"Nishimikawazka, Sado Island," 1921

“Nishimikawazka, Sado Island,” 1921

A screen of snow, a curtain of rain, a spring shower, a sunset behind a bridge in summer: all vivid images created by the Japanese printmaker, Kawase Hasui (1883-1957). In the newly modern Japan of the early decades of the twentieth century, Hasui and his fellow shin-hanga (“new print”) artists—still relying on the exacting methods of full-color woodblock printing techniques—created stunning landscapes and evocative glimpses of everyday life,.

"Snow at Golden Pavilion," 1922

“Snow at Golden Pavilion,” 1922

Carolyn Hsu-Balcer and Rene Balcer have given their magnificent collection of hundreds of Hasui’s prints, paintings and printed ephemera to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. Spanning the entirety of Hasui’s career, the collection includes rare work made before the great earthquake of 1923 which tragically destroyed vast numbers of his notebooks, paintings, woodblocks, and prints.

The Balcer collection is on view at the VMFA until March 29, 2015. It’s a huge and hugely absorbing show.

"Evening Snow at Terajima," 1920

“Evening Snow at Terajima,” 1920

Here, fresh images of every day Tokyo life and scenes of the artist’s wide-ranging travels are infused with a hushed beauty and complexity. This subtle layering of composition, color, and texture is all the more astounding when you—thanks to a film showing continually—are made privy to the process of collaboration between artist, woodblock carver, and printmaker.

"Snow at Zojo Temple," 1922

“Snow at Zojo Temple,” 1922

First, the carver, in a process that can take up to two weeks, creates the “key block” from a watercolor design pasted to the woodblock. Subsequent “color blocks”—up to a dozen or more, depending on the number of colors the artist wants in the finished print—are meticulously carved. The printmaking process itself is as exacting as is the carving. The results dazzle, not only technically, but in the range of feelings the works arouse in the viewer.

In several instances we see the evolution of an image, as in the case of “Nishimikawazaka, Sado” (from Souvenirs of travel, Second Series, 1921). A preliminary watercolor, a mid-range version, and a later edition are on view side by side, with the artist’s choices regarding composition, texture, and color evident in each. Here we see the midrange version woodcut, part of the Balcer gift to the museum.

“Uchisange, Okayama," 1923

“Uchisange, Okayama,” 1923

Once you’ve learned a tiny bit about the printmaking process, you will stand, open-mouthed, in front of “Snow at the Golden Pavilion” (from Selection of Scenes of Japan, 1922.) Each swirling snowflake was cut around and raised, giving the scintillating effect of falling snow.

In “Evening Snow at Terajima Village” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1920), we move from the other worldly shimmer of the golden pavilion to an equally enchanting, but far more prosaic scene of a Tokyo canal neighborhood, with its lantern-like windows and parade of telegraph poles.

“Spring Shower in Shiba Park," 1921

“Spring Shower in Shiba Park,” 1921

“Snow at Zojo Temple, 1922” was the very first Hasui print collected by Rene Balcer. “I had been that figure making his way across a snow-swept park,” he says in the richly illustrated exhibition catalogue. As February refuses to quit, haven’t we all been that figure? This elegantly spare, very modern image evokes a shudder as icy flakes intrude behind the collar of the overcoat.

"May Rain at Sanno Shrine," 1919

“May Rain at Sanno Shrine,” 1919

Hasui was also a master of depicting rain, as we see in “Uchisange, Okayama” (from Selection of Scenes of Japan, 1923). The figure in the yellow slicker morphed from one in traditional Japanese dress in an earlier etching. Further editing in two subsequent versions results in this startlingly graphic image, the yellow figure standing like a semaphore in the teeming rain.

Lest you think spring will never come, “Spring Shower in Shiba Park” (from Twelve Months of Tokyo, 1921) should cheer you. I love the floating clouds of cherry blossoms, abstracted to such a degree they appear to be underwater coral reefs. And oh, those parasols, blooming like poppies in the rain.

“Kami(no) Bridge, Fukagawa," 1920

“Kami(no) Bridge, Fukagawa,” 1920

“May Rain at Sanno Shrine” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1919) gives us a charming scene of a woman, a baby on her back, hurrying her little dog through a fine spring rain. They pass a mysterious figure, hunched in the shelter of the solid bulk of the shrine. A begger? A monk?

Hasui’s mastery of light is evidenced in “Kami(no) Bridge, Fukagawa” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1920). This luminous view of river, boats and buildings framed by the bridge allows us to share Hasui’s delight in an everyday stroll through the city.

"Shinkawa at Night," 1919

“Shinkawa at Night,” 1919

“Shinkawa at Night” (from Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1919) is a mysterious, almost foreboding image. The brilliant light emanating from between the two buildings hints at the supernatural, as the early stars emerge from a cobalt summer sky.

Coming fully into the sunshine, at last, we bask in the charming “Komagata Embankment” (Twelve Subjects of Tokyo, 1919). The driver and his placid horse drowse in an early summer day, having presumably worked very hard at bundling up all that bamboo. The bundles act as a screen, allowing us a glimpse of tranquil water, buildings and sky beyond.

komagataAs you’ve seen, Kawase Hasui created works that dazzle technically, but also touch the viewer, never to stooping  to the commercial or banal, but finding a still place to contemplate nature and man’s (and woman’s) place in the world.

The show is well-worth the drive from the DC metro area–and it’s free!

If you do go, try to make it on a Thursday or Friday when the very, very good restaurant, Amuse, is open. Have cocktails in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows and watch the sun set behind the silhouetted trees. You’ll feel you’ve entered the floating world of Kawase Hasui.

 

"Zugunruhe," 2009, by Rachel Berwick

“Zugunruhe,” 2009, by Rachel Berwick

The exhibit, “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art,” now at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, marks two anniversaries: the 1914 extinction of the passenger pigeon and the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964.

If you, like me, find birds fascinating, but can never get them to sit still long enough to get a good look at them, then this is the show for you. An 1840 quote from Audubon opens the show: “When an individual [bird] is seen gliding through the woods and close to the observer, it passes like a thought and, on trying to see it again, the eye searches in vain; the bird is gone.”

Detail, "Zugunruhe"

Detail, “Zugunruhe”

As you enter this sharply focused small show, you’re confronted by a glassed-in tree filled with glimmering rust-colored birds. As you walk around the piece, the birds appear (reflected in two-way mirrors) to preen and peck. The tree is lifelike; its leafless branches are covered with lichen and its trunk rooted in moss, but the birds—made of polyester resin—are amber relics of long-extinct passenger pigeons. The effect is eerie. The title of the piece, “Zugunruhe,” made in 2009 by Rachel Berwick, refers to the “night time restlessness birds exhibit before migration.”

"La Historia Me Absolvera," 1999, by Walton Ford

“La Historia Me Absolvera,” 1999, by Walton Ford

Part of his series of colored etchings, “Fables for Tomorrow,” “La Historia Me Absolvera,” by Walton Ford, 1999, gives us the brilliant glory of the now extinct Cuban Red Macaw. Approaching this large magnificently colored work, you’re sure it’s a long-lost Audubon, so closely does it mimic the great naturalist’s style. But no—Ford was born in 1960. The accompanying notes tell us that the artist slipped a political message into the beak of the macaw, and, meant to symbolize Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the bird does have a crafty glint in his eye. The legend—“History will absolve me,” is taken from Castro’s 1953 speech before an attack on an Army barracks. Given the recent opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, one can’t help but think that we’re one step further to that old bird’s extinction.

"The Dodo Museum," 1980, by David Beck

“The Dodo Museum,” 1980, by David Beck

In the same vein, but without the political twist, is “The Dodo Museum,” 1980, by David Beck. Inside this charmingly detailed structure we see a skeleton—a la the Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur bones—of the extinct dodo.

"Biodiversity Reclamation Suit: Passenger Pigeon," 2008, by Laurel Roth Hope

“Biodiversity Reclamation Suit: Passenger Pigeon,” 2008, by Laurel Roth Hope

Extending this theme is Laurel Roth Hope’s series (2008-2012), “Biodiversity Reclamation Suits for Urban Pigeons.” The artist has crocheted detailed “suits” for current day pigeons to wear, here modeled by carved wooden pigeon mannequins on walnut stands. Before embarking on her art career, Hope worked as a park ranger and conservator and her abiding love of nature shines through in these adorable creations. But as the curator’s notes say, these works force us, “…despite the humor and charm, to face the futility of recovering lost biodiversity.”

"Penetrators (Large)," 2012, by Fred Tomaselli

“Penetrators (Large),” 2012, by Fred Tomaselli

“Penetrators (Large),” 2012 by Fred Tomaselli (photo collage, acrylic, and resin on wood) shows another sort of threat to a lone, defenseless bird. This absorbing work draws us in to its writhing snakes within the snake, an almost 3-D effect created by layers of resin covering photo montage. The swirling psychedelics sparkle against deep black background, reminding us that Tomaselli was said to have embedded hallucinogens into his work: pills and cannabis among them, but now he says, that’s all behind him. This stunning apparition demonstrates his on-going fascination with alternate reality and visionary encounters with nature, however he may find them.

"Nin Mamakadendam," 2011-2012, by Tom Uttrech

“Nin Mamakadendam,” 2011-2012, by Tom Uttrech

Tom Uttech’s 2011-12 “Nin Mamakadendam,” (oil on linen), is still another panoramic vision of teeming wildlife. This Wisconsin artist painted the hundreds of recognizable bird species—in full migratory flight—from memory. Meticulously detailed, this piece (and several others by Uttech) gives the viewer a heightened vision of nature, with the little bear at the still center, watching it all. Some sprightly foxes and other small animals are visible in the underbrush. Viewing this piece with all its rushing momentum, we hearken back to the tree full of resin pigeons and their “restlessness before flight.”

""Untitled #1180 (Beatrice)," 2003-2008, by Petah Coyne

“”Untitled #1180 (Beatrice),” 2003-2008, by Petah Coyne

The mystery and fearsomeness of nature come to the fore in “Untitled #1180 (Beatrice), 2003-2008, by Petah Coyne. This ominous mixed media sculpture is said to represent Beatrice, “A woman draped in black and purple.” As Dante’s escort to heaven, Beatrice can also be seen as a “mediator between humanity and the spiritual world.” Hmmmm. I don’t see it. I walked all around this towering piece and could not see the figure of a woman, unless the artist is representing the female as an all-devouring force of destruction. I more closely identified with the poor taxidermied ducks going belly-up in the maelstrom of what appears to be lava mixed with funereal black flowers, driftwood, and pearl-headed hatpins. Shudder.

Detail, "Untitled #1180 (Beatrice)"

Detail, “Untitled #1180 (Beatrice)”

As you’ve gathered, “The Singing and the Silence” gives us depictions of our feathered friends in many guises, from those that raise Alfred Hickcockian hackles, to the idyllic pastoral vision of Walden Pond. Come and see for yourself—no binoculars required.

The show is up until February 22, 2015.

http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2014/birds/

 

 

 

Gates, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, by Claire Falkenstein

Gates, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, by Claire Falkenstein

Ah Venice! San Marco, the Doge’s palace, the canals, the atmospheric fog, the bridge of sighs. Sigh…

All magical, to be sure, but the most compelling attraction on a recent visit to Venice was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in her unfinished palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal.

"Arc of Petals," 1941, by Alexander Calder

“Arc of Petals,” 1941, by Alexander Calder

Walking through the gates made by American artist, Claire Falkenstein in 1961, we felt we were entering Peggy’s realm, her sanctuary, the place where so much creative collaboration—and so many shenanigans—took place. The story of the collection is really that of Guggenheim herself. Born in 1898 in New York City, she, although heir to her family’s considerable fortune, was attracted to the world of art and ideas early on.  In 1922 she married Dada artist Lawrence Vail, who became the father of her two children, Sinbad and the naïve painter, Pegeen. The two had arrived in Paris where she was to meet and befriend Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and other art luminaries. By 1937 she had opened a gallery in London devoted to showing contemporary art. Two years later, she tired of the gallery and determined to open a museum devoted to modern art. She went on a collecting spree, vowing to buy a picture a day, despite the encroaching war. The work she acquired in those years formed the basis of the collection we see today.

"Silhouette," 1916, by Man Ray

“Silhouette,” 1916, by Man Ray

Her personal life was tumultuous: when asked how many husbands she’d had, she famously said, “Mine or other people’s?” More about Peggy: http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/inglese/museum/peggy.html.

Once through the front doors, we were greeted by Alexander Calder’s 1941 “Arc of Petals” hovering in the entry way like an old friend. The villa (unfinished only in the sense that a second floor was never added) is filled with light and gorgeous terrazzo floors. As you walk from room to room, feasting on the art, peeking out the windows for a glimpse of the busy canal, you can’t help but yearn to conjure Peggy for an intimate conversation about each piece. Failing that, including more of her furniture would have been nice, the better to picture her life here.

"Empor (Upward," 1929, by Wassily Kandinsky

“Empor (Upward,” 1929, by Wassily Kandinsky

Arranged chronologically, the collection (which, unlike other notable collections, is intact and will never be moved from this location) reveals a collector of prescient vision and unerring taste.

Man Ray’s “Silhouette,” 1916, shows a flattened image of a vaudeville dancer in various poses with her feet on the strings of a violin, as if accompanying herself. Having begun to experiment with photography, Man Ray sought to illustrate several movements of the dancer at once, while eschewing his earlier “Romantic-Expressionist-Cubist” style in favor of one in which reality is distilled into surface pattern.

Wassily Kandinsky’s “Empor (Upward),” 1929, gives us another flattened image, with its own whimsical personality. Suggestive of tribal art, the creature looks back at us with its one eye, while appearing to smoke a red cigarette.

"Le Facteur Cheval," 1932, by Max Ernst

“Le Facteur Cheval,” 1932, by Max Ernst

Throughout Guggenheim’s collecting career, she favored both the abstractionists and surrealists and tried to balance her attention to both. A beguiling example of the surreal is Max Ernst’s “Le Facteur Cheval,”1932, paper and fabric with pencil, ink, and gouache on paper. The postman Ferdinand Chaval was a real-life hero to the surrealists, having built a “Palais Ideal” from materials scavenged along his postal route. Here Ernst, in the guise of his alter-ego, “Loplop, Superior of Birds,” celebrates the postman and his refusal to succumb to a numbingly routine job.

"Eyes in the Heat," 1946, by Jackson Pollock

“Eyes in the Heat,” 1946, by Jackson Pollock

During a gallery talk by a charming Spanish art history student, we learned that Piet Mondrian discovered Jackson Pollock working as a carpenter in New York and convinced Peggy to buy and show his work. “Eyes in the Heat,” 1946, has all the frenetic energy and movement of his later, “drip” style canvasses.

At around this time, Peggy commissioned Alexander Calder to make her a silver bedhead replete with fishes, dragon flies, and water lilies—the “pond” even radiates concentric rings made by water bugs. Imagine waking up to this every day!

"Silver Bedhead," 1945-6, by Alexander Calder

“Silver Bedhead,” 1945-6, by Alexander Calder

Once up, Peggy may well have donned earrings made by surrealist Yves Tanguy in 1938. Or perhaps ones made for her by Calder himself. It’s said that she wore one of the Tanguy earrings and one of the Calder earrings to the opening of her gallery to show her impartiality in the debate between the surrealists and the abstractionists.

Earrings by Yves Tanguy, 1938

Earrings by Yves Tanguy, 1938

I tend to come down on the side of the abstractionists and spent less time in the room devoted to the surrealists (although the floor, designed by Peggy, was a knockout). I fell in love with abstract expressionist William Baziotes’ “The Parachutists,” Duco enamel on canvas, 1944. In this sprightly well-worked-out composition, we see hints of Richard Diebenkorn’s future work in the rich colors, surface muddling, and the importance of the edges.

During the war years, Mark Rothko came to believe that painting that derived from myth or legend was a “proper response” to the horrors of the war, the holocaust, and the atom bomb. He said, “Only that subject matter is valid that is timeless and tragic.” In 1946, he created “Sacrifice,” watercolor, gouache, and India ink or paper. The central blood-like smear of reddish brown implies both mass and individual sacrifice; flames, targets and vaguely bomb-like shapes appear against gun-metal gray horizontal panels that foreshadow Rothko’s later work.

"The Parachutists," 1944, by William Baziotes

“The Parachutists,” 1944, by William Baziotes

"Sacrifice," 1946, by Mark Rothko

“Sacrifice,” 1946, by Mark Rothko

A favorite surrealist painting from this collection, is “L’Empire des Lumieres,” 1953-54, by Rene Magritte. The painter’s goal was to depict “surprise” and “enchantment” and he succeeded admirably. The picture also conveys a sinister quality not unlike some of the work of Edward Hopper. The contrast between the darkened street and the blue sky gives the viewer a sense of discombobulation—is it day? Night? How can it be both? A lovely shiver-inducing piece.

"L'Empire des Lumieres," 1953-4, by Rene Magritte

“L’Empire des Lumieres,” 1953-4, by Rene Magritte

There was more, of course, much more, including the lipstick red Calder stabile on the patio fronting the canal, tea in the café, and wandering the sculpture garden. How struck we were by the influence this one woman, the “mistress of modernism,” had on the course of art history.

Later, again sitting by the canal, we toasted Peggy Guggenheim with Campari Spritzers, and pictured her in her garden, surrounded by art, lifting her glass to us.

Peggy Guggenheim wearing earrings by Alexander Calder

Peggy Guggenheim wearing earrings by Alexander Calder

 

"Beach at Vignasse," by Henri-Edmond Cross

“Beach at Vignasse,” by Henri-Edmond Cross

Sorry about the pun. I just had to poke a little fun at the high-blown title of this show, now on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

The exhibition includes some 70 works by 15 artists working in the late 1880s to mid-1890s– the period after Impressionism and before Cubism. The visiting curator, Cornelia Homburg, makes the case for Neo-Impressionism—or pointillism, as I have always thought of it—as more than an optical experiment with light and tiny strokes of color, but as a response to the dreamy expression of Symbolist writers and musicians. Rather than depicting a singular event in a particular place, the Neo-Impressionist impulse was to distill an experience, create a dream, and pull the viewer into a universal vision.

"Adagio, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 221," by Paul Signac

“Adagio, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 221,” by Paul Signac

I happened to be in the galleries when the curator was escorting a group of VIPs on a private tour. I eavesdropped a bit, but wanted to see the works without the lens of even her learned eye. So I can’t give you insider goodies, but what I can tell you is that she was positively rapturous about the paintings. I found them rather chilly, empty, and technical. But I loved watching Ms. Homburg’s sweeping arm gestures and hearing her little audience laugh with her. So maybe there’s more here than met my eye. For this review, I’ll focus on the paintings that drew me most.

“Beach at Vignasse,” 1891-92, by Henri-Edmond Cross, appears to be a contradiction of the stated premise. Here, the artist seems to be in love with a specific place, its plant life and gentle light. In the distance, the sea shimmers—you can almost feel the heat on your skin, smell the fragrant sage and delicate flowers.

"L'Ile La Croix, Roen (the Effect of Fog), by Camille Pissarro

“L’Ile La Croix, Roen (the Effect of Fog), by Camille Pissarro

Paul Signac’s “Adagio, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Opus 22,” 1891, on the other hand, gives us sardine fishing reduced to its most pure expression. No smelly fish to spoil the rapture—not even any people. Many of the canvasses in this show are empty of human life. This was the intent, as I gleaned from a scrap of Ms. Homburg’s overheard talk. I find it difficult to connect the “adagio” and “opus” of the title with any evocation of music in this work. Perhaps the boats are meant to signify musical notes, but instead the image reads as—however scintillating the surface color—static.

""The Beach at Blankenberghe," by Henry van de Velde

“”The Beach at Blankenberghe,” by Henry van de Velde

In the room entitled “Urban Landscapes,” Camille Pissarro’s “L’Ile LaCroix, Roen (the Effect of Fog),” 1888, portrays the newly important river in industrialized European cities. Many Neo-Impressionists were anarchists, painfully aware of the desperate conditions of the poor, yet the paintings here focus on atmospherics rather than human suffering.

In the summer, the accompanying notes tell us, many painters went to the country or the coastlines of Belgium or Northern France. Much of the work they did in pastoral settings was sketched out of doors and then finished in the studio. Perhaps this is why much of the work feels contrived, even stiff.

"Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Opus 242," by Paul Signac

“Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Opus 242,” by Paul Signac

“The Beach at Blankenberghe,” 1889, by Henry van de Velde exemplifies the “absence and ambiguity” of these works. One experiences the scene (and several others) as ominous, freighted with some free-floating angst, much like the mood of isolation and loneliness in the word of Edward Hopper. Yet Hopper was drawn to people with their very particular inner despair or ennui. Here, the tiny people are insignificant gestures in the enormous empty space.

In the room called “Arabesque” we learn that these painters were attempting to create “a more long-lasting idea of reality” (emphasis mine) rather than recording fleeting events. This urge to synthesize seems to have backfired. The paintings are so stylized, despite their surface beauty, that they become mere illustrations rather than works with great depth and power.

“Place des Lices, Saint-Tropez, Opus 242”, 1893, by Paul Signac is one of the more appealing paintings in this group, with its undulating trees and rich color. Yet the lone man is almost cartoonish, sitting under the trees on yet another solitary bench.

"Le Chahut," by Georges Seurat

“Le Chahut,” by Georges Seurat

The room titled, “Poetry, Music and the Synergy of the Senses,” attempts to show us the connection between painting and music for the Neo-Impressionists—unconvincingly, in my view. We learn that Theo van Rysselberghe illustrated the poet Emile Verhaeren’s works, that Maximilien Luce and Paul Signac designed covers for Symbolist composer Gabriel Fabres, and that painters reviewed new music and written works and vice versa. This is interesting, but the paintings in the room are imbued with the same stilted, thoroughly non-musical flatness as many of the other pieces. The collaboration between the arts only went so far—especially when we think of the astonishing meeting of art, dance, design, and music that Sergei Diaghilev achieved not very much later.

In Frenchman Georges Seurat’s study for “Le Chahut,” 1889, the dancers, although still decorative, are indeed engaged in a wild and spirited dance. We see more dynamism in the composition as well, with its angled stage and flanking musicians.

In the room called “Timelessness” we are told that the Neo-Impressionists had a “special affinity with rural life and the peasant.” Camille Pissarro’s “Peasant Women Planting Poles the  Ground,” 1891, ripples with color, but again gives us idealized women symbolizing toil in the fields, but conveying little of the muscle and heat of the task at hand.

"Peasant Women Planting Poles in the Ground," by Camille Pissarro

“Peasant Women Planting Poles in the Ground,” by Camille Pissarro

In the final room, “Arcadia,” Henri-Edmond Cross’s “Beach at Cabasson (Baigne-Cul),” 1891-2, is a standout. Unfortunately, an image of this lovely work (on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago), is not available. Go to see it, and the rest of these works, if only to better understand a sometimes overlooked moment in art history. The show is up until January 11, 2015.

http://www.phillipscollection.org/events/2014-09-27-exhibition-neo-impressionism-dream-of-realities

 

 

"The Strand that Holds us Together," 2014, by Carlee Fernandez

“The Strand that Holds us Together,” 2014, by Carlee Fernandez

I must confess to an uneasy relationship with contemporary art. I often get the sense that I’m not in on the joke, or the materials seem strangely chosen, or it’s technically proficient, but cerebral. It’s probably generational, but much of the new art out there just doesn’t grab me. Or, worse, it’s a mild turn-off.

And so I approached the show at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC–a showcase for six young Latino artists, “Staging the Self”–with mild trepidation. Ninth in the Portraiture Now series, the artists on view are looking to “…rid portraiture of its reassuring tradition that fixes a person in time and space.” Right off the bat, I’m thinking with my geezer brain, “What’s wrong with time and space?”

"forapieceofapple," 2013, by David Antonio Cruz

“forapieceofapple,” 2013, by David Antonio Cruz

The show opens with work by Carlee Fernandez, born in 1973 in Santa Ana, California. For some reason this lovely young woman chose to insert two plugs of bear fur up her nose as part of her “Bear Studies” series of photographs. And for some equally unknown reason the curators of this show chose to put this work on the cover of the program as its signature image. I’m not including it here, but if you’re curious, just google “Bear Studies.” Nor will I include her semi-nude antics in a bear suit, all of this having to do with her “challenging her physical identity,” and “exploring the boundaries of individuality.” As a card-carrying curmudgeon, this kind of talk makes me nervous. But Fernandez did reach me—and held me—with a striking image entitled, “The Strand that Holds Us Together,” 2014, an archival pigment print on rag. Here, her hand and her father’s hand appear side by side, almost as if they’re one person’s hands—a moving portrait of father and daughter.

"Mom healing me from my fear of iguanas by taking me to the park and feeding them every weekend, ca. 1994," 2012, by Karen Miranda Rivadeneira

“Mom healing me from my fear of iguanas by taking me to the park and feeding them every weekend, ca. 1994,” 2012, by Karen Miranda Rivadeneira

David Antonio Cruz, born 1974, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, explores “…untold aspects of the Puerto Rican diaspora experience,” bringing to it a “queer” perspective. This is intriguing, but the work is either so much an in-joke, or I am so impossibly straight, that I couldn’t see anything uniquely queer in it. I did enjoy the work—assemblages of crockery, fabric, ephemera, and spilled paint with cunning little portraits tucked away behind the ruched fabric. “forapieceofapple,” 2013, enamel, gold leaf, fabric, broken plates, paper planes made from Ellis Island documents, was an absorbing and unusual piece of art.

“Mom curing me from the evil eye, 1991,” 2012, by Karen Miranda Rivadeneira

“Mom curing me from the evil eye, 1991,” 2012, by Karen Miranda Rivadeneira

The work of Karen Miranda Rivadeneira, born in 1983, in New York City, deals with “identity and intimacy” as she restages scenes from her childhood that were never recorded and may never have actually happened. With captions penned at the bottom as in a family album, this work presented very specific and personal scenes. I particularly liked “Mom healing me from my fear of iguanas by taking me to the park and feeding them every weekend, ca. 1994,” a 2012 digital C-print scanned from a 6X6 negative. I can easily identify with Karen’s rigid body as the iguanas swarm her banana-wielding mother. The banyan tree seems to sympathize with Karen, enveloping her in its roots. The mix of reportage and fiction here feels authentic and  touching. Evidently Karen and her mother really did travel to Ecuador for the iguana cure. “Mom curing me from the evil eye, 1991,” also 2012, recreates another scene from childhood in a wonderfully evocative image.

"Duplicity as Identity, 50%," 2008, by Maria Martinez-Canas

“Duplicity as Identity, 50%,” 2008, by Maria Martinez-Canas

Maria Martinez-Canas, born 1960, in Havana, Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico, overlays nine images of her (in a picture taken at about the same age as her father’s photograph) on her father’s face in increasing ratios, or “incremental mixes.” Over nine images, his face, surrounded with a faint halo of her hair, gradually morphs into her face. What is meant by “duplicity” in this case? Is it a play on “duplicate,” or is the artist implying she or her father are deceptive, dishonest, or misleading? Unlike “The Strand that Holds us Together,” this series of images left me cold. Clever, yes, and beautifully produced, but these faces reflected little or no emotion. One wonders about the seemingly chilly father-daughter relationship, as in “Duplicity as Identity, 50%,” an archival pigment print mounted on aluminum, 2008.

"This is Ours--AJ," 2011, by Michael Vasquez

“This is Ours–AJ,” 2011, by Michael Vasquez

Michael Vasquez, born 1983 in St. Petersburg, Florida, gives us raw and unvarnished images of the “male world of the streets and gang life” from a “perspective of a boy growing up without a father figure.” Particularly powerful was “This is ours—AJ” (acrylic, 2011), exploding on the canvas with all of Florida’s knock-your-eye out color, as body art becomes the art. I was enchanted by the small “Hennessy Shots,” mixed media on paper, 2010. This is the piece I would have taken home, if I could. So often, I give my heart to the small works on paper.

"Hennessy Shots, " 2010, by Michael Vasquez

“Hennessy Shots, ” 2010, by Michael Vasquez

Finally, Rachelle Mozman, born 1972 in New York City, employs a “documentary style” in her “fictional narratives” in which her mother plays various roles—a pair of twins, one with darker skin, a maid, a rich woman, exploring the “conflict of vanity, race and class within her.” In “El espejo,” 2010, in her maid incarnation, the mother looks almost accusingly at the viewer, while her elegant and pale-skinned doppelganger coolly observes herself in the mirror, tucking a strand of hair into her French twist.  Again, while provocative, Mozman’s mise en scenes were remote,

"El espejo," 2010, by Rachelle Mozman

“El espejo,” 2010, by Rachelle Mozman

lacking the juicy immediacy of Rivadeniera’s, and leaving me wanting more.

See what you think and let me know. http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/exhstagingself.html

 

 

 

 

 

exterior3We each bring our memories of that terrible day with us when we return to ground zero. No matter how far away, or how close we were to that place on that day, our lives were changed. And now, more than a dozen years later, there is all that took place after—war, turmoil, and divisive feelings that still roil the country. With all that in mind, and with very few reservations, I think the founders, designers, curators, and many advisers who created the National September 11 Memorial Museum have done their job well. They have managed to incorporate myriad experiences of those horrific events in a way that memorializes the dead while it pays tribute to the heroism of those who ran into the ruptured buildings hoping to save as many lives as possible.

stairwayThe architect, Davis Brody Bond, has designed a sleek asymmetrical box above ground, mirrored by an enveloping below-ground space. Defined by the existing slurry wall, the below-ground space is in part a memorial to the building itself. As the museum’s website puts it, “Where most museums are buildings that house artifacts, this Museum has been built within an artifact.”

As you descend from ground level, you pass the stark remains of two Trade Center tridents soaring up into the glass atrium. Once on the concourse lobby level, you enter a series of displays in which you hear the voices of people describing that day—where they were, how they heard about the attack, what they saw on television, the phone calls they made, or tried to make.

trident3You continue your descent past twisted girders, a section of the steel facade, large photos of the towers at twilight, until you reach the epicenter of the 1993 bomb blast, the B-2 level of the parking garage, where you’re reminded that the bombers wanted to take the building down.

slurrywallThe “survivor stairs,” a portion of the Vesey Street stairs that allowed some to flee the North tower across the plaza, lead into the Memorial Hall, a vast space intended for contemplation and reflection. This space occupies the area between the two towers, filled top to bottom by the commanding presence of the slurry wall. Had the wall not held after the attacks, Hudson River flooding would have caused even more destruction and loss of life.

Vast architectural artifacts dominate the space: box column remains, the radio tower from the north tower, an elevator motor, a twisted column from the South tower, its welds split open.

last columnPerhaps the most arresting feature of this cavernous space is the “last column,” which was signed by first-responders, emergency crews, craftsmen, among others, and on which were posted photographs and other memorabilia of those lost. Accompanying the column is a pedestal with an electronic display that allows you to zero in on each message or photo to learn more about the signer or poster. This completely absorbed us and we read every one. It added the human element which, at that point, had been missing. You can see a video here: http://www.911memorial.org/images-videos/video/last-column-symbol-resilience

"9-11 Effigy Pot," 2001, by Peter B Jones

“9-11 Effigy Pot,” 2001, by Peter B Jones

On the walls and in cases are various pieces of art commemorating the event—some more successful than others. “9-11 Effigy Pot,” 2001, by Onondaga/Seneca artist Peter B. Jones, was one of the standouts.

I certainly could have done without the Bank of America-sponsored “Tribute Walk” in which you hear the names of the dead being read as you pass. Fine to have sponsored the walk, but did they really need to take the credit in the sanctity of a memorial?

That aside, behind a somewhat unheralded revolving door, is the heart of the museum. Here, the displays take you forward in time from the horror of the attacks, to the events leading up to that day, to bin Laden’s killing, and end with some reflection on the present-day challenges of a post 9/11 world.

Items recovered from the site pulled us in and we lost all sense of time and place. Although crowded, the display is well designed, allowing you to move through the labyrinthine space at your own pace. Almost unbearably sad were the small theaters which featured films accompanied by recorded voices of those who were there: messages left by office workers who returned to the South Tower, having been told they were safe, one of the flight attendants on doomed flight 93, spunky to the last, and a passenger who urged her husband not to worry about her, that she was comfortable…for now.

firetruckMany of the pieces are monumental (a slab of “composite,” made up of five cmpressed stories of one of the towers), many are intimate—a ring worn by a woman who survived the 1993 bombing, buying the ring for herself to commemorate the day, only to perish in 2001. The museum is full of such small, heart-stopping moments, along with the huge artifacts of riven steel.Sept 11 Museum

We emerged dazed, realizing we spent seven hours, all told, in the museum.

If you go, we suggest entering the revolving doors first—this multi-faceted display will deserve all the time you can give it.

Then, maybe after a coffee in the rather spartan cafe, you can take in the larger space in the time you have left.

 

 

"Three Quintains (Hello Girls," 1965

“Three Quintains (Hello Girls),” 1965

The “starchitect” Frank Gehry shares a passion of mine (and many others): He’s an ardent Alexander Calder fan, having been smitten by this master of motion at a Guggenheim retrospective in 1964. Working with Stephanie Barron, the curator of LACMA’s modern department, Gehry’s group respectfully and sensitively designed this comprehensive exhibition’s display space. In her blog on the museum’s website Barron expresses “the desire to slow down people’s looking at the works of art. We purposely limited the selection to feature 50 objects—giving the art ample space to breathe. Gehry’s design underscores how to look at the works. We also wanted to encourage people to spend more time with individual objects so that the gentle movement can be observed.”

"White Panel," 1936

“White Panel,” 1936

Although this is the first retrospective of Alexander Calder’s work to be displayed at in a museum in Los Angeles, his association with LACMA goes back to the opening of that museum in 1965 when the museum commissioned “Three Quintains (Hello Girls).” This joyous piece is installed in a pool near the Japanese Pavilion, just over the balcony that surrounds the museum cafeteria.

Unless otherwise noted, all the art displayed in the show is owned by the Calder Foundation.

Organized chronologically, the show begins with several eye-popping early “panels,” which Calder produced after meeting Joan Miro in 1928 and Piet Mondrian in 1930. Their influence, and that of other surrealists, prompted Calder’s radical foray into “kinetic 3-D” painting. Calder, in fact, first proposed the idea to Mondrian. “I suggested…that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate.” Made in 1936, “White Panel,” is a standout of this period. Plywood, tubing, sheet metal, string, and paint fuse to create a mesmerizing piece that seems to contain the seeds of all the work to come.

"Small Feathers," 1931

“Small Feathers,” 1931

More early wire sculptures in the

"La Demoiselle," 1939

“La Demoiselle,” 1939

adjoining room include the charming “Small Feathers,” 1931, and “La Demoiselle,” 1939 (Glenstone Collection, Potomac, Maryland). By now, Calder is off and oscillating. Marcel Duchamp coined the name for this new art form: mobile. As Calder’s friend and contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, the mobile exists “halfway between the servility of a statue and the independence of natural events; each of its evolutions is the inspiration of a moment.”

In an alcove hovers the spectacular “Snow Flurry,” 1948. This breathtaking piece is given a private, almost sanctuary-like space in which it’s able to move and float in serene isolation, casting shadows on the walls. When Sartre saw “Snow Flurry” he wrote, “…suddenly, when the agitation had left [the mobile] and it seemed lifeless again, its long majestic tail, which until then had not moved, came to life almost indolently and almost regretfully, spun in the air, and swept past my nose.”

"Snow Flurry," 1948

“Snow Flurry,” 1948

"Boomerangs," 1941

“Boomerangs,” 1941

Another stand-out is “Boomerangs,” 1941, with its loopy suspension and bright yellow flock of boomerang shapes. Also made in 1941, “Tree,” is a delight. Of his work at this time, Calder said these “…abstractions are like nothing in life except in their manner of reacting.” Those of us who blew on the objects were scolded by the museum guards.

During WW II, Calder worked in wood, as metal was harder to come by. Echoes of his early interest in surrealism can be seen in “Constellation with Two Pins,” 1943, calling up the work of Arp and Magritte, as well as his long-time friend, Joan Miro. Included in the show is a wonderful photograph of Miro and Calder at the opening of the Calder Foundation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence.

Works after World War II include the affecting “Little Pierced Disc,” 1947, and “Blue Feather,” with its unpainted pieces and vivid Yves Klein blue “feather.”

"Constellation with Two Pins, " 1940s

“Constellation with Two Pins, ” 1940s

"Little Pierced Disc," 1947

“Little Pierced Disc,” 1947

In the fifties, as Calder’s reputation grew, he was invited to create large sculptures for public spaces in cities all over the world. Although these large “muscular and anchored” stabiles don’t turn in the wind, they nonetheless convey great movement and dynamism, as we see in an intermediate maquette for “La Grande Vitesse,” 1969 – the completed work is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Les Arêtes de Poisson,” 1965 (another maquette is seen here) virtually explodes at the Hakone open-air museum in Japan.

Nearby hangs a gouache and crayon design for the poster announcing the opening of LACMA and next to it is the poster itself.

"Blue Feather," 1948

“Blue Feather,” 1948

The final treat was to watch the 16 millimeter film directed by Herbert Matter, “Works of Calder,” 1950, and narrated by Burgess Meredith, with music by John Cage. Rippling into view were waves in the ocean, breezes in the trees, a child flashing a mirror, reeds in the water. The natural world provided Calder all the inspiration he needed for form, movement, line and color. As the artist himself put it in 1962, “The basis of everything for me is the universe. The simplest forms in the universe are the sphere and the circle. I represent them by discs and then I vary them. My whole theory about art is the disparity that exists between form, masses, and movement.”

"La Grande Vitesse," 1969

“La Grande Vitesse,” 1969

Spending time with these pieces of art creates a profound sense of having seen remarkable, never-before-thought-of creations that possess the power to awe, charm, and inspire. In fact, seeing this show first made it almost impossible to look at any other art in the museum afterwards. If you happen to be in Los Angeles before July 27, do stop in. If not, check out “Hello Girls.” They’ll be happy to see you, and it’s guaranteed they’ll wave.

"Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 1, 1965," 1965

“Los Angeles County Museum of Art, April 1, 1965,” 1965,

 

 

 

http://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/calder-and-abstraction-avant-garde-iconic

 

 

 

"Little Girl in Blue Armchair," 1878, by Mary Cassatt

“Little Girl in Blue Armchair,” 1878, by Mary Cassatt

The most satisfying art shows—and this is one of them—pair beautiful, challenging, or even disturbing art with informative behind-the-scenes information, be it historical, technical, personal, or in this case, all three. Close friends for nearly 40 years, Mary Cassatt said that knowing Edgar Degas had “changed my life,” while Degas, upon first seeing Cassatt’s work, said, “…there is someone who feels as I do.” The rich material accompanying this show brings that long relationship—and the work it spawned—to life.

"Rehearsal in the Studio," 1878-79, by Edgar Degas

“Rehearsal in the Studio,” 1878-79, by Edgar Degas

Room one, “Experimentation and Exhibition,” looks at both artists’ use of unusual materials: distemper (pigment mixed with glue), metallic paint, and egg tempera, and the bold choices in paintings they hung in the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition, a breakthrough show for Cassatt and a huge success for Degas.

A long-time favorite by Cassatt (National Gallery of Art), “Little Girl in Blue Armchair,” oil on canvas, 1878, was Cassatt’s first truly Impressionist painting. I love the rapid, slapdash brush-strokes of the chintz, the caught-in-time moment, as if the child has thrown herself down for a moment of deep childhood contemplation, or has just awakened from a nap. As on an endless Saturday afternoon, time seems to expand into the room. Turns out Degas may have had something to do with that. On his advice, Cassatt changed the horizontal line where the wall meets the floor to a more dynamic triangular corner. This necessitated shifting the furniture around and moving the dog—originally on the floor behind the child—to the chair opposite. This change produces a companionable symmetry between child and dog, and further opens up the space.

"Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery," 1878-80, by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery,” 1878-80, by Edgar Degas

Shown at the 1879 Impressionist Exhibition, Degas’ “Rehearsal in the Studio,” egg tempera on canvas (collection of the Shelburne Museum, Vermont), 1878-79, shows his fascination with and influence by Japanese composition: the low perspective, blocks of color, and subdued palette.

Room Two is called “Le Jour et La Nuit,” which refers to a journal of experimental prints that Cassatt and Degas were to publish together, again experimenting with an unfamiliar technique of soft ground etching. Again, as in Japanese art, the two embraced imperfections and accidents as they emerged. The charming “Woman Seated in the Loge,” by Mary Cassatt, ca. 1880 (a lithograph now at the Museum of fine Arts, Boston), seems at first to be a sketch, its free and open lines appearing to have been dashed off right there in the theater. Also owned by the MFA, Boston, Degas’ crayon lithograph “At the Theater: Woman with a Fan,” has the same vivid on-the-spot quality and again shows Japanese influence in the composition. Neither image is available, sadly.

"Mary Cassatt," 1879-84, by Edgar Degas

“Mary Cassatt,” 1879-84, by Edgar Degas

The room, “Mary Cassatt at the Louvre” gives us a multi-faceted view of the artist as Degas saw her. Demanding, curious, elegant in her person, Cassatt comes to life here.

“Mary Cassatt at the Louvre, the Etruscan Collection,” 1879-80 (soft ground etching, drypoint, aquatint, and etching) is highly detailed and technically accomplished. An entire wall is devoted to this subject, and in viewing the various prints, sketches, oils and pastels, you sense that you’ve really seen the Mary Cassatt Degas so admired, as she moves with assurance through the Louvre’s many galleries.

“Mary Cassatt,” 1876-84, oil on canvas (National Portrait Gallery), is a penetrating portrait, one that Cassatt hung in her studio for years, but eventually tired of, and sold quietly without Degas’ knowledge. It’s not conventionally pretty, not by a long shot, but this woman looks like someone I’d like to know. I was jarred out of my communion with Cassatt by a pair of young women who approached the painting, one saying, “She looks mean.” To which the other replied, “She’s just like, you know, ‘I can’t be a part of any more of this crap.’” Well, maybe. I’ve heard that Degas was pretty hard to get along with.

"Fan Mount-Ballet Girls," 1879, by Edgar Degas

“Fan Mount-Ballet Girls,” 1879, by Edgar Degas

In the next room, “Collecting and Exchanging,” we learn that Degas collected Cassatt’s many images of the same print, indicating that he loved not only the finished product, but her process in making them. For her part, Cassatt preferred to set up sales for artist friends with wealthy Americans, but owned six of Degas’ works, small, intimate pieces such as “Fan Mount—Ballet Girls,” 1879, watercolor and gold on silk (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Part of a trade, Cassatt said this work was “…the most beautiful Edgar Degas every painted.”

"Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J)," 1883, by Mary Cassatt

“Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, by Mary Cassatt

In the luscious, “Young Woman in Black (Portrait of Madame J),” 1883, oil on canvas (Maryland State Archives), Cassatt pays sly homage to her friend by posing her model in front of Degas’ fan mount.

The final room, “Beyond 1886,” explores a turning point in both the artists’ friendship and their careers. While they remained steadfast lifelong friends, the intense collaboration of their earlier years waned, with Cassatt devoting more and more time to her paintings of mothers and children. Her works became more realistic and less impressionistic—and, let’s face it, more treacley—while Degas’ work took the opposite turn.

"Forest in the Mountains," 1890, by Edgar Degas

“Forest in the Mountains,” 1890, by Edgar Degas

The brooding “Forest in the Mountains,” a Degas monotype (Museum of Modern Art), 1890, is a startlingly abstract vision, with its smear of dark red paint like dried blood, and the looming tree hinting at the hidden power of nature.

Both Degas’ and Cassatt’s love of Japanese prints endured during this period and their influence can be seen in another favorite Cassatt image, “Woman Bathing,” 1890-91, a color drypoint and aquatint (National Gallery of Art).

"Woman Bathing," 1890-91, by Mary Cassatt

“Woman Bathing,” 1890-91, by Mary Cassatt

If this sampling has whetted your appetite for more, “Degas/Cassatt,” with around 70 works on view, is up until October 5, 2014.

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2014/degas-cassatt.html

 

 

 

 

"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”

http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/peacockRoom/pano.asp

 

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

trouble.

"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.