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D.C. Museum Day – Part 1

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

For months I have been trying to get to D.C. for a museum day, but I have had to put school work and general family stuff first while I pushed my way through this semester. With grades posted and my professors comments on my final paper in hand I made it into the city on Friday.  The museum day was help by the fact that the fellows at Smithsonian American Art Museum were presenting their papers on the same day and as someone who will potentially be presenting papers in my future I wanted to experience it from the audience.

Modern Head by Roy Lichtenstein

When I arrived within sight of the museum I  realized how I missed visiting them. Since the lectures started at 1 p.m. I first went to the the Calder’s Portraits: A New Language (yes I know it is officially at the National Portrait Gallery). The exhibit which while small, was spectacular. I have always loved Calder’s work, the mobiles especially and had never had the opportunity to see any of his wire portraits. What he was able to create is remarkable, the pieces are flat, yet not – volume is created through very simple wire twists and full formed images emerge from nothing. Moving around the pieces they would change, suddenly a face would appear, then taking one step further it would disintegrate into lines.  Several articles  that I have read about his work used the phrase “drawing in space”, it is fitting then that many of the pieces include a wire signature.

The exhibit starts with a drawing that Calder made when he was 9, it has him building something with a bunch of tools on the floor around him. Very cute to see and an inspiring way to start the tour.

One of the great things about Calder’s work is how shadows are part of the experience and I was drawn to the shadows these portraits created. The hanging pieces produced shadow shows on the walls and floor that are mesmerizing. I was unable to take photographs myself – it being a temporary exhibit – and have not seen many examples online which highlight this incredible aspect of his work, so you will just have to go see it in person.

Another thing that I found fascinating was the way he represented the hair. On each piece it was slightly different,either curves or wiggled lines, each gave the individual personality. To the curators credit they included some of his preliminary sketches, photographs of the people Calder represented and even a few illustrations by other artists which provided context, as I was not sure what a few of the individual looked like to see how well Calder was able to represent them. Looking at them now it is important to remember that the art world did not look at him as a serious artist when he was producing these pieces – the critics at least. Many saw these as caricature, not art.

My two favorite pieces in the exhibit were Untitled (mobile with wire figure of Saul Steinberg) and Helen Wills II. What made the Wills portrait so interesting was the balance and grace that only a few pieces of wire were able to convey. Her tennis racket just centimeters from the ground.

Helen Wills II from Smithsonian.com

The only down side is that the prior issue at the portrait gallery with the Hide/Seek exhibit lead the Calder Foundation to not allow the inclusion of the Aztec Josephine Baker sculpture in this exhibit.  It had been intended to be on display, an unfortunate exclusion considering that one is currently located at the National Gallery of Art a few blocks away. The portrait gallery did include a scale print of the piece and explained why it was not on display. They did nothing to hiding the facts which  lead to its exclusion. Personally I am still trying to figure out who wins in that situation, or more accurately which organization looks worse.

As normal for museum visits I eyed the exhibit’s book as I left, but since my library has more than outgrown its space did not bring it home with me. My new mission is to find out more about the artist Paolo Garretto, his wonderful Josephine Baker collage was included in the exhibit.

I may just have to visit again – anyone interested in checking it out?

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