Saturday, August 6, 2011

Two Washington Galleries: Paris—American Style

Eric and Neil were off to Washington, DC again.  I stayed back to guard the house, a job I'm very good at attending to.  Steve and Lisa dropped by to say 'hi' and tend to my necessities. Merci beaucoup!

      On a recent return visit to Washington, DC, it became more obvious than ever that the city is indeed an American version of Paris with its layout, architecture, and cultural offerings.  It was Thomas Jefferson's request that Washington be an "American Paris" with low and convenient buildings on light and airy streets.  With L'Enfant as the French-born city planner, the city was designed in 1791 in the Baroque style incorporating avenues that radiated out from rectangles providing room for open spaces and landscaping.  He also envisioned a one mile long grand promenade lined with public gardens.  Today, that area is the National Mall flanked by monuments and museums. 

      Two purely American museums that compare to those in Paris are the National Portrait Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  The former has a massive collection on the scale of the Musée d'Orsay, while the later is a more manageable visit for a morning or afternoon.

Donald W. Reynolds Center 
for American Art and Portraiture

Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery
      We visited the National Portrait Gallery on an earlier trip this year (see DC Museums and Memorials: DAY TWO, 5/25/11), which left us wanting to see more of their impressive permanent collection.  We headed to Gallery Place on the Metro, which deposited us directly at the museum.  The Gallery is more formally known as
the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, and housed in the former U.S. Patent Office.  The building is one of the nation's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture and is a dramatic backdrop for the varied collection of American art.  It was mid afternoon and we had missed lunch with flying so we decided to pick up a snack at the Museum Café.  We had soup, drinks, and a sampling from the salad bar.  We would pass if given the chance again, but it filled our cavity and the Kogod Courtyard is a striking area to refuel in.  

Katherine Hepburn painting and Oscars
Gertrude Stein by Jo Davidson

     We started on the third floor with "Twentieth-Century Americans", —a look at political, cultural, and scientific figures.  Katharine Hepburn's Academy Awards appear with a painting of her in the background.

The Buddha-like sculpture of Gertrude Stein by Jo Davidson was both amusing and eerie, as it almost appeared to be breathing.  On the mezzanine was "Bravo!" showcasing celebrities from the performing arts, and "Champions" saluting American sports heroes.   There were old and new friends to be greeted at every turn in the galleries opening onto the Great Hall. 

      Our next move was to the modern and contemporary art galleries, which was a jaw dropping space upon entering.  The collection displays major works amidst soaring columns and free-form benches in the restored Lincoln Gallery.

Modern and Contemporary Gallery
Don't miss David Hockney's installation of Snails Space with Vari-Lites, 'Painting as Performance’, a three-dimensional set of painted shapes that advance and recede during the 9-minute program.

Nam June Palk's Electronic Superhighway

Nam June Palk's Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii is a road trip across America through neon framed monitors projecting the individuality of each state.

For SAMM by Jenny Holzer
Also on view was the recent acquisition of For SAAM by Jenny Holzer, a floor to ceiling  light-based sculpture incorporating texts through projections.  "Art Since 1945" was in the adjacent galleries with works by Christo, de Kooning, and Pollock.

     The 31 galleries of "American Art Through 1940" (on the second floor) were arranged chronologically from the founding of our country through early modernism including WPA murals.  We found the Gilded Age to be a standout with pieces by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and a stained glass window by John La Farge.

The Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery
by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Achelous and Hercules by Thomas Hart Benton
      Our last stop was the "American Experience" on the first floor.  It presented artwork from three centuries depicting American landscapes and nature.  This leads into the gallery's collection of Folk Art and Photography. 

      The museum is open from 11:30am to 7pm daily, except Christmas.  For us, it was time for our reservation at Graffiato, a short walk to the east side of the Verizon Center and an evening exploring the Chinatown and Penn Quarter areas of Washington, DC. 

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Entrance to the Corcoran Gallery of Art
      A couple of days later, Eric had business to attend to and I decided to visit the Corcoran Gallery adjacent to the White House grounds.  It was a typical hot summer day in the capital city so the frosty granite building was particularly inviting.

Tomato and Watermelon
Gazpacho with
Egg Salad Sandwich

To the left of the admissions was the newly revamped Museum Café by Todd Gray, a Washingtonian celebrity chef. It had a simple menu based on fresh local ingredients.  I had the tomato and watermelon gazpacho that was a delicious purée of the two fruits.  It was paired with an egg salad sandwich with pine nuts and olives on flaxseed bread.

Museum Café by Todd Gray
There were also paninis and a large selection of desserts.  The setting was relaxing with a view of the indoor courtyards and the current exhibition.

Corcoran Café / Corcoran Art Gallery on Urbanspoon

American Art Collection
      The galleries start out with 18th century American pieces.  Many of the rooms double hang the artwork, which I found to be a little off-putting.  It was difficult to see many of the higher paintings with the distance and glares of lighting, a reminder of how much the collection has outgrown the current structure and how the once proposed Frank Gehry addition is still a necessity.

Imagination by Oscar Bluemner
Although many of the works are not well-known, the artists are and I found some new-found pieces memorable.  One such work was Imagination by Oscar Bluemner.

European Gallery Moving Into the Salon Doré
Detail of the Salon Doré
The richly colored galleries continued with European art featuring works by Gainsborough, Carot, and Monet.  The decorative arts are highlighted by the recreation of the Salon Doré from Paris.

Modern and Contemporary Permanent Collection
      The second floor is devoted to the permanent modern and contemporary art collections and special exhibits.  The representation is varied with works from emerging and well-known artists.  The Corcoran has always been "dedicated to art and used solely for the purpose of encouraging the American genius", a mission, which was tested in the late 80's when the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was slated to open there.  Many prominent figures were enraged when shown the content, which led to the museum refusing the exhibit.  Although it went on to be shown in other cities (including Cincinnati and Washington, DC at a different venue), the exhibit started the cultural wars leading to many revisions of the NEA.

Chris Martin: Painting Big
On this visit, the Corcoran continued to feature upcoming art with Chris Martin: Painting Big.  It was Matisse combined with art in the park (literally).  Martin works with extraordinarily large canvases that are painted in the outdoors allowing nature to do with them what it may while being completed.  One such example is chicken tracks across a graphic black and white composition.  Smaller pieces used found objects from indoors and out.  I couldn't grasp the complete significance of his work, but I could appreciate the process and grandness of them. 

      The Corcoran was satisfying without being overwhelming.  Upon leaving, there was a complimentary cold bottled water greeting me to the sweltering outdoors.  It was a much appreciated touch!

1 comment:

barbara said...

Thank you for a very interesting and informative article. I felt as if I were walking along with you both!
Just a note for Dexter... 'looking Catastic Puss' so happy to see you are well again.