18 January 2010

Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)

I made my usual year-end trip to Washington to spend the holidays with my mother and to check in with friends and family down there. Normally, I see some theater in D.C. as well as movies and art exhibits; it’s even a semi-tradition for Mom and me to go to a play on New Year’s Eve and get home before the ball drops in New York. This year, however, there weren’t any appropriate shows to see over the whole period, much less 31 December, so I have nothing to report about on that front. I did see several flicks on my vacation, but I don’t generally do film commentary. As it happens, though, among the art shows I saw was the exhibit of the terra cotta warriors of Xi’an, on display through March at the National Geographic Museum—an experience well worth recording. Chronologically, the terra cotta soldiers were the last of the exhibits I saw in Washington, so I’ll start with the other shows first and build up to the pièce de resistance, as it were, in part two of this report. I think that’ll work out nicely.

We began on Sunday, 27 December, at the Phillips Collection, one of the many private art museums in the city, which was hosting Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens, a fascinating show not only for the art on display but its curatorial concept as well. I’m not a great fan of Man Ray or of photography as art, but some of you may know that I have a strong interest in African art, starting back in the ‘70s when my dad got involved with the private predecessor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, one of the two underground galleries on the Mall. The idea of Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens is that the Western art community of the early decades of the 20th century became so engaged by African art that they not only elevated it from anthropological and ethnographic artifacts, as it had been considered until that point, to objects of art and pure aesthetics, but they appropriated many of the objects themselves for their own art work. This was especially true, it appears, of the photographers who directly featured African pieces as props in their portraits and photographic still lifes. (This isn’t a new idea for an art exhibit. The Museum of African Art, the precursor to the NMAA, kept a permanent display of modern works by such artists as Modigliani and Picasso alongside the African pieces that may have inspired them. The photographs, of course, manifest this influence more literally, and many of the African objects in the show are the original ones depicted in the photos.) The Phillips exhibit placed the Western photos near the African objects they depicted giving the spectators a chance to appreciate both the modern Western art and the often superb African carvings, masks, and other objects which had inspired them. A double whammy, so to speak. (If you’re a devotee of photography, especially late 19th- and early 20th-century photography, this is an irresistible set-up. It was the African sculptures that most delighted me, however. As I’ve remarked before, these works are astonishingly beautiful.)

The Phillips show, assembled by Wendy Goodman, includes over 100 photos, more than half by Ray himself (born Emmanuel Radnitsky of Brooklyn), and over 20 masks, carved figures, and practical items from several African cultures (and a few Oceanic peoples). The exhibit can be viewed from several perspectives: it can be seen as evidence of Western imperialism, appropriating the cultural objects of African peoples for Western consumption and paying no heed to the cultures from which they were lifted; it can be seen as a form of cultural racism with undertones of slavery and oppression, as a white, European culture pillages the imagery and expressions of a dark-skinned populace for its own pleasure; it can represent, as it did for many African-American artists, a search for black cultural roots that predate American slavery and European colonialism; it can demonstrate the rejection of the West’s descent into war and destruction and the dehumanization of the mechanical age that gave us bombs, tanks, fighter planes, and machine guns, in favor of a purer, less debased culture; it can even manifest an homage to the accomplishments and artistry of hitherto overlooked peoples. (The Dada artists, whose work was the subject of terrific recent exhibit at NGA and then MoMa, reacted against this same early-20th-century development that arrived in the guise of Word War I. Ray was a participant in this fascinating art movement, too.) In the days of Man Ray and the other artists represented at the Phillips, art such as that of Africa, Oceania, Native Americans, and other non-Western peoples was called “primitive,” now considered a demeaning description; today this kind of work is called “naïve,” meaning only that the artists came by their techniques naturally, without the benefit of professional training. But “naïve” can also imply that the art—and the artists—have been untouched by the so-called worldliness and sophistication that turns to cynicism and negativity. Untainted. Unadulterated. A Romantic viewpoint, perhaps, but not uncomplimentary or denigrating. (It is also not a comment on the quality of the work, which even an untrained eye can see is complex, profound, and meaningful. It’s merely a distinction of the source of the techniques, which are traditional instead of schooled.) As Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post noted, in this side-by-side exhibit, the Western works “come off as weaker” than the much bolder, more robust (less effete?) African works. The arch-conservative Washington Times posited that Man Ray, African Art . . . failed to avoid “relegating non-Western art to a supporting role” in the modern trends of Western abstraction, but my own apolitical perspective is simply that these are immensely beautiful works of art which the Western artists, irrespective of their feelings or ignorance about the cultures from which the objects came, saw and appreciated. Nonetheless, the photos do show the African objects without reference to their cultural matrix or the purposes for which they were made. Maybe I’m the one who’s naïve.

One thing that struck me, though there’s no reification of this sidelight in the exhibit lit or the criticism, is the several different purposes the photographs in the exhibit served. One, starting with the Alfred Stieglitz photo at the beginning of the show, was archival rather than artistic. Stieglitz, Walker Evans, and Ray were all commissioned at one time or another to record the holdings of private collectors or the works displayed in museum or dealer exhibitions, including the now-famous 1935 MoMA show, African Negro Art (recorded by Evans). A second purpose, related to the archival use, was what I’d call documentary. A number of the pictures in the Phillips show were merely records of an example of African art, really an anthropological artifact which takes on other layers of meaning because, first, the objects depicted are so stunning and, second, because they are being displayed here, among other, clearly aesthetically-oriented photos. (These same sorts of photographs, if collected into a catalogue, might still be beautiful because the subjects are, but the photos—as distinguished from the African objects themselves—wouldn’t be seen as art, just illustrations.)

Undoubtedly these two kinds of pictures helped spread the appeal and the mystique of African artworks during the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, especially among the artists of the period. Deborah Dietsch, the Washington Times reviewer, noted that the paintings of Lois Mailou Jones, a Harlem Renaissance artist whose works were among the only paintings in the Phillips show, took their inspiration not perhaps from the actual African objects she depicted but from Evans’s archival photos from the MoMA exhibit. But the most interesting photographs at the Phillips were, as you might imagine, the art prints, the ones taken as art, composed, lit, and printed to be aesthetic objects. The acclaimed star of these pictures was Ray’s Noire et blanche, taken for Paris Vogue in 1926. The photo shows a pale, dark-haired woman lying on her side, photographed from the bust up only, holding upright a small, dark, carved African mask. (The mask, from the Baule people in Ivory Coast, is included in the exhibit.) The model’s white face is horizontal, juxtaposed with the black mask-face at a right angle just below her chin, standing vertical, manifesting a contrast not only of black and white, but of length and height. The woman’s face is soft and (apparently) powdered; the mask is hard and shiny, adding another level of contrast. The woman’s hair is short and combed flat, a boy’s cut; the mask’s coiffure is elaborate and high. (In an almost whimsical addenda, Ray also printed the shot in reverse contrast, a “negative” print with the white model’s face dark and the African mask light.) Gopnik of the Post observed that, though the title of the picture is often translated as “Black and White,” Ray seems to have intended it to mean “Black Woman and White Woman”: though the French adjective noire doesn’t inflect for gender, blanche is the feminine form for ‘white’; ordinarily, ‘black and white’ would simply be noire et blanc unless a feminine noun were implied. (Other photos at the Phillips were by James L. Allen and Cecil Beaton.)

Aside from masks and carved figurines, on display were also a number of wonderful African beaded hats, depicted in several fashion photos, a collection of ivory bracelets belonging to Nancy Cunard, the British shipping heiress, and other practical objects like pitchers, bowls, a stool, and a door. (African art objects are almost all made for use or worship; few African cultures created purely aesthetic or decorative objects—except in recent decades for Western consumption. Really old African pieces are rare because they simply get used up. This is compounded because African work is seldom composed of stone or metal; it’s mostly perishable material.) Nonetheless, it was these pieces which “grabbed” me—as Gopnik wrote, though in a different context. A 16-inch Kanyok half-figure (a woman carved from the waist up, but with feet serving as a base!), was particularly enchanting, with an expressive, only slightly stylized heart-shaped face topped with an elaborate hair-do of several curled lobes of hair (picture an Africanized geisha wig). I will only add that there were many other objects in the exhibit that I wouldn’t mind having in my living room. Some of you may recollect my mother and my imaginary midnight shopping trips, and my vote this time would have gone to the 13-inch Yoruba mother-and-child figure with a lidded bowl. The woman, with a baby seated on her rump, also wears a lobed hairstyle and is well dressed. She’s carrying a large, covered bowl, and as the baby grips her around the waist, she grips the bowl in front of her. Carved in a nearly-Realistic style, the detail is incredible: the fabric pattern in the woman’s dress, her bracelets and necklace, the baby’s anklet, the texture of her hair. It’s altogether stunning. (Both these objects are shown in Man Ray photos from about 1933, part of his commission to record the collection of Carl Kjersmeier, a Danish collector.)

The Man Ray, African Art . . . exhibit closed at the Phillips on 10 January, but it’s a touring show and will appear elsewhere around North America, including the UNM Art Museum, Albuquerque (6 February–30 May ), UVa Art Museum, Charlottesville (7 August-10 October), and Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Vancouver (29 October-23 January 2011).

On Sunday, 3 January, we drove down to the Mall (it was way too cold to wait for busses in exposed sidewalk shelters) and, after finding the perfect parking space (the remaining holiday tourists apparently having stayed in their hotels, much to our benefit), we walked a half block to the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum to catch the last day of Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection. Truitt is an artist of whom I hadn’t heard; my mother is much more up on the mid-century artists than I am. (Two years ago, Mom introduced me to the work of Morris Louis, a contemporary of Truitt’s who had also had a show at the Hirshhorn.) A bit of history first, then: Washington had never been much of a theater city until the 1970s when a number of Off-Broadway-level (and several more Off-Off-Broadway-level) theaters opened there, supplementing the Arena Stage, the city’s principal rep company (founded in 1950), and the National Theatre, its legit house (opened in 1835) . (The Kennedy Center opened at the start of this period, 1971, greatly expanding the city’s theatrical offerings and its cachet.) But since at least the post-World War II years, the Nation’s Capital has been a true art center. Not only have the big museums such as the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, and the Corcoran Gallery long been important venues for displaying and viewing art of many cultures and eras, but Washington had long had a vibrant retail gallery presence, catering to the many collectors in the metropolitan area and beyond. (Full disclosure: my parents became part owners of one of these galleries in 1956 or so, when I was still in single digits. The partners liquidated the gallery in about 1960 and it no longer exists.) But all of these facts aren’t what made Washington an art center. That would be the community of artists, some native Washingtonians (we were rare in those days), others born elsewhere but drawn to the active art scene there. Not a few well-known figures came out of this scene over the decades, and there was even a Washington Color School in the middle of the last century. Some of the painters in this group included Louis, Kenneth Noland (who died 5 January), Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, and Paul Reed. (A more current artist associated with the Washington Colorists is Sam Gilliam who happens to have been a friend of my parents and an artist some of whose works both my mother and I own.)

Another associate of the Washington Color School was Anne Truitt, who began her career in the late 1940s. Born in Baltimore in 1921, Truitt grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She moved to Washington in 1947 and, except for periods abroad (her husband, James Truitt, was a journalist), she lived the rest of her life in the Capital. After working in psychology and writing fiction, Truitt turned to art. She started with sculpting in clay, cement, and stone, but in the early 1960s, she abandoned and even destroyed much of this work. A 1961 exhibit at the Guggenheim, American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists, changed Truitt’s whole perspective and she turned to minimalist geometric abstraction. These works include First (1961), essentially three slats of a white picket fence, and Southern Elegy (1962), a black-and-green, arched tablet shaped like a gravestone. (These works are included among the 49 sculptures and 35 paintings and drawings in Perception and Reflection.) Shortly afterwards, Truitt moved beyond even these abstractions and started producing what became her signature form: highly colored wooden columns. (Ken Johnson in the New York Times described these as “resembling models of Modernist skyscrapers.”) With this step, the artist moved not only into the interstice between Color Field painting and Minimalist sculpture, but she focused entirely on color to express her intent, as the columns were undifferentiated (though they varied in size and dimensions) and unrepresentational. She used many shades of non-prime colors, sometimes applying varying hues of the same color, other times using two or three contrasting colors. The paint was carefully applied by hand in alternating brush strokes of vertical and horizontal for each layer, so that the finish was smooth and hard. The artist sometimes varied the appearance not by contrasting colors or even hues, but finishes, using a matte surface to set off a glossy one. Truitt completed her last columns, Return and Evensong, just before her death in December 2004.

Curator Kristen Hileman called Truitt “a pioneering but understudied figure” and suggested that her work is “ripe for rediscovery and ready to be considered on its own terms.” I demur. Gopnik of the Post said Truitt’s art is “sociable”; the works “keep you company.” For me, not so much. She’s a figure of curiosity because of her placement in the continuum of art history, her association with artists like Louis, Noland, Minimalist Donald Judd, and Abstract Expressionists Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, and her membership in the Washington art world. But her art itself leaves me cold. Some of the colorful columns are pretty in a neutral sort of way, but they don’t “grab” me at all (and I wouldn’t want to come back after closing to nick one). Noland’s paintings are bright and striking, crossing between Colorism and Op Art, and they can be exciting to look at. The optics of the geometric shapes and the brilliant colors he used makes them seem to pulse and spin (a phenomenon Hans Hofmann described as “plasticity”). Louis’s poured stains, also brightly colored, seem to run off the untreated canvases into an undefined future somewhere. Suggesting flowers, rainbows, flowing ribbons, his art bursts off the canvas in upredictable ways to give the sense of a living force. Truitt’s columns (there are examples of some of her other forms, except some aluminum sculptures she made during a period in Japan and which she destroyed) are all restraint and coldness to me. They’re almost studied, remote, lifeless. That’s the problem with “bare-bones” art—it has no life in it! That’s not for me.

On Tuesday, 5 January, we drove down to the Mall again to see the exhibit at the National Gallery’s East Building of the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works. Continuing at the NGA until 2 May, this isn’t an exhibit of the works of one artist or a period or theme of artworks assembled by some museum curator. It’s a display of pieces from the private collection of a Baltimore real estate developer and his wife which the couple has bequeathed to the NGA. The full collection is some 300 pieces of 20th-century art, which the Meyerhoffs began collecting in the 1950s and continued to amass into the early years of this century. (Jane Meyerhoff died in 2004; Robert Meyerhoff, 85, is still alive but has already begun to turn over their holdings to the gallery. The current show includes 126 pieces.) The Meyerhoffs began buying art by many artists of the mid-century, both European and American, but shortly after starting their collection, they concentrated on six notable American artists: Jasper Johns (whom the Meyerhoffs must have really loved because there are far more Johnses in the collection than any other two artists on exhibit), Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella (there’s a whole gallery of one series of Stella’s wall-mounted, found-object sculptures, all titled with variations on Playskool). The collection and the exhibit, which include many other artists in addition to this focal group, embrace both paintings (and some drawings) and sculptures; it is, in a way, a study in depth of the development of a segment of modern American art from the ‘50s to the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some of the artists made a step-by-step journey into maturity and refinement of their techniques and styles; others progressed by leaps and turns, seemingly trying on a new dynamic every year or so. This being less than half of the Meyerhoff holdings, it’s amusing to try to imagine what their home must have been like with all or most of their art on display. David Lloyd Kreeger, at least, built himself an actual museum to live in until he died and could have his former home opened to the public. The Meyerhoffs' taste in art, by the way, seems to have been better than Kreeger’s.)

The Meyerhoff gift, which is the largest single donation since the founding of the NGA and the gifts of Andrew Mellon and the other original benefactors in 1937, was actually announced in 1987. (Beginning in 1986, the Meyerhoffs had donated many individual pieces of art and money for the purchase of works independent of this single gift.) Part of the arrangement is that part of the collection will be held by the NGA in Washington and part will remain at the Meyerhoffs’ estate in Phoenix, Maryland. It is the first permanent location for art in the NGA's collection remote from the museum’s base on the Mall. The estate, which will not be part of the NGA but be maintained privately by a foundation formed by the Meyerhoffs for that purpose, will open to the public on Meyerhoff’s death, but works from his holdings are already being transferred to the gallery’s ownership. Now, I won’t say that the whole Meyerhoff Collection delights me—one of the Pollocks on display (Ritual, 1953), for instance, is an unprepossessing example of his work as far as I’m concerned—but quite a few of the pieces are great additions to the national art collection and the Meyerhoff holdings as a whole is a true treasure. (It’s a good point to note that all the Smithsonian museums, both on the Mall and elsewhere around the country, are open free to all visitors every day of the year except 25 December; the NGA is also closed on 1 January. It’s one of the best deals the taxpayers get from our government. The fees for places like the Phillips, the Corcoran, MoMA, the Goog, and so on keep going up—and they close some days—but the NGA and the Smithsonians are there, free, and available! I’m for that!)

The principal peculiarity of the Meyerhoff exhibit is that it’s not organized by artist, subject, or date. Curator Harry Cooper arranged the pieces by themes—somewhat recondite categories, in my opinion, but nevertheless . . . . Some of Cooper’s distinctions depend on visual aspects of the works, some on the method of making the pieces. The ten divisions—Scrape, Concentricity, Line, Gesture, Art on Art, Drip, Stripe to Zip, Figure or Ground, Monochrome, and Picture the Frame—were devised to accommodate as many different artists as possible in each theme (there’s a Johns in most of the sections), so the galleries are an almost haphazard selection of works from the Meyerhoffs’ holdings. (I confess, I didn’t pay as much attention to the categories as I moved through the show as I perhaps ought to have for the curator’s purposes. I just enjoyed the individual pieces as I came upon them. Doing that, the art seems much like the arrangement you might find in someone’s home—a very big home, granted, with a lot of very expensive art on the walls, but most collectors don’t hang their art according to some academic taxonomy, do they? They display it the way it seems most pleasing to them, without regard to who hangs next to whom. That’s how I do it—with my dozen-and-a-half, mostly unknown works! I’m just sayin’ . . . .) Anyway, I guess curators have to justify their salaries. No harm, no foul, I suppose.

Most of the Meyerhoff holdings fall into the style of Abstract Expressionism and its immediate descendents. (Their first purchase, 1957’s Autumn Gold by Hans Hofmann, one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism in the United States, is on display at the entrance to the exhibit.) Next to Impressionism and its offspring, Abstract Expressionism is my favorite style of painting. In addition to Ritual, about which Blake Gopnik wrote an entire essay for the Washington Post, there’s a 1951 Pollock (Untitled), a black and white drip painting (it’s actually ink on Japanese paper), that I’d happily hang on a wall at home. The Rothkos, Franz Klines, and Barnett Newmans are bold, colorful, and expressive, stirring emotions and thoughts (unlike, say, the Truitt monoliths of the previous exhibit) that are too rapid and uncontrollable to capture much less articulate—which, to my way of thinking, is what Expressionism is supposed to do. Even the Minimalists and Op Artist like Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, and Frank Stella excited my senses even if they were less emotionally stimulating. I’ve always gotten a kick out of Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art, too, and the exhibit included a bronze sculpture, Sleeping Muse (1983), which was essentially a cast version of one of his paintings abstracted to lines and curves. In fact, it put me in mind of a Minimalist sculpture of the model’s face from Man Ray’s Noire et blanche! It’s the face of a woman, depicted in outline and a few abstract details formed by lines, lying on its side facing the viewer. The open-work bronze casting is patinated in forest green. I can tell you, I’d find a place for that in my apartment in a New York minute!

That Gopnik essay in the Post, bemoaning the lack of “rudeness” in the once-provocative and ‑challenging art in the collection, was called “The sweet smell of success, and the scent of an iconoclast.” The art reviewer began by asserting, “Success may be the worst thing that can happen to modern art. When a radical work gets taken up by wealthy collectors and big-time museums, it risks becoming a marker of cultural status instead of creative achievement.” I’m nowhere near enough of an art critic to know if there’s any truth to Gopnik’s opinion, but I do wonder where he’s going. Is this somehow the fault of the artwork or the artists? Okay, there was a movement, Conceptual Art (and a few similar doctrines) that insisted that art was not a consumer product and deliberately made art that wouldn’t last beyond the creative moment. But most art, radical or conventional, is made to attract attention from viewers and, therefore, also buyers and exhibiters. It goes with the territory. Indeed, it’s how most artists make their livings. And their points. An artist who sets out to make art that won’t become desirable, that persistently affronts viewers, isn’t going to last too long—unless she likes shouting out in the wilderness. So whose fault is this phenomenon, then? The critics and reviewers who offer positive opinions on the art and thus make it appealing to potential purchasers and museums? So, what? They should just stop rendering positive opinions? That’ll work. Is it the fault of the spectators who come to appreciate a work of art, making it popular and enrolling it in the established canon. And who is it who controls that? That’s right . . . no one.

Gopnik went to the Meyerhoff show looking for a piece of once-radical art that “simply refused to play nice, however much money and prestige it’s been draped in.” He was generally disappointed except for the one Pollock, Ritual, which he described as “gloriously rude and ugly, and has stayed that way despite the passing of time and the canonization of the maker.” Well, okay. In the writer’s opinion, here was a work that didn’t age badly, according to his standards. Where does that leave the rest of the collection, even the rest of the mid-century American experiment in provocative forms? Just relegate it to the trash heap of art history? Unhappily or not, the works of all kinds of innovative artists eventually become mainstream and acceptable—sometimes because we’ve learned the lessons the artists was trying to teach. Look at Ibsen’s plays, especially Doll House. That caused riots when it was published; Ibsen was breaking all kinds of taboos, both theatrical and social, with his Realism and the portrayal of Nora, the wife who leaves her husband and family. Ghosts, with its frank depiction of syphilis and moral decadence, was almost as inflammatory. But Ibsen’s theater eventually became the norm, in terms of both its frankness and its stage style. The power of Ibsen’s plays is still there, however. Maybe no one will riot in the streets afterwards, but Ghosts and Doll House and Hedda Gabler can still make us pull up short and ask questions. They still challenge us, and when I look at the other Pollocks, the Rothkos, the Kellys, the Louises, the Nolands, and the works of other such artists from half a century or so ago, the ones who thrilled and excited us, who provoked and frightened us, who moved us to wonder and question, and explore—they still do. Well, they do me, anyway. I wonder if perhaps it isn’t the art that has become tame, but jaded viewers like Gopnik who’ve lost their sense of excitement. (Of course, maybe that’s just me being naïve again. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, either.)

[Not many viewers, I don’t think, would have trouble getting excited about the Chinese terra cotta soldiers on exhibit at the National Geographic Museum. Come back in a day or so for my report on this unique experience.]

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