"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.


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

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

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

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

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

"World Trade Center Series," Kevin Bubriski, 2001

“World Trade Center Series,” Kevin Bubriski, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

"Butte, Montana," 1956, by Robert Frank

“Butte, Montana,” 1956, by Robert Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marina’s Room,” 1987, by Tina Barney

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

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

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

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

"Pepper #30," 1930, by Edward Weston

“Pepper #30,” 1930, by Edward Weston


and power of a Henry Moore Sculpture.

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

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

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


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

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

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