"Wapping," 1860 - 64

“Wapping,” 1860 – 64

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Chelsea In Ice," 1864

“Chelsea In Ice,” 1864

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

"Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge," by Utagawa Hiroshige

“Bamboo Yards, Kyobashi Bridge,” by Utagawa Hiroshige

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Peacock Room," 1908

“The Peacock Room,” 1908

Also, “The Peacock Room Comes to America”



Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Andy Warhol," by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

“Andy Warhol,” by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stokeley Carmichael," by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

“Stokeley Carmichael,” by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

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

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

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

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

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

"Jack Kerouac," by Larry Rivers, 1960

“Jack Kerouac,” by Larry Rivers, 1960


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

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

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

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

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

unmoored before the brilliant red background.

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

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












Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

Under the floating roof of the National Portrait Gallery, old and new fans of Washington DC’s preeminent dance company, Dana Tai Soon Burgess (DTSB), were treated to a new piece, “Confluence,” once again inspired by the on-going show, “Dance the Dream.” For this piece, Burgess took his inspiration from the moody 1938 portrait of modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey by Barbara Morgan.

dana8 Fraught with psychological overtones, the image led Burgess to make this new dance expressing “an emotional terrain of the mind” whose predominant theme is the uncomfortable state brought about by short meetings—trysts—in which feelings are unresolved.

Ten dancers enter from “off stage,” elegant in Judy Hansen’s black costumes, and walk with great ceremony to stand at the far edge of the performance space. In silence, one of the figures swoops away from the others, then another, and another, until they’re briefly united, circling a spot at their feet. When the opening notes of Ernest Bloch’s “Hebraic Suite” breaks the silence, the viewer is swept away. Divided into four movements that flow into one another seamlessly, the sense of portent is palpable from the outset.

dana6In this piece, Burgess’s characteristic spare, clean lines are punctuated with sharp, pecking arm and hand gestures, and an idiosyncratic pulling motion that seems to draw an invisible thread from inert figures on the floor. Fluid, organic movements mingle and merge in hypnotic ways, the dancer’s faces showing more and more eye contact and emotion—ranging from wariness to openness to outright fear—as the dance progresses. This churning intensity propels the dancers upward into spectacular lifts and downward into curled resting positions. Twice, male dancers lift women and hold them aloft, straight as exclamation points, like “pillars of emotion,” to use Burgess’ words.

dana14While exploring the uncertainty of short relationships that “are not love, not trusting,” the dance shows us the various effects of touch—it can soothe and it can hurt. Hands caress, appear to strike, swoop in crane-like arches, and, in staccato bursts, express frustration and tension between partners. Dancers also leaned their heads on their partner’s shoulders, backs, and arms, allowing momentary respite from the mood of suspended anxiety and bringing a fleeting sweetness into the mix. Not that this sustained emotion is hard to watch. Quite the contrary. It would have been impossible to look away.

dana16The complex choreography, seemingly propelled by the swirling, eddying music, conjures bodies of water meeting, joining and flowing in sometimes gentle and sometimes turbulent ways. I was particularly struck by the complex whorl of movement in which the woman lifted the man, and another pairing in which the woman rolls her head and upper body along the outstretched arm of the man. The work is filled with many such strikingly original moments.

confluence3“Confluence” ends with a woman placing her hand on a fallen man’s body. Her expression is unreadable—does she feel victorious, dominant, or tender? It’s a moving end to a piece in which the viewer is pulled into a darkly absorbing psychological space. Doris Humphrey would have loved it!

Being able to see such exquisite work in such a fabulous setting is a privilege and a gift. We who are DTSB fans look forward to seeing this new piece performed in a traditional setting. If you’re not familiar with this treasure of a dance company, do visit their website at http://dtsbdc.org/ and make a point to see an up-coming performance. To echo, Amy Henderson, the adventurous curator of “Dancing the Dream,” you can’t have a static museum show about dance. We hope this exciting collaboration between museum and choreographer-in-residence will endure and flourish.

confluence2And, if you haven’t seen it yet, “Dancing the Dream” is on view in the National Portrait Gallery until July 13, 2014. http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/exhdance.html

Photos by Jeffrey Malet of WUSA/Channel 9

















"Ty Cobb," by Joseph Kernan, 1916

“Ty Cobb,” by Joseph Kernan, 1916

Baseball season comes as a whiff of freshly cut grass every year, but especially this year, after the long, hard winter of 2013. The beauty of it all—the brilliant green field and terracotta diamond; the players’ breathtaking choreography as they catch bare-handed, pirouette and throw; the batters fanning the air; the Kabuki-masked catcher in his crouch; the pitcher strutting to the mound. I could go on and on…and I haven’t even mentioned the beer.

But I’ll spare you more hyperbole. What I will tell you is that here in the nation’s capital, there is a surprising amount of art devoted to the sport, most of it cached in the National Portrait Gallery’s third floor “Champions” collection.

"Roger Maris," by Robert Vickrey, 1961

“Roger Maris,” by Robert Vickrey, 1961

The Georgia Peach, “Ty Cobb,” oil on canvas, by Joseph F. Kernan, 1916, played in the majors for twenty-four years. A powerful, accurate hitter and fleet base runner, he perfected the “hook slide” and set a life-time record of 892 stolen bases, which held for 50 years. His lifetime batting average of .367 was never equaled and in 1936, Cobb was the first player to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Next up, “Roger Maris,” egg tempera on board, by Robert Vickrey, 1961. What a swing! And what determination in the set of his jaw. Maris was acquired by the Yankees in a 1960 trade in and promptly hit two home runs, a double, and a single, driving in four runs in his very first game. By 1961 he was in a “home run derby” with his teammate Mickey Mantle, both in the running to beat the Babe’s single season record of 60 homers. Maris hit number 61 on the last day of the season.

"Juan Marichal," by Gerald Gooch, 1966

“Juan Marichal,” by Gerald Gooch, 1966

Here is the “unorthodox catapult style” of San Francisco Giants “Juan Marichal,” acrylic on canvas, by Gerald Gooch, 1966, in all its windmill glory. Marichal pitched a one-hit shut-out against the Phillies to end the 1960 season with a total of 191 wins and was the first Latin American to be inducted into the Baseball hall of fame “via the regular selection process.”

"Casey Stengel," by Rhoda Sherbell, 1981

“Casey Stengel,” by Rhoda Sherbell, 1981

One of the greatest all-time managers, “Casey Stengel,” polychromed bronze, by Rhoda Sherbell, 1981, led the New York Yankees to ten American League pennants and seven World Series Championships in twelve seasons (1949 – 1960). When he took on the New York Mets, he declared, despite their hapless performance, “the Mets are gonna be amazing!” I love this weary-eyed, long suffering Stengel, with his noble earlobes and meticulously detailed uniform.

"Reggie Jackson," by Howard Rogers, 1974

“Reggie Jackson,” by Howard Rogers, 1974

You can almost hear the crack of the bat in “Reggie Jackson,” tempera on board, by Howard Rogers, 1974. The mighty swing of this Oakland A’s hitter–nicknamed “Mr. October,” for hitting three consecutive homers in the clinching game of the 1977 world series–drove in 563 career home runs. Known for his theatrical, out-sized personality, Jackson played in seven World Series.

"Carlton Fiske," by Susan Miller-Havens, 1993

“Carlton Fiske,” by Susan Miller-Havens, 1993

“Carleton Fiske,” oil on cotton duck, by Susan Miller-Havens, 1993, looms out of the black background, in his eyes a certain desperation. It’s clear this man plays on the edge. “You don’t play baseball,” Fiske said, “you work at it.” Fiske played 24 seasons in the American League (for Boston and the White Sox) and was one of the top hitting catchers of all time. In 1975, despite recent knee surgery and a broken arm, he blasted a twelfth inning home run to win the sixth game of the series (playing for Chicago).

Look at the eyes in “Nolan Ryan,” oil on canvas, by Ruth Munson, 1994. You can feel that 100 mile-an-hour fastball coming at you—or maybe it’s one of his killer curve balls. Check out the hand—like a ballet dancer’s port de bras. Ryan played 27 years in the majors, in both leagues. He was drafted by the Mets and helped them win their first World Series in 1969. After being traded to the Angels, he pitched four no-hitters from 1973-1975. At his retirement in 1993, he held the all-time career strike-out record of 5,714.

"Nolan Ryan," by Ruth Munson, 1994

“Nolan Ryan,” by Ruth Munson, 1994

In “Yogi Berra,” bronze, 1973, another wonderful sculpture by Rhoda Sherbell, the artist has caught this self-effacing charmer in a characteristic moment. With his furrowed brow and knowing eyes, you can almost hear him saying, “It’s too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore,”or another of his many “Yogi-isms.” In his eighteen seasons (1946 – 1963), Berra was described as a catcher who “stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.”

"Yogi Berra," by Rhoda Sherbell, cast 2000, after 1973 original

“Yogi Berra,” by Rhoda Sherbell, cast 2000, after 1973 original

Before we leave the National Portrait Gallery, we’ll stop on the first floor and see the newly acquired portrait of baseball great, Hank Aaron. This arresting portrait by Ross Rossin, oil on canvas, 2010, greets you like an old friend as you enter the museum. The Atlanta Braves home run king was on hand at the museum to unveil the picture, as well as to celebrate his 80th birthday in February of this year. He stayed to meet with admirers and recorded this delightful accounting of memories of his father and childhood. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cC4JwAz1Im4

"Hank Aaron, " by Ross Rossin, 2010

“Hank Aaron, ” by Ross Rossin, 2010

Next, we make our way across town to the Phillips Collection, where we find one of my favorite baseball paintings, Marjorie Phillips’ “Night Baseball,” depicting a 1951 game between the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees. Wife of Duncan Phillips, founder of this preeminent modern art museum, Marjorie became a devoted Senators fan and often sketched in the family’s box seats just behind the dugout on the first base line in Washington DC’s old Griffiths stadium. Joe DiMaggio, with his characteristic wide-legged stance, can be seen in the outfield playing in his last season.

"NIght Baseball," by Marjorie Phillips, 1951

“NIght Baseball,” by Marjorie Phillips, 1951

Nearby hangs, “World Series,” by Arnold Friedman, oil on canvas, undated, acquired in 1938. This genteel vision of the sport reminds us, sadly, that we don’t see enough straw boaters these days. Maybe we can bring them back to replace backwards baseball caps. Well, sigh, maybe not.

Both works are part of the blockbuster show, “Made in America,” now on view at the Phillips Collection and previously reviewed in this space. https://ellenkwatnoski.com/made-in-america-american-masters-from-the-phillips-collection-1850-1970/

"World Series," by Arnold Friedman, undated, acquired 1938

“World Series,” by Arnold Friedman, undated, acquired 1938

Ah, baseball. With each new season, new hope. See you at the game!

[Full disclosure: no, I don’t have all these stats memorized. Hardly. I gleaned them from the excellent accompanying notes in the National Portrait Gallery. “Champions” is a permanent collection and  features other sports art, including the lovely portrait of Arthur Ashe, by Richmond VA artist,  Louis Briel.]


"Madonna," by Kate Simon, 1983

“Madonna,” by Kate Simon, 1983

It’s the inevitable question you ask yourself after—and during—your tour of the “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. What is cool? Who is cool? The curators of this lively show have come up with some answers, even as they claim not to have made personal judgments regarding their 100 selections. The notes accompanying the exhibit tell us that 1940s jazz saxophonist Lester Young popularized this originally African American concept. Cool became a “password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance, and a certain stylish stoicism.” Further, each person featured in the show has to possess at least three of the following:

  1. An original artistic vision carried off with a singular style
  2. Cultural rebellion or transgression for a generation
  3. Iconic power, or instant visual recognition
  4. A recognized cultural legacy
"Johnny Depp," by Annie Leibovitz, 2010

“Johnny Depp,” by Annie Leibovitz, 2010

This large and absorbing show, organized chronologically from “The Birth of Cool,” to the “Legacy of Cool,” features stunning photographs by greats such as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, and Richard Avedon.

Here are my coolest cats and kitties seen in the show (in no particular order):

“Madonna,” by Kate Simon, 1983. How could you not name this highly original artist, even as we’ve all chucked our fishnets, bustiers, and finger-less gloves (wait a minute—those have made a texting come-back) in the Salvation Army bin. Madonna remains the ultimate chameleon of cool.

"Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket," by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

“Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket,” by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

In the space labeled “Cool and Counterculture,” we come upon “Johnny Depp,” by Annie Leibovitz, 2010. The gorgeous inky blacks in this portrait embody the smoldering potency of this actor’s creative talent and penchant for playing complicated rogues.

“Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket,” by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976, captures the poet/musician’s rough-edged androgyny and the rawness of 1970s New York she epitomizes.

"Jimi Hendrix," by LInda McCartney, 1967

“Jimi Hendrix,” by LInda McCartney, 1967

Who wouldn’t vote for Jimi Hendrix as an exemplar of all the criteria (and a few more) listed above? Here he is in a photo by Linda McCartney, looking so young, with his puckish grin and sidelong glance—the quintessential trickster. What a loss!

“Roots of Cool” gives us this exquisite portrait of Lauren Bacall by Albert Eisenstaedt, 1949. Loved the quote by an anonymous critic of the day, summing up Bacall as “slinky as a lynx, hot as pepper, cool as rain, and dry as smoke.”

"Lauren Bacall," by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1949

“Lauren Bacall,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1949

Ah, yes, the avatar of cool, “Bob Dylan,” by Richard Avedon (speaking of whom, where is he in this show? Where are any photographers?), 1965. This image speaks for itself, hurtling the viewer back in time (viewers of a certain age anyway) to when the arrival of a new Dylan album was cause for celebration and then slavish listening, all the while marveling at how he could manage to conjure exactly what we were thinking, feeling, and exploring at the time.

"Bob Dylan," by Richard Avedon, 1965

“Bob Dylan,” by Richard Avedon, 1965

“Bessie Smith,” a protégé of Ma Rainey, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, was one tough cookie, we learn, managing her own vaudeville troupe and single-handedly running off a menacing advance by the Klan. I grew up with a hissing 78 recording of “Taint Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” In this song you can hear the inspiration for Bonnie Raitt (also featured in the show) and Janis Joplin, who put up half the money for a new headstone for Smith in 1970.

"Bessie Smith," by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

“Bessie Smith,” by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

“Fred Astaire,” by Martin Munkacsi, 1936, with his impeccable line and perfect timing, is almost too cool, entirely lacking in the funky experimentation of, say, the Nicholas Brothers of the same era. And while I’m grousing, I’ll air my biggest complaint about this show: Astaire is the only dancer in it. I’m not including Madonna who, yes, is a great dancer, but she’s many other things as well, and it could be argued, is primarily known as a singer. Where is Martha Graham? Josephine Baker? Gregory Hines?

"Fred Astaire," by Martin Munkacsi, 1936

“Fred Astaire,” by Martin Munkacsi, 1936

The incomparable “Lady Day,” here photographed by Bob Willoughby in 1951, was described by Duke Ellington himself as the “essence of cool.” My father’s record collection included the haunting “Strange Fruit,” which eerily embodies both the horror of a lynching with Day’s own tragic demise.

Shifting gears, we come to another iconic singer, “Frank Sinatra,” by Herman Leonard, 1956. Critic Robert Christgau said of Sinatra that he “turned English into American and American into music.” The “rat pack” appellation originated, we learn, with Lauren Bacall, who, upon seeing Sinatra, Bogart, and cronies, said they looked “like a rat pack.”

"Billie Holiday," by Bob Willoughby, 1951

“Billie Holiday,” by Bob Willoughby, 1951

I’m trying to stick to a “boy girl boy girl” order here, but am finding it difficult—could it be that coolness is a male trait? Nah, take a gander at “Deborah Harry,” of “Blondie” fame, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978. Love that tough girl/pretty girl look, her uncompromising stare, no apologies—she’s not posing—she’s seen it all.

"Frank Sinatra," by Herman Leonard, 1956

“Frank Sinatra,” by Herman Leonard, 1956

I’m reluctant to add Susan Sarandon to my roll call, not because I don’t think she’s cool, but because I’m a bit over-exposed to actors at this point. That’s my other criticism of this otherwise marvelous show: too heavy on show biz. Where is Charles Eames? Not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright? Yes, writers are well-represented (Zora Neal Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs), but not Zelda and F. Scott, to my mind cultural icons of the first order.

"Deborah Harry," by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978

“Deborah Harry,” by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978

See what I mean? The show will start a debate in your mind, and a conversation with whomever joins you there. Do see it—you’ll meet such emblematically cool figures as Lou Reed, Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Steve McQueen, Lenny Bruce, Jackson Pollock, and Miles Davis. The show is on until September 7, 2014.

And, last but not least, here’s your fearless art blogger herself commenting on “What is cool?” for the BBC:


Wait for it—I’m in the last third of the piece. Fun!







"Composition in Green," by Werner Drewes, 1935

“Composition in Green,” by Werner Drewes, 1935

Entering this ambitious exhibition, I immediately headed for the third floor where I knew I’d find artists at the heart of this modern collection: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Mark Rothko. It’s not that I didn’t want to see the earlier years, it’s just that I knew the third floor would likely take the entire time I had–it did. And it was enthralling. As the artist Kenneth Noland put it when he was living in Washington, DC in the fifties, “Going to the Phillips is like going to church.” Amen.

"Blue Still Life," by John Graham, 1931

“Blue Still Life,” by John Graham, 1931

This show, which takes up the entirety of the newer wing (showcasing more than 160 works by 120 artists) , represents the return of paintings and sculptures that have been travelling since 2010, both around the world (Madrid, Tokyo) and in the United States (Nashville, Ft. Worth, Tampa). It’s astonishing how many of the works seen here were first shown in a museum by Duncan Phillips, the Collection’s visionary founder—he began the collection in 1921 as the nation’s first museum to be entirely devoted to modern art.

"Maritime," by Karl Knaths, 1931

“Maritime,” by Karl Knaths, 1931

The first room, “The Legacy of Cubism,” gives us a purely American version in John Marin and Karl Knaths, who drew inspiration from nature; Stuart Davis and John Graham, who were influenced by Picasso’s exploration of objects for their own sake; and George GK Morris and Ilya Bolotowsky, who were pure abstractionists.

Shame on me, an ardent Phillips fan, for not knowing many of these artists well, if at all. If you’re like me, this show is a revelation with many “new” artists to enjoy. Among them, Werner Drewes, who was one of the 39 founding members of Abstract American Artists, and who studied with Kandinsky at the Bauhaus—you can see the influence in “Composition in Green,” 1935. Tucked in a corner by the elevator, this small painting literally grabbed me as I walked in. What energy, color and life!

"Abstraction, 1940," 1940, by Ilya Bolotowsky

“Abstraction, 1940,” 1940, by Ilya Bolotowsky

John Graham, a Russian born in Kiev who studied with John Sloan at the Art Students League, was also unfamiliar. Phillips was his first patron and admired Graham’s adaptation of Picasso’s use of heavy outlining in “Blue Still Life,” 1931. Despite its rather formal approach, there is something mysterious hidden in those shapes, and something satisfying about the way the artist resolves the composition.

While I’m confessing my art ignorance, let’s move on to Karl Knaths, whose large Provincetown-inspired painting, “Maritime,” 1931, was another discovery. The excellent notes accompanying the painting tells us that Knaths was influenced by Stuart Davis. He went on to influence many Washington artists himself, teaching for years at the Phillips Collection.

"Still Life with Saw," 1930, by Stuart Davis

“Still Life with Saw,” 1930, by Stuart Davis

Also new to me was Ilya Bolotowsky, another founder of the American Abstract Artists. His “Abstraction 1940,” 1940, echoes Miro in its charming biomorphism.

The stand-out work in the room entitled “Still Life Variations” is Stuart Davis’ “Still Life with Saw,” 1930. During his1928 year in Paris, Davis fell under the sway of the surrealists. This painting, with its recognizable yet flattened objects floating in space, may have had surrealist origins, but it’s all his own.

"Red Polygons," by Alexander Calder, 1950

“Red Polygons,” by Alexander Calder, 1950

“Degrees of Abstraction,” the third room, offers up this intriguing quote from Alexander Calder: “I think I am a realist. . . I make what I see. It’s only the problem of seeing it . . . the universe is real, but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it.”

A mobile, “Red Polygons,” 1950, an untitled stabile, 1948, and a stand-alone sculpture, “Hollow Egg,” 1939, are all lit to great advantage, with fanciful shadows moving on the white gallery walls.

"Black Sea," by Milton Avery, 1959

“Black Sea,” by Milton Avery, 1959

I’m not a Milton Avery fan, but was struck by the dramatic “Black Sea,” 1959, which was influenced by his friendships with Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, both of whom are present in this show.

"Rose and Locust Stump," by Arthur Dove, 1943

“Rose and Locust Stump,” by Arthur Dove, 1943

Arthur Dove, we learn, works “at the point where abstraction and reality meet.” How beautifully they meet in “Rose and Locust Stump,” 1943. This is the one I would steal and take home, given the chance.

Morris Graves gives us the luminous “Chalice,” 1941, gouache, chalk, and sumi ink on paper. This brooding piece finds an echo across the gallery in “Full Moon,” 1948, by Thedoros Stamos. Seeing reverberations in this painting of the work of Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder, we learn that Phillips often paired this piece with Arthur Dove in the gallery.

"Chalice," by Morris Graves, 1941

“Chalice,” by Morris Graves, 1941

Acquired two years after the artist’s death, Jackson Pollack’s “Collage and Oil,” 1951, appealed to Phillips for its Asian aesthetic. Full of movement and intensity typical of this artist, it reads as a scroll.

"Collage and Oil," by Jackson Pollock, 1951

“Collage and Oil,” by Jackson Pollock, 1951

Another stop-you-in-your tracks piece, Kenneth Noland’s “Inside,” 1950, was the first to be shown in a museum. One is struck by the thought: what if Duncan Phillips had not taken up Noland, or the many other “unknowns” of the day? We’d be so much the poorer.

“Interior View of Ocean,” 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn, was the first by the artist to be acquired by the Phillips Collection. Duncan Phillips was introduced to the California artist by his nephew, Gifford Phillips, Diebenkorn’s primary patron. Paired with the evocative, “Girl with Plant,” 1960, both paintings are good examples of Diebenkorn’s Matisse-influenced figurative period. (See my blog post, “In Love with Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years.”)

"Inside," by Kenneth Noland, 1950

“Inside,” by Kenneth Noland, 1950

In the room labeled “Abstract Expressionism,” Adolph Gottleib’s “The Seer,” 1950, stands out. With all the whimsy of Paul Klee, this large work appears to point the way to Jasper Johns’ fascination with targets and arrows.

"Interior View of Ocean," 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Interior View of Ocean,” 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn

Bradley Walker Tomlin (another artist new to me) gives us a breath of spring air (which we all need right about now) in his “No. 8,” 1952, one of his “petal paintings,” in charcoal and oil on canvas. Nearby is Kenzo Okada’s “Footsteps,” 1954—a Japanese rock garden in the fog. Both lyrical paintings evoke the subtle Asian sensibility that Phillips often sought.

"The Seer," by Adolph Gottlieb, 1950

“The Seer,” by Adolph Gottlieb, 1950

The final small room gives us these treasures: Sam Francis’ “Blue,” 1958, Morris Lewis’ “Number 182,” 1961, and a late Rothko on paper, “Untitled,” 1968.

"No. 8," by Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1952

“No. 8,” by Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1952

As you have gathered, this one floor of this massive show has so much important art, it could well stand on its own. Stay tuned for floors one and two—or better yet, meet me there and we’ll enjoy it together!

“Made in America” is on view until August 31, 2014.









Pinstriped Suit for Rose, "Titanic," 1997, by Deborah L. Scott

Pinstriped Suit for Rose, “Titanic,” 1997, by Deborah L. Scott

Just in time for Oscar buzz, your intrepid art blogger drove to Richmond, Virginia to scope out the century of film costumes now showing at the VMFA. This sweeping exhibition, organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, includes cinema costumes from private and archival collections. First seen at the V&A and in Melbourne, Australia, the VMFA is the only East Coast venue to mount the show.

Costume has power. As you walk among this extraordinary clothing—made deliciously voyeuristic by the fact that echoing in your head throughout is Matt Damon actually wore those trousers! Marilyn Monroe’s skin touched that dress!—it’s more than the second-hand star power that inhabits the costumes, it’s the magical creation of someone new, not actor or actress, but a character we all believe really exists. We see these icons as not only the movie stars who played them, but as Travis Bickle, or Scarlett, or Sugar Kane, or Harry Potter. In the dressing room, we’re told, an actor makes “not so much a change of clothes, as a change of skin.”

Lucy Honeychurch, from "A Room with a View," 1985, by John Bright and Jenny Beavan

Lucy Honeychurch, from “A Room with a View,” 1985, by John Bright and Jenny Beavan

Look at Rose, “Titanic,” 1997, chic in purple pinstripes. In this costume, by Deborah L. Scott, 1997, she’s confident, if a bit demure, a well-bred young lady on an adventure. It’s all there.

Standing next to Rose is one of my all-time favorite characters, Lucy Honeychurch, played by Helena Bonham Carter in the 1985 production of “A Room with a View,” adapted from one of my all-time favorite novels by Henry James. This charmer, made of white cotton, linen, and lace is topped with saucy straw hat and accompanying parasol—a fresh young girl’s dress, perfect for the role.

Costume for "Atonement,"  2007, by Jacqueline Durran

Costume for “Atonement,” 2007, by Jacqueline Durran

Lounging nearby is the green vamp dress made for the Kiera Knightly character in “Atonement,” 2007, the acid counterpart to both Rose and Lucy. This secuctress was made “more naked,” by the use of laser cut patterns, according to Jacqueline Durran, its creator, allowing for a wide hem and more slippery movement.

Tippi Hedren's "Birds" costume, 1963, by Edith Head

Tippi Hedren’s “Birds” costume, 1963, by Edith Head

Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock carefully selected another green for the Melanie Daniels character in “The Birds,” 1963. Generally I’m not a fan of interactive, video-laden museum display, with its cacophonous babble of conflicting sound, but this show is the exception. Here Edith Head and Tippi Hedren discuss this celadon number, accompanied by clips from the movie, a reel of Kodak film, and a vintage poster. The cool green suit, one of only three costume changes in the film, is pure Edith Head—simple and elegant, the perfect embodiment of the icy Hitchcock princess headed for a fall—and a pecking.

Costume from "Elizabeth the Golden Age," 2007, by Alexandra Byrne

Costume from “Elizabeth the Golden Age,” 2007, by Alexandra Byrne

Around the corner, one is met with a spectacular array of historic queens. My pick: Elizabeth the Golden Age,” 2007, by Alexandra Byrne for Cate Blanchett—damask, velvet, linen, and ostrich feathers. Fabulous! But the stiff corset stay underpinning can’t have been fun, even for slim Cate.

Costumes for "Gangs of New York," 2002, by Sandy Powell

Costumes for “Gangs of New York,” 2002, by Sandy Powell

In another video interview, Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell discuss how they came to create the fantastical costumes for “Gangs of New York,” 2002. Based upon a ton of research, the costumes are a blend of historical accuracy and pure fantasy. “Costume is character,” Scorsese says. Look at that hat on the Daniel Dey Lewis character, Billy the Butcher: it “cuts through the crowd” in an “imposing” fashion; the vibrant color, brocade vests, flamboyant neckties, all combine to create a hyper-vision of Five Points gangsters, where the intimidating bully meets the frock-coated dandy.

"Iron Lady," 2012, costume by Consolata Boyle

“Iron Lady,” 2012, costume by Consolata Boyle

Soon we’re in Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro land: her costumes from “Mama Mia,” “The Iron Lady,” “The French Lieutenant’s Wife,” and “Out of Africa;” his from “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “King of Comedy,” and “Casino.” Telling details revealed: Meryl wanted to know what would have been in Margaret Thatcher’s purse and insisted exactly those things be there in the bag she carried in the film. Consolata Boyle’s costumes, along with Meryl’s acting chops, combine to eerily channel Margaret Thatcher on the screen.

Jack Sparrow costume, 2011, by Penny Rose

Jack Sparrow costume, 2011, by Penny Rose

I’m less a fan of “Gone with the Wind,” 1939, than many of you may be, so I won’t dwell long on the lace mantilla, or the “Paris hat” Rhett gives Scarlett, but they’re here, along with scripts and other memorabilia. I also won’t dwell for long in the macho room (“Action and Suspense”) where costumes from “Sherlock Homes, a Game of Shadows,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Flash Gordon,” and other super-heroes are displayed. Still, the quintessential rock n’roller, Jack Sparrow (costume by Penny Lane for “Pirates of the Caribbean: on Stranger Tides,” 2011), does deserve an admiring pause. Depp based the character, famously, on Keith Richards, as he put it, “a bit of a rogue, slightly hopeless and threadbare.”

Louise Glaum in "Sex," 1920

Louise Glaum in “Sex,” 1920

Linger I did in the “Femme Fatale” room—who wouldn’t? Surrounded by the vampiest costumes yet. For the 1920 film, boldly titled, “Sex” (yes, you can get it on Amazon), this number, with its blown glass bead cape designed for Louise Glaum, was the earliest costume to be screen-tested.

Gown for "Bugsy," 1991, by Albert Wolsky

Gown for “Bugsy,” 1991, by Albert Wolsky

Next up, Annette Benning in “Bugsy,” 1991. Created by Albert Wolsky, this dress—see-through when backlit, remember?—used nine pounds of glittering silver beads. And who can forget that leg-crossing moment in “Basic Instinct,” 1992? Here we see Ellen Mirojnik’s stunning design for Sharon Stone. And if that doesn’t stop the show for you, take in Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo, designed for the 1930 “Morocco” by Travis Bandon.

Sharon Stone in costume by Ellen Mirojnick for "Basic Instinct," 1992

Sharon Stone in costume by Ellen Mirojnick for “Basic Instinct,” 1992

Should you go—the show is up until February 17, 2014, then it’s off to some undisclosed West Coast venue—do also take in “Made in Hollywood: Photographs from the John Kobol Foundation,” through March 10, a trove of 93 myth-making shots of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, which gives equal time to such hunks as Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Gary Cooper.


See more details here: http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/exhibitions/hollywood-costume.aspx?gclid=CND7_52Di7wCFYQ7OgodwXwAuQ




Just under the wire—I managed to see this show at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, the Portrait Gallery’s conjoined twin museum, before it closed January 5. The title of the show—marking the 30th anniversary of the American Art museum’s photography collection—comes from Walt Whitman, who believed that photography was an ideal new medium for the expression of the peculiarly American democratic spirit. Ranging from daguerreotypes to contemporary new printing techniques, the images shown ranged from traditional documentation—portraiture, odd genre scenes from pre-civil war South, even mug shots—to experimentation, and all the possible permutations in between.

"Patriotic Boy with Straw Hat," Diane Arbus, 1967

“Patriotic Boy with Straw Hat,” Diane Arbus, 1967

The show was organized by category: American Character, Spiritual Frontier, America Inhabited, and Imagination at Work.

An easy choice for the American Character section is Diane Arbus’s “Patriotic Boy with Straw Hat,” 1967. With his sweet big ears and empty eyes, this fellow seemed an easy target for Arbus’s acerbic and mocking eye. Too easy a target, in my view.

"World Trade Center Series," Kevin Bubriski, 2001

“World Trade Center Series,” Kevin Bubriski, 2001

Kevin Bubriski’s searing image from his “World Trade Center Series,” 2001, hits the viewer with the raw emotion of those awful days. Rather than focus on the falling towers or their smoldering ruins, Bubriski turned his lens on the spectators whose shock and horror mirror our own.

Annie Leibovitz’s “Marian Anderson’s Concert Gown,” 2010, printed 2012, is strangely moving. Made of five different images, it reads as a kind of funerary relic. The dress, tagged #35 (why?) becomes anonymous unless you know Marian Anderson’s body lived and sang inside it. Flowing from right to left, the fabric, with its red swath, appears to wave, flag-like. This odd combination of alive/dead, clothing/relic, specific/general, personal/anonymous makes the image absorbing. As you take it in, you see Marian Anderson singing on

"Marian Anderson's Concert Gown," 2010, printed 2012, by Annie Leibovitz

“Marian Anderson’s Concert Gown,” 2010, printed 2012, by Annie Leibovitz

the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and, while Anderson didn’t wear the dress on that auspicious day, you suspect the artist intended the memory to pop up.

"Butte, Montana," 1956, by Robert Frank

“Butte, Montana,” 1956, by Robert Frank

In 1954, Swiss-born Robert Frank applied for a Guggenheim fellowship to create an “observation and record of what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States.” Iconic photographers Walker Evans and Edward Steichen wrote references. Frank got the grant, and headed out in a used Ford to photograph life in America. I’m not sure if this moody image—“Butte, Montana,” 1956—is part of Frank’s brutally unsentimental series of resulting from this road trip, but I suspect it is. Published as “The Americans,” in 1959, the book, both reviled and revered, had a profound impact on the direction of modern photography and inspired legions of photographers, Ed Ruscha and Joel Meyrowitz among them.

"Tricycle (Memphis)", around 1975, printed 1980, by William Eggleston

“Tricycle (Memphis)”, around 1975, printed 1980, by William Eggleston

Pioneering color photographer, William Eggleston’s “Tricycle, Memphis,” 1975, printed 1980, echoes Frank’s vision of off-the-grid America, but now in a bright bleached palette, a distorted child’s eye view of an anonymous suburban enclave. The placard accompanying this photograph tells us that Eggleston started experimenting with color photography in the mid-60s and printed this image as a dye transfer print, a method usually used for advertising and fashion, with the intent of making it appear as an amateur photograph.

"Albuquerque, NM," 1958, printed 1974, by Garry Winogrand

“Albuquerque, NM,” 1958, printed 1974, by Garry Winogrand

Hung next to “Tricycle,” is Garry Winogrand’s “Albuquerque, NM,” 1958, printed 1974—a genius pairing. “I photograph the world to see what the world looks like photographed,” Winogrand enigmatically said. For this haunted image, he used a pre-focused snapshot camera to create “the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space.”

In the Spiritual Frontier section, Eadweard Muybridge’s “Valley of the Yosemite from Union Point,” 1872 captures the grandeur of the West—and Manifest Destiny. Amusingly, we learn that the photographer was known to chop down trees to get the

best shot and often went to “points where his packers refused to follow…”

"Goodyear #5, Niagara Falls, NY," 1989, by John Pfahl

“Goodyear #5, Niagara Falls, NY,” 1989, by John Pfahl

The sublime “Goodyear #5, Niagara Falls, NY,” 1989, by John Pfahl was shot as part of a project focusing on old refineries and power plants in which he found a “transcendental connection between industry and nature.” Indeed.

"Cold Day on Cherry Street," 1932, by Robert Disraeli

“Cold Day on Cherry Street,” 1932, by Robert Disraeli

America Inhabited gives us this beautiful 1932 image by Robert Disraeli, “Cold Day on Cherry Street,” a perfect embodiment of photography’s simultaneous rise with the American industrial economy.

In startling contrast, “Marina’s Room,” 1987, by Tina Barney, is a present-day vision of parental indulgence and a lush display—amidst the sensual delight of those ribbons, those textures, that excess!—of wealth and love.

The chilling image by the great train photographer O. Winston Link’s “Living Room on the Tracks, Lithia, VA, December 16, 1958,” printed 1984, is a fitting companion to Barney’s intimate scene, and its polar opposite.

"Marina's Room," 1987, by Tina Barney

“Marina’s Room,” 1987, by Tina Barney

"Living Room on the Tracks, Lithia, VA, Debember 16, 1958," by O. Winston Link

“Living Room on the Tracks, Lithia, VA, Debember 16, 1958,” by O. Winston Link

Imagination at Work yields “Portrait of my Father with Newspaper,” 1986, by Larry Sultan, part of an eight-year project documenting his parents’ lives. The project was spurred by his discovery of a box of home movies. I love this portrait, with its subtle insight into the relationship of son and father, as well as the suffused light emanating from the newspaper frame.

Lovers of photography, me included, never tire of Edward Weston’s sculptural images, such as “Pepper No. 30,” 1930. Teetering on the edge of a cliché but still not quite falling into Georgia O’Keefe skull territory, this image has all the mass

"Pepper #30," 1930, by Edward Weston

“Pepper #30,” 1930, by Edward Weston


and power of a Henry Moore Sculpture.

"Portrait of my Father with Newspaper," 1986, by Larry Sultan

“Portrait of my Father with Newspaper,” 1986, by Larry Sultan

Teasing the photographic process into new realms, Ellen Carey’s “Dings and Shadows” series exposes photographic paper to light through colored filters. Next, the artist folds and crunches paper, exposing it to light from a color enlarger, then flattens it out again to be processed. The fascinating result is a new kind of painting using vivid color and texture.


"Dings and Shadows Series," 2012, by Ellen Carey

“Dings and Shadows Series,” 2012, by Ellen Carey

Even though the show has closed, if your appetite needs further whetting, drag out your tablet and feast on the images at the Smithsonian’s American Art Gallery’s excellent website:





Between the years of 1972 and 2010, Crown Point Press in San Francisco was one of the finest printmaking studios in the country, turning out stunning works by many leading artists. The perfect finished print, though, rarely gives us a glimpse into the tortured process that may have led to the final proof. “Yes, No, Maybe,” on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, explores this iterative process by juxtaposing rarely seen preliminary test prints, working proofs, and final prints, many of them owned by the gallery.

Photo maquette, "Keith," 1972, Chuck Close

Photo maquette, “Keith,” 1972, Chuck Close

Although the show features some twenty-five artists, I’ll dwell here with my favorites: Richard Diebenkorn, Chuck Close, and John Cage. Quotes from each artist illuminate the work: Diebenkorn boiled down all artistic endeavor to being “…in the nature of problem solving,” while Cluck Close said, “The far more important thing is problem creation (italics mine),”and for John Cage, it’s all about “…asking questions instead of making choices.”

"Keith," 1972, by Chuck Close

“Keith,” 1972, by Chuck Close

The show opens with the evolution of Chuck Close’s “Keith,” 1972. In this work, Close—drawn by the velvety blacks and pearly whites the process produces—challenged himself to produce the largest mezzotint possible. Could the process work at great size on one of his “mug shot” portraits? He joined Crown Point’s founder Kathan Brown and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco’s works on paper group to find out. The mezzotint process involves scraping and pitting the plate to give a highly textured ground. Close learned as he went, while Brown and the printmaking team experimented with photo etching. The sheer size of the finished product caused the work to take months, rather than the usual weeks. Somewhere in the process, Close decided to leave in the faint background grid lines in the final print, a trademark of his later work. In the final result, Keith’s asymmetrical face appears to be viewed from under water, the expression constantly changing to reveal interior psychological depths.

"Touched Red," 1991, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Touched Red,” 1991, by Richard Diebenkorn

Revision was also essential to Richard Diebenkorn’s work. “I seem to have to do it elaborately wrong and with many conceits first, then maybe I can attack and deflate my pomposity and arrive at something straight and simple.” Repetitions and comparisons between the lines, shapes, and colors finally coalesce in a state of “rightness,” but at the same time allow for “a sudden surprising contradiction.” “Touched Red,”1991, was the result of pasting shapes over and over in 40 working proofs, all of which belong to the NGA, a gift from Crown Point Press. In the final result the work’s patinated surface appears to have accumulated over time, like the paint layers on an old screen door.

"Green," 1986, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Green,” 1986, by Richard Diebenkorn

The evolution of “Green,” 1986, shows Diebenkorn’s attempts to “steal a second chance.” Earlier images seen in the working proofs (an infinity symbol, the upturned tail of a cat) are gone in the final, subsumed by the luminous ground of green and vivid cobalt reminiscent of the oil paintings of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park and Berkeley series. The tranquil aerial views of those paintings also come to mind in “High Green Version,” 1992.

Trust John Cage, who didn’t think of himself as an artist at all, to produce some of the most fascinating work in this show. Cage’s interests in Zen, natural history, and numeric theory shape the works he produced while at Crown Point Press.

"Eninka 29," 1986by John Cage

“Eninka 29,” 1986by John Cage

In a video we see Kathan Brown and Cage, collaborating on Cage’s “Eninka 29,” running burning newspaper and damp sheets of paper through the press to create ethereal, subtle, shifting images. Also visible are brandings with a hot coil. At the first successful print, Cage exclaimed, “Oh, it’s beautiful! I can’t believe it! I couldn’t sleep all night. I thought my whole life had been a waste!”

"75 Stones," 1989, by John Cage

“75 Stones,” 1989, by John Cage

In “75 Stones,” 1989, Cage selected a palette based on the color of the stones and then positioned the rocks by chance calculation. The project began as an homage to the 15 stones in the Zen rock garden at Roanji, Japan. Cage started with 15, but wound up with 75, which seemed the right number. Don’t the images have a calligraphic, Japanese feel?

“17 Drawings by Thoreau,” 1978 is a fetching tribute, using images of a hawk feather, hazel nut, and rabbit tracks. The position, orientation, scale, and color of the images were also calculated by computer “chance operations.” In Cage’s mind, even though he couldn’t draw (or thought he couldn’t), the process rendered the images “beautiful.” I agree.

"17 Drawings by Thoreau," 1978, by John Cage

“17 Drawings by Thoreau,” 1978, by John Cage

If you love works on paper, and crave being a voyeur in the print shop, the show will be up until January 5, 2014. There’s still time!


"Smoke Over Rooftops," Fernand Leger, 1911

“Smoke Over Rooftops,” Fernand Leger, 1911

Philadelphia’s Museum of Art’s massive show, “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” brings to mind Banksy, the poltergeist graffiti artist who bombed New York City recently with what has been described as a brilliant self-promoting PR campaign by some and a cleverly creative outburst of ephemeral art by others. Either way, the art (or vandalism, if you prefer) could not exist without the city as canvas.

And so it is with Fernand Leger (1881 – 1955) and his 1920s Paris circle. The metropolis—its movement, mechanization, hustle, clamoring billboards, buildings reaching skyward—shaped their ideas about art, artists, and modern life. The show opens with film footage of the Eiffel Tower made in 1900 by Thomas Edison. As the viewer rises with the camera, the city’s streets, buildings and parks flicker behind the geometric girders in a surreal montage—a fitting introduction.

"The City," Fernand Leger, 1919

“The City,” Fernand Leger, 1919

Nearby hangs “Smoke over Rooftops,” 1911, Leger’s first Paris cityscape—the view from his studio. Billowing smoke rises over the hard edges of the rooftops. Only nineteen when he first came to Paris, Leger encountered there an upheaval of technology: telephones, radios, the press, electric lights, and more.

After recovering from being gassed in the Great War (Leger went to the front for four years), he returned to “gobble up Paris” and “stuff it in my pockets.” Declaring that he “got myself out of the grays as quickly as possible,” he created “The City” in 1919. Owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “The City” is the centerpiece of the show. This large piece (about the size of a cinema screen of the day) reveals none of the moody atmosphere of the earlier work. Instead, the intentionally horizontal composition hustles us along, as if down the street. Meant to be viewed like a billboard, each element appears to be equal in importance: the scaffolding, the pole, the signs’ punchy colors.

"Razor," Gerald Murphy, 1924

“Razor,” Gerald Murphy, 1924

By drawing on contemporary advertising images—here the recently invented safety razor—Gerald Murphy’s “Razor,” 1924, had enormous influence on later painters, especially pop artists in the 1960s. Murphy, a “Lost Generation” compatriot with F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, et al, hosted Leger on his first trip to the United States in 1931. The accompanying notes tell us that in this image Murphy intentionally exploited the French view of America as being “hyper-modern and mechanized.”

"Ballet Mecanique," Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, 1924

“Ballet Mecanique,” Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, 1924

For this viewer, the 1924 experimental film produced by Leger and film maker Dudley Murphy, with help from Man Ray, was a surprise that was worth the price of admission. A Dada tour de force, its riot of images is enlivened by the accompanying music, which used mechanized player pianos, airplane propellers, electric bells and sirens. While many of Leger’s paintings appear to this eye as flat, orderly, and a tad sterile, this film succeeds in bringing the spirit of mechanization and modern life together in a radical-for-the time work of art. Take a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez0LuU-Mg34

Curtain from "Skating Rink" ballet, Fernand Leger, 1922

Curtain from “Skating Rink” ballet, Fernand Leger, 1922

Leger, a lover of all mass entertainments—the circus, skating rinks, theater—collaborated with the Ballets Suedois on “The Skating Rink,” 1922. Watercolor designs for the ballet’s costumes hang before a curtain which was recreated from the original 1921-22 design by Leger. In choreography also inspired by Leger, the dancers move in stilted, jerky ways that would seem at odds with the gliding, elongated movement of ice skaters.

"Model for Private House," van Doesburg and van Eesteren, designed 1923, built 1982

“Model for Private House,” van Doesburg and van Eesteren, designed 1923, built 1982

The final room—devoted to “space”—gives us the utopian vision of Leger and his followers, as embodied in De Stijl architects Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren’s “Model for a Private House,” 1923, reconstructed, 1982 by Tjarda Mees. The architects thought of a house not as an enclosed cube, but as a series of intersecting planes painted in bright Mondrian colors which would create spaces that opened up to the environment as well as sheltered its inhabitants.

"Composition for Hand and Hats," Fernand Leger,  1927

“Composition for Hand and Hats,” Fernand Leger, 1927

“Composition for Hand and Hats,” 1927, shows us how far Leger has come from the earlier smoke and rooftop composition. This cerebral composition carries, at least for this viewer, none of the emotional wallop found in some of Leger’s contemporaries, among them (and also on view here): Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. The gathering of so many important artists is impressive and gives the viewer a heady dose of the ideas and influences at work of the time. Whether the curators’ intention of revealing Leger’s painting, “The City,” as the impetus for this outpouring is still, in my view, an open question.

Go see for yourself! The show will be on view until January 5, 2014.

Learn more here: