Sculpture near Hirshhorn Museum

Hey, howdy! What’s keeping you sane-ish in these strange and trying times? For me, it’s been hour-long walks near our Southwest DC condo. But with museums and galleries closed, I’m really missing art. Sure, I could tour museums online, but, as we all know, there ain’t nuthin’ like the real thing. One day, as I trekked up to the National Mall, I woke up to the art right under my nose. I’d walked past sculptures by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Anthony Caro, without—shame on me—really seeing them.

Truth to tell, works on paper or paint on canvas have always spoken to me more strongly than sculpture. But if sculptures are all I’ve got, I vowed to go back and really see them. First, I dove into Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art, by art dealer Michael Findlay. If I’d walked by all those works of art for the past three months, all the while bemoaning the lack of art in my life, I clearly needed help. Findlay, despite his many years of scholarship, figured out how to see works with new eyes. Easy-to-master tactics result in a state of mindfulness in which we can be open to art and—maybe, maybe not—be deeply moved by it. There is no right or wrong. If the piece moves you, that’s all you need to know.

So, off I went again to the Mall, first stopping to sit on a bench, close my eyes, and breathe deeply for several minutes. (Step One in the Findlay method.) Next, I tried to let the art pick me (Step Two), rather than looking around for something “important,” or a piece by a well-known artist.

The giant red sculpture just ahead spoke to me—loudly. Step Three: DO NOT read the identifying plaque. You don’t need to know who made it. Let it speak to you on its own. Findlay suggests spending at least three minutes with a work to see what it might give us (Step Four). I checked my watch and started looking. The sculpture looked familiar and I was pretty sure I’d seen similar works crawling hugely over hill and dale at the outdoor Storm King Art Center in upstate New York, but I tried to put that out of my mind.

At first, I saw only the enormous red-orange I-beams arranged at various angles, with one V-shaped piece dangling by a cable. As I gazed, words began to float up in my mind: forthright, masculine, audacious, thrusting, grounded. But that V. That V was oddly touching, hanging out there at the mercy of the wind, moving and changing as it turned. I noticed several other Vs in the composition and, as the light changed, the sculpture began to look like an enormous drawing.

And then something happened. I felt a welling of emotion, of mysterious communion, of awe. The sensation was all the more delicious for being unexpected. In the end, I’d spent eight minutes with the piece and was reluctant to leave it. I suspect I’ll return again and again, seeking it out like an old friend.

Next, a bright and shiny object caught my eye: a life-sized stainless steel character out of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale – a peddler? I noticed all the stuff in his basket: a floppy rabbit, eggs, loaves of bread, cheeses, a ham. In the early days of Covid food shortages, this guy would have been a welcome sight. With his antique clothing – spats, clogs, a flowing smock, a jaunty cap, and that pipe – he was a kitschy voyager, back from “olden days.” Standing in front of the flying saucer Hirshhorn Museum, the effect was jarring.

I circled the sculpture, all burnished and gleaming in the late-morning sun, I wasn’t sure how I felt about him. After about three minutes, a creepy sizzle from his eyes gave me the sense he was watching me. As I moved, his eyes followed. He seemed to say, with a leer, You have no idea who I am or where I came from, do you, honey? I shuddered. No epiphany with this guy, no communion, no awe.

I was relieved to move on and soon came upon two large shapes on a pedestal. Dappled under trees, this piece of abstract art sits overlooking the brooding Rodins in the Hirshhorn’s sunken sculpture garden.

Now I was reminded of another Findlay dictum: to adopt an attitude, not only of seeing, but of watching a work of art. What does it do? Is it alive? As I walked around the sculpture, the bronze shapes did feel animated. I sensed how they yearned toward one another. With their bronze hide-like surface, they sported flippers, fins, arms, leg-like stumps. The shape on the right had the most inquisitive beak and the figure on the left reminded me of Martha Graham writhing in a tube-like sock, her arms protruding now and then to create an alien animal.

After three minutes of circling, I returned to the front of the sculpture. As I watched, the space between the figures began to vibrate and I swear I saw them move toward each other. The energy charge between the two creatures was electric. As I circled the sculpture again, it struck me that those shapes could never have taken any other shape that the ones they’d become. Broad and comforting, maybe male and female, maybe not, the pull they exerted on one another was palpable.

The six-minute experience with these two figures was entirely satisfying, but far quieter than my encounter with the big red sculpture, and far more pleasant than my encounter with Mr. Peddler.

So there you have my experiment in seeing slowly. I highly recommend trying it with the public art where you live. Fortunately for me, Washington, DC is blessed with a large quantity of outdoor art, and as I get more and more hooked on sculpture, I’ll return to this space with more slow observations.

If you’re not in the least curious about who made these works, you can stop reading now.

But if you are, the ten-ton red sculpture, “Are Years What? (For Marianne Moore),” was created by Mark di Suvero in 1967. Moore’s poem, “What Are Years?” seems a remarkably apt one for our times. Click here to hear di Suvero reading it.

Or scroll down to the end of this post to read it yourself.

Marianne Moore

The stainless steel peddler, “Kiepenkerl,” was—yikes!—made by Jeff Koons in 1987. I hate Jeff Koons and his corny balloon dogs! But this work—a transitional one between his repurposed “readymades” (think latter-day Duchamp) and more original (if still outrageous) art. After listening to a Hirshhorn Museum curator’s talks on our man “Kiepenkerl,” I began to have some grudging respect for Koons. You can listen here:

Finally, “Two-piece Reclining Figure, Points,” was created by Henry Moore in 1969-70 and cast in 1973. I love what he said about the two figures:

“The Two-Piece Reclining Figures must have been working around in the back of my mind for years, really. As long ago as 1934 I had done a number of smaller pieces composed of separate forms, two- and three-piece carvings in ironstone, ebony, alabaster and other materials. They were all more abstract than these. I don’t think it was a conscious or intentional thing for me to break up the figures in this way, but I suppose those earlier works from the thirties had something to do with it. . . . I did the first one in two pieces almost without intending to. But after I’d done it, then the second one became a conscious idea. I realised what an advantage a separated two-piece composition could have in relating figures to landscape. Knees and breasts are mountains. Once these two parts become separated you don’t expect it to be a naturalistic figure; therefore, you can justifiably make it like a landscape or a rock. If it is a single figure, you can guess what it’s going to be like. If it is in two pieces, there’s a bigger surprise, you have more unexpected views; therefore the special advantage over painting – of having the possibility of many different views – is more fully exploited.

The front view doesn’t enable one to foresee the back view. As you move round it, the two parts overlap or they open up and there’s space between. Sculpture is like a journey. You have a different view as you return. The three-dimensional world is full of surprises in a way that a two-dimensional world could never be.”

[Henry Moore quoted in Carlton Lake, Henry Moore’s World, Atlantic Monthly, vol.209, no.1, January 1962, p.44]


What are Years, by Marianne Moore

What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt,—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
encourages others
and in its defeat, stirs

the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who
accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
in its surrendering
finds its continuing.

So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
This is mortality,
this is eternity.













Infinity Mirror Room

After what seems a long hiatus away from this space, your intrepid art blogger is back, excited to tell you about “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors,” now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. This popular show has been mobbed with fans during its entire run. More often than not, timed passes on offer at the museum’s website are gobbled up at precisely noon each Monday. My dear friend Jeanne somehow managed to score two passes.

Despite the hassle of getting to see the show, it’s gratifying the excitement this 87-year-old artist has kicked up, especially among young people. Jeanne and I were among only a handful of older people at the museum last Thursday afternoon.

“Violet Obsession,” 1994

This exuberant show is vast — more than 60 paintings, works on paper, sculptures, and installations, including six “infinity mirror rooms” in which banks of LED lights, balloons, and the viewer him or herself repeats endlessly in the mirrored walls.

The show opens with a series of striking works on paper, particularly “Pacific Ocean,” 1959, watercolor and ink. This image, inspired by sun on water as seen from a plane, sparked Kusama’s later “infinity net” paintings.

Next, we came to another seminal work of 1994, a phallus-bedecked rowboat in a room covered in black wallpaper dotted with repeating photographic images of “Violet Obsession,” also the name of a small volume of poetry by the artist.

Gallery of “Accumulations”

Much of this prolific artist’s work has been shaped by her life-long experiences with anxiety and other emotional disorders that have at times erupted into full-blown psychosis. So fragile is her mental state that she voluntarily lives in a psychiatric hospital not far from her studio in Tokyo. Such challenges could well have derailed her creative career. Instead, the soothing aspect of the repetition and duplication of images formed the basis of her work, spurring her on to greater and greater achievement. And she’s not done yet. She still paints daily, from her wheelchair, with canvasses resting on the floor or tables in her studio.

In an effort to rid herself of her fear of sex, Kusama create whimsical “accumulations” of hand-made stuffed tubers affixed to objects and surfaces. Who’s to say if they helped the artist with her fears? All we can do is enjoy them.

“No. Green No. 1,” 1961

Several large mesmerizing “infinity net” paintings are hung together in the same gallery as the accumulations. Beginning at the age of ten, Kusama began painting repetitive polka dots and nets to calm her agitation due to a turbulent family life. Formed of countless loops, with some paint texture visible and bathed in luminous color, these works are utterly absorbing. Hauntingly ethereal, they form a fascinating counterpoint to the stuffed protuberances across the room. The wall text observes that Kusama’s infinity nets happened to jibe with the “painterly qualities of abstract expressionism and the restraint and monochrome [palate] of minimalism,” both on display in “No. Green No. 1,” 1961.

Waiting line for the first of the “infinity mirror rooms,” (using mirrors was Kusama’s way of continuing her theme of repetition without destroying her fingers and hands sewing and stuffing fabric tubes with kapok), we took in a slide show of the artist’s 1966 14th Street “Happening” in which she appears to pop in and out of a phallus be-decked box.

“14th Street Happening,” 1966

The six infinity mirror rooms on display here create a dazzle of reflections of themselves and the viewer. “All the Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins,” 1966, was our favorite. Kusama’s family was in the plant seed business and she remembers being charmed by the dumpling-shaped gourds as a child. The acrylic pumpkins are indeed charming; begging to be touched. We resisted, but evidently one of the pumpkins was damaged by a viewer, causing the show to be briefly closed while curators rearranged the pumpkin field.

Once inside each of the mirrored rooms, our images, along with a seemingly infinite number of pumpkins, phalli, balloons, polka dots and pin-point lights were multiplied to the vanishing point. Viewers are allowed exactly 30 seconds before the next pair of attendees is let in. These structures are fun, make no mistake, but for me, at least, they caused nothing like the enveloping merge-with-the cosmos sensation we were led to expect. Instead, they come off as a side-show/fun house sort of gimmick. And the waits are LONG, my friends. After three mirrored infinity room, one feels like it’s taken at least a millennium to get to the next one.

“All the Eternal Love I have for the Pumpkins,” 2016

On the other hand, a series of collages are unexpectedly subtle, moving, and mysterious. Look for “Soul Going Back to its Home,” 1975, a touching homage made for Kusama’s friend the surrealist artist Joseph Cornell who had recently died.

The exhibit closes with the made-for-the Hirshhorn “Obliteration Room.” Each museum goer, or pair of them, is given specially made stickers to apply to the all-white room. Furnished with donated Ikea furniture, books, lamps, and other household objects furnished by museum staff, the room’s surfaces are slowly being obliterated by colorful dots.

If you choose to make the trek, and if the gods of the Hirshhorn’s balky website are with you, bring water and wear comfy shoes, and, of course, bring your phone or a camera. You won’t be able to resist at least one selfie.

“Obliteration Room”

Once the Hirshhorn show closes on May 14, good news: it will move on to the Seattle Museum of Art, June 30-September 10; the Broad, Los Angeles, October 21- January 10, 2018; the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, March 3-May 27, 2018; the Cleveland Museum of Art, July 9-September 30, 2018; and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, November 18-February 17, 2019.



"Lucky U," 1960

“Lucky U,” 1960

The title of this show is taken from Robert Irwin’s words about his intention to move from traditional art—paint on canvas—to more “conditional” works that deal with light and space directly. At the Hirschhorn Museum in DC, this is the first historical survey of the California artist’s work from the late 1950s through today. Up until September 5, 2016—the Hirshhorn is the only venue—it’s a rare treat.

"Ocean Park," 1960-61

“Ocean Park,” 1960-61

Of the show, its curator, Evelyn Hankins said, “The historical portion of the exhibition includes many rarely seen works that, because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing. And as both these objects and the new installation demonstrate, Irwin’s art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over an extended period of time.” Italics mine.

In the late 1950s Irwin created small works meant to be held by the viewer. Beautifully framed in wood, these small paintings hang on two walls and lie flat in a case in the middle of the gallery. They possess a tactile, restless energy that does invite touch. “Lucky U,” a little charmer made in 1960, was loaned from the collection of the artist, now 87.

crazy ottoA larger painting, “Ocean Park,” 1960-61, evokes the series of the same name made by Richard Diebenkorn. Irwin’s vision of the California community where both artists drew inspiration is more kinetic that Diebenkorn’s calmer vision. Lines fly as if hurled by some paint-wielding Thor. Is that a jet plane about to land? Cars streaming by? Tides surging, lawn chairs in a jumble? Loved it. Then I read that this was one of the “pick-up sticks” paintings in which Irwin wanted to expel any visual associations with the real world. Oops.

From 1961 to 1964, Irwin made a series of “line” paintings in his desire to obliterate the “Rorschach effect” in which the eye makes associations with elements of nature or human figures. Or lawn chairs. In “Crazy Otto,” 1962, four heliotrope lines vibrate against a vivid background. One thinks first of Otto. Who was he? In what way was he crazy? And then, inevitably, of Rothko.

"Untitled," 1963-65

“Untitled,” 1963-65

The artist further challenged himself to make a painting without making a visible mark. This, our curator Hankins tells us, is the flex point in Irwin’s career. In the “dot paintings” he has made works that require an “active, persevering viewer.” True. It’s impossible to see these works in reproduction, or even standing back from them by the usual three or four feet. In “Untitled,” 1963-65, what looks like a uniform white ground is revealed to be gazillions of tiny dots in complementary colors that effectively cancel each other out.

In 1966 Irwin abandoned painting on canvas altogether and began working with auto body shops and industrial fabricators to create objects that test the “experiential and material limits of art.”

Acrylic Column, 1969 - 2011

Acrylic Column, 1969 – 2011

Floor-to-ceiling acrylic columns, triangular in shape, and highly polished, refract light while doing very interesting things to the people who walk by them. Something about the simplicity of conception and the quality of execution of these columns made me think of Donald Judd’s work in mill aluminum. Just as I wondered if the artists knew one another, two photographers began to set up, each wearing T-shirts that read, “Robert Irwin Opening: Dawn to Dusk, 23 July, 2016, Marfa Texas.” They were absorbed in their work, and didn’t seem approachable, but a young woman who appeared to be with them said they were working on a documentary.

"Dawn to Dusk," 2016, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas

“Dawn to Dusk,” 2016, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas

Later, Google filled me in. Yes, Judd and Irwin knew each other and Judd admired and collected Irwin’s work. Sixteen years in the planning, a new large-scale Irwin piece was installed this month in an old Army hospital at Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa. For more on Donald Judd and Chinati, see my October, 2013 blog post.

Made in 1969, the “Untitled” disc had me and a group of young art campers enthralled. The painted aluminum disc gives off a pale yellow radiance that blushes at the edges. Again, the artist is playing with our perception of “art.” Shadow and light are as important to this ethereal piece as paint on aluminum.

Untitled Disc, 1966-67

Untitled Disc, 1966-67

Even more spell-binding is another of the untitled disc series, also made in 1969. Lit from above, the work is positively otherworldly. I expected it to speak, utter oracular wisdom, or some Hal-like pronouncement.

The Hirshhorn is a giant doughnut of a building, with the galleries along the outer rim and a ring of glass overlooking a fountain in the interior hole of the doughnut. When you walk from gallery to gallery, you’re aware of the circle you’re tracing, but at the same time, not.

Untitled Disc, 1969

Untitled Disc, 1969

Entering “Squaring the Circle,” 2016, Irwin’s site-specific piece, you’re warned that your “perceptions will be challenged.” In the center of a wall is a doorway within a glowing white space. You feel pulled toward the door. Is it real? Can you walk through it without, like Alice, being plunged into some new reality? After a bit of exploration, you realize the curve of the gallery wall has flattened. In fact, the “wall” is a white gauze scrim stretched across the vast space so that it appears solid and the door appears to float inside the actual door to the outer rim of the doughnut.

"Squaring the Circle," 2016

“Squaring the Circle,” 2016

The show closes with a 1973 video of Irwin speaking about his art. I wasn’t able to find it on YouTube, but here’s a link to his fascinating talk at Stanford University in which both the Hirshhorn and Marfa installations are discussed.

You have to put up with a gassy introduction, but it’s worth it.




















































Said Hirshhorn Curator Evelyn Hankins, who organized the exhibition. “The historical portion of the exhibition includes many rarely seen works that, because of their extremely subtle nature, demand in-person viewing. And as both these objects and the new installation demonstrate, Irwin’s art becomes fully present only when you are standing in the physical space, experiencing it over an extended period of time.”



"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.




hirshhorn_buildingYesterday I took a fresh look at this vibrant museum on Washington’s National Mall. The third floor galleries have reopened after renovation, and, in celebration of the museum’s 40th anniversary, an installation—At the Hub of Things: New Views of the Collection—presents some sixty works in various media from the permanent collection.

fountainDesigned by Gordon Bunshaft—the architect also gave us the elegant Lever Building in New York City—the cylindrical building didn’t immediately wow the critics, or DC’s residents, for that matter:

“[The building] is known around Washington as the bunker or gas tank, lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign… It totally lacks the essential factors of esthetic strength and provocative vitality that make genuine ‘brutalism’ a positive and rewarding style. This is born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern. Its mass is not so much aggressive or overpowering as merely leaden.” Ada Louise Huxtable, The New York Times, October 6, 1974.

"Cloud," 2006, by Spencer Finch

“Cloud,” 2006, by Spencer Finch

I usually agree with Ada Louise Huxtable’s bracing criticism, but in this case, I’m inclined to side with The Washington Post’s Benjamin Forgey:

“[The Hirshhorn is] the biggest piece of abstract art in town-a huge, hollowed cylinder raised on four massive piers, in absolute command of its walled compound on the Mall…. The circular fountain…is a grand concoction…that for good reason has become the museum’s visual trademark.” Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post, November 4, 1989.

"At the Hub of Things," 1987, by Anish Kapoor

“At the Hub of Things,” 1987, by Anish Kapoor

As you rise up the escalator to the third floor galleries you’re treated to Spencer Finch’s “Cloud (H2O),” 2006, a hovering galaxy of light fixtures and bulbs that manages to mimic a starry sky. Lovely to come back full circle through the outer galleries and admire it again.

The first object in this show that really grabbed me was Anish Kapoor’s “At the Hub of Things,” 1987, made of Prussian blue pigment and resin on foam. The wall notes tell us that Kapoor was inspired by the Hindu festival celebrating the blue-skinned goddess, Kali. Kapoor described this piece as “A hole in space…something that does not exist.” The work draws you in, as if into an Yves Klein blue-black hole. At first glance, the facing surface appears to be flat, but as you move around the conical object, you begin to see that it’s hollow.

"Canton Palace," 1980, by Hiroshi Sugimoto

“Canton Palace,” 1980, by Hiroshi Sugimoto

Nicely paired with “Hub” is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Canton Palace, Ohio,” 1980. To create this haunting photograph, Sugimoto opened his camera’s shutter at the beginning of a movie, and closed it at the end, thus creating this blinding void.

"Cold Mountain 2," by Brice Marden

“Cold Mountain 2,” by Brice Marden

Minimalist Brice Marden’s huge, “Cold Mountain 2” was one of a series made between 1989 and 1991. This lively canvas writhes with energy and is a real eye-popper, despite the muted palette. We learn that in the 1980s Marden was drawn to the poetry of the Tang Dynasty hermit Hanshan (“cold mountain”) and was moved to explore calligraphy’s grand gesture and spontaneity.

"Sound Suit 2009, 'Happy Easter,'" by Nick Cave

“Sound Suit 2009, ‘Happy Easter,'” by Nick Cave

Far from Marden’s subtle approach, but equally engaging, is Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit, 2009, ‘Happy Easter.’” I was knocked out by this fanciful concoction of thrift store junk, beaded baskets and bangles, all topped by a papier-mâché Easter rabbit. It’s called a “soundsuit” because it clanks and tinkles when worn. I wanted to see and hear this dazzling Mardi Gras confection in motion. Voila! Click this YouTube link:

"Hommage a Jasper Johns," 1964-65, by Mary Bauermeister

“Hommage a Jasper Johns,” 1964-65, by Mary Bauermeister

“In Memory of Your Feelings, or Hommage à Jasper Johns,” by Mary Bauermeister, 1964 – 65, hangs next to a work by Johns. In my view (pun intended) this mesmerizing piece is more in the spirit of Joseph Cornell than Johns. Made of glass lenses, wood, ink, and paint, this creation, whose title was adapted from a poem by Frank O’Hara—a great friend of artists—evokes psychedelic art of the day, trippy and mind-bending like seashells that balloon and morph behind the lenses.

"Untitled No. 10," 1980, by Paul Sarkisian

“Untitled No. 10,” 1980, by Paul Sarkisian

The tour-de-force “Untitled No. 10,” 1980, by Paul Sarkisian, in acrylic and silk screen on canvas, reflects several classic genres: trompe l’oeil painting, cubist collage, and mid-century abstraction, combining them in a new and confounding way. I defy you to stand before this one-dimensional painting and not feel compelled to slip your hand behind the diagonal row of colored paper, so convincing is its rendering. Your eye is equally fooled by the newspaper cunningly slipped inside the box fold. Well, your eye is fooled by the whole thing.

"Opposition," 1968, by Gio Pomodoro

“Opposition,” 1968, by Gio Pomodoro

Giò Pomodoro’s “Opposition,” 1968, made of fiberglass and paint, blends the organic with the industrial in a surprisingly engaging way. The bulging and dimpled surfaces suggest human or aircraft skin on the point of bursting. It was only when I downloaded this image that I thought I saw a classically posed female form behind the surface.

One of the treats of this museum-in-the-round is that you have another show to look forward to: the inner round (with screened windows that look out into the courtyard and fountain) houses sculpture. As I usually enjoy paintings and works on paper more than sculpture, I didn’t think I’d want to tell you about the inner ring, but I took such pleasure in walking it, and was so struck by many of the works that I had to include a couple here.

"Indifferent One," 1959, by Philippe Hiquily

“Indifferent One,” 1959, by Philippe Hiquily

I’m in love with Philippe Hiquily’s iron “Indifferent One,” 1959. Now we’re firmly back in the mid-20th century, a place I could dwell forever. How charming this piece is, and how technically difficult it must have been to balance the bulk of the body with those delicate pointy legs.

I had the same sense of home-coming with Reg Butler’s “Family Group,” 1948, also in iron, perhaps because it reminded me of my father’s family portrait, “The Three.” Come to my house and I’ll show it to you. For now, just enjoy this Saul Steinbergian family, so intertwined and interconnected, so quirky and strange, as all our families are.

"Family Group," 1948, by Reg Butler

“Family Group,” 1948, by Reg Butler

For those of us in Washington who love the museum, At the Hub of Things is not only a welcome coming-out party for the renovated third floor, but also a chance to see the collection in a new light. This selection from the permanent collection will not disappoint lovers of Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois, Sol Lewitt, and Bruce Nauman, to name a few, but it is not a show of the Hirshhorn’s greatest hits. Curators Evelyn Hankins and Melissa Ho present us with provocative choices and themes. Some of the work eludes me, of course, as I’m not always a fan of the contemporary conceptualist trope. Still, there’s much to soak up here, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark.

Joseph H. Hirshhorn

Joseph H. Hirshhorn

After making your way around both inner and outer rings, flop on the sofa in the Lerner room and take in the splendid view of the National Mall from its windows. The museum has a lively website as well, allowing you to search by artist and delve deeply into the vast collection bequeathed by newsboy turned financier and philanthropist, Joseph H. Hirshhorn.