In Ellen Harvey’s Washington, tourists flock to the city trying to make sense of its landmarks. But Harvey’s visitors are from another planet, exploring a world that’s been devoid of humans for thousands of years. In “The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C.”—July 3 through October 6 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art—the British-born Brooklyn artist explores notions of architecture, heritage, and identity by showing how aliens might interpret the neoclassical buildings here and around the world.
Harvey, a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School, has long been interested in how art is defined—painting miniature landscapes illegally on buildings in her “New York Beautification Project” and offering people free portraits in return for their evaluation of her work at the 2008 Whitney Biennial. The idea for “The Alien’s Guide” was sparked in part by the Corcoran’s neoclassical building as well as the act of museum-going itself. “Institutions always have this desire to impose meaning on the chaos of reality,” Harvey says. “We look back to the classical architecture of the Greek and Roman eras, and it’s such a foreign society to us—we impose our own ideas upon it. I thought it would be fun to discuss assumptions of hierarchy, power, and democracy by having aliens come to earth and come up with the wrong end of the stick on everything.”
NEW MUSEUM SHOWS
“Ellen Harvey: The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington DC” is now on display, imagining Washington from an outsider’s perspective long after mankind has passed on. Read our review of the show. Through October 6.
“Intersections: Bernard Hildebrandt, A Conjugation of Verb” is a video installation riffing on El Greco’s “The Repentant St. Peter.” Through September 22.
“A World of Bonds: Frederick Sommer’s Photography and Friendships” continues at the National Gallery, showcasing work by Sommer as well as Man Ray, Edward Weston, and others. Through August 4.
Indian artist Rina Banerjee presents a new site-specific installation at the Sackler—the first in the museum’s new contemporary art series. “A World Lost” is inspired by Asian waterways and incorporates items such as glass bottles, shells, and plastic. July 13 through June, 2014.
Three exhibits open simultaneously: “High Art,” which showcases 50 works about flight acquired by the museum during the past decade; “Searching for Goldilocks,” a three-dimensional glass sculpture engraved with images from the Kepler space laboratory’s telescope; and “Suited for Space,” photography capturing the apparatus of space travel. July 26 through January 14.
Destroying Washington in the service of art is a device that seems irresistible to filmmakers, never more so than in 2013, when not one but two lackluster movies with budgets big enough to wipe out the Corcoran’s entire deficit have been released. The fact that Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are so spookily similar tells us rather a lot about audiences today: 1) They hate Washington. 2) They love Washington in a way that makes its immolation both haunting and oddly cathartic. And 3) there’s hardly anything more visually striking than classical architecture in ruins. Just look at Rome, or Detroit.
“The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington DC”—the newest work by British-born, Brooklyn-based artist Ellen Harvey and the latest in the Corcoran’s contemporary NOW series—doesn’t destroy Washington so much as revel in the magnificence of its desolation, but title aside, it’s much less concerned with Washington specifically than it is with the architecture of power in general. Harvey’s Washington exists in an imaginary future when humans have long since snuffed it. And yet the inevitable tourists remain, this time in the form of aliens who flock to earth in droves to try to understand the mysterious species that lived there, and why it was so compelled to erect pillars, porticos, columns, and colonnades everywhere it settled.
Harvey describes classical architecture as a “virus,” and nowhere is its proliferation more blatant than upstairs in one of the Corcoran’s galleries, where she’s assembled between 3,000 and 5,000 postcards of buildings around the world and displayed them all on three vast walls, drawing links between them with hieroglyphic-esque symbols. A collection of cards depicting the Parthenon in Athens, for example, hangs next to postcards of the Parthenon in Nashville, a full-scale replica of the Greek version constructed in 1897. There are ubiquitous domed state capitols and memorials and museums and palaces and theaters and banks and basilicas, classified in a simplistic but meaningful fashion (with lines and squiggles linking them together), and the scale of it all is breathtaking.
Harvey is clearly baffled, in a good-natured way, by the cross-cultural dominance of a single architectural form and its resilience over several thousand years of civilization. Her aliens are baffled, too, and in an attempt to understand the “lost pillar-builders of Earth” they misattribute motivations to humankind, which are printed on the Corcoran’s walls in space-age-y text. Here, we can learn that our beliefs were grounded in “egalitarianism, collaboration, and flirting,” and that our many, many cities on the water were constructed as part of an ornate mating ritual involving swimming upstream. Befuddled by the different sizes of Earth’s many ruins (imagine the DC War Memorial next to the US Capitol), the aliens have also deduced that humans come in three sizes, a bit like socks.
Faith Ringgold (left) is widely considered one of the most important African-American artists of the 20th century, but many critics believe her work has never received the acclaim it deserves. While she’s best known for her story quilts from the 1970s and ’80s, an exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, “American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” looks at her earlier work and the activism underpinning it.
The show—June 21 through November 10—comprises 45 pieces from two series made in the 1960s: “American People,” in which Ringgold fused Picasso’s post-Cubist style with traditional African influences, producing works that showed the paradoxes of integration, and “Black Light,” in which she explored notions of color by abandoning white paint. “It was a vibrant period—there was a lot of writing, talking about expressing the experience of African-American people,” Ringgold says. “I felt, as I still feel, that artists have the job of documenting their times.”
“American People” was considered scandalous for its depictions of race. One painting, “Die,” plays on Picasso’s “Guernica” by imagining a gory street riot. “A lot of people were horrified,” she says. “They didn’t feel it was appropriate to say anything about America that wasn’t positive.” But she was intent on trying to show what it was like to live as an African-American: “I wanted people to feel as though they were facing these people, experiencing part of the struggle. I was trying to give them the experience I had had all my life.”
Now 82 and living in New Jersey, Ringgold runs a foundation, Anyone Can Fly, that teaches children about art history. She continues to campaign for museums to showcase work by women and African-Americans. “Persevere, look, see, feel, and create, and we will know your experience—leave it behind for us in a way that no one else can,” she says. “They could leave me out, but they couldn’t stop me from painting those pictures.”
“American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s,” June 21 through Nov. 10 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. $10. For more information, visit the museum’s website.
This article appears in the June 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
Artists inevitably have to toil their way through a series of improbable day jobs while struggling to make it big. Jeff Koons was a commodities broker, Damien Hirst was a construction worker, and Mark Rothko waited tables and taught clay sculpture. Georges Braque was a painter-decorator by trade, and it shows, particularly in “Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945,” a gratifying new exhibition at the Phillips Collection.
The first major museum exhibit of Braque’s work in 16 years*, the show explores a relatively neglected period of the cubism pioneer’s work, including his residence in Paris during a time of Nazi occupation. Braque’s training comes through in his techniques—he used sand to texturize works and tools to scrape away at layers of paint—but even more compelling is his obvious fascination with form and perspective, and how color, shape, scale, and even feel can transform a simple still life into something infinitely more complex.
Braque’s arrangements can be simple, as in 1937’s muted “Still Life With Oysters,” or chaotic, like the frenzied “Studio With Black Vase,” done a year later. This exhibition, co-organized with the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis, offers both a wide range of works and a tight focus: There are 44 paintings on display, each is a still life, and each was created in a 17-year period during which Braque played with constructs of cubism and classicism to experiment with structure and style. Nothing feels extraneous or repetitive.
New Museum Shows
“Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945” opens June 8.
“Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings, 2004-2009” opens June 22.
“Intersections: Bernhard Hildebrandt, A Conjugation of Verb” opens June 27.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
“James Bridle: A Quiet Disposition” opens June 19.
“War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” opens June 29.
National Gallery of Art
“A World of Bonds: Frederick Sommer’s Photography and Friendships” opens June 16.
“In the Tower: James Kerry Marshall” opens June 28.
National Geographic Museum
“A New Age of Exploration” opens June 13.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
“American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960s” opens June 21.
“Awake in the Dream World: The Art of Audrey Niffenegger” also opens June 21.
National Museum of African Art
“Lines, Marks, Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen” opens June 19.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
“A Democracy of Images” opens June 28.
Yes, we’re spoiled with free museums in Washington, but that doesn’t mean this weekend’s Art Museum Day isn’t worth celebrating. Saturday, May 18, area institutions such as the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Hillwood Estate are opening their doors with special deals on admission. The details:
Baltimore Museum of Art
Admission to the BMA is free, but the museum is offering $10 off individual and family memberships on Art Museum Day, so you can join for $45 instead of the usual $55. New members also receive a $10 voucher to Gertrude’s, the museum’s restaurant.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
The Corcoran is offering free admission all day May 18, as well as every Saturday between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Additionally, use the hashtag #ArtMuseumDay to get 15 percent off at the museum shop.
Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens
Visit the Hillwood Museum on May 18 and receive two-for-one admission to the upcoming exhibit “Living Artfully: At Home With Marjorie Merriweather Post,” opening June 8.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
The NMWA will offer free admission all day May 18, from 10 to 5.
The Phillips is offering free admission all day on May 18, from 10 to 5.
Looking for a clue that the recession might be over? A sale of contemporary and postwar art at Christie’s last night raised $495 million for various sellers, including $58.3 million going to Washington billionaire and art collector Mitchell Rales for the purchase of his “No. 19, 1948” by Jackson Pollock.
The auction, said art dealer Larry Gagosian to the New York Times, “shows how broad the market is—as in deep pockets.” Rales’s drip painting, bought by an anonymous bidder, has an interesting background: It was sold to him by François Pinault, the French art collector and fashion magnate, who in turn bought it for a meager $2.4 million 20 years ago.
Rales, who was long notorious for shunning the spotlight, made the news in 2012 when he announced plans to build an expanded art museum the size of the National Gallery’s East Building near his Potomac home in order to showcase his collection. The founder of manufacturing and technology company Danaher Corp reportedly snapped up a number of masterpieces by Pollock, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, and other abstract expressionists in the 1990s when prices were low after the market crashed, according to a New York Times profile from earlier this year.
Forbes estimates Rales’s net worth at $3.7 billion, so the sale of “No. 19, 1948” won’t necessarily be lifestyle-altering. But it will account for almost half of the $125 million Rales and his wife, Emily, are investing in the expansion of their appointment-only gallery, Glenstone.
There are a wealth of contradictions underpinning the National Gallery’s extravagant new show, “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: When Art Danced With Music.” The show explores the incomparable legacy of Serge Diaghilev, a pioneer of the avant-garde and a man who shaped the way ballet would evolve throughout the 20th century but who also freely described himself as one “with a complete absence of talent.” This is a show focused on Diaghilev, but there is very little of him in it, given that he didn’t dance or sketch costumes or choreograph ballets or compose music. A sense of him emerges only fleetingly, as a mustache-twirling impresario curating art in a thoroughly fascinating way.
Another contradiction: Despite the nomenclature, the Ballets Russes never performed in Russia. Before 1909, when the troupe was formed, Diaghilev (who was independently wealthy) had worked as an art critic and curator and had produced concerts and operas in St. Petersburg and in Paris, where the first Ballets Russes production was staged. His choreographer was Michel Fokine; his principal dancers included Vasily Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. For the next 20 years, the company traveled around the world, presenting more than half of its productions in Britain and collaborating with talents as diverse as Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel. It is impossible to imagine modern dance being the same without it.
“Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes” is a reimagining of an exhibition that ran at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2010, and while the Washington exhibition has more of a visual art bent to it than the British show, it’s still an unexpectedly broad undertaking for the National Gallery. The institution literally raised its roof in order to display two key items: a backdrop painted by Natalia Goncharova for a 1926 production of The Firebird, and a curtain designed by Picasso in 1924 for The Blue Train, both of which are more than 30 feet tall. Although the two items are imposing, visually, they feel curiously flat taken out of context. Like cubism, the show deconstructs ballet down to its composite parts and presents them as individual masterpieces, when by their very nature they were designed to play as part of an ensemble.
The same goes for the costumes, which seem to make up the majority of items on display. Most are extraordinary, both in their construction and their heritage, but to see them displayed on mannequins is only a small part of the story. The exhibition includes video footage of modern reconstructions of Ballets Russes performances featuring companies such as the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet, but the two-dimensional projections don’t quite evoke the sense of ferocious energy and sweat that live dance does. The heaviness and intensity of the early Ballets Russes costumes in particular provoke a hundred practical questions about their nature in performance that remain unanswered. As works of art, the costumes pale in comparison to their elegantly rendered designs, including the gorgeous drawings and watercolors by Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst.
The Kreeger Museum inaugurates its newly installed reflecting pool May 1 with “Inventions,” an exhibition of sculpture by local artist John L. Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss explores concepts of form and space, incorporating design elements from aeronautical and architectural structures. Ongoing.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts collaborates with the Italian Embassy to present “Bice Lazzari: Signature Line,” an exhibition featuring work by the 20th-century Italian abstract artist. May 10 through September 22.
Opening at the National Gallery May 12 is “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes,” an exhibit dedicated to the groundbreaking early 20th-century dance troupe. From 1909 to 1929 the group collaborated with artists and designers including Picasso, Matisse, and Coco Chanel on its lavish, inventive productions. Through September 2.
At the Hirshhorn Museum, “Jennie C. Jones: Higher Resonance” explores the career of the 45-year-old artist who won the prestigious 2012 Wein Prize for her collages, paintings, and installations forging connections between visual art and music. The show includes “Higher Resonance,” a sound installation that adapts the Hirshhorn’s circular architecture to play with acoustics. May 16 through October 27.
Boris Chaliapin illustrated 413 Time covers, including portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Thelonious Monk, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy. Twenty-six from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection are on display in “Mr. Time: Portraits by Boris Chaliapin.” May 17 through January 5.
The National Gallery celebrates the 150th anniversary of Edvard Munch’s birth by presenting 20 works by the artist in the West Building. May 19 through July 28.
“Sylvan Sounds: Freer, Dewing, and Japan” looks at how Freer Gallery founder Charles Lang Freer was inspired to collect Japanese art thanks to the works of tonalist American painters such as Thomas Dewing, known for his Impressionist-like landscapes. The exhibition displays works by Dewing alongside Japanese prints and scrolls. May 28 through May 28, 2014.