Saturday, April 11, 2015

Four Days in Washington D. C.

By Charles Kessler

The Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.
My friend Tom Wolf curated a major Yasuo Kuniyoshi exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art (through August 30th), and he also wrote a definitive essay for the exhibition catalog. So a gang of us went down to Washington D. C. for a few days to help celebrate the opening. I will be writing about the show soon, but in the meantime, here’s a rave review by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post. For now I want to briefly write about some of the other shows I saw while I was there. (I wrote a guide to the Washington art museums that you can download here if you’re interested.) 

The Phillips Collection
It was not a good time to visit Washington. The Easter and Passover holidays resulted in droves of tourists and their rambunctious kids descending on the museums. Least crowded was the Phillips Collection, probably because it’s in Dupont Circle, not near the Mall with the other museums. They had an exhaustive exhibition of the work of the Dada/Surrealist Man Ray from about 1935-1950: Man Ray–Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare (through May 10th).  
Man Ray in his Studio, ca. 1948 (Photo © Arnold Newman / Liason Agency).
In 1934, on the advice of his friend the artist Max Ernst, Man Ray went to see display of exquisite three-dimensional mathematical models at the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris. This prompted a 15-year exploration of the models in various mediums; and it's the subject of this exhibition. In addition to an impressive amount of Man Ray’s art from the period (70 photographs, 25 paintings, and eight assemblages), the exhibition includes 25 of the original three-dimensional plaster, wood, papier-mâché, and string mathematical models. (The Phillips didn't allow photography, even of the models, so below is a photo of three similar polished plaster ones from the website hyperbolic crochet.)
Mathematical models on display at the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris.
In the mid-1930s, Man Ray photographed these models for the avant-garde publication Cahiers d’Art, but rather than do straightforward documentation, he lighted them in dramatic ways to suggest human anatomy or futuristic mechanisms. 
Man Ray, Mathematical Object, 1934-35, (Collection L. Malle © Man Ray Trust).
In 1947 these photographs inspired a group of paintings that he associated (tenuously, I believe) with titles of Shakespeare’s plays. (A somewhat skull-like painting, for example, he titled Hamlet.)
Left: Man Ray, Objet Mathématique, 1934-1936 (photo); right: Man Ray, All's Well That Ends Well, 1948 (painting).

And he also used these models to inspire surrealist assemblages.
Man Ray, Main Ray, 1935 (The Israel Museum). 
The thing that struck me was how simple and beautiful the original models are, and how fanciful, even arty, the work Man Ray derived from them is. Man Ray was not able, or willing, to restrain the sentimental and romantic nature of his art, unlike his more uncompromising friend, Marcel Duchamp.

Smithsonian Museum of American Art
It’s good to see museums are exhibiting folk and outsider art on a regular basis now. (I wrote about an outsider art exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art here.) There was a lot of powerful and striking work on display, including James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, which wins the prize for flamboyance. 
James Hampton, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly,  ca. 1950-1964, gold and silver aluminum foil over furniture, paperboard and glass, 180 pieces overall, 10 ½ x 27 x 14 feet.
For fourteen years Hampton worked on what he considered a holy space that would welcome the return of Christ. He constructed it out of old furniture, wooden planks, cardboard, insulation board, light bulbs, jelly glasses, desk blotters, mirror fragments, electrical cables and other found objects; and he covered all this with metallic foils and purple paper (now faded to a yellow-tan color). Only a small portion of the 180 components are currently on view. Seeing the complete in its original setting (a rented garage) must have been mind-boggling. 

I was awed by the bravado craftsmanship and exuberant expressionism of the ceramic vessels made by Navajo women:
Betty Manygoats, Wedding Vase with Horned Toad Appliqués, 1988, fired clay with piñon pitch, 23 x 11 3/8 x 11 3/8 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1997.124.162).
Christine McHorse, Wolves Courting at Full Moon, 1988, fired micaceous clay with piñon pitch, 11 5/8 x 13 7/8 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1997.124.161).
Louise Goodman, Bear, 1990, fired clay with piñon pitch, 22 x 11 x 11 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1997.124.154).
and the uncannily animate animal sculptures by Felipe Archuleta:
Foreground, on the left: Felipe Archuleta, Gorilla, 1976, carved and painted cottonwood with glue and sawdust, 40 x 27 x 42 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1986.65.228); and on the right: Felipe Archuleta, Baboon, 1978, carved and painted cottonwood and pine, 69 x 42 x 16 inches (Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1986.65.227).

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
What is it with contemporary art museums? Why are the spaces so often too large, too noisy, and too bright? The Hirshhorn was by far the most chaotic of the museums I went to, especially since they had a Barbara Kruger exhibition that was a visual cacophony – an assault to the senses. (Warning: so is the Hirshhorn website.) 

Fortunately the Hirshhorn has several small, quiet, and dark theaters in the basement devoted to video where I could escape and concentrate. The best of the videos, especially given the mood I was in (a Ryan Trecartin video, much as I ordinarily like them, would not have done), was by Ragnar Kjartansson – his S.S. Hangover, 2013–14 (through April 19th).
Still from Ragnar Kjartansson’s video, S.S. Hangover, 2013–14. © Ragnar Kjartansson.
This was one of Kjartansson's typically gorgeous videos that's reminiscent of Vermeer with its soft golden light and jewel-like color. Basically the S.S. Hangover video shows a small, wooden, old-fashioned looking boat, gliding in and out along a canal, picking up and dropping off members of a brass band who would join an on-board concert. A simple idea, but haunting and affecting. 
Still from Ragnar Kjartansson’s video, S.S. Hangover, 2013–14. © Ragnar Kjartansson.
Freer Gallery of Art
This is my favorite place to look at Asian art. They will be closing for renovation from January 2016 until summer 2017, so enjoy it while you can. In two of the smaller galleries, there's a show of Chinese Ceramics:13th–14th Century (through January 3rd). What sophisticated and exquisite work, especially the celadon-glazed ceramics from Longquan and the porcelain vessels decorated with cobalt pigment from Jingdezhen. The two areas competed with each other for the international market, and the competition drove technical and expressive innovations.  
Bottle, Jizhou ware, Yuan dynasty, 14th century, stoneware with iron glaze splashed with ash glaze, 13 x 8 inches.
Longquan ware vase or bottle, Yuan dynasty, 14th century, stoneware with celadon glaze and reserved bisque panels, 11 x 7 inches. 
And as readers of this blog know, I have a visceral love for ancient Chinese bronzes; and there's always a selection of great ones at the Freer. Here's a group of particularly strange, aggressive and delightfully creepy ones:
Fitting in the form of a tiger, Middle Western Zou dynasty, ca. 900 B.C.E., bronze, 10 x 6 x 29 ½ inches
Lidded ritual ewer with dragons, birds, tigers, elephants, fish, snakes and humans, Shang dynasty, ca. 1600 B.C.E., bronze, 12 ½ x 12 ½ x 6 inches.
On the left: ritual grain server with spikes, ribs, and dragons, Western Zhou dynasty,  ca. 1050 B.C.E., bronze, 9 x 15 inches; and on the right: lidded ritual wine container with birds, Western Zhou dynasty, ca. 1050 B.C.E., bronze, 20 x 14 x 11 inches.

National Gallery of Art
Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence (through May 3rd).

As can be seen in his painting The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, ca. 1489-1490, Piero di Cosimo was among the most technically proficient of early Renaissance painters. His work was influenced by Flemish art and has the same highly realistic detail. 
Piero di Cosimo, The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1489-1490, oil on panel, 72 1/2 x 74 inches (National Gallery of Art, 1939.1.361).
Yet there's something primitive (in a good way) about Piero's art. Like some outsider and folk artists, he had an obsessive concern with wildly imaginative details that he would cram into his larger paintings (see detail below).
Close-up detail of the right side showing "The Annunciation" in the background and "The Massacre of the Innocents" in the foreground. 

Piero di Cosimo, Liberation of Andromeda, c. 1510–1513, oil on panel (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Or this one (above) about Ovid's legend of the beautiful princess Andromeda (on the left, provocatively bare-breasted and tied to a tree) who was sacrificed to a horrible sea monster (or, in this case, a goofy sea monster) and saved by Perseus, flying in on winged feet.
Close-up detail of Perseus slaying the sea monster.
Piero's portraits and smaller devotional paintings, on the other hand, aren't as whimsical as his large paintings, and fit in well with more typical Italian Renaissance painting.
On the left: Piero di Cosimo, Madonna and Child with a Dove, ca. 1490, oil on poplar wood, 33 x 23 inches (Musée du Louvre); and on the right: Piero di Cosimo, Saint Mary Magdalene, 1490s, tempera on panel, 28 ½ x 30 inches (Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, palazzo barberini, Rome).

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