oil. Hard to believe. Anyone who’s worked in the medium knows how hard it is to control, and how ambitious it would be to take on such a large, complex composition. I love the sitter’s direct, yet somehow veiled gaze. She’s likely thinking interesting thoughts about the painter.

 

Another student of Chase’s, Lydia Field Emmet, became a noted society painter and designer of Tiffany glass. In this 1892 portrait Chase again defies convention by posing her much as a noble gentleman would be seen in a classic Rembrandt or Frans Hals, painters Chase adored while studying in Europe. In researching Emmet, I learned, as I has suspected, she was related to dear friends of the same name, descendants of the Irish poet and rebel patriot, Robert Emmet. I again experienced that sizzle of connection: yes, she’s long dead and gone, but something in her gaze spoke to me. And I spoke back, telling her (in my head, of course) about the new additions to her long lineage who lived,  until recently, not far from where her image now hangs in the Brooklyn Museum.

 

"Mother and Child (The First Portrait)," 1888

“Mother and Child (The First Portrait),” 1888

“Mother and Child (The First Portrait),” ca. 1888, is a dramatic full-length oil painting of Alice Chase and her first baby. The child appears about to wiggle out of its mother’s arms, while Alice herself is a static, monumental figure in her figured black robe. She seems about to turn toward the viewer, and although viewed in profile, has none of the hauteur of Lydia Field Emmet, as appropriate for the subject. Despite its intimate, domestic nature, Chase imbues the image with a grandeur and solemnity which surprised me. In a good way.

 

Art historians may debate whether William Merritt Chase was an American Impressionist, or a realist, but it seems to me he was both, able to capture light and skew his compositions in interesting and modern ways while communicating a very real sense of time and place. If you missed the show, take a look at this video: http://www.phillipscollection.org/exhibitions

 

A very fine exhibition catalogue is also available through the Phillips Collection store and at Amazon.com.

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

"Lucky U," 1960

“Lucky U,” 1960

The title of this show is taken from Robert Irwin’s words about his intention to move from traditional art—paint on canvas—to more “conditional” works that deal with light and space directly. At the Hirschhorn Museum in DC, this is the first historical survey of the California artist’s work from the late 1950s through today. Up until September 5, 2016—the Hirshhorn is the only venue—it’s a rare treat.

"Ocean Park," 1960-61

“Ocean Park,” 1960-61

Of the show, its curator, Evelyn Hankins said, “The historical portion of the exhibition includes many rarely seen works that, because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing. And as both these objects and the new installation demonstrate, Irwin’s art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over an extended period of time.” Italics mine.

In the late 1950s Irwin created small works meant to be held by the viewer. Beautifully framed in wood, these small paintings hang on two walls and lie flat in a case in the middle of the gallery. They possess a tactile, restless energy that does invite touch. “Lucky U,” a little charmer made in 1960, was loaned from the collection of the artist, now 87.

crazy ottoA larger painting, “Ocean Park,” 1960-61, evokes the series of the same name made by Richard Diebenkorn. Irwin’s vision of the California community where both artists drew inspiration is more kinetic that Diebenkorn’s calmer vision. Lines fly as if hurled by some paint-wielding Thor. Is that a jet plane about to land? Cars streaming by? Tides surging, lawn chairs in a jumble? Loved it. Then I read that this was one of the “pick-up sticks” paintings in which Irwin wanted to expel any visual associations with the real world. Oops.

From 1961 to 1964, Irwin made a series of “line” paintings in his desire to obliterate the “Rorschach effect” in which the eye makes associations with elements of nature or human figures. Or lawn chairs. In “Crazy Otto,” 1962, four heliotrope lines vibrate against a vivid background. One thinks first of Otto. Who was he? In what way was he crazy? And then, inevitably, of Rothko.

"Untitled," 1963-65

“Untitled,” 1963-65

The artist further challenged himself to make a painting without making a visible mark. This, our curator Hankins tells us, is the flex point in Irwin’s career. In the “dot paintings” he has made works that require an “active, persevering viewer.” True. It’s impossible to see these works in reproduction, or even standing back from them by the usual three or four feet. In “Untitled,” 1963-65, what looks like a uniform white ground is revealed to be gazillions of tiny dots in complementary colors that effectively cancel each other out.

In 1966 Irwin abandoned painting on canvas altogether and began working with auto body shops and industrial fabricators to create objects that test the “experiential and material limits of art.”

Acrylic Column, 1969 - 2011

Acrylic Column, 1969 – 2011

Floor-to-ceiling acrylic columns, triangular in shape, and highly polished, refract light while doing very interesting things to the people who walk by them. Something about the simplicity of conception and the quality of execution of these columns made me think of Donald Judd’s work in mill aluminum. Just as I wondered if the artists knew one another, two photographers began to set up, each wearing T-shirts that read, “Robert Irwin Opening: Dawn to Dusk, 23 July, 2016, Marfa Texas.” They were absorbed in their work, and didn’t seem approachable, but a young woman who appeared to be with them said they were working on a documentary.

"Dawn to Dusk," 2016, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas

“Dawn to Dusk,” 2016, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas

Later, Google filled me in. Yes, Judd and Irwin knew each other and Judd admired and collected Irwin’s work. Sixteen years in the planning, a new large-scale Irwin piece was installed this month in an old Army hospital at Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa. For more on Donald Judd and Chinati, see my October, 2013 blog post.

http://ellenkwatnoski.com/road-trip-minimalism-to-the-max-in-marfa-tx/

Made in 1969, the “Untitled” disc had me and a group of young art campers enthralled. The painted aluminum disc gives off a pale yellow radiance that blushes at the edges. Again, the artist is playing with our perception of “art.” Shadow and light are as important to this ethereal piece as paint on aluminum.

Untitled Disc, 1966-67

Untitled Disc, 1966-67

Even more spell-binding is another of the untitled disc series, also made in 1969. Lit from above, the work is positively otherworldly. I expected it to speak, utter oracular wisdom, or some Hal-like pronouncement.

The Hirshhorn is a giant doughnut of a building, with the galleries along the outer rim and a ring of glass overlooking a fountain in the interior hole of the doughnut. When you walk from gallery to gallery, you’re aware of the circle you’re tracing, but at the same time, not.

Untitled Disc, 1969

Untitled Disc, 1969

Entering “Squaring the Circle,” 2016, Irwin’s site-specific piece, you’re warned that your “perceptions will be challenged.” In the center of a wall is a doorway within a glowing white space. You feel pulled toward the door. Is it real? Can you walk through it without, like Alice, being plunged into some new reality? After a bit of exploration, you realize the curve of the gallery wall has flattened. In fact, the “wall” is a white gauze scrim stretched across the vast space so that it appears solid and the door appears to float inside the actual door to the outer rim of the doughnut.

"Squaring the Circle," 2016

“Squaring the Circle,” 2016

The show closes with a 1973 video of Irwin speaking about his art. I wasn’t able to find it on YouTube, but here’s a link to his fascinating talk at Stanford University in which both the Hirshhorn and Marfa installations are discussed.

You have to put up with a gassy introduction, but it’s worth it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ac-m3W9fGY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Said Hirshhorn Curator Evelyn Hankins, who organized the exhibition. “The historical portion of the exhibition includes many rarely seen works that, because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing. And as both these objects and the new installation demonstrate, Irwin’s art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over an extended period of time.”

 

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“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.” –Kehinde Wiley.

"Willem van Heythuysen," 2006

“Willem van Heythuysen,” 2006

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA, has mounted a 14-year retrospective of the prolific artist, Kehinde Wiley. The show, A New Republic, first organized by the Brooklyn Museum, is comprised of some sixty large-scale compositions in oil and enamel, stained glass, and gold leaf on wood.

"Willem van Heythuysen," 1625, by Frans Hals

“Willem van Heythuysen,” 1625, by Frans Hals

Born in Los Angeles in 1977, Wiley now lives and works in Brooklyn, NY, drawing many of the models for his portraits from the streets of Harlem and his own neighborhood. Wiley tweaks our conception of art, art history, power, and identity by placing his subjects into the compositions of old masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Jacques-Louis David.

"Morpheus," 2008

“Morpheus,” 2008

When you enter the show, you’re met with the eye-popping “Willem Van Heythuysen,” 2008. Riffing on the 1625 painting by Dutch master, Frans Hals, the artist gives us a new vision of a sword-bearing nobleman. Both men sport goatees, but our contemporary dandy wears snow-white athletic clothing instead of a stiff white ruff. Posed with the trappings of wealth and status of his day, Hals depicts the wealthy merchant in front of a luxurious tapestry, as does Wiley. The original van Heythuysen may have been a cloth merchant; clearly the tapestry is an important part of his world. Wiley poses the young man floating before deep red and gold brocade. The fronds of the floral motif begin to wrap themselves around the legs of the subject. Is there a double meaning here? Perhaps that the “backgrounds” of many of these young men threaten to ensnare them?

"Morpheus," 1777, by Jean-Antoine Houdon

“Morpheus,” 1777, by Jean-Antoine Houdon

In the case of “Morpheus,” 2008, from the Down series, the background has taken flight. Based upon the sculpture of the same name by Jean-Antoine Houdon, our present-day god of dreams regards us with a jaded eye, looking up guardedly from under his stiff-brimmed cap, his wings clipped. He’s a come-hither hip-hop odalisque, while the white marble Morpheus’s eyes are closed in demure slumber.

"St. Gregory Palamas," (Eric Murphy), 2014

“St. Gregory Palamas,” (Eric Murphy), 2014

After the Byzantine icon, “St. Gregory of Palamas, 2014, gold leaf and oil on wood, pays tribute to Eric Murphy, gorgeously tattooed and holding the book, Icons and Saints. Angels appear on his shoulder and Eden-like flowers spring from the gold background. Unlike the ambiguous gaze of Morpheus, Eric Murphy seems transported, seeing something in the distant future, perhaps some vision of a world in which beauty and mystery coexist.

Wiley says, “…I wanted to create a body of work in which empathy and the language of the religious and the rapturous all collide into the same space.”

St. Gregory Palamas, Byzantine Icon

St. Gregory Palamas, Byzantine Icon

“St. Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs,” 20014, is one of a series of stained glass works (is there nothing this man can’t do? Or should I say, his atelier can’t do? Wiley reputedly has teams of artisans who complete the work once he’s designed and conceived it). Wiley’s Ursula—a young man— retains his 1535 doppelganger’s arrow, symbolic of love, erotic piercing, and sudden death on the streets. His attendants wear period-appropriate garments, while our contemporary figure wears shorts, a patterned jacket, and Timberlands, giving the viewer a strikingly vulnerable gaze which speaks of seeing too much too young. In the upper right corner, brown-skinned putti appear about to pull the whole thing down, hinting, perhaps, of the impermanence and sudden violence of urban life.

"St. Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs," 2014

“St. Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs,” 2014

Also on view here is a series of bronzes. In “Cameroon Study,” 2010, Wiley evokes Charles Cordier’s “African Venus,” 1851, a lovely portrait bust of a young African woman formerly enslaved in France. Wiley’s contemporary African man appears put-upon, repressed—enslaved?—in a new way by the Nike sneaker atop his head.

"St. Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs," 1532

“St. Ursula and the Virgin Martyrs,” 1532

The final room of this exhibition is devoted to portraits of women. Wiley himself says that we “really don’t know who these women are.” They’re far from caricatures, but one wishes for more grounding in the here and now. Simply naming the portrait after the sitter (as with St. Gregory Palamas/Eric Murphy) would help to make them more accessible. “Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha,” 2012, shows a beautiful woman in a designer gown (unlike the casual clothes of the men), her shoulders bare and burnished, her hair in an exaggerated up-do of epic proportion. Her counterpart in Sir Edwin Landseer’s 1839 portrait has equally mannered hair and, by contrast, alabaster skin. Both women face away from the viewer, presumably to display the intricate structure of the gowns, but the pose also to makes them inscrutable.

"Camaroon Study," 2010

“Camaroon Study,” 2010

"African Venus," 1851, by Charles Cordier

“African Venus,” 1851, by Charles Cordier

Reflecting on this show, I couldn’t help but think that the subjects of Wiley’s work would be the very last people on earth who could afford one of his paintings, let alone have the space to hang it. I hope that every now and then he gives these (mostly anonymous) people a sketch or photograph to commemorate sitting for him. With great appreciation the artist’s important message, wit, and verve, I came away wanting more recognition for the subjects. I was left with the question: why did the artist use the name of the historical painting or sculpture, and not the name, consistently, of the subject? Does this not deny them some fundamental aspect of his or her humanity? Or does Wiley mean to imply that their “slave names” are as irrelevant as the trappings of power of a bygone era? I’d love to ask him.

"Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha," 2012

“Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha,” 2012

"Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha," 1839 by Sir Edwin Landseer

“Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha,” 1839 by Sir Edwin Landseer

Kehinde Wiley speaks about his work: http://kehindewiley.com/

The show will be up at the VMFA until September 5, 2016 http://vmfa.museum/exhibitions/exhibitions/kehinde-wiley-a-new-republic/

 

 

 

"Untitled," from the Hijab/Veil series, 2011, by Boushra Almutawakel

“Untitled,” from the Hijab/Veil series, 2011, by Boushra Almutawakel

I was drawn to this exhibit—She Who Tells a Story—at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, seeking revelations about life in the Middle East. The work (more than 80 photographs and a video installation) is part of the output of a women’s collective called Rawiya (“she who tells a story” in Arabic). Made up of women artists and photojournalists from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Iran, and Jordan, the group endeavors to correct stereotypes about women in the region and about the region itself.

"Mother, Daughter, Doll," 2010, by Boushra Almutawakel

“Mother, Daughter, Doll,” 2010, by Boushra Almutawakel

As I walked from gallery to gallery, though, I felt I must be missing something. Many of the images seemed to reinforce stereotypical notions: the veil erases identity, women in Iran are voiceless, and war’s oppression has all but obliterated joy in the region. Could this be what the artists and curator intended? In preparation for writing this piece, I spent hours learning more about these extraordinary women. I was missing something—something rich, varied, complex, and rewarding. Taken as a whole, Rawiya’s work offers a vibrant glimpse into the complexities and rewards of day-to-day life in Iran and the Arab world. I wish the curators for this exhibit had chosen to mount a more representative selection.

Yemeni photographer, Boushra Almutawakel explores the hijab in her series “The Hijab/Veil.” She approached this subject with some trepidation, freighted as it is with controversy and potential for misinterpretation. But after 9/11, the artist saw that Muslims were being “demonized,” or “romanticized” by the Western press, and she decided to explore the topic. I felt an immediate connection to the fresh, open face of the young woman wearing an American flag as a headscarf. Although the artist worried that some Americans might find the image disrespectful, I didn’t see it that way at all. The girl seems to say, “Here I am, take me or leave me, I’m so much like you.”

"Metro #7," from the series, "The Metro," by Rana El Neuer

“Metro #7,” from the series, “The Metro,” by Rana El Neuer

Another in the “Hijab” series, “Mother, Daughter, Doll,” 2010, shows Almutawakel herself with her young daughter. As each becomes more and more covered, their spontaneous expressions of joy seem gradually to fade, until, in the last panel, they are extinguished altogether. About this work, the artist says that veiling, taken to an extreme, or for political purposes, can become a dangerous way to control women and has “nothing to do with Islam.” Indeed, she faced withering criticism for using her own image in this work, an act considered unseemly in her increasingly conservative country.

From the "Women of Gaza" series, 2009, by Tanya Habjouqa

From the “Women of Gaza” series, 2009, by Tanya Habjouqa

Rana El Neuer’s series, “The Metro,” reminded me of Walker Evans’s candid subway series taken in the 1940s. This artist, born in Hanover, Germany and now living in Cairo, created the work to “reflect rapid changes…in the middle class” in Egypt. The women portrayed appear wistful, alienated, or hidden from view, as in “Metro #7,” 2003. The wall text informs us that women are separated from men in Cairo’s subway cars; as the Arabic script over the doors attests. Gloom and despondency seems to haunt many of these faces, as they did in the Weston subway shots. In an interview about another exhibition, El Neuer said her Metro series also included pictures of men and she expressed mild concern that only showing the women’s images would distort the viewer’s perception of the piece as a whole.

"Aerial 1," 2011, by Jananne Al-Ani

“Aerial 1,” 2011, by Jananne Al-Ani

Tanya Habjouqa, born in Jordan and now living in in East Jerusalem, gives us modest pleasures in “Women of Gaza,” 2009. These images show everyday moments: picnicking, taking a selfie, doing aerobics, going for a boat ride. They are winsome, sweet, but also telling, given the restrictive environment in which the women live. In researching this artist, I found so much I wish had been included here. Habjouqa’s work is often surreal and slyly ironic, like the furniture salesmen sitting in brand-new chairs by an Israeli security wall, optimistically waiting for business to come along.

"Untitled #4," 2008, from Gohar Dashti's series, "Today's Life and War."

“Untitled #4,” 2008, from Gohar Dashti’s series, “Today’s Life and War.”

At first glance, Jananne Al-Ani’s large image, “Aerial 1,” 2011, appeared to be a rumpled bedspread embroidered with Ws. Up close, you see that it is an aerial shot of roads and structures. The artist, who was born in Kirkuk, Iraq and now lives in London, says the piece “…explores the disappearance of the body in the landscapes of atrocity and genocide and how it affects our understanding of the often beautiful landscapes into which the bodies of victims disappear.” Sobering, to say the least.

From "Today's Life and War," 2008, by Gohar Dashti

From “Today’s Life and War,” 2008, by Gohar Dashti

More war imagery is seen in Gohar Dashti’s series, “Today’s Life and War,” 2008. This staged series of photographs was taken on a film set outside of Tehran where the artist lives. Everyday actions—watching TV, celebrating a birthday—are portrayed by a couple of young actors in a surreal landscape of perpetual war. My favorites from this group—having breakfast in front of a tank and hanging out the laundry on barbed wire—bring the message home.

"Christilla, Rabieh, Lebanon," from the 2010 series, "A Girl in Her Room, by Rania Matar

“Christilla, Rabieh, Lebanon,” from the 2010 series, “A Girl in Her Room, by Rania Matar

Switching gears, Rania Matar (born in Bierut, Lebanon, now living in Brookline, Massachusetts) shot the series “A Girl in Her Room,” 2010, to show “…the universality of being a teenage girl and the common bonds teen girls share – regardless of cultural differences.” I would have liked to see some of the photographs Matar took of U.S. girls in their rooms (also part of this series), if only to see that adolescent girls everywhere cocoon themselves in much the same way. A man standing near me in the gallery said to his companion, “These girls could be anywhere.” True. I love Matar’s Lolita-like Christilla with her challenging gaze. I could almost hear my step-daughter saying, all those years ago, “Don’t even look at me!”

Furniture Makers in the Town of Hizma, Palestine, 2013, by Tanya Habjouqa

Furniture Makers in the Town of Hizma, Palestine, 2013, by Tanya Habjouqa

Despite much in this show that is charming and revealing, I walked out of the last gallery feeling forlorn. Most of the exhibition’s spaces, if not all of them—certainly the largest ones— displayed devastating images of war: bullets, guns, bloody boots and high heeled shoes, a grenade in a bowl of fruit.

From "Women of Gaza," 2009, by Tanya Habjouqa

From “Women of Gaza,” 2009, by Tanya Habjouqa

I’m not saying that the region hasn’t been riven by war. Indeed it has, and, sadly, continues to be. I’m not saying that images of war aren’t appropriate here; undoubtedly, war has had an indelible effect on the region and its people, men and women alike. All I’m saying is that I wanted more balance in the curators’ choices. For me, their emphasis fails to give the viewer the fullness and humanity of Rawiya’s work.

I’d love to hear what you think, if you can make it to see the show—up until July 30, 2016.

http://nmwa.org/exhibitions/she-who-tells-story

 

"The Dancing Couple," 1663, by Jan Steen

“The Dancing Couple,” 1663, by Jan Steen

Right up my alley – writing and art, in the same place: A two and a half hour “salon” led by local playwright Mary Hall Surface in which we find a story in Jan Steen’s 1663 genre painting “The Dancing Couple.”

The group gathered last Saturday in gallery 46 of the National Gallery of Art here in DC. Once seated on folding stools in front of Steen’s painting, Mary Hall said that in “The Dancing Couple,” Steen has given us Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man”—with lots of descriptive detail—the building blocks of a complex, layered story.

Jan Steen painted everyday life in the bustling new country of the Netherlands (recently liberated from Spain). He was a tavern-owner and put himself in many of his paintings. He’s seen here at the far left, grinning broadly and chucking a lady-friend under the chin. A fun-loving guy, he was fortunate to live in a time and place that celebrated artists. Wealthy and middle-class merchants could buy paintings for about the same price as a solid piece of furniture, so many families owned as many as ten to fifteen canvasses. As after-dinner entertainment, a host would invite his guests to contemplate one of his paintings. In the same way, we were invited simply to look at this picture, at first not making judgments, or interpreting the action.

Gallery 46

Gallery 46

To get started, we wrote declarative sentences about a character in the painting and what he or she is doing: “A young man dances a jig,” and “Three men talk on the other side of the fence.” Next, we “mapped” the sounds, smells, tastes, and sensory feel of the various objects in the painting. We wrote “spilled flowers,” “wine barrel,” “tobacco,” and “ham.”

Next, we wondered out loud what might be going on. My favorite, “who misses their youth and who wishes they were older.”

So how would we start the story? I wrote:

Bella had been married to Willem only fifteen minutes, but she couldn’t take her eyes off her lover, Johan, the inn’s proprietor, nor could he keep his off of her.

Next, she asked us to write the central question of our story. I had several: Will Bella’s new husband figure out he’s not the father of her baby? Will Bella give up her lover? Can Bella find happiness with a man who wears a cap with a cock’s feather on it?

In Exercise One, we were to tell the story of the couple from the point of view of a character in the story. Sticking with Bella, I wrote:

Bella could feel the new life growing within her. The child hadn’t moved yet, but she guessed it soon would. The sounds of the party tormented her: the clattering silverware, mugs banging on the long table, her cousin’s spoiled daughter’s cries, the maddening fiddle scraping and the tootling flute. Soon she would be forced to dance with Willem as if she were the happy bride everyone thought her to be. Her hand grazed Willem’s fingers. His touch repulsed her. Good lord, his fly was open! How would she bear being married to this sweating oaf? Just as she was about to allow herself to be drawn into a hellish jig, Johan caught her eye and raised his goblet. No, she would not give him up, no matter what happened.

Mary Hall Surface leads the Salon

Mary Hall Surface leads the Salon

Okay, not exactly deathless prose. More purple than deathless.

Exercise Two: Dialogue, in which we were to choose one of the other couples in the painting and imagine what they’re talking about. We were to refer to the central couple during the dialogue while trying to make the characters’ voices distinctive from one another.

I chose “Johan,” the leering fellow with the glass goblet on the right side of the painting and the woman in green with her back to the audience. I named her Cornelia.

Cornelia: Keep your eyes to yourself, husband of mine.

Johan: I’ll watch what I like! She’s a lively wench with a pretty bosom, nothing more to me, my chicken.

Cornelia: Everyone can see what kind of girl she is. And everyone can see the state she’s in.

Johan: She’s a fun-loving girl, unlike you.

Cornelia: And how much fun have you had with her, might I ask?

Johan: Why don’t you have a glass of wine, loosen your corset, and have a dance with me?

Cornelia: Dancing is the devil’s pastime!

Mary Hall then asked us to imagine what happened next and to write it in an omniscient voice.

Bella yanked her hand away from Willem’s. She stamped her elegantly shod foot. “I will not live with this boor!” The music stopped. The crowd quieted. Willem continued dancing for a few more beats until he stopped at last, a puzzled expression on his face. Indeed, it could be said—and was being said by everyone at the tavern—that Willem was not the sharpest tack in the box.

Bella, with a long look at Johan, the tavern’s proprietor, burst into tears, and fled.

Beet red in the face, Bella’s father signaled the musicians to play again, shouting, “Just a girlish tantrum! Wedding night jitters! Everyone, eat and drink and enjoy this festive occasion!” As the musicians began to play, if with a degree less enthusiasm, he leaned down to hiss in his wife’s ear, “Go after her, for God’s sake. Talk some sense into her or she will be ruined!”

Something about this painting induces melodrama. Perhaps it’s the symbolism!

Exercise Three: Symbolism in Steen’s art.

Mary Hall dashed my hunch that this was a wedding celebration. Although the scholarship is mixed, it likely depicts a country fair, maybe an engagement. But I was vindicated in another way. All the symbols in the painting point to—you guessed it: sex. Broken eggshells, the spilled pail of cut flowers, hmmmm? Less obvious, the empty barrel smack in the middle of the action refers to a proverb in vogue at the time, “A full barrel does not resound.” Steen saw Bella and Willem as empty, foolish people. Above the older couple on the left hangs a cage holding two doves. Another popular saying of the day was, “Instead of freedom, safety.” I guess Bella wasn’t paying attention to that either. Spectroscopic examination of the painting revealed that Steen added a chicken in a basket perched the head of the fellow between our dancing couple. In case you weren’t aware, the Dutch word for chicken and the Dutch word for sex sound much the same.

Discussing character in a Picasso

Discussing character in a Picasso

With that, Mary Hall wrapped it up. All in all, it was a fun experience. I’d recommend the series to everyone, not just writers, when it resumes in the fall. Past salons have focused on setting by examining a Hudson River School landscape and on character in a Picasso. The sessions fill up quickly, so if you’re interested, check out www.nga.gov/writing salon.

Mary Hall Surface’s play about Alexander Calder, “A Perfect Balance,” will be performed on November 5 – 6, 2016 in the Calder room at the NGA. Not to be missed!