DC museums entice us

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Tuesday October 23, 2018
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Rachel Whiteread's sculpture  "Untitled (Domestic)" (2002) at the National Gallery of Art. Photo: Courtesy NGA
Rachel Whiteread's sculpture "Untitled (Domestic)" (2002) at the National Gallery of Art. Photo: Courtesy NGA

As the swallows return to Capistrano, every fall Out There returns to the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, site of our misspent youth. While there, we tour the wealth of museums and public spaces in D.C., then share our impressions with you.

The knockout museum show of our perambulations was the Rachel Whiteread exhibition, up through Jan. 13, 2019, at the National Gallery of Art. The British sculptor makes artworks from the negative space carved out of objects, so that, for example, the spaces beneath chairs become a group of small Ionic columns created from colored resin.

Whiteread has explored this artistic conceit over years and in varied scale. The interior space of hot-water bottles creates intriguing objects. The large-scale "Ghost" was cast from the inner space of a London rowhouse. "Untitled (Paperbacks)" is the immediately recognizable reverse space of a bookcase. The sculptor's most heralded work, the Holocaust memorial she created for Vienna, is represented here in a maquette, incarnating the negative spaces of a library's walls, filled with books never read or written by the murdered Jews of Europe.

Another amazing show at the NGA, "Sense of Humor" presents printmaking that offers satire, send-up or simply a chuckle, from Leonardo through Hogarth and up through R. Crumb and other contemporary artists.

At the Hirshhorn Museum, "What Absence is Made Of: A New Perspective on the Collection" is a worthy collection of conceptual and other artworks in which the "objectness" of the artwork disappears. But after all that cerebral effort, the sheer visual gorgeousness of "Sean Scully: Landline" is a welcome respite. Scully's scrumptious horizontal stripes in oil paint read inevitably as landscape, but their optical buzz transcends category.

Also at the Hirshhorn, Huang Yong Ping's "Abbottabad," an installation of terracotta tiles and live plants, tugs at the memory until you realize it's a representation (and transformation) of the compound where U.S. commandos finally took out nasty old Osama bin Laden. Towering artist Mark Bradford's ravishing abstract mural "Pickett's Charge" gallops across an interior circular wall.

The Sackler Gallery is the Smithsonian's repository of Asian art; there we enjoyed "Japan Modern," a major exhibition of Japanese postwar photography. The modern age arrived all at once in Japan, as the nation recovered from the debacle of its imperial ambitions and shucked off traditional attitudes and architecture all at once.

The National Portrait Gallery is about to unveil "Eye to I: Self-Portraits from 1900 to Today," an exhibition exploring how artists have approached self-representation and depiction through portraiture since the beginning of the last century.

Pace the NPG, "At a time when countless selfies are posted on social media channels and identity is proving to be more and more fluid, the museum will present a variety of self-portraits that raise important questions about self-perception and self-reflection.

"Eye to I" will feature more than 75 artworks encompassing tiny caricatures, wall-sized photographs, colorful pastels, watercolors, dramatic paintings and time-based media. The exhibition will include self-portraits by prominent figures in the history of portraiture, including Berenice Abbott, Josef Albers, Richard Avedon, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Thomas Hart Benton, Imogen Cunningham, Elaine de Kooning, Walker Evans, Joan Jonas, Jacob Lawrence, Alice Neel, Faith Ringgold, Diego Rivera, Lucas Samaras, Andy Warhol, Martin Wong and others. (Nov. 2 through Aug. 18, 2019)

We also found our old haunt The Green Lantern (shirtless men drink free, Thursday nights), hidden down a back alley behind Thomas Circle, by sense memory alone!

Hotel California

Back in town, we attended the VIP celebration last week for the Sir Francis Drake Hotel's 90th birthday bash, which started in the hotel's lobby and mezzanine, and expanded in all ways to the rooftop Starlight Room. We enjoyed 1920s-era costumery, gypsy-style jazz, and live music from The Klipptones. The blast from the past included "tipsy tea time" and nostalgic bites such as Oysters Rockefeller, tea sandwiches and icebox cake, go-go dancers in flapper attire, and performances by burlesque stars. We ate up the 20s ambience and festivity, but are sure glad party food has evolved since then.

Then we went to the gallery show opening at Berggruen Gallery, "The White Horse," which showcases the work of acclaimed photographer Mary McCartney, daughter of Sir Paul and Linda McCartney. The show ties in with McCartney's new book of the same name published by Rizzoli, and will run through Nov. 21.

Sometimes shy about approaching celebrated individuals, Out There was astounded when the artist approached us, introducing herself, "Hi, I'm Mary!"

"He's a beautiful horse," OT said, indicating the subject of McCartney's photos, a majestic white stallion with a long, flowing mane.

"Yes, you can tell I love him, can't you?" McCartney said. She has her father's soulful big brown eyes. Our head was suddenly full of the rare Parlophone record "With the Beatles" (1963), Paul singing "Till There Was You" from "The Music Man," "Please Mister Postman" and Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me." Mary has achieved her own brand of celebrity, the subject of splashy recent features in The Wall Street Journal and the [UK] Financial Times. But here she was at Berggruen, down to earth and full of light.