Ceiling, Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery

Ceiling, Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery

We gathered under the floating glass and steel roof of the Kogod Courtyard. Encircled by the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the courtyard, with its filtered light and lacey trees, is always magical. But on Saturday, November 16, it bloomed in a new way when the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company took to the floor to perform a new site-specific work, “Homage.”

Inspired by the show now on display, “Dancing the Dream,” the piece drew from the work of the greats of American dance: Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Bill T. Jones, to name just a few. The accompanying music drew from the show as well, and flowed into spoken commentary by dance sages: Merce and Martha, Bob Fosse, and others’ voices I didn’t recognize. No matter—the combination of music and spoken word blended well and reminded the audience that dancers are smart, and that dance is about ideas, emotion, and idiosyncratic expression as much as it is about supple, rigorously trained bodies.

Rehearsal, "Homage," at National Portrait Gallery, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company

Rehearsal, “Homage,” at National Portrait Gallery, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company

But oh, those bodies! Burgess’s dancers are highly skilled performers of his fluid, organic, choreography. Theirs is a quiet strength, never flashy, but delivering the emotional depth and joy this piece demanded.

Opening with a bang and declaring right off the bat that the piece was to celebrate and explore the heart of what makes American dance American—a “regular guy” burst onto the stage in a blue shirt and bow tie. Dancing along to an exuberant “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” he was joined by eight dancers who performed duets, solos, and ensemble dances. Accompanied by classical music, blues, rock, Elvis, and possibly Shirley McLaine, the choreography suggested rather than mimicked the greats of Broadway, ballet, and modern dance. Love duets were particularly fresh and charming. The dancers moved in perfect unison even when dancing to the spoken word. They were counting in their heads, you knew that, but their rapt faces never betrayed anything other than the spontaneous joy of the dance.



Judy Hansen’s costumes were perfect. In a range of blues and blacks, they included a swingy ingénue dress, simple work-out clothes, and a jaunty Busby Berkeley-like culottes dress with a pale blue collar.

After the performance, “Dancing the Dream” beckoned from inside the Portrait Gallery. The show “tells the story of performers, choreographers, and impresarios who harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that defined the American experience,” through “experiment and lack of truck with the past.” Organized by rooms devoted to Pop, Ballet, Broadway, Hollywood, and Choreography, all painted in vivid colors–Chinese red, lime green, peacock blue, fuchsia, and a deep marigold–the show presents portraits of dance greats in all media: film, photography, drawings, paintings, posters, and video clips.

The photographs drew me most powerfully.

Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins (from "Chaconne"), by Max Waldman, 1976

Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins (from “Chaconne”), by Max Waldman, 1976

Here are the sweetly paired Peter Martins and Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell, by Max Waldman, 1976, accompanied by this quote from Martins: “. . . We were literally dancing the music. I felt like a violin.”

Michio Ito, pictured in an image by Nickolas Murray, 1921, has a fascinating story. He visited Paris in 1911 where he saw Isadora Duncan and the Diaghilev Company perform. Profoundly affected by this experience, he formed his own troupe and went to Hollywood in 1929. After Pearl Harbor he was interned, nay imprisoned, at a relocation camp in New Mexico until 1943 when he was repatriated to Japan in a prisoner of war exchange. After the war, he choreographed revues for the soldiers of the American occupation in Tokyo.

Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

After studying at the pioneering Denishawn School, Doris Humphrey developed her own technique that emphasized breath, balance, “fall and recovery,” using weight and spatial orientation in new ways. She left the dance world her invention– “labanotation”–a system for recording dance which allows choreography to be passed along to future performers. Here she is, as photographed by Barbara Morgan in 1938.

Judith Jamison, upon taking over as head of the Alvin Ailey Company, said, “I don’t feel I’m standing in anyone’s shoes. I’m standing on Alvin’s shoulders.” This gorgeous image taken by Max Waldman in 1976, shows her own formidable shoulders and strong presence.

Judith Jamison

Judith Jamison, by Max Waldman, 1976

Gregory Hines, who raised tap dancing to a high art and believed it to be the true American dance form, started off performing as a child with his brother and father in “Hines, Hines and Dad.” I love this barefoot image by Robert Mapplethorpe taken in 1985.

Finally, the incomparable Bill T. Jones, as captured by Robert Mapplethorpe, again in 1985. Founder of a highly experimental dance company with Arne Zane in the 1970s, Jones used improvisation and an individual style to shape his works, among them Tony award winning “Fela!”

Gregory HInes, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

Gregory HInes, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

While I was delighted to see a portrait of our own Dana Tai Soon Burgess (Mary Noble Ours, 1978) I could have done without Beyonce’s video of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and sorely missed seeing an image of one of the most important modern dance pioneers, Erick Hawkins, my great teacher in New York.

Still, there is much to love here: the mind-blowing Nicholas Brothers leaping down stairs and landing in the splits, a campy Busby Berkeley water ballet, the irrepressible Josephine Baker in her banana skirt, John Travolta’s oddly robotic “Saturday Night Fever” disco performance, and much more. The footage from “Soul Train” juxtaposed against that from “Dance Party” speaks volumes.

Bill T. Jones, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

Bill T. Jones, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

On view until July 13, 2014, this show is not to be missed if you’re a dance lover, or simply an appreciator of this wildly diverse and creative country we live in.

Click here for more information:


To learn more about the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company, please click here:





It’s not all stockyards and cowboys in Fort Worth.

It’s also Matisse and Picasso, Caravaggio and Monet, and Mondrian and Motherwell.

Vaulted Ceiling, Kimbell Museum of Art

Vaulted Ceiling, Kimbell Museum of Art

The Kimbell Art Museum grew from the Kimbell Art Foundation, founded by Kay and Velma Kimbell and their family in the 1930s.  In 1964, after Mr. Kimbell’s death, the family left the collection (and a substantial personal fortune) to the Foundation to establish a public art museum “of the first class” in Fort Worth. The aim of the museum was to showcase quality works from all eras—“any and all periods in man’s history, and in any medium or style.”

"L'Asie," Henri Matisse, 1946

“L’Asie,” Henri Matisse, 1946

The small collection (about 350 works of art) is housed in a vaulted building designed by Louis Kahn which opened to the public in 1972. Yes, that Louis Kahn, the brilliant mid-century architect whose double life was exposed and tenderly explored by his son, Nathaniel, in the gripping 2002 documentary, “My Architect.” The building itself is a treasure, beautifully detailed and giving a sense of the sacred. Kahn said that here “light is the theme.” Natural light comes through skylights along the top of the barrel vaults and warms the travertine marble walls and beautifully lights the paintings that hang on them. Construction is underway for a newly expanded space by renowned architect Renzo Piano.

After walking up the perfectly proportioned staircase from the lobby you are met by two gallery spaces. The permanent collection, which we’ll explore today—is on the left. Upon entering, you’re greeted by Matisse’s “L’Asie,” 1946. Accompanying the lush painting is this revealing quote: “I have always tried to hide my own effort and wanted my work to have the lightness and joyousness of a springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost.” Good advice for any art form. As I labor over still more revisions to my novel, I hope my characters, their surroundings, and their observations on  life are as fresh and seemingly unworked as this lovely young woman’s image.

"Four Figures on a Step," by Murillo, 1655 - 60

“Four Figures on a Step,” by Murillo, 1655 – 60

Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s 1655 genre painting, “Four Figures on a Step,” grabs the viewer with the immediacy of a contemporary photo-realist work. You do a double-take. Is the woman wearing glasses Susan Sontag? Did they even have glasses in 1655? What’s up with the child and his bare bottom? What’s going on here? Apparently, quite a bit. Procuresses were commonly shown as a bespectacled, calculating business woman in Spanish art and literature of the day. The lifting of the veil is a common come-hither gesture and the frank lasciviousness of the boy on the left makes the viewer feel he’s enjoying our discomfiture. Realization dawns and you step back. That poor child! Still, the painting fascinates as does a Wee Gee photograph. You feel you’ve had an authentic, if appalling, glimpse of the underbelly of real life more than three hundred fifty years ago.

"Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbon," by Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun, 1781

“Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbon,” by Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun, 1781 (Detail)

By comparison, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun’s 1781 “Self Portrait” is as refreshing as a palate-cleansing sorbet. You bask in her creamy skin, clear eyes, glossy hair and chic hat. Not to mention those gorgeous earrings. She has the confidence and directness befitting her status as a successful 27-year-old painter of nobility, including Marie Antoinette.

A short walk across the street will take you to “the Modern,” an equally stunning building designed by the Japanese architect, Tadeo Ando. Opened in 2002, with its floating glass pavilions, the Modern is a graceful companion to the venerable Kimbell. Chartered in 1892 as the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Gallery, the Modern is the oldest museum in Texas, and one of the oldest in the United States.

Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth

Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth

Having recently visited Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX, the Modern gave us another helping of the artists’ work we’d enjoyed there. Here’s the Donald himself in: “Untitled,” 1967, a stainless and orangey-pink Plexiglas creation. The ten units are hung equidistant from each other from floor to ceiling. The plexi glows against the white wall of the gallery, giving mysterious energy and presence to the simple totemic arrangement. Judd’s aim was to create “specific objects” that exist in harmony with their surroundings, rather than sculptures made to be seen in virtually any setting.

"Untitled," by Donald Judd, 1967

“Untitled,” by Donald Judd, 1967

Judd’s long-time collaborator, Dan Flavin, also rejected the notion that he was a minimalist or a sculptor. He’s been compared to Marcel Duchamp for his delight in using off-the-shelf-objects and placing them in such a way, as does Judd, that their settings inevitably become a part of the work. “Diagonal of May 25, 1963,” 1963 exemplifies this principal perfectly.

"Diagonal of May 25, 1963," 1963, by Dan Flavin

“Diagonal of May 25, 1963,” 1963, by Dan Flavin

The wall panel accompanying Carl Andre’s “Tau and Threshold (Elements Series),” 1971 tells us that he was inspired by Brancusi’s 1918 “Endless Column.” Frankly, for this viewer, it’s a bit of a stretch to see the connection. In Andre’s work, blocks of western red cedar are placed, much as a child would do with toy blocks, to form this piece. Resisting the temptation to think “my kid could do that,” I looked up a more extensive analysis of this work on the Modern’s website. Michael Auping tells us, “Andre devised the Element Series in the early 1960s with the suggestion that the same identical units could be used to create different configurations endlessly. . . .Tau and Threshold addresses the architectonic and figurative possibilities of sculptural form in a radically fundamental way.” Another definition of child’s play? Maybe…

"Tao and Threshold," 1971, by Carl Andre

“Tao and Threshold,” 1971, by Carl Andre

"Endless Column," 1918, Constantin Brancusi

“Endless Column,” 1918, Constantin Brancusi

After taking in the art, we repair to the lovely café for lunch. Outside on the deck, you float over the shallow pool filled with round rocks and feel a part of the art. And also pleasantly full, both of art and curried chicken salad. The perfect combination: good food and engrossing art.

What’s for dessert? The gift shop, of course!

The Modern’s website is an excellent resource for researching artists:


For information on the Kimbell go to: https://www.kimbellart.org/architecture/kahn-building

Visitors entrance, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX

Visitors entrance, Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX

I had no idea what to expect from Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation, named for the nearby West Texas mountains. I couldn’t imagine how a bunch of spare aluminum boxes in a former Army warehouse would strike me, if at all. But I did know that I love Tex-Mex food, the wildness of the Southwest (see my earlier post, “Hike the Hoo Doos!”) and my husband Richard’s fabulous Aunt Lea, who lives in Ft. Worth—part of the package. So…all in all, an art pilgrimage to remote west Texas was too good to pass up.

Our docent, Elizabeth, met us in the visitor’s entrance to the Foundation, which opened in 1986. A transplanted New Yorker and art historian, she radiated enthusiasm for Judd’s installations – both the aluminum boxes and giant concrete rectangles scattered, seemingly randomly, over the desert floor. Both are site specific, designed to harmonize with and honor the surrounding nature. Touring the concrete boxes, Elizabeth told us, could be done on our own, and she urged us to return in the cool of the morning to see them up close. We did. More on that to come.

After a military tour of duty here, Judd was taken with the Big Bend area of Texas, and returned after conceiving a space in which he would present large-scale works by a small group of artists. With the Dia Art Foundation in New York willing to provide funding, Judd set about finding the right location. Tiny Marfa (population now below 2,000) had the answer: the abandoned Army base on its outskirts, Fort D.A. Russell, with 340 acres of unused land and 30 buildings to house the foundation’s collection.

Interior, with Judd aluminum boxes

Interior, with Judd aluminum boxes

Elizabeth led us into the first of the two impeccably-restored former munitions warehouses to see 52 of the “Untitled, One Hundred Boxes in Mill Aluminum,” 1986. The second smaller building houses 48. Bay doors have been replaced with enormous windows that frame the raw beauty of the landscape and flood the interior with light. Uniform in size: 41 x 51 x 72 inches, the boxes were fabricated in Connecticut and shipped out to Marfa to be painstakingly placed on the polished concrete floor at precise intervals corresponding to the spacing of the support columns and the windows. This sweeping progression gives the boxes monumental impact, like sarcophagi in a vast tomb.

They are breathtaking.

Suffused light playing across their shimmering surfaces causes dramatic forms and colors to arise. One, viewed from across the room next to a window, became a Rothko-worthy painting of horizontal stripes, the top one lavender, with a deep charcoal stripe beneath it, followed by molten black one, the whole under-pinned with a brilliant white band. The next in the row gave the viewer a vertical array of color: pale green, gray and lavender. How on earth could Judd have known what the light would do to these simple structures? Famously controlling and fastidious (some speculate he fell somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum), he must have reveled in the light emanating from the boxes, even if he could not have planned it. Or did he? It can’t be an accident that one box is a horizontal “painting” and the one next to it is vertical. For this viewer, however, the enjoyment was in the revelation; I didn’t try to figure out the order, or how each piece related to its neighbor, other than to admire them and move on to the next surprise.

Jewel box!

Jewel box!

Each box is unique. Some have little or no embellishment and others have interior walls, floating tops, slicing angles within. Seen from different perspectives, each is like a subtly changing jewel. One box (after a while, they don’t seem like “boxes” at all any more) offered up sharply delineated diamond shapes and hexagons, reflecting the raw landscape outside. Still others look like glass, prisms of yellow, gold, and silver. Slight defects on the surfaces due to the milling process have been left and add textural interest.

The intense desert heat and cold have caused some of the boxes to move slightly and the Chinati conservation team is working to realign them, after some debate about whether Judd would want any intervention at all in the natural process working on the sculptures. Ultimately, they determined that, as Judd had been so exacting about the precise distances between the boxes, and the symmetry in relation the building, he would want them adjusted.

If all this seems a bit precious, I assure you, it is not. The space, the objects, and the whole of the living piece fit stunningly into the rugged, flamboyant Texas landscape. Straightforward, simple, respectful of craftsmanship and material, fascinating in the mesmerizing effects of repetition and variation, these works simply could not exist elsewhere.

"Chinati Thirteener," by Carl Andre

“Chinati Thirteener,” by Carl Andre

After seeing 48 more boxes in the smaller of the two buildings we moved on to see an installation by another minimalist, Carl Andre. “Chinati Thirteener” was installed in 2010 in the enclosed courtyard of a former dormitory building, now a temporary exhibition space. Playing off the posts that enclose the space, 13 strips of hot rolled steel plates are laid at intervals across an expanse of dark rock. While touching a Judd box would have sent the conservation team scurrying to clean it, here Andre invites the viewer to walk on the strips and enjoy the oxidized yellows and oranges blooming under your feet.

As we walked between the buildings, we were treated to a view in the distance of Judd’s longtime friend Claes Oldenburg’s “Monument to the Last Horse,” 1991, a tribute to Louie, the last of the cavalry horses.

"Last of the Cavalry Horses," by Claes Oldenburg

“Last of the Cavalry Horses,” by Claes Oldenburg

Dan Flavin, another Judd friend, chose six former dormitory buildings in which to install fluorescent bulb sculptures in varying combinations of pink, green, blue, and yellow. When Dia funding ended, Judd and Flavin fell out and the project languished. Finally, financing was secured and the work was completed, opening in 2000. One can see similarities between Judd’s minimalism and Flavin’s—repetition, variations on themes, bringing in light from outside the dorm buildings— but at the same time, Flavin’s work is fanciful, far less austere than the Judd works. Trooping from building to building to see each configuration of bulbs and colors was fun and gave the experience an air of a treasure hunt.

Florescent Bulb Installation by Dan Flavin

Florescent Bulb Installation by Dan Flavin

John Chamberlain’s work is housed in a former mohair and wool storehouse in downtown Marfa. His metal work pieces left some on our tour group cold, if such a thing is possible in West Texas. Richard, having enjoyed the engineering marvels of the Judd boxes, was not impressed with Chamberlain’s squashed car sculptures and repaired to the vast muslin-draped object in the middle of the gallery known as “Barge Marfa,” 1983, where Elizabeth assured him he was welcome to lounge and watch Chamberlain’s romp of a film, “The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez,” 1968, in which Andy Warhol actors indulged in all forms of sybaritic behavior in a mysterious Mexican town. I found Chamberlain’s work to be wildly exuberant, especially when compared to the Zen-like refinement of Judd, and the shy playfulness of Flavin. His titles are marvelous too—“Small Monument to a Swiss Monument,” 1979-82—was my favorite. It writhes and dances and manages to stand only on three or four points with the agility of a sumo-wrestler crossed with dancer on pointe.

"Small Monument to a Swiss Monument," by John Chamberlain

“Small Monument to a Swiss Monument,” by John Chamberlain

Back out on the streets of Marfa, we repaired to “Future Shark,” a cafeteria-style restaurant operated by the same chef who purveys marvelous food from the “Food Shark,” a food truck (one of several) parked under the farm market stalls near the (very active) railroad tracks. Here we ate one of the most beguiling vegetarian meals ever concocted. If this post has inspired you to make a similar pilgrimage (wait—I haven’t even told you about Prada Marfa! Stay tuned), you’ll find a number of world-class restaurants in this flat, unprepossessing town: Maiya’s and Cochineal for dinner, and Squeeze Marfa for breakfast. Either of the Sharks – any time.

Oh, and stay at the Hotel Paisano, named for a nearby mountain pass. After a long drive to Marfa, the margaritas in the plaza by the splashing fountain can’t be beat! It’s where the cast from “Giant” stayed. You can even stay in the Rock Hudson suite …


“I’m really a traditional painter, not avant-garde at all. I wanted to follow a tradition and extend it.” — Richard Diebenkorn.

My friends Susan and Leslie and I are all a little in love with Richard Diebenkorn, envying his close circle who were given his charming cigar box lid paintings as gifts. Why weren’t we among them? We were in Berkeley too, or at least I was. So it was something of a pilgrimage of the heart when the three of us crossed the threshold of the striking de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to see “Richard Diebenkorn, The Berkeley Years: 1953 – 1966.

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

At the opening to the entrance of this vast show, we were greeted by Diebenkorn’s ten rules for a creative endeavor which I’ve appended to the end of this post: “Notes to Myself upon Beginning a Painting.” Number Eight was particularly challenging: “Keep Thinking about Pollyanna.” Should we be the anti-Pollyanna? One suspects so, but what if he means the opposite? “Be careful only in a perverse way,” number 10, suggests we defenestrate Pollyanna. With this delightfully cockeyed perspective, we strolled into “The Berkeley Years.” Susan and Leslie are both artists in their own right, so it was wonderful to see these stunning canvasses with other, highly educated and experienced eyes than just my own.

Dispersed among the large brilliantly composed oil paintings, are exquisite small black and white pieces, such as “Untitled (Berkeley),”1953, in ink, gouache and graphite that add punch and intimacy. But the most absorbing works are the abstract expressionist oil paintings that are the numbered “Berkeley” works.

"Berkeley #8," 1954

“Berkeley #8,” 1954

“Berkeley #8,” 1954 (North Carolina Museum of Art), with its brilliant colors, precisely  balanced composition, and thrusting movement, put me in mind of Jack London canneries, docks, ships, tide pools, and the Berkeley mudflats.

"Berkeley #57," 1955

“Berkeley #57,” 1955

“That red stripe,” Leslie said, studying “Berkeley #57,” 1955 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), “the painting needed it.” Is it landscape? City grid? Aerial views of farm land? The answer is likely yes to any and all images that float up from this lusciously colored work. We can see how Diebenkorn’s thinking (and not-thinking) took him to the brilliant “Ocean Park” series of paintings later completed in Los Angeles and recently on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

"Chabot Valley," 1955

“Chabot Valley,” 1955

As hard as it is to see Diebenkorn’s brand of abstract expressionism as limiting, he gradually became disenchanted, calling it a “stylistic straitjacket.” A wall of small representational paintings heralds this change. “Chabot Valley,” 1955, was his first representational painting.

"Coffee," 1959

“Coffee,” 1959

The next room features a number of Hopper-esque figure paintings of lonely women looking out of windows. “I think his figurative work is goofy,” Susan declared, and I had to agree that these paintings were less successful than the wholly abstract work–although I did love many of the drawings and prints of female nudes. Susan and I both felt the paintings that worked for us were the ones in which the figures were integrated into the background. One exception, “Coffee,” 1959 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) – the figure is striking in the familiarity of the solitary pose, and the absorption of the figure in that cup. “Maybe he took up representational painting because Wayne Thiebaud and other friends were doing it,” Susan said. So hard to tease out what inspires painters, especially when they’re part of a vibrant community of artists.

"Figure on a Porch," 1959

“Figure on a Porch,” 1959

Despite the somewhat over-wrought wall placard analysis, I was drawn into “Figure on a Porch,” 1959 (Oakland Museum). The placard tells us that the figure “is the surrogate for the viewer.” Okay, I buy that. But the chairs standing in for “action” and the blue of the bay for “community”? I don’t think so. This observation was actually the least pedantic of them all, which made me glad I hadn’t taken the proffered headset and stopped reading the written commentary entirely, other than to note the title, year, and location.

We’re back to the landscape, albeit still representational, with “Cityscape #1,” 1963 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), an enthralling work. In shadow, the road divides the developed land—the buildings stack up as if massing at the border and seem to confront the undeveloped green spaces in a showdown.

"Cityscape #1," 1963

“Cityscape #1,” 1963


All three of us were perplexed by the rooms containing “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965 (private collection), with its Matisse-inspired floral patterns. Diebenkorn had evidently seen Matisse’s work at the Pushkin museum on a visit to Russia with his wife and had been deeply moved. This painting was the least surprising in a

"Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad," 1965

“Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965

room full of Picasso-like nudes and Matisse knock-offs.

We retreated to the first room to the left of the entrance, which we’d missed, and reveled in “Berkeley #3,” 1953 (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco). Lavish in pinks, apricots, and golds, this painting took me back to the bustle of my fishery/cannery images, and like many other Diebenkorn canvasses, you can lose yourself in a corner–any corner.

"Berkeley #3," 1954

“Berkeley #3,” 1954


“Berkeley #23,” 1955 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) was completely reworked from an earlier version painted in 1954. Diebenkorn enjoyed “altering” the image, “by way of

"Berkeley #23," 1955

“Berkeley #23,” 1955

subtracting or juxtaposition or superimposing of another idea.” Looking at the work, you imagine that you can follow the painter in his efforts to structure it. The feeling of participation is one of the most pleasing aspects of experiencing a Diebenkorn painting: you feel that the work is plastic, but that somehow it arrived at the perfect balance, leaving tracks of the process behind. And those surfaces worked and reworked into the vivid turquoise of patinated copper, that periwinkle, that raspberry, that green, that unifying black line—electric!

"Berkeley #44,"1955

“Berkeley #44,”1955

With its mossy green field, “Berkeley # 44,” 1955, reads as a cutting of a vast continuous swath that extends beyond the borders of the canvas. It’s unmistakably a landscape, in my eye, but am I being too literal, too boringly predictable? Quoted in a 1957 Life magazine story, in which he was photographed in front of “Berkeley #44,” Diebenkorn said, “Temperamentally, perhaps, I had always been a landscape painter.” So there.

The show is on view until September 29, 2013. http://diebenkorn.famsf.org

If you can’t make it, the well-written and comprehensive accompanying exhibition catalogue is a close second. http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300190786

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

  1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Don’t “discover” a subject — of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.
























1913 Armory Poster

1913 Armory Poster

The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, has a knack for mounting shows that pull together beautiful art, thoughtful curator-ship, and illuminating ephemera. “History in the Making: 100 Years after the Armory Show” is no exception.

At the core of this exhibition is evolution: specifically, how the collection’s founder, Duncan Phillips, grew from—dare we say it?—a callow youth with a limited imagination into the visionary whose eye and intellect created this enduring modern art museum. In 1913 at age 26, Phillips, along with thousands of others, viewed the explosive show of avant-garde art in the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. Appalled, especially by the Cubists, he later wrote a scathing paper trouncing the show: “… the air of studios in New York is charged with much talk about painting, talk that is full of fanaticism and mystification and real concern for the future of art … an International Exhibition of Modern Art quite stupefying in its vulgarity.”

"The Blue Room," 1901, by Pablo PIcasso

“The Blue Room,” 1901, by Pablo PIcasso

The Phillips show presents examples of Armory painters its founder had scorned and then collected avidly. Accompanying the show is an informative cell phone gallery tour.

“That they are doing something new cannot be denied,” Phillips said of the Armory artists, “although just what it is that they are doing, no one has yet perceived.” Picasso was just as puzzling to Phillips as the rest of the Cubists, but by 1927 he acquired “The Blue Room,” 1901, a safe choice for a first Picasso. Moody and intimate, it’s easy on the eye and not nearly as challenging as “Standing Female Nude, which was shown at the Armory.

"Standing Female Nude," by Pablo Picasso

“Standing Female Nude,” by Pablo Picassoeasy on the eye and not nearly as challenging as “Standing Female Nude,” which was shown at the Armory.


The French artist, Odilon Redon, showed his painting,

"Mystery," by Odilon Redon, 1910

“Mystery,” by Odilon Redon, 1910

“Silence” in the Armory show. Phillips acquired “Mystery,” 1910, seen here, in 1925. The sad-eyed woman seems to rise out of the swirl of flowers, or to be hiding behind it, as if she has no connection to the blooms.

“Sketch for Painting with White Border,” 1913, by the Russian painter Wasily Kandinsky, was acquired by Phillips in 1953. Hung near the Redon, the painting vibrates with jewel-like colors, and takes the eye for another circular journey. Kandinsky’s “Improvisation 22,” shown at the Armory, came in for the same ridicule as the Cubists, but canny Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and modern art promoter, snapped it up for a reduced price of $500.

"Sketch for Painting with White Border," 1913, by Wasily Kandinsky

“Sketch for Painting with White Border,” 1913, by Wasily Kandinsky

"Flowers-Bouquet (Tulip Bulbs)", 1920-3, by Walt Kuhn

“Flowers-Bouquet (Tulip Bulbs)”, 1920-3, by Walt Kuhn

The Armory featured several American painters including Walt Kuhn. Here we see “Flowers-Bouquet (Tulip Buds),” 1920-23—almost an abstract, but not quite. Kuhn was among the founders of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, the group that mounted the Armory show, and in 1912 traveled abroad to find paintings to include in the exhibition.

"Standing Woman," 1920, by Alexander Archipenko

“Standing Woman,” 1920, by Alexander Archipenko

Nearby hangs Alexander Archipenko’s “Standing Woman,” 1920, acquired in 1953. Crafted from oil and gesso on papier-mâché, this piece calls to mind the work of my father, James W. (Red) Boyers, who developed his own bas-relief technique. Red wasn’t a Cubist, however, as his piece “Transmigration,” 1969,

"Transmigration," 1969, by James W. (Red) Boyers

“Transmigration,” 1969, by James W. (Red) Boyers

shows. He took inspiration from natural forms, Native American imagery, and his own vocabulary of shapes.

Another American, Allen Tucker, known as “the American Van Gogh” in the early 20th century, put together the catalogue for the Armory Show where he exhibited five of his own paintings. He’s represented

"The Red Barns," 1923, by Allen Tucker

“The Red Barns,” 1923, by Allen Tucker

here by “The Red Barns,” 1923, which Phillips acquired in 1926. Our cell phone curator tells us that Tucker and Phillips met shortly after the Armory show and Phillips praised Tucker’s “vibrant” landscapes.

At the time of the Armory show, Phillips had called the actual Van Gogh “an unbalanced fanatic.” But in 1926, around the same time he bought the Tucker, he decided to buy his first van Gogh, one of five in the Collection. (Incidentally, the Phillips plans an exciting fall show which will examine Van Gogh’s repeated treatment of the same or similar images. Opening October 12, 2013, the show will bring together 13 of van Gogh’s “repetitions,” in some cases reunited for the first time in many years.)

"Resurrection," 1885, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

“Resurrection,” 1885, by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Finding Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “Resurrection,” 1885, among the jarring canvasses at the Armory must have felt to Phillips like he had run into an old friend. Considered an “old master,” Ryder, with his highly abstracted brooding scenes, clearly shows the roots of modernism in 19th century romanticism.  Ryder’s “Moonlit Cove,” also owned by the Phillips Collection, was shown at the Armory and will be included in the New York Historical Society’s fall show, “The Armory Show at 100.”

"Two in a Boat," 1891, by Theodore Robinson

“Two in a Boat,” 1891, by Theodore Robinson

American Impressionist Theodore Robinson was, like Tucker, new to me. His “Two in a Boat,” 1891, was hung in an Armory gallery devoted to important French, English, American, and Dutch painters, including John Henry Twachtman, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and others. Phillips viewed him as a “painter’s painter” and acquired this charming watercolor in 1920. A close friend of Monet, Robinson’s gestural brush strokes were influenced by European techniques, but his “careful rendering” of the figures here belies the 19th century realism of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.

"Mont Sainte-Victoire," 1886-7, by Paul Cezanne

“Mont Sainte-Victoire,” 1886-7, by Paul Cezanne

Phillips first encountered Paul Cezanne at the Paris Salon Triennial in 1912. The exhibitors, including Cezanne, were “no more than a bunch of damn fools.” But by 1925, Cezanne was a “towering genius” in Phillips’ estimation. He bought “Mont Sainte-Victoire,” 1886-7, a softly rendered version of the mountain range near Cezanne’s home in the south of France.

The smaller room holds some of the most fascinating items in this show: a glass case full of Phillips’ original type-written monographs, journals, and letters, and the walls are hung with prints and small paintings.

"Purple Mountains," 1924, by Arthur B. Davies

“Purple Mountains,” 1924, by Arthur B. Davies

Among them, Arthur B. Davies’ sweet pastel landscape, “Purple Mountains” was made to accompany a 1924 monograph on the artist’s work by Duncan Phillips. Arthur Davies was president of the association that mounted the Armory show where he was represented by six works. Over the years, Phillips was to acquire 30 of Davies’ evocative landscapes. Phillips admired Davies’ “adventurous and anti-academic spirit,” our curator tells us, but mistrusted his foray into Cubism. This brings us to the most charming artifact in the show: Phillips’ journal in which he recounts how Arthur Davies “took his education in hand.” Placing a piece of glass over one of his realistic paintings, Davies “marked in chalk the contour of the masses,” then pulled away the glass with its “skeleton” tracings. Phillips saw that a “…Cubist picture is like a world rising out of chaos.”

Well worth lingering over, “History in the Making: 100 years after the Armory Show” will be on view at the Phillips Collection through January 5, 2014. http://www.phillipscollection.org/exhibitions/2013-08-01-exhibition-armory-show.aspx

















"The Sick Child"

“The Sick Child”

The National Gallery of Art is many things to those of us lucky to live in or around Washington, DC: a place to soothe the soul, delight the senses, and feed the mind. Last Wednesday my friend Karen alerted me to a gallery talk by David Gariff, a renowned  Munch art historian—part of the 150th Anniversary Tribute to Edvard Munch, Norway’s most well-known visual artist.

Gariff, who is as much a showman as scholar, opened the talk standing just outside the small gallery where a trove of twenty Munch prints was being shown. Gariff unequivocally places Munch in the Expressionist camp, with his very personal, emotional approach to painting and printmaking. A “seminal, transitional” figure between Van Gogh and the German Expressionists, Munch’s output was purely autobiographical: “I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I suffer.” And suffer, he did. He left behind some 300 journals (now at the National Gallery of Art in Oslo) chronicling the events and emotional upheavals of his life. As a child, tuberculosis stalked his family. Both his mother and elder sister, Sophie, succumbed. A brother, Peter, died of pneumonia. Munch himself contracted the disease, but survived.

Portrait, August Strindberg

Portrait, August Strindberg

Inside the gallery, we stop at “The Sick Child,” 1886, print based upon his “breakthrough” painting. (Most of the images seen here were variations on paintings.) As a young man, Munch studied at the Academy at Christiania, and produced conventional student work. In Paris, he painted like Pissarro and Monet—outdoor, sun-washed images. Searching for a way to express his inner life, he abandoned much of what he’d learned in Paris and employed “kinetic, brutal” methods: slathering and scraping the paint. The tortured space around the face of the dying Sophie makes her appear to be “disintegrating,” as indeed she was.

In the 1896 portrait, August Strindberg’s head, so full of ideas and volatile emotions, seems to mushroom up and out. In Berlin, Munch had been caught up in the intellectual circle of the “Nihilistic, misogynistic, and darkly Freudian,” Strindberg.

"The Vampire"

“The Vampire”

Next we see “The Vampire,” 1894. Originally, Munch called the image “Love and Pain,” and it embodies all the femmes fatales that Strindberg could have cooked up: Lilith, Delilah, Salome…and a redhead to boot, calling to mind Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s (see my blog post, “Hair!” Pre-Raphealites invade Washington”) women with ensnaring hair.

"Girl with Heart"

“Girl with Heart”

In “Girl with the Heart,” 1899, things get even darker. Our gal is eating the heart. Gariff tells us that women at this time (1898 – 99) are gaining power—the vote, property ownership, independence from men. In Ibsen’s “The Doll’s House,” the heroine takes her ring off and flings it at her despicable husband. Women’s power is for Munch a notion both frightening and thrilling.



“Madonna” shows us a seductive red-haloed woman, calling up images of jealous rages rather than saintly piety. Gariff points out the “ectoplasmic” background out of which our temptress emerges, like amniotic fluid. Munch, he says, would have been aware both of the genuine advances in science at the time, but also of the pseudo-science of auras. The Madonna’s radiating power—that of creating life itself—threatens to overwhelm. Spermatozoa swim around the frame while a huddling “homunculus” of a fetus crouches in the corner.

"The Young Model"

“The Young Model”

A tender sensibility regarding the female, by contrast, can be seen in “The Young Model,” 1894, depicting the moment a young girl experiences her first menstrual period. The girl’s body hunches forward with a “deer in the headlights” look on her face while a “scary shadow” looms across her—a decidedly non-erotic pose. This piece, as a painting, I believe, was exhibited at Munch’s first showing in Berlin, and as the subject matter of this and other works was considered “incendiary,” the show closed in two days.

"A Kiss"

“A Kiss”

In “A Kiss,” 1898, the entire world fades away as the couple merges and floats before the sweep of the wood grain. Munch, we learn, was a great admirer of Gauguin, particularly his woodcuts. Here we see Munch’s notion of an all-enveloping love, ultimately resulting in total loss of identity. Gariff observed that this was a late version in which all “clap trap” of daily life (the room, furniture, etc.) had been eliminated. Even the figures’ eyes, mouths, and faces are gone; the abbreviated hands are “flippers,” and the merging figures become one big “phallic” shape.

"Self Portrait"

“Self Portrait”

By his “Self Portrait, 1895, Munch was well on his way to being an alcoholic, agoraphobic, paranoid with auditory hallucinations. Munch’s haunted face floats eerily against a black background. The whole, Gariff pointed out, looks like a funerary stele, with Munch’s name spelled out along the top and the skeleton arm across the bottom of the image. By 1904 his mental state had deteriorated to such a point that Munch spent eight months in a Copenhagen clinic detoxing from his alcohol abuse and being treated for his mental illness. After eight months he came out a changed man.

"The Scream"

“The Scream”

“The Scream,” 1895, a pastel version of which recently sold at Sotheby’s (in 12 minutes for $119 million) shows us a real place and time rather than a purely abstract depiction of extreme anxiety. In his diaries of 1893 Munch recounts being out walking with friends at sunset, and he, paralyzed with fear, “… felt a loud unending scream pierce nature.” Gariff speculated that this fugue state might have had to do with the road being close to both the slaughterhouse and the insane asylum where Munch may have visited his sister. The screams of the dying animals and the insane could well be heard from this vantage point. The face of the screamer is very like the “homunculus” seen in the frame of “Madonna.” Gariff, in a fascinating aside, showed a photograph of a mummy—made famous by a photograph by Brassai—that was in the Trocadero Museum in Paris (now the Museum of Man). Munch which surely would have seen this haunting skeletal face and it pops up again and again in his work.

"The Brooch (Eva Mudocci)"

“The Brooch (Eva Mudocci)”

The final image, “The Brooch” (Eva Mudocci), 1903, shows us a lovely woman surrounded by more swirling hair. Munch said the brooch was, “The stone that fell from my heart.” Most art historians had come to the conclusion that Munch, destroyed by earlier affairs (he never married), did not enter into a love affair with Eva. Now comes Janet Weber, a nun, who quietly claims to be one of two children Eva had with Munch. Eva never told him of the children. Janet Weber says she, potentially his sole direct heir, doesn’t want money. There has been no test as yet, but some distant relatives of Munch are still alive and could provide DNA samples. Stay tuned…

Janet Weber

Janet Weber

The show closed July 28, yesterday, so all those wonderful prints are back, or on their way back, minus their frames, to the drawers in the gallery archives. Seeing them was a rate treat.

Wait! There’s more! David Gariff will give two lectures: “The Art of Edvard Munch: Early Work,” on August 18 at 2:00pm, and “The Art of Edvard Munch: Late Work,” August 25 at 2:00pm, both in the East Building Concourse Auditorium. They promise to be rich with Munch lore, biography, and insights into this fascinating artist.




"Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife," 1926

“Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” 1926

I’ve always thought Picasso was over-rated, but never believed anyone agreed with me. After seeing this stunning show at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, I find that I’m not alone. Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection, felt that that Braque had advanced “the amazing innovations of Picasso.” Just so. In 1927 Phillips went on to say, “Braque is one of the few modernists who interests me and I must have a good example by him.” He paid $2,000 for “Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” 1926, the first Braque painting to be acquired by a U.S. museum.

Mariah Boone, the lead character in my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, was heard to say, “Yes, a still life must be still, but it doesn’t have to be dead.” All throughout this show, I felt Mariah was looking over my shoulder enjoying the life pulsing from these works. Occasionally we high-fived each other when no one was looking.

"The Round Table," 1929

“The Round Table,” 1929

The show’s curator has assembled some 40 works from Braque’s “overlooked” mid-career and hung them in such a way that the viewer can see his evolution from the 1920s—“intimate and classical”—to the 1930s—“bold and ornamental—to the 1940s—“personal, daily life.” Many of these works are owned by the Phillips Collection and others have been drawn from varied institutions and private collections in the U.S and Europe.

“The Round Table,” 1929, is the first work in which Braque used sand, along with oil and charcoal, aiming for a tactile, layered effect. Among the many joys of this show are the profusion of quotes from Braque: “The guiding light of Cubism was the materialization of this new space which I could feel. So I began to paint mainly still lifes … another way of conveying the desire which I’ve always had to touch things.”

"Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet," 1927

“Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet,” 1927

Purchased in 1929 as a mate to “Plums, Pears, Nuts and a Knife,” “Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet,” 1927, brings together, almost as a collage, the images that Braque continued to paint over and over for decades. In this way, the show reminded me of another superb one the Phillips mounted some years ago: Giorgio Morandi lovingly, meticulously, rendered the same objects in a seemingly infinite number of combinations, light, and perspectives.

"The Napkin Ring," 1929

“The Napkin Ring,” 1929

In the second room a table sitting among the paintings tells a fascinating story. “The Napkin Ring,” an inlaid marble floor panel, one of four, was based upon four paintings made in 1929 for the Paris apartment of Alexandre P. Rosenberg. When the Germans confiscated the building in 1940, it was converted into the “Institute for the study of Jewish Questions.” Somehow the floor panels survived. The Rosenberg family (the full story needs to be told) managed to retrieve them in 1949 and had them made into tables. Now, the original painted panels are at the Cleveland Museum of Art, gifts from the Rosenberg family. The craftsman who made the table received direction from Braque and managed to reproduce the floating knife, filmy table cloth, and vivid lemon in stone.

"Still Life on Red Table Cloth," 1934

“Still Life on Red Table Cloth,” 1934

In the next room are paintings from Braque’s major exhibitions in Europe and the U.S. Carl Einstein, a friend and critic said of the 1933 Kunsthalle show in Basel, Switzerland, “Braque tirelessly varies the same motif and . . . heightens it . . . slowly and patiently he raises his aims.” You can see this process at work in “Still Life on Red Table Cloth,” (1934) and “Still Life with Guitar,” (1937 – 38). “The viewer retraces the same path as the artist,” Braque said, “and as it is the path that counts more than the thing, one is more interested by the journey.”

"Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains)," 1937 - 38

“Still Life with Guitar (Red Curtains),” 1937 – 38

At around this time he also said, “In painting, the contrast between textures plays as big a role as the contrast between colors,” and, “It is all the same to me whether a form represents different things to different people, or many things at the same time.” This statement seemed particularly apt in referring to  “Glass with Fruit Dish,” 1931. Very abstract, this painting was inspired by Greek vase paintings that Braque saw in the Louvre. In it he carved thin lines in the black paint. “Objects do not exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them … it is the in- between that is the real subject of my pictures,” Braque said. Indeed, you can dwell in the in-between for hours in this show.

"Still Life with Pink Fish," 1937

“Still Life with Pink Fish,” 1937

“Still Life with Pink Fish,” 1937, with its wonderful acid green, was shown in Braque’s first U.S. retrospective, along with “Le Gueridon,” 1935, a long panel featuring the same wild wallpaper as in “Pink Fish.” This striking motif appears again and again in subsequent paintings to marvelous effect.

"Vase, Palette, and Mandolin," 1936

“Vase, Palette, and Mandolin,” 1936

At around “Vase, Palette, and Mandolin,” 1936, Braque’s epigrams on his art became hard to fathom and quite a lively discussion sprang up between several museum-goers, me, and the young staffer whose job it was to stand around and make sure no one touched any of those seductive surfaces. Braque said, “…the object is a dead thing. It comes to life when it is activated.”  What did he mean by “activated”? Brought to life by the artist’s enlivening vision? Further on, he says, “A still life is no longer a still life when it is no longer within arm’s reach.” One woman exclaimed, “That makes no sense at all!” We grappled with its meaning but didn’t have much success. It was a little like a Bob Dylan lyric which you intuit to be true, even if you couldn’t possibly say why.

"Mandolin and Score (The Banjo)," 1941

“Mandolin and Score (The Banjo),” 1941

“Mandolin and Score (The Banjo), 1941, is a knockout with its graphic persimmon tablecloth and wildly undulating banjo strap. “Studio with Black Vase,” 1938, is familiar from visits to Washington’s Kreeger Museum. This is the first appearance of a skull in Braque’s work, but he doesn’t use the skull as a reminder of human mortality as others have done. For him, “A skull is a beautiful structure and it is used to waiting.” Perfect subject matter for a maker of still life.

"Wash Stand before the Window," 1942

“Wash Stand before the Window,” 1942

“Wash Stand before the Window,” 1942, frames the open sky in a way that was eerily familiar. What did it remind me of? Suddenly it came to me, and after soaking up as much of Braque as I could for one visit, I went downstairs to find Pierre Bonnard’s “The Open Window,” 1921, one of my favorite paintings. Could Braque have seen it? One can only speculate and feel fortunate to be able to see both of them in this jewel of a gallery.

"The Open Window," by Pierre Bonnard, 1921

“The Open Window,” by Pierre Bonnard, 1921

The show, which was organized with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis, will be on view until September 1, 2013.









Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington performance in honor of Ballets Russes

Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington performance in honor of the Ballets Russes

As an accompaniment to this fabulous show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, students from the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC performed excerpts from L’apres-midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and The Firebird on July 13, 2013 in two standing-room-only performances on the mezzanine just outside of the gallery where show is mounted.


The performance was introduced by Martin Fredmann, artistic director of the Kirov Academy who was justifiably proud of the young dancers. Offering a high school diploma in addition to dance studies, the Academy places an astonishing 75 percent of its graduates in major dance companies around the world. After this performance, it’s easy to see why.



Nymphs from L’apres-midi d’un Faune (rehearsal photograph)

Fredmann told the audience that Claude Debussy, in creating music for L’apres-midi d’un Faune, was inspired by the French symbolist poet, Stefan Mallarme’s poem of the same name, while Nijinsky took the naturalistic choreography of Michel Fokine in a new direction, devising “archaic” movements recalling the stylized front-facing figures on ancient amphorae. Fredmann invited the audience, lacking a curtain, to close their eyes and “await the magic.” As the music began, there was young Emerson Moose atop a large rock apparently sunning himself until the gauzily-clad nymphs appear. A beguiling Faune dressed in skin-colored leotard and tights, Moose was a lithe sprite to the nymphs’ more reserved progress across the stage. Bailey Anglin, as the lead nymph, carried a raspberry scarf as enticement to the Faune. Once the nymphs have vanished and our Faune is left only with the scarf, he mounted his rock with deliberate steps, lay face-down upon it, and turned to extend one leg in an insouciant way, as if to say, look at my beautiful leg. I alone am enough!


Kirov6During the interval between performances, Fredmann talked about Natalia Gonchorova’s complete redesign of the Firebird set (see my earlier blog post http://ellenkwatnoski.com/2013/07/07/lush-life-part-ii-when-art-danced-with-music-diaghilev-and-the-ballets-russes-1909-1929/) with the vast onion-dome backcloth and brilliant costumes. Her version was the standard until Marc Chagall did new sets for a 1949 performance with Maria Tallchief as Firebird. Based upon a Russian folk-tale, The Firebird tells the tale of a prince who climbs a wall and finds an enchanted garden owned by an evil wizard. Golden apples hang from the trees, but they pale in comparison to a half-woman, half-bird creature—the magical Firebird he sees there. Dashing Prince Ivan, again danced beautifully by Emerson Moose, spies the exquisite Firebird and hides behind a tree to watch her flit and preen and enjoy being a fiery bird-girl. But, alas, watching is not enough and he must capture the bird, danced by fifteen-year-old Riho Sakamoto. With costumes worthy of Leon Bakst, these lovely dancers made the old folktale come to life without sets, lights, or onion domes. Sakamoto is an astonishingly mature dancer, delicate yet strong, with her bird-like head movements, gorgeous extensions and beautiful line. Her struggle with the Prince was complex dramatically—one had the sense she enjoyed being caught, even as she fights against capture. Perhaps this notion is confirmed when she plucks an enchanted feather from her plumage and bestows it upon the dazzled Prince. Sakamoto and Moose enjoyed a standing ovation from the appreciative audience, both on the mezzanine and literally hanging from the stairwells. Balletomanes: remember those names: Riho Sakamoto and Emerson Moose!


Kirov4If you come to the August 11, 2013 performance by Dana Tae Soon Burgess you’ll see original choreography premiered in a suite of dances “inspired by the spirit of the Ballets Russes.” Come early! There will be two performances at 1:30 and 3:30, best seen from the front rows or standing in the back of the performance space. The riser is low enough to provide a limited line of sight much further back than the third or fourth row.

Learn more about Dana Tae Soon Burgess: http://www.dtsbco.com/home/home.html

There’s still time to see the show: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2013/diaghilev.html

On view until October 6, 2013, the exhibition is well worth seeing, with or without a dance performance accompanying it. Bravo to the National Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum (owners of the costume collection), and now, the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC. https://kirovacademydc.org/












"A Mask," by Vasiliev Nijinsky,

“A Mask,” by Vasiliev Nijinsky

Readers of this blog may remember that my first posting about this remarkable show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, ended on a poignant note: that Vasiliev Nijinsky had been institutionalized for schizophrenia, never to dance again. Pondering this sad loss, you leave his tortured drawing, “A Mask,” and walk up the winding staircase to the next level of “When Art Danced with Music.”

Backcloth for "Firebird" by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Backcloth for “Firebird” by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Natalia Goncharova’s 1926 painted backcloth for the coronation scene in “Firebird” is breathtaking: hundreds of onion domes glitter on this enormous cloth (51.5 by 35.5 feet, one of the largest items ever displayed here). Under a cobalt blue sky, the domes evoke a walled town in a mythic Russia. Arrayed on the walls are painted versions of the coronation scene backcloth as well as a 1914 curtain design for “The Golden Cockerel,” a riot of color celebrating Russian folklore.

Set Design, "The Golden Cockerel, " by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Set Design, “The Golden Cockerel, ” by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Playing on a huge screen facing the backcloth is a film of a 2010 reinterpretation of  “The Firebird” (choreographed by Michel Fokine and with Igor Stravinsky’s score) by the English National Ballet. Dramatically silhouetted black and white images of a dancer move across the musical score, copies of the original programs, and a film of Karsavina as the first Firebird, among other images. While it’s wonderful to hear the music in the presence of the evocative backcloth, I would have preferred seeing a more traditional Firebird.

Costume design for the Soldier, from "The Tale of the Buffoon,"

Costume design for the Soldier, from “The Tale of the Buffoon,”

Also featured in the first room is a little-known 1915 ballet, “The Tale of the Buffoon,” based on a Russian folktale. Mikhail Larionov designed the cubist-inspired costumes. My favorite was the costume for the Soldier with his wrap-around beard and jaunty hat.

Narrated by Tilda Swinton, the documentary film accompanying the show explores Diaghilev’s early life in a prosperous family made wealthy by a flourishing Vodka business. Poets, play writes, and other notables made regular appearances at the family’s salons, perhaps seeding the notion in young Diaghilev’s mind that collaboration among the arts is an art form in itself.

Costume for "Cleopatra," by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, 1918

Costume for “Cleopatra,” by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, 1918

In the next room, you’ll see Robert Delaunay’s 1918 set design for “Cleopatra” in brilliant water color and gouache, plus costume designs by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, complete with bulls eye bustier.

Costume for the "Manager," from the ballet, "Parade," by Pablo Picasso, 1917

Costume for the “Manager,” from the ballet, “Parade,” by Pablo Picasso, 1917

The ballet “Parade,” 1917, resulted when Serge Diaghilev reportedly commanded the young Jean Cocteau to “Astonish me!” With scenario by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, set, curtain and costumes by Pablo Picasso, and choreographed by Leonide Massine, “Parade” is meant to recreate popular music hall entertainment of the time, but with added modern innovations: the skyscraper, airplane, and typewriter. Completely new, “Parade” not only astonished Diaghilev, but outraged audiences at the 1917 premier. Here we see the “Chinese Conjurer,” a dancing horse, a “young American girl,” and the two marvelous “Managers,” in an excerpt of a 2007 performance by Europa Danse. Take a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Chq1Ty0nyE

"The Russian Ballet," by Max Weber, 1916

“The Russian Ballet,” by Max Weber, 1916

“The Russian Ballet,” a standout oil painting by Max Weber (1916), is pure color, and movement. Other paintings include “Harlequin (Portrait of Leonide Massine), 1917, and “Mme. Picasso (Portrait of the Artist’s wife, Olga Khoklova”) both by Pablo Picasso. Khoklova danced in the premier of “Parade,” and left the Ballets Russes to become Picasso’s first wife.

Costume for a "Mourner," by Henri Matisse, from the ballet, "Song of the Nightingale," 1925

Costume for a “Mourner,” by Henri Matisse, from the ballet, “Song of the Nightingale,” 1925

One day, we learn in the film, Stravinsky and Diaghilev appeared, unannounced, at Henri Matisse’s home. They told him that he simply must design the costumes for the new ballet based upon the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, “Song of the Nightingale.” He complied, saying he wanted his eye-catching abstract patterns for the fanciful “Mandarin” court to be “like a painting, but with colors that move.” You can see that movement in a film excerpt by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, 2003.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as "The Prodigal Son," 1978

Mikhail Baryshnikov as “The Prodigal Son,” 1978

With choreography by George Balanchine, music by Sergei Prokofiev, and fauvist set designs by Georges Rouault, “The Prodigal Son,” 1929, is reproduced in a film of a 1978 New York City Ballet performance featuring an astonishing Mikhail Baryshnikov. A heartbreaker with his 70s shag haircut, Baryshnikov’s formidable dancing prowess is matched by his fine acting.

Costumes by Giorgio de Chirico for the ballet, "The Ball," 1929

Costumes by Giorgio de Chirico for the ballet, “The Ball,” 1929

Giorgio de Chirico conceived of the costumes and set design for “The Ball,” 1929 surrealist concoction featuring architectural salvage—columns, bricks, pediments—as bowtie and ball gown. Even the walls of the gallery space have been painted to represent brick.

Poster for the "Blue Train" to Monte Carlo, by Roger Broders, 1929

Poster for the “Blue Train” to Monte Carlo, by Roger Broders, 1929

Bronislava Nijinska choreographed the charming 1924 “Blue Train” to music by Darius Milhaud, with libretto by Jean Cocteau and costumes by Coco Chanel. The so-called Blue Train took the young and fabulous to Monte Carlo, seen here in a stunning 1929 poster by Roger Broders. The Ballets Russes performed in Monte Carlo every year, perhaps sunning themselves in knitted wool

Bathing Costumes for the ballet, "The Blue Train," by Coco Chanel, 1924

Bathing Costumes for the ballet, “The Blue Train,” by Coco Chanel, 1924

bathing costumes similar to Chanel’s “Costume for a Gigolo” and “La Pelouse.” Restaged in 1994 by Irina Nijinska (Bronislava’s daughter) and Frank Reis for the Paris Opera Ballet, this fresh breath of sea air is utterly modern. Fittingly, the front cloth for the ballet is an exuberant beach scene after Pablo Picasso’s 1922 “Deux Femmes Courant Sur La Plage.” Never has the beach seemed more inviting!

Front cloth for the ballet, "The Blue Train," after Picasso, 1924

Front cloth for the ballet, “The Blue Train,” after Picasso, 1924

And never, it seems now, will there ever be an era as rich in artistic collaboration than Diaghilev’s sadly short, but immensely rich time as impresario extraordinaire: 1909 – 1929. He died of complications of diabetes in 1929 in Venice, Italy at only 57. Without his flair and daring, the Ballets Russes never again achieved the brilliant successes of the Diaghilev years.

Sergei Diaghilev      1872 - 1929

Sergei Diaghilev
1872 – 1929

On view until September 2, 2013, these dance performances will accompany the show:

Kirov Academy of Ballet – July 13, 1:00 and 3:30

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company – August 11, 1:00 and 3:30







Hobby Horse, 1965, by Gloria Caranica

Down the hill from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is the companion Perelman Building, a 1927 Art Deco gem with light pouring into its cathedral-like entrance, expansive galleries, and an inviting café with outdoor dining space. Take the shuttle bus (walking across the busy boulevards in this part of town can be hazardous to your health), to see “Design for the Modern Child,” a fresh look at children’s design: furniture, wallpaper, dishes and eating utensils, toys, books, and—of course—video games.

Often the most “modern” design seen here is 50 or 60 years in the past, as with Gloria Caranica’s 1965 Hobby Horse, designed for Creative Playthings in Princeton, NJ. This traditional toy has been reduced to its most basic elements, with all but the fun removed.

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Child’s Chair, 1957, by Kristian Vedel

Many items have more than one use, encouraging the child to engage with the piece in a creative, fluid manner. A 1957 beech plywood laminate “chair” can be used as a table, rocker, nightstand or display shelf by fitting the removable panels into five different pairs of slots. Designed by Kristian Vedel, a Dane, this morphing piece of furniture is still in production and can be found at Module R for a mere $560.00. Or maybe on e-Bay? Another classic, the polyethylene stacking chair by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, 1961, can also be used as a construction toy, and is the signature image for the show.


Giant House of Cards, 1953, by Ray and Charles Eames

Equally simple and appealing is the giant house of cards by American mid-century design icons, Ray and Charles Eames, 1953. Also still in production, these cards can be put together to form 3-D shapes to suit any child’s fancy. The striking designs on the cards are meant to “inform” and “inspire” the child, but the average parent or grandparent might find that a bit far-fetched. Hey, they’re just fun to play with! (A new version is available on Amazon.com for $55.00)

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Bo Boo Fabric, 1975, by Katsuji Wakisaka

The Bo Boo fabric, printed cotton by Katsuji Wakisaka is as charming as it was in 1975 and is also still sold in Merimekko stores and on-line.

Pursuit Plane, 1941, by Viktor Schrecangost

Pursuit Plane, 1941, by Viktor Schrecangost

Who can resist the “Pursuit Plane,” 1941, hanging from the ceiling? Made of metal, rubber, and plastic, it was designed by Viktor Schroechengost (American), and, actually a pedal car, it was destined to remain solidly on the ground.

“Sixteen Animals,” by Enzo Mari (Italian) in 1957, are beautiful standing alone, but they also cleverly join together to form a single rectangle. Merging and joining seems to be a theme here, as with the “Klick” desk, a more recent design (2007) made of birch plywood in which the chair and desk form a cube when fitted together.


Wardrobes, 2004, by Marie-Louise Groot

Of the newer designs, a stand-out was the 2004 wardrobes designed by Marie-Louise Groot to echo the shapes of the townhouses in her native Holland. I am in love with these things and wish there was some way to shoe-horn them into my house, or my grandson Sam’s room, but alas…no room for more houses. . .


Sibis Max Push Car and Lorette Trailer, 2004, by Wolfgang Sirch

Looking like soul-mates to toys from a much earlier era, the Sibis Max Push Car and its adorable trailer, were designed in 2004. Made from ash, rubber, and plastic, by Wolfgang Sirch (German). Both can be found at the Cooper Hewitt Store. Not cheap, admittedly, but then you don’t need to buy gas.

Wolfgang Sirch makes another appearance along with Chris Bitzer (also German), with the low-slung and ultra-modern “Villa Sibi” dollhouse (complete with garden, pool house and lap pool,

"Villa Sibi," 2004, Dollhouse by Wolfgang Sirch and Christopher Bitzer

“Villa Sibi,” 2004, Dollhouse by Wolfgang Sirch and Christopher Bitzer

2004. Made from birch, Plexiglas and beach wood (for the ultra-simple furniture—often nothing more than a suggestion of a bed, a simple slab with a bolster made of round doweling), this elegant yet austere abode may or may not inspire a young child’s fancy.


Dollhouse, 2009, by Linda Sternberg (after Arne Jacobsen)

Another creation seemingly aimed to please adults is Linda Sternberg’s (Danish) dollhouse, 2009, made from wood, metal, after Arne Jacobsen’s house. This ultra-minimal, Bauhaus-y construction is filled with—what else?—Jacobsen’s “egg” and “tulip” chairs. Aside from a couple of abstract designs on the dining room walls, much is left to the child’s imagination, or the wink and nod of the die-hard mid-century buff.

As you’re wandering among these delightful objects, the clanging, beeping, twanging, and boinking of the electronic games causes you to finally investigate. Running in succession are Tetris, Super Mario Brothers (I flashed back to my step-daughter Laura on our sofa with her—was it a Game Boy?) and, the latest entry, Angry Birds. Up until I saw the very irritable birds (various species, various guises) smashing and crashing into brick walls, turrets—every imaginable construction—to unseat and presumably vanquish some hapless pigs, I had only seen my grandson Sam’s inert plastic toy birds.


Birds, 1959, by Kristian Vedel

Ho hum, unless I’m missing something, I’ll stick to their charming 1959 doppelgangers. “Birds,” made of oak and designed by Kristian Vedel. They are not angry. At all. (Available for purchase in the Perelman’s gift store, or at canoe.com for $49.00 apiece.)

On view until October 14, 2013. http://www.contemporaryart.com/philadelphia-museum-of-art/design-for-the-modern-child/