Off at Sea

Wyeth Off at Sea

On Father’s Day, a few connected thoughts:

Today I came across this quote from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir of grief, The Long Goodbye:

“The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.”

And today I saw this stunning watercolor by Andrew Wyeth, currently on view at the National Gallery of Art exhibition, Looking Out, Looking In.

The painting is called, “Off at Sea,” a phrase used by residents of coastal Maine when they mean to say “lost at sea.” I like this because it implies continued presence, a watchful beam of light connecting land and sea, sweeping through the fog when needed but beyond human grasp.

If I lived in Maine, in a place where people understood the meaning, I would make use of this phrase, as in: “My father, he’s off at sea.”

Kiyochika: Master of the Night

Cherry blossoms in D.C. usually herald phenomenal Japanese art exhibits. The Sackler Gallery takes the lead this year with Kiyochika: Master of the Night, a gorgeous series of woodblock prints made during the 1880s, when Tokyo was young.

This print, “Fireflies at Ochanomizu,” is my favorite, for its moodiness and glow. Its expectant summer evening vibe reminds me of John Singer Sargent’s “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,” which I saw at the Tate Britain last summer. The two works are of the same era.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night continues through July 27, 2014.

Women of Vision


An appalling fact: Only four women have ever held the title of “staff photographer” at National Geographic. How many men have been given that honor ? Fifty. And of the magazine’s current fleet of 60 freelance photographers, only about a dozen are women. Still so far to go.

Despite the gender imbalance that persists at the top of their profession, the 11 women photojournalists featured in National Geographic’s Women of Vision exhibition aren’t letting anything stop them.  It’s an inspiring group. I thought Lynsey Addario’s work documenting maternal mortality in Afghanistan and Jodi Cobb’s interpretation of Venice during Carnival (above) were standouts, but each photographer conveys a strong point of view.

Throughout, you can see when and where being a woman helps these photographers gain access to subjects and tell a story through a female-specific lens, which only strengthens the work. Through March 9, 2014 at National Geographic Museum


Day for Detroit

van gogh the diggers

I’ve been thinking a lot about Detroit lately. My family roots go deep there, back to the early 1800s on my father’s side, when my ancestors arrived by covered wagon from the East. I was born in Ann Arbor and lived in a suburb of Detroit until age 7. I’m a fourth generation University of Michigan graduate, and my grandfather was a lifelong General Motors company man.

So the controversy over selling the Detroit Institute of Arts’collection to shore up the city’s finances resonates on a personal level. Many commentators have written in support of the DIA in recent weeks. Here’s a strong economic argument for preserving the collection, but it’s much harder to quantify the psychological blow of losing a bedrock cultural institution that residents can still point to with pride.

In support of the #DayDetroit campaign on Twitter and blogs today, I’m posting Van Gogh’s “The Diggers” from the DIA’s collection. It’s a nice complement to “The Road Menders” (below), which is one of my favorites from the Phillips Collection here in Washington.

A life’s journey in art, full circle.

Van Gogh Road Menders
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Five from London

In June and July, I spent two glorious weeks in London studying art. I hadn’t been in about 10 years and found the city thriving. I went up to Hampstead Heath for the first time, wandered around Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park (still my favorites), and spent many hours in museums and galleries.

Here, my five favorite art-related experiences:

1. Tate Britain’s J.M.W. Turner Collection: An unrivalled collecton, and the Tate Britain is a beautiful museum. Turner’s paintings of Venice and the Burning of Parliament are spectacular.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

2. Sebastião Salgado: Genesis: A renowned Brazilian photographer captures the natural world in all its glory. I love his extensive series on penguins in Antarctica, but this photo of a cattle market in Sudan really stayed with me, for its otherworldly quality.


3. El Anatsui’s “TsiaTsia”: The Ghanaian sculptor created one of his signature hanging sculptures (tapestries, really) for the Royal Academy of Art’s Summer Exhibition 2013. Its thousands of bottle tops shimmer in the Academy’s courtyard.

el anatsui Royal Academy of Art

4. General Officers of World War I: I love John Singer Sargent to begin with, so I was blown away by this giant portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, which I’d never seen. It’s an invented piece (these generals were never in one room together) but really evokes the era and reads very, very British.

NPG 1954; General Officers of World War I by John Singer Sargent

5. Tate Modern Cafe: I find the Tate Modern’s collections underwhelming, but you can’t beat the setting. Nothing says London more than a glass of wine and cheddar tart whilst looking across the Thames at St. Paul’s.

tate modern st paul's

Ballets Russes on Paper


Though the National Gallery of Art’s Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes includes lots of costumes and video clips meant to bring the legendary dance troupe alive, the works on paper are the beating heart of this show.

The illustrated costume designs by Léon Bakst, like this one for a rajah in the ballet Le Dieu Bleu, are the best representation of the ballet’s innovative and lasting style, and are just plain beautiful to look at. What I wouldn’t give for a framed series of these watercolors hanging in my apartment.

I don’t deliberately think about the Ballets Russes when I see a ballet today, but I should. One thing the National Gallery show makes clear is that the company’s legacy is still very much alive, through the teaching of Balanchine and others. The company’s aesthetic, however, is of a time and place all its own.

Basquiat’s Brilliance

basquiat-riding with death

I can’t get this painting out of my head.

I saw it two weeks ago at the Gagosian in Chelsea, one of 59 paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat hanging in the gallery’s cavernous white rooms. It’s massive, and they’ve placed it so you first glimpse it through a doorway in the second gallery, dramatically framed.

It seems fair to say that Basquiat, whose talent and early, tragic death are documented in the film “Radiant Child,” was a prodigy, and created a singular American art form that no one has come close to duplicating.

New York Times critic Ken Johnson captures what I was thinking in trying to decipher the artist:

“At a casual glance Basquiat’s paintings look as if they’d been made by a brilliant, autodidactic schizophrenic driven to download his inner demons, obsessions and fantastical ideas by whatever means possible.”

He adds: “For all its bristling fury Basquiat’s art remains engaging and likable. It is not overbearing, withholding or offensive but visually generous, materially sumptuous and entertaining.”

Exactly right. This show makes you want to smile, mourn and applaud at the same time. I found it overwhelming.

Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1998 at age 27. He completed the above painting, Riding with Death, just months before his death, leaving one to wonder if the skeletal figure was a premonition. I keep thinking about it not only because it’s haunting, but because it’s a remarkable work of art for a 27-year-old to have produced.

Bill Brandt’s London

Bill Brandt Evening in Kew Gardens

London. Watching the Olympics last year and getting hooked on BBC’s Sherlock (I was a latecomer) reminded me it’s been too long. I plan to correct that this summer, so seeing Bill Brandt’s 1930s photos of the city at the Museum of Modern Art this weekend only stoked my interest.

I didn’t know of Brandt until I came across the NYT review for MOMA’s Shadow and Light a couple weeks ago, which made me want to check it out. I’m glad I did. Brandt imbues London with texture, timeliness, duty, grace. A different take from Brassai’s Paris, perhaps, but capturing a similar sense of atmosphere.

The NYT’s Roberta Smith writes that Brandt’s photos “tend toward stillness.” That’s exactly what I felt looking at the photo above, Evening in Kew Gardens, my favorite of the exhibit. I love its elegance — almost as if the bird has arrived too early for a black-tie affair and is enjoying being the only guest.

Policeman in a Dockland Alley Bermondsey Bill Brandt Brandt, Bill

Woman Dressed for a Bullfight

NGS Picture ID:1208342

Best discovery of the week? National Geographic’s new Tumblr, Found, which publishes long-lost photos from the organization’s archives. If this shot, taken in 1924, is indicative of what’s in store, I’ll be checking in often. You could almost write a novel around this woman.

Happy Birthday, Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey Deadly Blotter

Thanks to the Google doodle, I was reminded of one my favorite artists this morning: The late, great Edward Gorey, who would have been 88 today.

Maria Popova of Brain Pickings followed Google’s lead with a series of Gorey blog posts today, including one describing two of the artist’s “lost” stories, recently re-published under the title, Thoughtful Alphabets.

I go way back as a Gorey fan, to watching the macabre opening sequence of PBS’s Mystery! as a teenager. My freshman year in college, I had a poster of Gorey’s most renowned alphabet story, the Gashlycrumb Tinies, on my wall. So it’s very cool, years after his death, to discover new work. He does dark humor like no one else.