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Aerial view of the NGA roof terrace

Aerial view of the NGA roof terrace

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

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

"Hahn/Coick," 2013, by Katharina Fritsch

“Hahn/Coick,” 2013, by Katharina Fritsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Germinal," 1967, by Louise Bourgeois

“Germinal,” 1967, by Louise Bourgeois

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

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

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

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

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

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

autumn-gold

“Autumn Gold,” 1957, by Hans Hofmann

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

"Black Popcorn," 1965, by Gene Davis

“Black Popcorn,” 1965, by Gene Davis

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

"Relative," 1969, by Sam Gilliam

“Relative,” 1969, by Sam Gilliam

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

"Untitled," 1978 by Alexander Calder

“Untitled,” 1978 by Alexander Calder

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

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

"Bottle Rack," 1920, by Marcel Duchamp

“Bottle Rack,” 1920, by Marcel Duchamp

Unless you want to spend your Valentine’s Day at the Hirshhorn Museum here in DC (hey, not a bad idea…) you will have missed the surrealist exhibit Marvelous Objects. If you don’t drop everything and go, stick with this post. It’s a fascinating show, and I say that as not the world’s biggest fan of melting clocks, De Chirico’s chilly dreamscapes, or one-trick dadaist ponies, like Duchamp’s urinal. Ho hum. But the objects gathered here are, many of them, marvelous indeed.

The first gallery, entitled “The Object” does have some moldy figs including Duchamp’s 1920 bottle rack (making wonderful shadows on the gallery wall). From there on, surprises abound.

"Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing," 1928. by Jean Arp Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT Purchased through the gift of James Junius Goodwin, 1937.91

“Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing,” 1928. by Jean Arp

Among them is a fabulous array of Jean Arp’s two-dimensional pieces. The wall notes tell us that Arp developed his biomorphic nature-based art as an antidote to the horrors of World War I. I do love these works, maybe because they remind me of the papier-maché bas-relief pieces my father created in the ’fifties and ’sixties. “Objects Placed on Three Planes, Like Writing,” 1928, is one of them. A lot of their charm lies in their whimsical titles, which evoke a smile and a twist of one’s initial perception of the piece. As in, “Head with Annoying Objects (Mustache, Mandolin, and Fly),” 1930, bronze.

"Head with Annoying Objects...," 1930, by Jean Arp

“Head with Annoying Objects…,” 1930, by Jean Arp

Alberto Giacometti said of his artistic process, “I search, groping to catch hold of the invisible white thread of the Marvelous that vibrates in the void; from it escapes facts and dreams with the sound of a stream running over small, precious, living pebbles…” This crystalline vision is dashed by “Woman with her Throat Cut,” 1932, a creepy thing lying in the middle of the space like road kill. In his excellent review, The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott observes: “…it’s a strength of this exhibition that curator Valerie Fletcher is forthright about the almost inevitable direction that the freeing up of the creative mind would take so many of these men: straight to the rag-and-bone shop of mis­ogyny.” I prefer the serene “Reclining Woman who Dreams,” bronze and paint, 1929.

"Reclining Woman Who Dreams," 1929, by Alberto Giacometti

“Reclining Woman Who Dreams,” 1929, by Alberto Giacometti

Salvador Dali’s “Aphrodisiac Jacket,” 1936, is a refreshing take on seduction and sexual ambiguity, featuring both a men’s shirt collar and tie and a brassiere tucked inside the jacket. The shot glasses originally held peppermint schnapps and viewers were invited to take a sip. A brave move, as some of the glasses have spiders suspended in the green liquid. As I viewed this amusing piece, a young woman chewing gum approached, giving the experience a minty verisimilitude. Also on view here is Dali’s “Lobster Telephone,” 1938. In the original, a real lobster replaced the receiver, and eventually added another fragrance to the viewer’s all-too-interactive experience.

"Aphrodisiac Jacket," 1936, by Salvador Dali

“Aphrodisiac Jacket,” 1936, by Salvador Dali

I’m grateful to the curator for broadening my notion of surrealism by including such exemplars of “international biomorphism” as Henry Moore, David Smith, Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, and Joan Miro. One look at Miro’s “Lunar Bird,” 1945, bronze, and you know where Jeff Koons got a lot of his inspiration.

"Lobster Telephone," 1938 by Salvador Dali

“Lobster Telephone,” 1938 by Salvador Dali

The American visionary, Joseph Cornell, is given an entire room to display his “Dream Worlds in a Box.” Cornell, while working with many of the same materials as his brethren (found objects, printed ephemera, marbles, feathers), avoided any hint of sex or violence, preferring to create charming assemblages that evoke childhood fantasy, as in “Medici Princess,” 1948-1952.

"Lunar Bird," 1945, by Joan Miro

“Lunar Bird,” 1945, by Joan Miro

Providing “a darker view,” according to curator Fletcher, Isamu Noguchi is another artist whom I would not classify as a surrealist. Indeed, the Noguchi foundation’s website says the artist didn’t belong to any school or movement but “collaborated with artists working in a range of media.” Those artists include my beloved dance teacher, Erick Hawkins, for whom Noguchi designed beautiful stage sets. In any event, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Noguchi was incarcerated for seven months at an Arizona internment camp for Japanese-Americans. The foundation’s website tells us that he asked to be placed there as part of his activism on behalf of Nisei writers and artists.

"Medici Princess," 1948-52, by Joseph Cornell

“Medici Princess,” 1948-52, by Joseph Cornell

Of his experience at the camp, Noguchi wrote, “The memory of Arizona was like that of the moonscape of the mind…Not given the actual space of freedom, one makes its equivalent…where the imagination may roam to the further limits of possibilities, to the moon and beyond.” Made of cement, electric lights, cork, and string, “Lunar Landscape,” 1943-44, is his testament to the experience.

In a gallery called “Industrial Strength Surrealism,” I was thrilled to see Alexander Calder’s “Fish,” (metal, wood, painted metal, glass

"Lunar Landscape," 1943-44, by Isamu Noguchi

“Lunar Landscape,” 1943-44, by Isamu Noguchi

and ceramic), 1944, an old friend featured in my novel, Still Life with Aftershocks. You’ll also see it in the banner on this website. In this show, the piece is hung at eye level. Denizens of DC are used to seeing “Fish” float above them in the Calder room in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, now closed for renovation.

"Fish," 1944, by Alexander Calder

“Fish,” 1944, by Alexander Calder

Forged from farm implements and scrap metal, David Smith’s “Agricola 1,” steel and paint, 1951-52, is perhaps a better example of industrial art. This sculpture, with its bold and forthright abstraction, has a spirited presence. Once again, this admired artist would not fit my formerly narrow idea of a surrealist. No matter – I appreciated the more inclusive vision of the curator.

"Agricola 1," 1951-52, by David Smith

“Agricola 1,” 1951-52, by David Smith

 

And I hope you, dear reader, have enjoyed this glimpse – especially if you don’t get to see the show before it closes February 15, 2016.

 

 

 

Gates, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, by Claire Falkenstein

Gates, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, by Claire Falkenstein

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

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

"Arc of Petals," 1941, by Alexander Calder

“Arc of Petals,” 1941, by Alexander Calder

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

"Silhouette," 1916, by Man Ray

“Silhouette,” 1916, by Man Ray

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

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

"Empor (Upward," 1929, by Wassily Kandinsky

“Empor (Upward,” 1929, by Wassily Kandinsky

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

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

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

"Le Facteur Cheval," 1932, by Max Ernst

“Le Facteur Cheval,” 1932, by Max Ernst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earrings by Yves Tanguy, 1938

Earrings by Yves Tanguy, 1938

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

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

"The Parachutists," 1944, by William Baziotes

“The Parachutists,” 1944, by William Baziotes

"Sacrifice," 1946, by Mark Rothko

“Sacrifice,” 1946, by Mark Rothko

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

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

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

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

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

Peggy Guggenheim wearing earrings by Alexander Calder

Peggy Guggenheim wearing earrings by Alexander Calder

 

"Three Quintains (Hello Girls," 1965

“Three Quintains (Hello Girls),” 1965

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

"White Panel," 1936

“White Panel,” 1936

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

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

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

"Small Feathers," 1931

“Small Feathers,” 1931

More early wire sculptures in the

"La Demoiselle," 1939

“La Demoiselle,” 1939

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

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

"Snow Flurry," 1948

“Snow Flurry,” 1948

"Boomerangs," 1941

“Boomerangs,” 1941

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

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

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

"Constellation with Two Pins, " 1940s

“Constellation with Two Pins, ” 1940s

"Little Pierced Disc," 1947

“Little Pierced Disc,” 1947

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

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

"Blue Feather," 1948

“Blue Feather,” 1948

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

"La Grande Vitesse," 1969

“La Grande Vitesse,” 1969

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

"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.

http://www.phillipscollection.org/exhibitions/index.aspx