Flying back to LA from Washington DC at 36,000 feet without the joy of a window seat is, for me at least, one of life’s little tragedies. I sublimated such a sad event by writing this e-mail and will leave you, my art readers, to determine if altitude creates better or worse writing.
I spent time at three museums in DC: The Phillips Collection, The National Gallery of Art, and The National Portrait Gallery. I’m sure many of you have visited some or all of these galleries and if not, you will have quite a treat when you do.
You may have noticed the recent advertisement for the traveling exhibition titled “Paint Made Flesh” in “Art In America” or “Art News.” It was my good fortune, as I struggled along Embassy Row on a remarkably humid and stormy afternoon near Dupont Circle (gee that sounds like the start of a novel), to stumble on this show at the Phillips Collection.
The main attraction, certainly for me, was Jenny Saville’s 1999 “Hyphen,” an overwhelming 108” x 144” painting of gigantic yet extraordinarily refined brush sweeps. I know I’ll get into trouble saying this, but her skill beats Rembrandt. I have long admired her work, doing color studies and making notes all over my book of her images (I’ve included a jpeg of Saville’s “Hyphen” from my well used book on her work), so you can imagine how truly inspiring it was to find myself in front of one of her actual paintings.
Of course Saville was only one of the artists exhibited in this show. Anytime one paints a figure, one can assume flesh so many figurative works could have been hung together. The show is really about the choices made by the chief curator Mark Scala, who selected these paintings as examples that best demonstrate the wide range of depicting flesh. When seen from that standpoint, it gives more meaning to this particular assemblage. What a wonderful exercise to ask yourself, “What particular artists would I have selected for such a show?”
So who were some of the chosen artists that I would have left hanging on the walls? Several de Koonings, a Cecily Brown painting that looked like a de Kooning without steroids, an absolutely striking Hyman Bloom painting that looked like a Bacon also without steroids, an Alice Neel bizarre portrait appropriately called “Randall in Extremis,” a beautiful Richard Diebenkorn in “Bay Area Figurative Art” style, a thick palette knife “Girl in Chair” by Joan Brown, several remarkable Susan Rothenberg’s a la Guston, and a haunting but magnificent painting in yellowish tones showing a nude old man uneasily walking down a hall entitled “Frailty Is a Moment of Self-Reflection” by Eric Fischl. Can you imagine my chagrin when told, by a museum guard, that a few days after my scheduled departure from DC, Fischl was going to give a talk at the museum?
The National Gallery of Art showed what it usually shows, the best samples of art history: Vermeer, Rembrandt, El Greco, Gauguin, Van Gogh, et al. But when one crosses under 4th Street, one enters the Museum’s new modern East Building; a triangular, five floor structure. You know you’re dealing with contemporary art when you glance at a huge black on white rectangular Motherwell on the massive wall space and a skillfully rendered sculpture by Isamu Noguchi. But the surprise was a special exhibition at the very top of this triangle in what is called “The Tower,” which consisted of one gallery room and a small hallway. Hanging were examples of Guston’s later work of the 1960’s, what critics liked to term his “…heads and soles of shoes.” To me, there is no better abstract expressionist than Guston, but apparently he felt that doing abstractions was “a cover-up for a poverty of spirit.” Guston elaborated on this by writing, “When the 1960’s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic…I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road.” Viewing this exhibit was my personal attempt to understand the “whys” of his dramatic switch to explore another mode of inquiry.
If your wish is to totally overdose in a wonderful way, including a visit to The National Portrait Gallery, also known as The Smithsonian American Art Museum, must be considered. The building dates back to the pre-Civil War period and is the site of Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural ball. For me, a visit to this place ended up as a treasure hunt like no other. The many portraits are predictably there but I hadn’t expected all of the additional art that I saw.
It was a smorgasbord of contemporary painters’ works. Some of the artists that stood out most in my mind were Philip Pearlstein, Michael Goldberg, and Joan Mitchell. There was also a stunning Joan Brown, an artist I can never get enough of. But for me, the painting of a lifetime turned out to be Larry Rivers’s 1964 mixed media and collage on fiberboard, a masterpiece called “Identification Manual”.
Larry Rivers was always a favorite of mine but when I was finally and unexpectedly confronted with an actual piece of his art, I experienced what I have never experienced before, a work with nothing left wanting. To me it was visual perfection; it fit exactly the way my visual cortex is wired. That which was realistic in the painting coalesced with that which was abstract, nothing clashed. I looked from every angle, I looked up close, from far-away, even sideways, but could not find a single thing, be it color, value, form, material use, quality of craftsmanship, or whatever, that didn’t work for my particular visual sensibilities. I’m truly amazed at my reaction and wonder if some of you have ever experienced the same thing.
We started our decent from 36,000 feet, I buckled my seatbelt, then continued to marvel at the art I had seen in good old DC while the pilot shot for a three point landing. Voila, back home!