Saturday, January 14, 2017

Touring DC (in last days of Obama administration)

I'm not quite sure how many times I've been to D.C.  We went maybe twice during my childhood (and I believe we toured the White House during the Carter administration).  When I was living in New Jersey, I went a few times, including once to see the AIDS quilt (my mother was also in town for that) and then for a Save Our Cities rally (where I saw Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson and perhaps even David Dinkins).  Then I started going for TRB, and I've probably been 7 or 8 times for that.  I think my wife came and visited with me when my brother lived in the area.  My kids have not been to D.C. yet.

In general, each time I visit, D.C. seems a bit shabbier and the Metro system seems worse (with longer headways and fewer employees to talk to when something goes wrong).  Maybe it doesn't help that the majority of times I've visited have been in the winter, which is certainly not the best time to visit.  D.C. is definitely not a well run city, particularly if it does snow, but the museums are pretty incredible.  I haven't honestly decided if I will go back to DC (even for TRB) while Trump is there, but perhaps I will.  Nonetheless, I am relatively unlikely to take the kids there while he is in the White House.

After I dropped my stuff off in the hotel and took care of TRB business and meetings, I still had a few hours of daylight.  It turned out that I was staying quite near the White House and the Renwick Gallery.

I don't go into the Renwick that frequently (it's generally full of interior design objects that are artistic and not all that practical), but it was right there, so I stopped in.  The most interesting artist was making these objects from unfired clay and then painting them.  She generally left them unfinished and looking like ruined objects, as with this piano.

Kristen Morgin, Piano Forte, 2004

The Corcoran is just down the street, but it was completely closed for renovations.  It may open later in 2017.  The lions seemed appropriately sleepy.  (Yes, there was still some snow on the ground, though less than I had expected.)

I started wandering down to the Lincoln Memorial.  I actually don't get over that way that often (only every fifth trip or so), even though I generally consider Abraham Lincoln the best President.

I ran across a small museum called the Art Museum of the Americas, sponsored by OAS (Organization of American States).  I'm sure I've never been in there before.  I took a quick look around.  I thought the exhibit The Great Swindle: Works by Santiago Montoya was not bad.  Most of the pieces of art were made out of currency, manipulated to emphasize different colors.

It took me a while to find it, but I finally tracked down the Einstein statute near the National Academy of Sciences.


For a moment, I thought that they had completely closed off the Lincoln Memorial, but it was open.  It was pretty slippery though, given the snow and ice on all that marble.  I didn't see anyone fall down, however.

I didn't get really close to it, but on the way over to the Washington Monument, I saw that the Korean War Veterans Memorial is sort of a paired concept to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with the main difference that there are sculpted soldiers nearby.  I thought it was somewhat derivative, but I wasn't particularly troubled by it.

However, I am appalled by the National World War II Memorial.  It looks exactly like something Hitler would have built to glorify the Third Reich (had they won).  I'm far from the only one that thinks this, and this is a particularly good post saying why the Memorial is terrible.  About the only good thing that can be said is that from most angles from the Lincoln Memorial steps you can't actually see it.

I got a few good shots of the Washington Monument.  I didn't realize that due to elevator malfunctions, the entire Monument is closed down.  Seems like a pretty good analogy for D.C. and the entire national political establishment since roughly the mid 1990s.

I was running pretty late at this point, but I decided to try to get up to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is always open until 7 pm while the rest of the Smithsonian closes at 5 or 5:30.  Thus, it usually is the last thing I see most days I am doing touristy things in D.C.

I generally spend far less time in the National Portrait Gallery, which shares the building.  They had a lot of Presidential portraits, which they haul out each inauguration.  I did think the sculpture of Geroge H.W. Bush by political cartoonist Pat Oliphant was good, and you can see Chuck Close's take on Clinton right behind.

The biggest draw for me was an exhibit of Bill Viola's work, centered mostly around subjects in water one way or another.  The most compelling was The Raft where a whole bunch of people get sprayed with fire hoses.  I really wonder what he paid the actors for that, since it must have been really unpleasant.

I enjoyed the feature on American painting from the 1930s through 50s, but, due to spending so much time in the Viola exhibit, I had to go very quickly through the modern and contemporary area on the 3rd floor.
Agnes Tait, Skating in Central Park, 1934
Skating in Central Park (detail)

Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning, 1950

I decided if I had time I would try to get back to the Smithsonian American Art Museum later in the visit.  Then I made my way back to the hotel.  I read a bit longer than I should have (The Sisters Brothers)* and then got up roughly an hour behind schedule on Sunday.

While the subway was still messed up on Sunday, it would take me to the Smithsonian at least, so I took that.  I had already to skip the Sackler, since the Freer Museum was closed.  I did duck into the National Museum of African Art.  I really liked the sound installation called Market Symphony.  Apparently it has been in place for most of a year, and it is coming down in two weeks.  It's worth checking out if you are nearby.

I went over to the Hirshhorn next.  The video art in the basement was fairly interesting, though I find it really challenging to carve out enough time to watch, particularly for pieces in the 15-20 minute range.  If they are longer than that (some of the pieces in the Ragnar Kjartansson exhibit upstairs were well over an hour), then I just keep moving.

I'm sure I've seen this Barbara Kruger piece of agitprop art before, but it did sink in a bit more this time (and no, I didn't buy anything in the gift shop).

The Ragnar Kjartansson exhibit was interesting, though I'm not entirely certain he deserved the entire floor.  One (short) video piece was amusing.  He was dressed up like an old-fashioned version of Death and tried to scare school children in a cemetery, and they just made fun of him.  One of the kids said, "You're just an elf with a stick."  Hilarious.  Apparently, the exhibit just closed.

In terms of the rest of the museum, I felt that the curators were really focusing on ugly art (Jean Dubuffet, Lucien Freud) that was seeped in alienation (Giacometti, Hopper) and sometimes misogyny (de Kooning).  While I do understand the impulse, not all artists were quite so gloomy, even during the Depression and the various stresses of the Cold War (basically the only exceptions here were a Miro painting and a couple of Calder sculptures, though I knew I would be seeing Stuart Davis at the National Gallery, and he is a much more optimistic and energetic artists).  One of the few pieces that I enjoyed looking at in the Hirshhorn was this Hooper painting, despite its anomie.

Edward Hopper, 11 A.M., 1926

One thing that the Hirshhorn has going for it is the sculptures and the sculpture garden, which I do think is considerably better than the National Gallery's sculpture garden.**

Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1996

And then I traipsed over to the National Gallery, but this post is quite long enough as it is, so I'll follow up with a second post to take care of the rest of my touristic activities.

* I got through a large chunk of Vanity Fair, though I didn't finish it.  I probably would have had I not read The Sisters Brothers, but I wanted to have at least one book to purge from my collection, and I rightly guessed that this wouldn't be a keeper.  I'll make one big push this weekend, and I should be able to wrap it up.  It's fairly enjoyable for such a long novel.

** Though apparently in 2009, the National Gallery sculpture garden picked up a massive Chagall mosaic called Orphée.  I was certainly unaware of this.  I'm sorry to have missed that, so I will make an effort to catch it on my next visit, whenever that happens to be.

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