Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pathways to Hidden Treasures (and One Not Taken)

So many weeks have flown by and I still haven't gotten the DC trip out of my system—or onto this blog. I spent day two of my trip at the National Portrait Gallery. On the advice of the docent at the front desk, I headed first to the well-thought out Lunder Conservation Center. Here, the labs for restoring antique picture frames, works on paper, paintings, and sculptures have glass walls so the public can watch conservators at work. As this was a weekend, I had to be satisfied to peer into the empty workshops and learn from the interactive video kiosks and displays. By the time I finished my self-directed tour, I was devastated to realize that I would have made an excellent conservator. Another path not taken.

This center was adjacent to the Luce Center—another revelation. Here the Smithsonian houses art currently not on view in the museum’s galleries. Instead of locking it in basement storage with no public access, these works are available to scholars and curious visitors in what they term "open storage" -- rows and rows of narrow "cubbies" with paintings, sculptures, and craft works crammed onto their walls. The works are all behind glass cases in dim light--so you can see them but you can't seen them. You are also very close to each piece. It was like ferreting through granny's attic and finding treasure after treasure.

I was aghast to round a corner and come face to face with George Tooker's 1959 The Waiting Room. Why was this work not on display when there are so few available to the public? Because it was not a portrait? (Note: The images are on the Smithsonian’s web site—click on them to learn more.)

There was Helen Lundeberg's Portrait of the Artist in Time that once graced the cover of a book that I lent to someone and, like most lent books, never seen again. Then I was in Paul Cadmus territory--his earlier, looser (but equally scathing) series in oil Aspects of Suburban Life including Polo and Public Dock. It wasn't long, though, before I was peering through the glass at Bar Italia an early work in egg tempera.

I passed Harvery Dinnerstein's Brownstone and found myself in a half-empty bay that contained a bold, hard-edge abstraction by Gene Davis. There was also a placard bearing the question, “What is the Art Student's League?” If you read my earlier posting about this trip, you will know that I lacked the cell phone needed to dial the number for the official answer. Fortunately for me, I had first-hand experience of the League.

On to a little bitty Ad Reinhardt juxtaposed with a small, but luscious William Baziotes whose title was too long to capture. Later I encountered its larger, younger sibling in the main galleries downstairs. At this point we began to move forward in time at a much faster pace—Jane Quick-to-See Smith’s State Names. I immediately recognized Robert Vickrey’s nuns despite the poor lighting and the painting’s uncharacteristic backdrop of grass and earth in Fear.

There was an Edward Hopper I had never seen before (in book or on wall)--People in the Sun depicting people in deck chairs drenched in sunlight. This stroll through these cubbies of stored works was en experience like none I had ever had before—like sharing a secret to which no one else was privy. I wish I lived closer.

Then, I returned to the hustle and bustle of the main galleries of the museum. These were even more boisterous by the presence of Boy Scouts in every nook and cranny—pinewood derby tracks set up in the marble halls, exhibitions and projects set up in the courtyard, and troops being led through the various exhibitions—in some cases, I’m sure, only to get their charges out of the heat of the 105-degree day and into air-conditioned halls.

As I meandered, it struck me how unusual it was to be in an art museum whose entire collection arranged by the subjects of the paintings rather than the creators. In some cases, there was an intersection of the two like the Philadelphia Peales, with their exceptionally rosy cheeks.

In my wanderings I encountered 3 works by artists I have actually met—A portrait by Jack Beal who taught at Pratt when I was there; a 1954 portrait of a financier named Walter Lippman by Stanley Meltzhoff, who was a trustee of the American Littoral Society where I work (and whose amazing fish paintings hang in our library), and Phil Schirmer’s The Secret Gardner, a finalist in the Outwin Boochever national portrait competition, the original impetus for visiting the National Portrait Gallery. I had the good fortune to receive my very first instruction in egg tempera at one of Phil’s workshops in Maine in the fall of 2008. You can see his work at He’s an amazing painter with an incomparable ability to capture the spare, intensity of coastal Maine.

I ended my day in the “folk art” wing where I stumbled upon one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. The installation by James Hampton is calledThe Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly. I had never heard of him before. He was an untrained artist who spent 14 years creating this embodiment of his religious faith in his garage, which I’m sure it would have filled. It is made from scraps of metal foil, cans, bottles and plastics that he gleaned while working as a janitor and looks like the sort of treasure of which archeologists only dream (think Indiana Jones).

This was enough for me. My senses and brain were saturated. I stopped at the book shop to pick up a copy of the portrait competition exhibition catalog and made my way back through the steamy streets to my hotel.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

An Unexpected Family Reunion

As I stood on the platform at Red Bank station at 6:40 AM, I was beginning to think this DC adventure was not such a great idea after all. To start out, I had just realized that my cell phone was still in the charger on the hall table at home. Not the end of the world but it would be more difficult to get information around town and to keep in touch with folks back home--like letting them know I got there in one piece. Was also having second thoughts about spending the money--the consumer unconfidence wrought by the recession.

Later, the walk from Union Station to the hotel over on 14th street turned out to be a lot longer than anticipate--not a biggie on a normal day but it was at least 95 and humid. By the time I got to the hotel, my face was fire red and the perspiration was running in rivulets down my face. The check-in attendant gave me a free bottle of ice water--probably afraid I would die on my way up to the room.

When I got to my icy cold room on the 7th floor, I doused my head with cold water and changed into fresh clothes. It was already 3 PM--should I just chill for the rest of the day? Or check out the National Museum of Women in the Arts which was literally just around the corner? Since the museum was founded nearly 20 years ago, it had been on my list of places to visit. I am even listed in their archive of American Women Artists--not sure how that happened but I am there--under my married name.

I decided to go. Two and a half hours later, I had been through all of the permanent collection and the special exhibits. I found a bench in a private corner (not very crowded on a Friday afternoon in July) and had a little cry for here, all under one roof, was all of the by women I had "discovered" bit by bit during my formative years as an artist in a world dominated by men. These were not discovered by Google or even by Alte Vista--the internet was still a secret information highway then. I (and other women) tracked these artists down like detectives--a little review in a magazine, writing to get on the gallery's mailing list to hear about the next show--waiting for the next show--going to the library to find out about other women making art about things that were important to me and other women I knew--no matter what medium, genre, or style. Cutting images out of art magazines or paying for copies (or sneaking them in the office where I happened to be "temping" that week)and pasting them in notebooks.

Now here they were all in one beautiful space. It was like attending a family reunion after decades of being separated--with the added bonus of meeting some new relatives previously unknown to me.

Even if represented by only a single small work--they were there. My heart beat faster when I turned a corner and came face-to-face with the little Eva Hesse study for a sulpture. I nodded in recognition when confronted by a small "flower" painting by Judy Chicago. It was hard to believe that when I was 23, I was in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum next to the very first installation of The Dinner Party. Years later, I was introduced to her at a book signing and exhibition at a Chelsea Gallery. I was newly divorced and trying to find a way to keep making art--she wrote a personal encouragement in my book. There were works by Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo (how frustrated was I when I learned that the musuem had mounted a restrospective of her work that was closed before I learned of it) and women of centuries past--Vigee le Brun, Mary Cassatt.

I was struck dumb by the amazing collaborative installations by Ju Yeon Kim called "The In-Between". I'm sorry, words can't do this piece justice and the museum site has no photos that can even approximate the experience so here is the link. Try to see it.

If you are under the age of 50 or so, you may not understand what I mean. When I went to art school (73 - 77) things were different. In the fine art department at Pratt, even though more than half of the class were women, there were no women instructors--with a few notable exceptions like the gifted printmaker and teacher Clare Romano. It was still considered a compliment to be told you paint "like a man". Who was there who thought like us or had the same experiences? The women's movement was happening all around us--but it hadn't hit the art schools yet. The most telling thing is, that I never realized the disparity myself until after I had graduated and came upon Linda Nochlin's telling and provacative essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists?"

Needless to say, I was glad I braved the heat again and left the hotel that afternoon. I joined the museum on the spot. I was exhausted. When I got back to the hotel, I rifled through all of my things to find something to write down these impressions--nothing. I used those little hotel pads and pens. The next morning I stopped at a CVS and bought a little spiral bound notebook to capture my impressions of the rest of the trip. I needed this trip. I didn't miss my cell phone. And the room service was great. Kudos to the Hilton Garden Inn.