Smithsonian American Art Museum

Feeling Manhattan

Georgia O’Keefe’s painting, Manhattan, hangs on the ground floor of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, alongside this quote from the artist:

“One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.”

My 10-year-old niece recently wrote me a thank you note for a Christmas gift, and included this rendering of New York, as she felt it, on her first trip there before the holiday.

I was surprised to see Starbucks feature so prominently, but heartened she included the Met.

Grand Central Station: Two Views

One of the best things about visiting New York is the people-watching. A couple hours in Central Park, and you’ll see every stripe of humanity: Russian-speaking au pairs, 70-year old rollerbladers with orange hair and legwarmers, heartland tourists in navy polo shirts, young men flaunting their abs, very large people walking very small dogs.

Same holds for Grand Central Station, that great crossroads of Gotham. Over the weekend, I visited the Jewish Museum’s quirky Maira Kalman exhibit , and this picture of Grand Central (above) stood out. It mirrored what I saw on the streets not 20 minutes before.

Another favorite view of Grand Central sits in DC, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Grand Central Station #2 (below), a video installation by Jim Campbell, shows ghostly figures in constant motion through the terminal. Even if I didn’t know the title of this piece, I think I’d guess the location based on the golden, filtered quality of the light.

To see what it’s like in motion, check out a related piece:Grand Central Station 5. Some things are only in New York.

Hide/Seek and the AIDS Era


I experienced the U.S. AIDS epidemic of the 80s and early 90s mostly as an observer. The disease took my 9th grade English teacher and, later, a coworker. I remember ubiquitous safe-sex campaigns on campus and seeing men in their 30s and 40s, frail and wasting, being wheeled by caregivers through Dupont Circle. And I remember friends nervously waiting out HIV tests after ill-advised episodes of unprotected sex.

Though the heated politics of the era had receded in my mind, it took one walk-through of the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture to bring it all back. Reagan denying the disease, Princess Diana shaking hands with AIDS patients, ACT UP protests–all of it.

Hide/Seek has generated controversy due to Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough’s unfortunate decision to pull a video from the show, but that didn’t interfere with my experience of it. The pieces reflecting the AIDS era are engaging, provocative, tragic. Keith Haring‘s Unfinished Painting (pictured) is particularly sad because it so poignantly represents what was lost to the disease, and too soon–the artist died at age 31.

Haring’s unique street-art genius is explored in the documentary, The Universe of Keith Haring, which I watched after my first visit to Hide/Seek. The film turned out to be a nice bookend to the exhibit. It provides a fascinating look at the downtown New York art scene of the early 80’s as well as an artist’s coming of age. Haring’s ebullience really shines through.

Hide/Seek runs through February 13, 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery.

Norman Rockwell’s Mad Men Moment

Norman Rockwell’s work isn’t my thing. I find his paintings too saccharine, his subjects’ innocence too forced. And I wasn’t alive during his heyday, so the appeal to nostalgia eludes me.

But one painting in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Telling Stories exhibit made me pause at least, mostly because it reminded me of my Sunday night obsession, Mad Men.

In “The Connoisseur,” a gray-suited man, presumably a stand-in for Rockwell, examines a Jackson Pollock painting and wonders if the generational baton has been passed. It was painted in 1962, on the cusp of the culture wars — a moment plumbed every week in the hallways of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce.

I thought: yes, a glimmer of irony–there’s hope for Rockwell yet.

Okay, not exactly Don Draper-esque levels of irony, but still.

Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg runs through January 2, 2011.

An American Road Trip (By Proxy)

I don’t take many road trips these days, other than on an annual spa weekend with two close friends. And though I’ve lived in China (twice), I’ve never seen Yellowstone or West Texas.

For those, like me, who are U.S. travel-deficient, the Smithsonian American Art Museum offers a handy proxy: a Flickr group titled the “American Art Road Trip,” made up of paintings and photos of iconic U.S. destinations from the museum’s collection.

The photo of Waikiki Beach in the 70’s is cool, but I’ll confess my favorite painting in the group is this rendition of Yosemite’s El Capitan by Japan-born artist Chiura Obata. Interesting to see how an Asian artist interprets a legendary American landscape through his (or her?) own lens. It’s the pioneer spirit made zen.

If I ever do get to Yosemite, I’ll have to reconcile this version with the Ansel Adams photos I’ve so long associated with the American West. El Capitan, 360.

Image: El Capitan, Chiura Obara, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lonely Planet DC: A Dissent

So. Lonely Planet’s new DC city guide is out. They’ve got the neighborhoods, nightlife and Obama era vibe down, but I gotta quibble with their top museum picks:

1. Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery
2. Corcoran Gallery of Art
3. Hirshhorn Museum
4. US Holocaust Memorial Museum
5. Freer Sackler Galleries

First off, how can you not include the National Gallery of Art, the Mall’s eminence grise and one of the world’s great museums? And the Hirshhorn? Sorry, but I can go a couple years without setting foot in that place and not miss it. I rarely find their temporary exhibits engaging. And if I have to pick between the Corcoran and the Phillips, the Phillips wins, for consistently creative shows in an intimate setting. I love looking at art while walking on creaky floorboards.

Here, my amended list:

1. National Gallery of Art
2. Freer Sackler Galleries
3. Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery
4. The Phillips Collection
5. US Holocaust Memorial Museum

But that’s me. Maybe a little more establishment than the Lonely Planet credo.

DC Museums and Social Media: A New Year’s Resolution

While several friends have vowed to curb their Internet/Twitter/iPhone habits in 2010 to reclaim a modicum of face time with friends and family, I’m thinking I need to be more electronically plugged in to DC’s arts and culture scene. A great place to start: DCist’s handy round-up of local museums’ podcasts, blogs and Twitter feeds.

I’m already a Facebook fan of the Freer-Sackler Gallery and the National Gallery of Art, but in truth I’m still getting a lot of my museum news through (increasingly old school) e-newsletters. Not to say that e-newsletters don’t serve a purpose: The Freer-Sackler sent me a year-end fundraising plea just this afternoon, and I succumbed, much as I do after a week of listening to public radio pledge drive banter.

As for blogs, I often skim the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery blogs, which include cool stuff like this time lapse video of shadows moving across the Kogod Courtyard, one of my favorite public spaces in Washington.

The Smithsonian’s Around the Mall blog is also worth checking out, for exhibit updates and quirky behind-the-scenes stories like this post on a couple who recently got engaged at the National Museum of Natural History (in the museum’s forensic lab? really?)

For sheer numbers of followers, however, the reigning champ on the DC museum circuit has got to be the National Zoo’s Pandacam, trained on our beloved Tai Shan, who will soon depart for China. Yes, he’s chomping bamboo as I type. Just try not to click on that link.

Photo by tklancer via Flickr.

Top Five for Holiday Shopping

Yes, it’s that time of year again. I’ve long favored D.C.’s museum gift shops for unique holiday gifts. Here, my top five, with their strong suits. Check ‘em out.

1. National Building Museum: children’s toys and games, books on art and architecture
2. Smithsonian American Art Museum: silver jewelry, funky bags
3. Corcoran Gallery of Art: Christmas cards and wrapping paper, notecards, jewelry
4. National Museum of African Art: batik bags and baskets, jewelry, Christmas ornaments made by African artisans
5. Textile Museum: scarves, rugs, bags, jewelry

At the American Art Museum, A Trip Back to 1934

In the Barber Shop

In the Barber Shop, Ilya Bolotowsky, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Though the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition of Depression-era paintings, 1934: A New Deal for Artists, has been on since February, I haven’t been in the mood to see it. I’ve watched three friends and family members lose their jobs this year; why be reminded that things could get bleaker?

Well, the sun came out in DC today after a week of relentless rain, and my mood lifted just enough to brave it. I’m glad I did.

The show’s 56 paintings are drawn from the 1933-34 Public Works of Art Project, which commissioned 3,700 artists to depict “the American Scene.” The result is a snapshot of country down on its luck, and while the factory scenes and landscapes can be ominous– lots of rolling clouds and long shadows– the best pieces convey a community warmth that endured in tough times. Bright spots include “Baseball at Night” set amid the twinkling lights of West Nyack, New York; and “In the Barber Shop” (left), a brightly-colored homage to New York’s immigrants. Worth an hour pondering history’s parallels? I thought so.

Obama supporters, at least, have a chance to end their visit to “1934” on a high note: In the adjacent National Portrait Gallery, you’ll find a mural-sized (and fancied up) version of the iconic Shepard Fairey Obama “Hope” poster . A different take on difficult times, but equally American.

1934: A New Deal for Artists runs through January 3, 2010.