Amid the feel-good vibe of Inauguration Weekend 2009 — yes, it seems like a long time ago — I stopped by the National Gallery of Art and spent an hour studying Robert Frank’s 1950s photographic series, “The Americans.” The gallery’s timing couldn’t have been better. As our first black President swept into town, here was a silent reminder, in the plaintive eyes of a man seated in the back of a New Orleans trolley car, of how far we’d come.
“The Americans” kicked off a stellar year for DC’s museums, which consistently offered visually rich, thought-provoking and, in the case of the Terracotta Warriors, once-in-a-lifetime exhibits.
Here, the five that stayed with me:
1. Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, National Gallery of Art. A stunning photographic portrait of 1950’s America, this show forced me to look at my own country from the perspective of a foreigner, interpreting race, class, politics and the American landscape in a whole new light. If you move fast, you can still catch it at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, through January 3, 2010. Highly recommended.
2. Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor, National Geographic. I can’t gush enough about them. Unless you’re planning a trip to China, you need to see them while they’re here. The exhibit runs through March 31, 2010.
3. Gardens and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, Freer-Sackler Gallery. This show was pure, fantastical fun, depicting the royal courts of Rajasthan through lush watercolors in greens, magentas and blues. Ashrams set in verdant hills, palaces alive with dancing girls, elephants frolicking in the monsoon rains: It made me want to be a Maharajah.
4. The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works, National Gallery of Art. A tour through this collection is equivalent to a one-semester course on post-war American painting. My favorites? The black-on-black Rothko and Jasper Johns’ all-white U.S. map. Cool. On view through May 2, 2010.
5. Timbuktu to Tibet: Rugs and Textiles of the Hajji Babas, Textile Museum. Who knew there was a 75-year-old society of rug collectors called the Hajji Baba Club? I wanted to take their soumaks, kilims and bokharas home, but I’ll admit the Tibetan tiger rugs stole the show.