Some of America’s most beloved puppets are celebrated on one of the National Museum of American History’s “artifact walls” starting December 13. “Puppetry in America” looks at the history of puppets from the Civil War era to the present, from ventriloquists’ dummies and marionettes to more recent characters created by Jim Henson and for director Tim Burton.
The exhibit draws on research by curator Dwight Blocker Bowers for a book about the puppets as well more than 20 Muppets donated to the museum this year by the Henson family. To help protect the items, the show is divided into two parts, with the first rotation (through January 26) featuring old Punch and Judy figures; marionettes from the TV show Howdy Doody; Edgar Bergen’s dummy sidekick, Charlie McCarthy; characters from Captain Kangaroo; and a handful of Muppets. The second half, on display from early March to mid- to late April, includes puppets from all over the world as well as one notable crank: Oscar the Grouch.
The show aims to take the museum’s collection of puppets and “reexamine them in contemporary terms,” says Bowers, who counts Kermit the Frog among his favorites. “The contribution of Jim Henson and the breeziness and humor he ushered in is unmistakable. Kermit is this wonderful alter ego, not just for Henson but for the American public because he’s so gentle and unassuming. We hope to show the infinite variety encompassed by the word ‘puppet.’”
“Puppetry in America.” Through January 29 at the National Museum of American History. For more information visit the museum’s website.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.
Of stereotypes, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Once you label me, you negate me.” Artist Hank Willis Thomas puts it another way: “I really want to believe that I’m a human being, and that my identity isn’t restricted to being these two things that haven’t served me: being black and being male.”
Understanding what it means to be a black man in America is the mission of “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a video installation by Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The work curates some three hours of footage taken from interviews with over 150 subjects into an installation displayed on five video screens simultaneously, with subjects appearing and disappearing intermittently.
The interviews flip the format on its head by requiring subjects ask questions as well as answer them. “Rather than doing a traditional documentary of having people sit in a room and have a conversation, we thought we could record people asking questions on camera and then show those questions to people and record their answers,” says Thomas. “You get a more authentic answer because a lot of the social mores that people deal with in person are cut out.”
Facing the inquiry of what questions they would want to ask of other black men, subjects responded with everything from “Why wouldn’t you be happy with your son being gay?” to, “Do you want to get out of the situation you’re in?” One subject, after watching another person record their interview, asked if he could submit his own question: “Why didn’t y’all leave us the blueprint?”
“The question was just there, and it was obviously something he’d been thinking about for some time, and it was so potent,” says Thomas. “That’s what the project does. We all have the capacity for critical thinking and doing very important research, but we can’t all always get on a microphone.”
Thomas, a photographer and visual artist, attended the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in DC, which he credits for teaching him that there are many different ways to “be black,” whatever those words might mean. His work has been exhibited all over the world, as well as locally at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American History, and at the Corcoran, where an exhibition of his work, “Strange Fruit,” was featured alongside the museum’s “30 Americans” showcase of contemporary African American artists in 2011.
“Question Bridge” was initially a project conducted by artist Chris Johnson, a professor of Thomas’ who filmed subjects in San Diego discussing beliefs and issues affecting their community. About seven years ago, Thomas asked if he could reprise the work, focusing this time on black men. Questions led the four collaborators towards other subjects, sometimes in complex ways: After one man asked the question, “What’s so cool about selling crack?”, Johnson started teaching meditation in a San Francisco jail so he’d have access to incarcerated men who could answer that very question. “The journey of these questions is almost as interesting as the questions themselves,” says Thomas.
In addition to the installation at the Corcoran, “Question Bridge” also has an app in development that will allow people to record and submit their own questions and answers to the database. January 23 at THEARC in southeast DC, co-creator Bayeté Ross Smith will host a “Blueprint Roundtable Discussion” with community-nominated leaders to discuss the project. The work also features a curriculum teachers can use to talk about the work with their classes, and will eventually be developed into a documentary.
While “Question Bridge” can’t offer a definitive answer in terms of explaining the perimeters of black maleness, one subject puts it this way: “Our commonality is in our history, but our beauty as black men is in our diversity.”
“Question Bridge: Black Males” is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through February 16. See a trailer for the work below. For more information about the exhibition and its accompanying programs, visit the Corcoran’s website.
Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture
Through January 5, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art presents “Handmade Holiday Cards,” an exhibition featuring 60 personal greetings cards made by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Alexander Calder, Milton Avery, and more.
Anacostia Community Museum
“Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence” and “Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley” go on display December 4, revealing tapestries made by women in rural South Africa and quilts from the museum’s permanent collection.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
“Question Bridge: Black Males,” opening December 7, explores notions of contemporary blackness and male identity.
Freer Gallery of Art
“The Nile and Ancient Egypt,” opening December 7, displays artifacts from the Freer’s collection to trace the River Nile’s history and significance.
National Portrait Gallery
“Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: A Civil War Portfolio” opens December 13 and features large-scale reproductions of photos taken of the District of Columbia a century and a half ago.
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
“In Focus: Ara Guler’s Anatolia” presents photographs by Guler, known as “the eye of Istanbul” for his images of the Turkish city taken in the ’50s and ’60s. Opens December 14.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
“Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts” opens December 20 and comes from the Brooklyn Museum. The show examines the art of quilting and its importance to the women’s movement.
The former National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency building at the corner of First and M streets, Southeast, has long fascinated local residents thanks to its lack of windows, impossibly touchy security guards, and general air of desolation. So what better way to bid good riddance to a neighborhood eyesore than to cover it in pretty colors and drawings of dinosaurs?
Washington-based artist Kelly Towles has been tasked with transforming the building before its eventual demolition early next year, and will be covering it in murals for the next ten days in a project called Art Yards, finishing up on November 29. He’s enlisted the help of Hawaii-based artist Jasper Wong, who’s already finished his mural, and Australian duo Dabs Myla, who will outline and finish theirs starting November 22. This morning, Towles created a “Pour Mural” visible from M Street, pouring 111 gallons of paint over the side of the building.
Like all great works of street art, Art Yards is ephemeral—after the building is demolished, only photographs will remain. Follow the artists’ progress on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using the hashtag #artyardsdc, or check it out in person through November 29.
“Shaping a Modern Identity: Photographs From the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection” is on display through January 12, and reveals portraits by Ansel Adams, Chuck Close, and more.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
“Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” displays 92 works from the permanent collection by artists such as Carlos Almaraz, Christina Fernandez, and Freddy Rodríguez, and looks at how modern and contemporary Latino artists have helped shape the movements of their time. Through March 2.
National Building Museum
“Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940-1990” comes from Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, and focuses on how construction and development helped transform LA into a hotbed of architecture, design, and innovation. Through March 10.
National Portrait Gallery
“Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits” reveals works from a recent gift to the museum of more than 100 works by the Armenian-Canadian photographer, including images of Georgia O’Keeffe, Grace Kelly, I.M. Pei, Eleanor Roosevelt, and more. Through April 27.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
“Mia Feuer: An Unkindness”is the latest installment in the Corcoran’s contemporary NOW series, and features large-scale installations exploring the conflicts between industry and the environment. Read our review of the show. Through February 23.
Also at the Corcoran, “Alex Prager: Face in the Crowd” opens November 23 and presents a new series of work exploring staged crowd scenes and the individuals within them. The show includes a film featuring actress Elizabeth Banks. Through March 9.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
“Equal Exposure: Anita Steckel’s Fight Against Censorship” is a look at the photographs, letters, and artwork of the often controversial feminist artist who challenged censorship in museums. November 4 through May 9.
National Museum of African Art
“Africa Re-Viewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” opens November 21 and celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives with a retrospective of postwar images of Africa by the Life photojournalist, as well as African objects he collected. Through August 24.
You have to respect a Canadian artist ballsy enough to construct a skating rink in her first solo museum show. Mia Feuer’s “Rink,” which occupies the Corcoran’s rotunda for the next four months, is a fully functioning, ominously black oval surrounded by seemingly impenetrable black walls, and above it is “An Unkindness,” a looming sculptural installation that resembles a flock of nightmarish birds poised to attack. You can, if you wish, put on the skates assembled at one side of the room, enter the rink, and look at the work from underneath in the state of contemplation that Feuer believes is inherent when you’re the sole skater in a deserted landscape.
“Rink” could come across as cutesy or attention-seeking, but it does the opposite—there’s something about the opaque black surface that seems designed to repel. The rink is made from a thick black polymer rather than from ice, so it’s as alien to the cheery outdoor skating spaces of the holiday season as charcoal is to snow. The plastic has a dull quality that declines to reflect the magnificent atrocity suspended above it, and the lights mounted from the ceiling cast ghastly avian shadows all around the room. If Darren Aronofsky ever made a figure-skating sequel to Black Swan, chances are it would look a lot like this.
Feuer is the first Washington-based artist to be featured in the Corcoran’s contemporary NOW series—she lives and works at a studio in Brookland and teaches at George Mason—but she was raised in Winnipeg, and her Canadian heritage is one of the focal points of the show. “An Unkindness” explores both the physical and figurative intersections between natural landscapes and humankind, specifically the ways in which the oil industry leaves vast swaths of the world barren and uninhabitable. Feuer has traveled to tar sands and oil sites in Canada, Norway, and the Arctic Circle, exploring the production process and the remains of our insatiable thirst for oil—a substance she acknowledges is essential to her craft as an artist.
So much of Vincent van Gogh’s life has been mythologized—his failure to sell more than one painting during his lifetime, his death at 37 from a gunshot wound, his infamous ear—that his work can get overlooked. As Phillips Collection curator Eliza Rathbone puts it, “He doesn’t have the place he has in art history simply because of the drama.”
“Van Gogh Repetitions”—opening October 12 at the Phillips—aims to explore the methodical way he made his paintings. While any van Gogh show is a challenge to produce because of his notoriety, this one is particularly ambitious in the way it compares similar paintings of the same subject. A portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin from the Art Institute of Chicago hangs next to an image of her from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; other works are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Musée d’Orsay. “We wanted to bring together works that aren’t normally seen together,” Rathbone says. “We’re excited about what those juxtapositions have to tell us about what kind of artist he was.”
One of the exhibit’s starting points was a painting from the Cleveland Museum of Art called “The Large Plane Trees (Road Menders at Saint-Rémy)”—done on a piece of printed fabric used to make clothes because van Gogh wanted to quickly capture a scene he saw. Later, he painted a version on canvas, which is now in the permanent collection at the Phillips. “The second version reveals a sophisticated, deliberate, planned execution,” Rathbone says. “We wanted people to get to know both sides of his genius.”
With more than 30 paintings, the show offers a focused look at van Gogh’s process as well as his remarkable ability to produce a number of paintings in a short time. (He once made 70 in 70 days.) Says Rathbone: “You can visit these paintings if you travel all over the world, but it’s not the same as seeing them side by side. There will be revelations even for those of us who’ve been working on them for so long.”
“Van Gogh Repetitions”, October 12 through January 26 at the Phillips Collection. $12. Tickets available at phillipscollection.org.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
First, a note: All Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery of Art are currently
closed because of the government shutdown. We’re listing shows at those museums at
the end of the Museum Exhibitions section in the hope that things might return to
normal next week, and we’ll update this post if and when they do.
National Museum of Women in the Arts (OPEN)
“Wanderer: Travel Prints by Ellen Day Hale” presents a number of etchings by the American painter and printmaker, inspired by her travels around the world. October 4 through January 5; $12. Mention the ArtForAll promotion to get 20 percent off admission through October 6.
National Geographic Museum (OPEN)
“Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment” runs October 10 through March 9, and reveals work by 11 of National Geographic’s intrepid female photographers. $11. The museum is offering free admission for federal employees through the government shutdown.
Phillips Collection (OPEN)
“Van Gogh Repetitions”—opening October 12—aims to explore the methodical way the impossibly famous artist made his paintings, and the ways in which he returned to the same subjects over and over again. Through January 26; $12. The Phillips is offering buy one, get one free on tickets for federal employees through the government shutdown (plus 50 percent off coffee).
Kreeger Museum (OPEN)
“Mindy Weisel: Not Neutral” showcases three collections by the German-born artist, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Washington. Included are “Paintings of the Holocaust” and “Survival of Beauty,” which explore Weisel’s heritage as a descendant of people who died in the Holocaust, and “After Tohuku,” based on Weisel’s humanitarian work following the 2011 tsunami in Japan. Through December 28; $10.
Corcoran Gallery of Art (OPEN)
“American Journeys: Visions of Place,” which opened last month and runs through next September, reveals a new installation of the museum’s pre-1945 American paintings and sculpture. The museum is offering buy on, get one free on admission through the duration of the shutdown. $10.
National Gallery of Art
“Yes, No, Maybe: Artists Working at Crown Point Press” looks at the history of the San Francisco printmaking studio named in the show’s title, with 125 prints and proofs made between 1972 and 2010 by artists such as Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Diebenkorn. September 1 through January 5.
“Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial” commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Wagner, in which the African-American 54th Massachusetts Regiment led attempts to breach the South Carolina Confederate stronghold. The exhibit showcases a patinated plaster sculpture of Saint-Gaudens’s memorial plus images of the soldiers who fought for the Union. September 15 through January 20.
“American Journeys: Visions of Place” opens September 21, and reveals a new installation of the museum’s pre-1945 American paintings and sculpture. Through September 21, 2014.
Freer Gallery of Art
“Off the Beaten Path: Early Works by James McNeill Whistler” reveals work made by the 24-year-old artist while he was traveling in Europe. September 28 through September 28, 2014.
“Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds” comes from the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery is the site of 150 floating silver helium balloons, created for Warhol in 1964 by scientist Billy Klüver and a familiar presence at Warhol’s Factory in New York. September 12 through October 20.
Also opening at Artisphere to coincide with the show is “Sergio Albiac: Three Generative Video Portraits,” revealing the artist’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth II, as well as a new, Artisphere-commissioned portrait of Michelle Obama.
“Mindy Weisel: Not Neutral” showcases three collections by the German-born artist, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Washington. Included are “Paintings of the Holocaust” and “Survival of Beauty,” which explore Weisel’s heritage as a descendant of people who died in the Holocaust, and “After Tohuku,” based on Weisel’s humanitarian work following the 2011 tsunami in Japan. September 3 through December 28.
Smithsonian Museum of American Art
“Landscapes in Passing: Photographs by Steve Fitch, Robbert Flick, and Elaine Mayes” encompasses almost 50 images of the American landscape by three influential photographers working in the 1970s and ’80s. Fitch took pictures of roadsides for his “Diesels and Dinosaurs” series, Flick walked through the streets of Los Angeles photographing neighborhoods, and Mayes captured images from her car window. July 26 through January 20.
National Museum of American History
“Little Golden Books” looks at the much-loved children’s series, which was launched in 1942 with titles such as The Little Red Hen and Mother Goose. The exhibit explores how the series made books more accessible and affordable for young readers and includes artists’ proofs from early editions. Through January 5.
The Phillips marks the centennial of the first American show of modern art in “History in the Making: 100 Years After the Armory Show.” The exhibit comprises works from the museum’s collection by artists—including Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso—featured in the 1913 Armory Show, which was considered scandalous when it debuted in New York City. August 1 through January 5.
“Deferral,” a site-specific performance-art installation by Mary Coble, takes place August 7 through 10. Read more about it in our earlier post.
Library of Congress
“A Day Like No Other: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington” marks five decades since Martin Luther King Jr. led his historic rally for civil rights on the Mall. The exhibit, which opens exactly 50 years to the day after the 1963 march, includes 42 black-and-white photographs taken that day. August 28 through February 28.