Fall Visual Art Preview 2011

iona rozeal brown, Sacrifice #2: It Has to Last (after Yoshitoshi’s “Drowsy: the appearance of a harlot of the Meiji era”), 2007. Enamel, acrylic and paper on wooden panel, 52 x 38 inches.
Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection, Miami.
iona rozeal brown, Sacrifice #2: It Has to Last (after Yoshitoshi’s “Drowsy: the appearance of a harlot of the Meiji era”), 2007. Enamel, acrylic and paper on wooden panel, 52 x 38 inches.

The visual arts are the quiet arts, the arts of contemplation, the finished art.

When we see a painting in a gallery or a museum, a sculpture in a garden or a vast lawn, an installation wherever it’s installed, the artist is gone, finished and done, dead or alive. The visual arts are about viewing and taking it in, seeing, believing and feeling. We derive meaning from not just the work but from our own lives. In visual arts, the unfinished part of the painting is what we bring to it. And what we bring to art varies from setting to setting, viewing to viewing, person to person; it’s as if a painting wiggled under the glare of a thousand stares and eyes. This is possibly why people buy art—ownership keeps out the democratic eyes of public spaces, making the work rare.

A Rembrandt on a wall by a staircase in a home is a little like a love song sung to no one in a forest. It is almost invisible, except for the owner and his visitors. A museum opens up the process, finishes it or keeps it going. Contemplation ensues, to be sure, but so does conversation and argument, the murmur of more than one presence.

Nothing proves the case more than a visit to the Louvre in Paris and the room housing the Mona Lisa. Hordes of tourists, sometimes the size of an entire residential block of Beijing, surround the rope that avoids close contact. Something happens to the Mona Lisa in this setting, it becomes both less and more mysterious—it sways with a certain imperiousness, but it also gets cut down to size among these multitudes.

Exhibitions at museums—and individual works at museums—alter the equations of visual arts. Museums in America exist at the pleasure of boards, regents, overseers, budget minders, and the trailing ends of the artistic process, the critics, scholars, historians and cultural observers. But most obviously, they exist for and at the mercy of people who come to museums to see paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations.

Visitors change museums as well as art and how we look at it. You can make yourself feel small at a museum, but you are never alone – unless they’ve locked you in. Your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens from all over the country and the world are here in these galleries, standing right next to the Rembrandt self portrait, sometimes posing, at other times puzzling over Pollock just like you did before you got smart and knowing and saw the Ed Harris movie.

In exhibitions, juxtapositions, like the wall descriptions, are important. It’s when you begin to realize the varieties of great art and how sometimes, some art is not so great when looked at from here and there, from far and close and next to other art. The National Gallery once had a show of two great German artists. One was Kate Kollwitz, the great, powerful maker of art, often in bold strokes and hammerings of chalk and black pencil, which cried out for justice in depictions of starving children, dying soldiers, striking miners and rageful peasants. Her work demanded, screamed for humanity. She lived to a ripe old age and died at the end of the Third Reich, and posters made from her work have often been seen at riots and demonstrations for social justice. She was juxtaposed with a small exhibition of Ludwig Kirchner – big, bold paintings of prostitutes, dancers and cabaret singers, the night life of Berlin. The works were musical, almost, full of gusto and energy and life. But Kirchner was also a German Jew who ended up committing suicide as Hitler’s Reich was picking up speed. Who’s the more life affirming in such a context?

I mention this because of the richness of museums in Washington and the regularities of exhibitions at the museums which freshen up the holdings and permanent collections like sparkling water in an exquisite garden. Exhibitions are the creations not only of the artists but the curators who set them in settings and create new ways of looking at old work. The works of old and new masters and reputations, whether belonging to Degas or Warhol, sometimes are restored, not by restorers, but by fresh eyes and different context so they can come to live again under the gaze of their admirers.

For the first installment of our fall visual arts prevue, we give you a quick look at exhibitions and events coming to a Washington museum.

ANDY (WARHOL) IS STILL DANDY

Nobody, certainly not Warhol himself, ever claimed that Andy Warhol had the gifts of a Picasso, a Da Vinci, a Renoir, or even a Rothko.

But there’s also no question that Warhol was one of the most influential artists of the latter part of the last century and into this one. He may not have been the best draughtsman ever or the most gifted painter, but he had his pale, white finger on the zeitgeist. If Warhol didn’t invent pop culture, he sold and marketed it like no artist before, during and since. Warhol made silk screens of money and Monroe and Jackie and Elvis and soup cans, making Lichtenstein’s pop art comic blowups and “pows” palatable and hot. Warhol hooked up low/high art to commerce, ignited America’s still-flaming worship of celebrity by turning it into an aspiration; Kim Kardsashian and Snookie are his illegitimate cultural children. I recall a fairly comprehensive Warhol exhibition at the Corcoran a number of years ago sponsored by PNC Bank with the CEO speaking in front of blowups of Warhol’s Ben Franklins, saying “I always wanted to stand in front of one of those marking the marriage of marketing, money and Warhol.”

He’s still with us, pale and glowing even in death. The National Gallery of Art is hosting the first exhibition examining Warhol’s works centered around news headlines appropriately entitled “Warhol: Headlines” (Sept. 25 though Jan. 2). The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is also touching base with Warhol with an exhibition of 102 silkscreened and hand-painted canvases of distorted images of shadows created in his studio (Sept. 25 through Jan. 15).

“Shadows” will be unique and big—the works are edge-to-edge and will extend 450 feet around the curved Hirschhorn galleries. The “Headlines” show is no small thing either—some 80 paintings and drawings, photographs, prints, film and video works all based on Enquirer-like headlines. The pieces are dovetailed with Warhol’s obsession with the sensational or trivial-made-sensational side of news running from news of Princess Margaret’s baby, to Eddie Fisher’s breakdown to plane crashes, all grist for Warhol’s star-grinding mill. It was Warhol who said that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes during their lives—which means the Kardashians are way overdue to crash into obscurity.

The two exhibitions follow a successful run of the musical “Pop” at the Studio Theater located brashly in Warhol’s factory where outrageous things happened, including the near-assassination of Warhol.

DEGAS AND MARIONI AT THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION

You may not be able to make a direct connection between the legendary French impressionist painter Edgar Degas and modernist Joseph Marioni except that Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Philips Collection, liked them both, and in its 90th anniversary year, the gallery is doing both proud. The Phillips has Degas’ famed “Dancers at the Barre,” highlighting the painters obsession with ballet to the gratitude of the art world, and has built an exhibition around that obsession with “Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint” (Oct. 1 through Jan. 8).

The exhibition features drawings, studies and related work and was sparked by a careful attempt at correcting time-caused aging in the “Barre” painting. The result is an exhibition that renews interest in the Degas-Phillips connection and Degas’ great and shining works—paintings sculptures and drawings—on the theme of ballet the first major exhibition in 25 years on the subject.

Acclaimed modernist Joseph Marioni will have 15 recent, glowing, monochrome paintings on display at the Phillips (Oct. 20 through Jan. 29), alongside the artist’s existing 30 works from the museum collection.

30 AMERICANS AT THE CORCORAN

In a kind of artistic echo of the completion and opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is featuring several exhibitions on the theme of race and ethnicity. Chief among them is “30 Americans” (Oct. 1 through Feb. 12), a major survey of works by a number of the most important, established and young African-American contemporary artists of the last three decades.

The exhibition includes works by Nina Chanel Abney, Leonardo Drew, Renee Green, Nick Cave, Kalup Linzy, Jeff Sonhouse and Purvis Young among a large group of artists. Sarah Newman, the curator of Contemporary Art at the Corcoran said that the exhibition explores “how each artist reckons with the notion of identity in America, navigating such concerns as the struggle for civil rights , sexuality, popular culture and media imagery.”

Also on tap are “Strange Fruit,” an exhibition of some 15 new photographs and video works by Hank Willis Thomas, exploring how spectacle and display relate to African American identity (Oct. 1 through Jan. 16); and “Gordon Parks: Photographs from the Collection,” an exhibition of photo essays on civil rights from the Corcoran Collection (Oct. 1 through Jan. 16).

MORE AT THE NGA

Some of the finest Gothic-era tapestries in the world will be on display at the National Gallery of Art. “The Invention of Glory: Afonso V and the Pastrana Tapestries” will feature four recently restored monumental tapestries which commemorate the conquest of four cities in Morocco by Afonso V of Portugal. (Sept. 18 through Jan. 8).

On a very different note separated by a number of centuries will be “Harry Callahan at 100,” an exhibition of some 100 photographs on the noted photographer’s centenary of his birth. (Oct. 2 through March 4).

The show will reach across Callahan’s innovative, elegant photographic career from his days in Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta.

WPA’S OPTIONS 2011

The Washington Project for the Arts will present “Options 2011,” the 14th installment of its biennial exhibition of works by emerging and unrepresented artists from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia (Sept. 15 through Oct. 19 at 629 New York Ave., 2nd floor).

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