Category Archives: Museums

Several in our class are graduate students in the Arts Management program and will contribute ideas and essays about museums.

Art illuminates fragile Lebanese life

By Alexandra Wells

ArtsPost Staff Writer

Photo provided by Katzen Arts Center.

Art, as defined in Webster’s dictionary, is “the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.”  Reflecting the dreams, history and depressing reality of Lebanese culture after its civil war (1975-1990), Convergence: New Art from Lebanon is a gem of an exhibit showing in Washington.

As the first exhibition in North America to introduce Lebanon’s post-civil war art, it expresses both the vigor for and the precariousness of life in Lebanon today and will be at The American University, in the Katzen Arts Center through May 16. The show was co-selected by the Katzen Museum’s director, Jack Rasmussen, and a highly respected Lebanese curator, Amal Traboulsi.

The various peoples of Lebanon have continuously overlapped in their cultures, sometimes violently, since before the birth of Christ.  This juxtaposing of peoples has allowed for vibrant art to be created, partly from the violence that often engulfs the region. Modern-day artists have used the country’s historical convergence of cultures to create the show’s masterpieces.

Although many works of photography appear in the show, there are also more high-tech mediums, such as video art and digital animation.  The show features 30 talented artists who created more than 50 paintings, sculptures and digital works of art.  Of these unique artistic representations, more than a third of the creators are women who live in Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut.

Depressing destruction infuses Nada Sehnaoui’s elegant photographic grid “Rubble,” a 3-by-3 meter collage portraying multiple views of debris in Lebanon.  Artist Nadim Karam created a 16-foot high metal piece of art made solely for this Washington show.  The work brings about bitter feelings stirred up by lives influenced by war, but also by hope, represented by the installment of a cloud-like garden.

Another piece of art, an oil painting on canvas by Marwan Sahmarani, depicts soldiers at night.  This dark work is meant to be a guiding light for future generations to view and then learn from so they can avoid the violence of their ancestors.  Although the work is beautifully painted, Sahmarani writes that it should serve as a reminder of the cyclical patterns of Lebanon’s violent history.

The American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center is free and open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., everyday except Monday.  For more information, call 202-885-ARTS.

The Search for a Lost Identity

By Charlie Carroll

ArtsPost staff writer

For the most part, children are educated in grade school about the founding of this nation through a restricted lens, focusing on poems about how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue or the American settlements of the English Puritans.  We learn about America’s dark past through slavery and the near destruction of Native American populations.  However, one of the untold stories about the interactions between the first three main groups of people that shaped the nation’s history is the way in which African Americans and Native Americans interacted and mixed with each other throughout American history.  “Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” currently being presented at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a wonderful and eye-opening exhibit about the history of mixed-heritage minorities that were significantly influenced by the development of the United States.

The story is one that is rarely told, or at least rarely explained and taught to the fullest extent.  Most people know that each group has suffered significantly over the last few centuries at the hands of colonial settlers, but little is known about the lives and experiences of those who share mixed ancestry and how the social dynamics of their interactions have shaped our perceptions of these people.  The Indivisible exhibit provides a valuable insight into the trials, tribulations, and successes that grew out of these interactions.

Indivisible is much more than just a museum exhibit, but an ongoing project brought together by a number of dedicated organizers.  All aspects of production for this project were undertaken on behalf of the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.  Aside from the larger organizations, a number of dedicated African-Native American men and women contributed to organizing the research through relationships with tribal communities as well as academic researchers from across the nation.

The 20-panel museum exhibit is located on the second level of the Museum of the American Indian, tucked away to a room near the main elevators.  The panels are divided into 4 main categories (policy, community, creative resistance and lifeways) with each panel analyzing a specific topic supported by copies of primary documents, such as original art, old photographs and slavery records.  In addition to the actual exhibit, the organizers of put together a 256-page book that includes 27 essays ranging from the Cherokee Freedmen debate to the effects of Jim Crow policy on the populations.

The exhibit does not boast any specific interactive or engaging multimedia elements aside from a 10-minute video looping at the back of the room.  However, the strength of the exhibit does not lie in the implementation of new technologies, but in the authenticity and details of the personal testimonials shown in the video itself.  In one testimonial, a young woman breaks down crying, saying that for so long a part of her was “shut off” and that she has been deeply moved by her new sense of belonging.  The need to belong and understand one’s true identity is the crux of the exhibit and is a basic human need that makes the underlying theme of the exhibit relatable to almost anyone.

The exhibit, which debuted on Nov.10 of last year, will be presented at the National Museum of the American Indian until May 31.  Following the Washington stint three copies of the exhibition will tour nationwide at a number of museums and cultural centers that will end in March of 2012.

O’Sullivan captures the Wild West

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

Traditional tales of outlaw escapades and cowboy adventures are long forgotten in the hauntingly desolate yet picturesque collection of photographs by Timothy O’ Sullivan currently on exhibit in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. While traveling across of the country from 1867 to 1874 with Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler, O’Sullivan honed his photographer’s eye in the midst of the western terrain. Idaho falls, Colorado peaks, Nevada lakes and Utah canyons all provided fodder for the budding documentary biologist.

The exhibit’s more than 100 photographs transport viewers to an era when both photographs and the hopes of pioneering explorers were black and white. Uninhabited landscapes tell a story of the great wilderness just beginning to be explored by pioneers seeking the promise of open skies. A sense of anticipation and promise emanates from the warmly toned images. Though the focus of the exhibit lies heavily on topography and only shows the rare human, the frames encompass a palpable spirit seeping out from the earth. As viewers walk through the exhibit, they feel as if they are joining O’Sullivan and his cohorts on their Great American Adventure. A sense of newness appears even to modern viewers who believe they have seen everything west of the Mississippi.

In an interview with the Washington Post, exhibit curator Toby Jurovics said that O’Sullivan unlocked the camera’s metaphoric powers.He wasn’t daunted by the fact that nothing’s there,” Jurovics said. Instead of creating welcoming travel photos, O’Sullivan documented only that which appeared in front of him, in all its harsh, intimidating, awe-inspiring glory.

O’Sullivan refuses to bend to the magnanimity of America’s greatest natural wonders, but instead frames them with the dreams of a generation set on conquering the West, as in his “Buttes Near Green River City, 1872.”  The landscape’s off-kilter horizon line does not detract from the butte’s splendor, but it does temper the impact, hiding a natural beauty behind a field of brush and tumbleweeds. The dynamic lines of the butte contrast the blemished ground below it and rise elegantly into the heavy sky.

In an image of Idaho’s Shoshone Falls, however, a long exposure captures the urgent rush of a river flowing over jutted rocks, the energy and confidence of an expanding nation floating in tow. Though the cusp of the falls fill most of the image, O’Sullivan allows a rising mist to encompass the otherwise beautifully defined tide. Rather than framing the rushing waters from a head-on position to capture the full width of the cliff, O’Sullivan merely perches on the water’s edge, seemingly inches from being swept up in the current to expose the maximum energy and power of the water. The way the photographer shows a willingness to immerse himself in the subject yet presents a biological and human-less product displays his affinity for the beauty of Earth’s processes.

Employing the latest photographic technique of the time, O’Sullivan produced his sweeping vistas as albumen silver prints. The egg white solution utilized in the process adds a slight but distinct sheen to the images that seems to enhance to their mysterious quality. ­­­­Unlike other photographers of his time, O’Sullivan set out not to make this new territory seem familiar for Colonials, but instead to caution of the untouched hazards that lay ahead. His scientific approach caught a side of the West rarely seen, one that still causes viewers today to pause and admire the shocking nature that lies just within our reach.

Georgia on my mind

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

As one of the most famous American artists of her time, Georgia O’Keeffe enjoys nearly fail-proof name recognition. Few people, however, know much of the artist beyond her brightly hued floral works. In a departure from her stereotypical flowers, the latest exhibit at the Phillips Collection, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” instead focuses on O’Keeffe’s lesser-known abstract works.

Despite popular assumptions, O’Keeffe actually spent her early years as an artist working primarily on her abstract creations, only later beginning to paint the flora that she felt would more easily translate to modern audiences.

While the forms dictated in these works may not be familiar to many O’Keeffe fans, the warm tones and fluid lines within each frame distinguish the paintings as clearly and uniquely O’Keeffe. Other contemporary artists of the early 20th century largely allowed themselves to be labeled either abstract or representational; O’Keeffe, on the other hand, insisted it was not only possible to be both, but completely necessary.

“[O’Keeffe] didn’t like to separate the abstract from the objective,” said Phillips curator Elsa Smithgall in her notes on the exhibit. “Both are present in her work, and are not mutually exclusive. It’s about time to see O’Keeffe had an important voice in the history of American abstraction.”

After being shown in the Whitney Museum in New York, the collection traveled south to D.C., albeit with slightly fewer works than the original showing. The more than 100 paintings and drawings more than do justice to O’Keeffe’s abstract endeavors, though, and span more than five decades of her career.

The Phillip’s appreciation for modernist art makes the venue a perfect fit for O’Keeffe’s collection. Situated just a few feet away from some of the world’s most famous Renior, Degas and van Gogh paintings, “Abstraction” gains a richness and composure when viewed after the permanent exhibits, showing by contrast just how classical O’Keeffe actually was.

Connoisseurs of the artist’s popular work will enjoy the opportunity to see her progression as a painter through the half-century she was active, noticing the growth that interweaves itself between both her abstract and representational paintings. Aiming to represent the breadth of her work, the collection still includes a handful of flower paintings that provide contrast to the abstractions while also introducing viewers to similarities between the two.

Beginning with a selection of charcoal drawings, the exhibit progresses to colorful explorations of space and form. The charcoal images spawned from O’Keeffe’s early years during her initial forays into the genre of modernist reduction. In an attempt to focus heavily on the emotion behind the composition, O’Keeffe employed tightly cropped images, allowing the viewer to feel a closer association with the work. While some creations tentatively introduce hints of subtle color, most explode with turbulent reiterations of intense hues. The oversized canvases enrapture viewers in their boldness and sensuality, allowing visitors to closely examine each flowing tide of color.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” is on display through May 9 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW.

Dead battery irks, but does not ruin Turner to Cezanne

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Why are there people walking around in the gallery with their cell phones? That was the first thought I had when I entered the “Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces of the Davies Collection, National Museum of Wales” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  But this wasn’t disrespectful.  The newest tactic museums are employing to make their galleries more interactive is to have people use their own cell phones instead of renting audio guides.

This exhibit is traveling the country, giving American museum-goers a chance to see works they could only have seen in Wales up until this point.  In the lobby of the Corcoran Gallery there is a video that details the lives of the Davies sisters and their collection, highlighting the works in the exhibit. You can watch the actual installation of the works, while the curator and various scholars inform you about the history of the collection.

The actual exhibit, on the third floor, spans three rooms, the first painted red, the second yellow, the third blue, a play on the primary colors, then further categorized by periods of art the Davies sisters collected, from Academic Salon painting to Beyond Impressionism.

In small print on the first wall of the exhibit is an explanation of this new process.  You call, listen to the message, enter the number of the work you are looking at, and then you can hear extra information about the image.  No speaker phone please, air time charges apply, and your quality of reception is based on your service provider. There is also a special “family” audio program, marked by a paw print, that has more interactive recordings.

The Corcoran emphasized the sustainability of this new practice of using your cell phone, and while I applaud them for trying to find new ways to be environmentally friendly, there were many problems with this new practice. It took me four tries to get the system to recognize the number for Renoir’s “La Parisienne,” and the recording was faint and scratchy.  Some of the recording was a repeat of the video from the lobby, or of the wall text, but there were a few valuable tidbits.

“La Parisienne"

“La Parisienne" by Renoir 1874

For the same work “La Parisienne” I listened to the family audio.  It asked me if I thought the woman in the image was a nice person.  There were bustling street sounds, meant to be the sounds of Paris, and a more formalistic breakdown of the elements of the image.  It was a refreshing counter to the more historical and biographical adult version.  Note to self: listen to the family version.

Also, if your phone is not fully charged, you may be out of luck to hear the audio.  My phone died in the middle of the exhibit. If I had had a hand-held audio guide, I would have been able to listen without fear that my battery would go dead.

While I was frustrated with the audio component of the exhibit, I was impressed with the rest.  The wall colors complemented the works, the galleries were well-lit and there was clear and concise wall text next to each image.  It was refreshing to see someone take the time to put explanatory wall text next to each work, not only next to the works deemed more valuable or important.  This may have been due to the fact that there was no exhibit pamphlet available. Another sustainable move by the Corcoran.

The wall summaries at each new period of art were surprisingly informative, explaining a bit about the sisters’ interest in the period and about the periods themselves. For example, the Davies sisters’ grandfather was a tenant farmer and so they felt a unique connection to the works of Millet.

The final section, “Later Collecting,” was the most intriguing.  It included lesser known works that the sisters collected, which were mainly by British and Welsh artists.  Some included were Agustus John and Robert Polhill Bevan.  This fit well with the National Museum of Wales, whose core objective is the “advancement of the education of the public,” and keeping appreciation of Welsh and British culture alive.  The exhibit was a once in a lifetime chance to see and learn about works that had never come to the U.S. before; if only my phone hadn’t died.

The exhibit runs through April 25. Visit www.corcoran.org for more information on the exhibit and the gallery.

If you don’t remember, Time helps

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

All incumbent presidents from Warren G. Harding to Barack Obama have had their portraits, photographs, likenesses or caricatures printed on the cover of Time Magazine.  The exhibit “From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time” at the Portrait Gallery selects a few of these to illustrate how each was portrayed and viewed by the public during their presidency.

This small exhibit of 32 Time covers including photographs, collages, paintings and sculpture spans one hallway that separates parts of the 20th Century Americans Gallery.  Though it is brief, and does not include all of the presidential covers of Time, the collection packs a punch.  Each cover, or original art used for the cover, is intriguing and provides a window into public opinion and concern for the time they represent.

Time Magazine cover November 24, 2009.

As you approach the exhibit, you are confronted with a photo illustration from Nov 24, 2008: Obama’s face and hands superimposed on an old photograph of FDR in his convertible, cigarette hanging from his smiling and confident mouth. This image creates initial confusion, seeming to be simply a play on the title of the exhibition. However, by looking to the left and see a copy of the issue and the title “The New New Deal” and reading the explanation of the image, story and note about the 44th president, you come to understand the image.

The exhibit is well laid out except for the panels in the center that hid the artwork hung on either side of them rather than showcasing them.  It is easy to miss the sculpture in the center of the hallway and the cover art on the panels.  This is frustrating, especially in an exhibit so dependent on the chronology of the covers.

Since FDR, every president has been “Man of the Year” at least once. This fact is surprising when first read, however, every president is a symbol of hope at some point in his career. The award was created in 1927 and FDR was the first president to be awarded the honor. Other Presidents have won multiple times, Obama being the most recent, winning in 2008 the year of his election.

Presidents do not have to be “Man of the Year” to get on the cover. Richard Nixon leads the number of appearances with 55 and Ronald Regan follows with 46. Nixon has four pieces in the exhibit, the covers from November 1968 when he was elected, January 1972 when he won “Man of the Year,” January 1973 when he shared the award with Henry Kissinger and April 1973 addressing the Watergate scandal.

The exhibit is well-balanced between idyllic portraits and inspiring depictions of presidents as symbols of hope or strength and caricatures and satirical images criticizing or questioning the leaders of our nation. FDR and Harry Truman are the only two presidents to only have one cover in the exhibit; the other eleven presidents have at least  two and show both the support of and anger with each president.

“From FDR to Obama” has excellent wall text that addressed the cover art itself as well as the events that inspired it and the president’s actions. This nugget of an exhibit hidden on the second floor in a hallway of the National Portrait Gallery provides a reflective look at America’s relationships with our presidents.  While we may remember a presidency for one event or with one emotion, this exhibit shows us that all presidents are loved at one point, they all make mistakes, and each presidency is a rollercoaster of political and personal events.  This chronicle of public opinion show should be visited by history lovers and presidential enthusiasts but also by any American citizens curious about how we portray our political leaders.

“From FDR to Obama: Presidents on Time” is open until Sep 26, 2020 at the National Portrait Gallery.  Admission is free. Visit http://npg.si.edu/ for information about the museum and the exhibit.

Local history remembered at National Portrait Gallery

By Lauren Linhard
ArtsPost Staff Writer

The National Portrait Gallery looks out at today’s Penn Quarter. Modern and bustling, the area houses the International Spy Museum, The National Museum of American Art, and the Verizon Center. So much more than a tourist trap, the quarter is defined by decades of history and culture. The “Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves” exhibition documents that evolution, from the late 1800s to what you see today.

The exhibit is a collection of photographs chronicling the changes around the old Patent Office Building. The photos were donated by various organizations including the D.C. Preservation League, the Library of Congress and The Historical Society of Washington.  Each wall of the Allan J and Reda R Riley Gallery is dedicated to a different part of the neighborhood: F Street, 9th Street, G Street, and 7th Street. The title wall features a series of photographs and captions narrating the Patent Office’s transition to The National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art.

Though it initially seems a brief walk-through, the exhibit becomes a timely reminiscence as families from the area point out pictures to their children. A strong sense of Washington pride echoes in the gallery. “Look,” said one father to his daughter, “this is what the metro use to look like.” Another mother pointed to a picture saying “This is where we live! This is Washington.” There is an obvious pleasure at having an exhibit dedicated to home.

The F Street and 9th Street wall gives a before-and-after account of the area. It describes the modernization program, led by Alexander R. Shepherd, the head of the Board of Public Works. By the 1920s the surrounding neighborhood was thriving with restaurants, department stores and entertainment.  This section also includes photos narrating the history of the Masonic Temple on F Street, Velati’s candy store on the corner of 9th and G, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.

The G Street and 7th Street wall depicts the gradual decline and eventual rise of the Penn Quarter. This section documents the five days of rioting in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The photos of the riots are paired with photos of the crumbling Hecht Company building. The display marks the development of the Metro in 1976 and the opening of the Verizon Center in 1997 as landmark moments in the revival of the district.

The exhibit includes an interactive component featuring photos taken by local artist Chris Earnshaw. He focuses on the area during the 1960s and 1970s.

The gallery is connected to the second-floor balcony, encouraging visitors to gaze out at the current Penn Quarter. For those who aren’t fluent in the history of Washington, the ability to contrast the before-and-after of the exhibit and the view outside enhances the historical message. There is tangible evidence that the modern world seen from the balcony directly reflects the history and culture inside the gallery.

The “Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves” exhibit will be showing at the National Portrait Gallery till January 2012. The history, culture and admission is free.

Not just a flower painter: O’Keeffe’s Abstraction opens at the Phillips

by Elizabeth Ward

ArtsPost staff writer

"Poppy" by Georgia O'Keeffe. Fair Use image from Google Images.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is one of the most over-commodified yet most misunderstood artists of the modern era. Known as the painter of flowers and New Mexico landscapes, O’Keeffe was rarely allowed out of her feminine, representational, artistic box.

The Phillips Collection’s Abstraction frees O’Keeffe from this confinement and reintroduces O’Keeffe as one of the pioneers of abstractionism in the early 20th century – a title for which she is rarely acknowledged or showcased.

A curatorial conglomeration of muscle, Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is a three-way alliance between D.C.’s own Phillips Collection, The Whitney in New York City and The Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The traveling show will only showcase in these three venues throughout the 2009-2010 season.

It is fitting that the Phillips is one of the three presenting museum spaces, since Duncan Phillips was the first museum director to purchase works by O’Keeffe back in 1926. The breathtaking exhibit showcases more than 100 paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculpture dating from 1915 to the late 1970s. It also includes 14 photographic portraits of O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz (photographer, gallery owner, and O’Keeffe’s husband beginning in 1924), which are incredible reflections upon her methods of gestural painting and cropping.

O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wis., in 1887 and longed to be an artist from an early age. In 1916, after finishing her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University, Alfred Stieglitz featured her early charcoal work at his 291-gallery in New York. Within two years, Stieglitz convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York to pursue painting full time. Six years later, they were married and began one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era.

The exhibit unfolds roughly chronologically, opening with a round of O’Keeffe’s revealing visceral charcoal abstractions from around 1915. These charcoals serve as motifs for the entire show – always returning to the expression of the intangible.

The exhibit then progresses into her watercolors, which marks her as a graphic imager willing to portray the rhythms of experience. One truly gets the feeling of “infinity” and “boundlessness” in the midst of her colorful abstractions. Favorites include Tent Door at Night (1916), Pink and Green Mountains (1917) and Music, Pink and Blue (1918).

The exhibit subsequently moves into O’Keeffe’s more well-known “erotic, symbolic, color work” and finally comes full circle with her late abstractions of flat, geometric, expansive planes of color. These mural-sized constructions of space reinvigorated her art in the mid-1940s and provided a precedent for a younger generation of abstract painters.

Yet even within a majority of her displayed abstractions, one can see how O’Keeffe was a misrepresented artist. For most of her career, she struggled with how others perceived her work, being a woman who insisted on expressing herself abstractly. Many have always interpreted her work as Freudian, psychological expressions of her sexuality. In reality, however, O’Keeffe was an expresser of intangible feelings, inspired not by objects but by the dynamic quality of the natural world. She never considered herself a feminist painter.

Aware of the public’s lack of sympathy and support for her abstraction and hoping to direct the critics away from sexualized readings of her work, O’Keeffe began to pull away from abstraction into the more representational, recognizable images she is so known for. Nevertheless, abstraction remained the guiding principle of her art, even at the most representational.

The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint. –Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

One of the most enlightening examples of O’Keeffe’s brilliant artistic response to the public eye is captured in her Jack-in-Pulpit (1930) series. Five of the six pieces display repeated bulbous forms, taking a single flower and honing in on its many characters. Here, she plays a joke on the critics: She makes them question whether she really is just a “painter of flowers,” while also reminding them of the androgynous nature of flowers. The phallic and the feminine appear together as a tongue-and-cheek retort to the standards placed upon her as an artist and a woman.

At the very least, this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit is a refreshing reconnection with an artist that we, after all this time, never knew at all. The Phillips Collection is the perfect venue for this beneath-the-surface experience of O’Keeffe abstraction.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction is on view at the Phillips from Feb. 6 to May 9, 2010. From here, it will by on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe from May 28 to Sept. 12, 2010.