"Popocatepetl--Spirited Morning," by Marsden Hartley, 1932

“Popocatepetl–Spirited Morning,” by Marsden Hartley, 1932

Sam Rose, the Washington DC attorney and real estate developer and his wife, Julie Walters, have built a rich and varied art collection over many years. Now, according to Sam, they’ve run out of wall space. Luckily for us, they’ve shared their collection in a show now at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. The title—Cross Currents—didn’t immediately reveal curator Virginia Mecklenburg’s theme, but after watching an October 30, 2015 webcast, I got it.

"Untitled Vertical," by Jackson Pollock, 1949

“Untitled Vertical,” by Jackson Pollock, 1949

The cross currents describe the flow of Americans who flocked to Paris in the early 1900s and were inspired by European modernists. Later in the mid-twentieth century, the flow reversed, with European artists drawn to the energy and dynamism of the “cubist, modernist” city of New York. Frankly, the show didn’t illustrate this theme as well as it might have, but no matter, it’s an engrossing experience. Hung in two generously sized galleries, it’s a large show, but not so huge as to be overpowering.

"Agricola IV," by David Smith, 1952

“Agricola IV,” by David Smith, 1952

The first to leap off the wall was Marsden Hartley’s “Popocatépetl, Spirited Morning—Mexico,” 1932, painted while Hartley lived in Mexico City. The image fuses the twin mythical volcanoes of Iztacc and Popo, the star-crossed lovers of Aztec myth, turned forever to glacial mountains by the gods. The icy white clouds of steam (or snowy boulders?) mount tension at the bottom of the picture, while the intense blue of the mountain is startlingly potent, seeming to contain unseen the orangey reds of latent eruption.

"Tete d'homme, profil" by Pablo Picasso, 1963

“Tete d’homme, profil” by Pablo Picasso, 1963

Much the same organic energy can be seen in Jackson Pollock’s “Untitled Vertical,” 1949. This painting is so fresh and new, so alive with calligraphic flourishes, that is seems timeless, evoking both the ancient and the new: Chinese and Japanese scrolls and revolutionary modern art. Pollack said, “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing.” The meditative feel of this painting has much the same effect on the viewer. You can spend a long, pleasurable time in front of this image. The wall text observes that this painting represents “the most dramatic breakthrough in painting since Picasso’s cubism.” I agree.

"The DeVegh Twins," by Alice Neel, 1975

“The DeVegh Twins,” by Alice Neel, 1975

I have a mad crush on David Smith. For good reason, don’t you think? “Agricola IV,” 1952, dates from a time that Smith hunted pieces of rusting farm implements near his studio in Bolton Landing, New York and welded them together. Evoking Calder’s wire portraits and tribal art, the Agricola series launched Smith’s career as an important modernist sculptor.

Walters and Rose have a serious addiction to acquiring Picasso, one of my least favorite artists. Sorry, but I think he’s over-rated. Millions would disagree. Vehemently. Julie and Sam among them, I’m sure. That said, along with a charming selection of his ceramic vessels, I did enjoy “Tête d’homme, profil,” 1963. This fellow appears to be a human megaphone with a lot to say. You can picture him, a fervent nihilist, perhaps, holding forth in a café, eyes popping out of his head, and a dense five o’clock shadow on his cheek. A telling portrait in which the abstraction has a wry purpose.

"Meringues," by Wayne Thiebaud, 1988

“Meringues,” by Wayne Thiebaud, 1988

Among the marvelous portraits seen here is Alice Neel’s “The DeVegh Twins,” 1975. Neel’s habit of showing unvarnished truth in her portraiture, slyly evoking the less attractive sides of many of her subjects is seen here. The girls, daughters of the artist and art restorer, Geza DeVegh, clearly have very different personalities. The girl on the left appears open, trusting, pliable and obedient, leaning fondly into her sister, while her twin signals “piece of work” – she’s difficult, intractable, and defiant. We don’t know what DeVegh made of this portrait, but we do know that many people who sat for Neel didn’t care for her often unflattering images and declined to hang them in their homes.

"Revue Girl," by Wayne Thiebaud, 1963

“Revue Girl,” by Wayne Thiebaud, 1963

Walters and Rose have acquired Wayne Thiebaud (this time a favorite of mine) in depth as well.  In addition to pies (“Meringues,” 1988)—who can resist them—we see the same luscious sculpted surfaces in “Revue Girl,” 1963. A huge image, this woman towers above the viewer, amazon and totem in one. She, an anonymous dancer in a line of identical performers, is shown as singular and powerful. “There’s a lot of yearning,” Thiebaud said of his pies, cakes, and candies and the same could be said of this unattainable revue goddess.

Roy Lichtenstein’s amusing, “Mobile III,” 1990, is a clear reference to Alexander Calder’s mobiles, with more than passing reference to Miro and Picasso. What a perfect summation of the “currents” flowing in this

"Mobile III," by Roy Lichtenstein, 1990

“Mobile III,” by Roy Lichtenstein, 1990

exhibit. Of course, this “mobile” doesn’t move at all, perhaps symbolizing the final iteration of Mondrian’s impulse to make static art move. Whump—we’ve hit a wall. Now we have a cartoon of the original.

In “Black Scarf,” 1995, we meet another “goddess and sphinx,” Alex Katz’s muse and wife of 60 years, Ada. In this closely cropped portrait, Ada looks away from the viewer, at something tantalizingly off-camera. The flattened bill-board style is emblematic of Katz’s early style, which anticipated Pop Art, and here in its mature incarnation evokes a surprisingly broad range of emotions.

Picture 023

Picture 023

The great African-American artist, Elizabeth Catlett created “Stepping Out” in 2000. This image doesn’t fully capture the charm of this piece, the energy and forthright gait of this small woman as she sets out into the world in her finery, proud of the figure she cuts, and more than ready for what the world will dish out.

There’s a lot more to relish in this show. Fans of Joan Miro, Alexander Calder, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keefe, Richard Diebenkorn, David Hockney, Niki de Saint Phalle, Romare Bearden, Andy Warhol, and Fernando Botero will encounter wonderful works here, some perhaps never seen before. Three cheers to Julie and Sam!

"Stepping Out," by Elizabeth Catlett, 2000

“Stepping Out,” by Elizabeth Catlett, 2000

The show is up until April 10, 2016.


Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

Atrium, National Portrait Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Andy Warhol," by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

“Andy Warhol,” by Jamie Wyeth, 1976

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Stokeley Carmichael," by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

“Stokeley Carmichael,” by Jacob Lawrence, 1966

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

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

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

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

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

"Jack Kerouac," by Larry Rivers, 1960

“Jack Kerouac,” by Larry Rivers, 1960


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

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

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

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

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

unmoored before the brilliant red background.

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

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