Light Sculpture at the National Gallery

National Gallery Light Sculpture

Here’s my first video post- I went to the National Gallery of Art today and shot this little video clip of the light sculpture between the underground cafe and the East Wing of the National Gallery. This is one of the pleasures and benefits of living in Washington DC – virtually all museums are free admission, and open 7 days a week. I’d be hard pressed to move elsewhere and give up this perk. Do note that the National Gallery of Art is NOT part of the Smithsonian, although it is co-located with the other Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. I actually made it a three museum day – I started off with the African-American Civil War Museum, which is located in my neighborhood. For a small, privately funded museum without the visibility or the location of the big name museums downtown, they did an impressive job of displaying and interpreting the storyline and the supporting artifacts in their collection.

African American Civil War Museum

I knew they were there, but in more than a decade of living near them, I had never made it in. Today I decided to stop by and see, since they were open (a past problem due to their former facilities). I’m very glad I did. Because I’m a civil war nut, there wasn’t a LOT new to me, but there was enough to make it worthwhile. They do a great job contextualizing the African-American experience from the beginnings of European colonization in the Americas through the Civil War, and beyond to the Civil Rights era. I highly recommend the visit.

To bracket the experience, I stopped in the National Portrait Gallery/Museum of American Art (which IS part of the Smithsonian, and has awesome opening hours, from 11 am to 7 pm every day except Christmas). This is one of the very best museums in DC, in my opinion, not only because they’re in a beautiful Greek Revival building originally designed to house the US Patent Office (which I have a personal connection to the building – an ancestor of mine was a US Senator from Maine who commissioned the construction of the building), but they also have some of the very best photography (and non-photographic art) exhibits. They have some daring younger curators putting together brilliant exhibits that include painting, photography, prints, and sculpture, keeping the underlying theme of the American experience to unify sometimes very disparate artworks and objects. Today I saw “The Civil War and American Art“, rather a contrast to the African-American museum because it was filled with big-ticket paintings and original photographs. At least it was not neglectful of the African-American experience, including multiple paintings on the question of slavery and its impact on the American psyche and the Civil War.

Then it was on to the National Gallery of Art. Yes, I know, whirlwind day. The NGA had a photography show in their basement gallery on the subject of “Serial Portraiture”. Serial Portraiture is defined as works of portraiture that span an extended period of time and/or depict multiple aspects of a person’s character or moods. The exhibit featured works by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan, Emmet Gowin, Milton Rogovin, and a handful of contemporary photographers like Francesca Woodman and Ann Hamilton. The show itself is interesting, depicting classic as well as contemporary takes on the serial portrait and its use to explore contemporary concerns with identity and expression. The exhibition catalog (available as a PDF) is a failure, as it excludes more than half the material in the show. This is where the NGA is a consistent disappointment – they mount some potentially interesting exhibits of photography, but they hide them away in the basement, and then if they produce an exhibition catalog at all, they produce some half-hearted flimsy pamphlet. The Portrait Gallery/American Art Museum, on the other hand, when they produce a catalog, like the Civil War Art exhibit, they go all out with a hardcover volume with supplemental materials beyond what is presented in the exhibit.

To cleanse the palate after that, I stopped by the Michelangelo “David-Apollo” display upstairs. This is the kind of thing the NGA does get right (although they wouldn’t allow photos!!! BOO HISS) – classical art by dead white men. I really wish a piece like this was on display when I was taking my stone carving classes, as studying photos of Michelangelo’s carving technique is radically insufficient. If you have the opportunity, please come and see the piece while it is here – it returns to Italy at the end of March, 2013.

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