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925 Silver Collection

Art in Our Nation’s Capital: A Unifying Influence

By Liz Goldner

Alexander Calder, “Untitled,” 1976, aluminum and steel, 358 3/8 x 911 5/8”. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

On Memorial Day in Washington D.C. I toured the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Approaching the neoclassical building, I was captivated by the view of the stately U.S. Capitol two miles in the distance. I reflected on the drama occurring there over the last several years, including the January 6th insurrection, altercations within Congress, and threats to close down the Government.


On that national holiday, while most other museums were closed, visitors to the National Gallery were friendly and seemingly unconcerned about the divisive politics occurring in our country. Indeed, much of the modern and contemporary art on display conveyed harmony and inclusiveness, which provided a respite from our social, political, and environmental clashes. I was able to feel the healing power of art.


Marjorie Content, “Adam Trujillo and His Son Pat, Taos,” 1933, gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 x 5 9/16”. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © Estate of Marjorie Content.

Entering the museum, Alexander Calder’s large organically shaped mobile, “Untitled” (1976) soars above the main lobby. The fluid mobile, moving gently to wind currents, beckons visitors of all ages, races and ethnicities to this palace of art, originating from many countries and genres.


Several exhibitions graced the three-story building. “American Places: Featuring Selections from the Corcoran Collection” includes classic mid-20th-century artworks by Ansel Adams, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and others. A compelling piece, “Adam Trujillo and His Son, Pat, Taos” (1933) by Marjorie Content, depicts a Native American man gently counseling his small son. Philip Evergood’s “Sunny Side of the Street” (1950) captures African American children playing street hockey at a time when segregation was prevalent. These artworks are complemented by several American Scene Paintings, along with an extensive collection of work by Braque, Kirchner, Matisse, Modigliani, Mondrian and Picasso. “Alexander Calder,” a separate exhibition of more than 40 of the artist’s signature mobiles, stabiles, and paintings from the 1920s through 1976, transports us into a magical, uplifting world.


Wendy Red Star, “Alaxchiiaahush / Many War Achievements / Plenty Coups from 1880 Crow Peace Delegation,” 2014, inkjet print, artist-manipulated digitally reproduced photograph. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © Wendy Red Star.

Soon after, I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art to view “Preoccupied,” an exhibition of contemporary Indigenous work. This show, presenting a range of philosophical and political perspectives, debunks Native American stereotypes.


Within the exhibition, “Enduring Buffalo” addresses the centuries-long invasion of Native American land and lifestyles by European settlers. Didactics explain that the buffalo had long been essential to Indigenous life until colonizers and the U.S. government “attempted to eradicate the species in a calculated strategy to subdue Native people and force them onto reservations in the late 19th century.” Works in the exhibition depict buffalos and the people hunting them. One magnificent ceramic piece, by Cannupa Hanska Luger, “Emergent” (2021), is composed of the casts of a pair of buffalo skulls and spines that appear to be partially buried in the gallery floor.


Cannupa Hanska Luger, “Emergent,” 2021, ceramic, 24 x 84 x 60”. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

Also within “Preoccupied,” “Illustrating Agency” adds an additional layer of poignancy, expressing how Native American artists today are challenging “outsider understandings of Indigenous identity.” This affirmation, the exhibit infers, empowers them in assuming new power over their lives.


Wendy Red Star’s “1880 Crow Peace Delegation” (2014) is a series of digitally manipulated photographs of Native American men from the late 19th century. Many subjects wear Indian regalia, not from their own tribes, but randomly forced on them by white overseers. To each photo, the artist adds handwritten notations in red ink, expressing what she imagines the defamed subjects to be thinking and feeling. One notation reads: “The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors.”


Henri Matisse, “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel,” 1916, oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 46”. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

In the exhibition catalog, John Lukavic, curator at the Denver Art Museum, writes, “To talk about indigenizing space and processes involves uncovering and understanding colonial influences and attitudes that are often rooted in white supremacy.”


Returning to Washington, D.C., I also visited the Phillips Collection on Dupont Circle. With its extensive collection of American and European modern art, founder Duncan Phillips was said to “believe in art as a source of solace, a link to wellness, and an essential positive force in society.” Phillips took risks to collect and exhibit then unknown Modernists soon after opening the venue in 1921. By purchasing work by Milton Avery, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, John Marin, Grandma Moses, Georgia O’Keeffe and others, he helped usher them to the center stage of 20th century art. He also championed the work of Mark Rothko, installed today in a “Rothko Room.” Phillips said about these paintings, “They not only invade our consciousness but inspire contemplation.”


Richard Diebenkorn, “Interior with View of the Ocean,” 1957, oil on canvas, 49 1/2 x 57 7/8”. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

A popular Phillips story is about California artist Richard Diebenkorn, who visited the museum in the 1940s while on Marine duty in Quantico, Virginia. In “The Art of Richard Diebenkorn” (1997), he remarks on his encounter with Henri Matisse’s “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel” (1916), “I noticed its spatial amplitude; one saw a marvelous hollow or room, yet the surface is right there … right up front.” Both the Matisse, which illustrates a woman lying on a daybed alongside an open window, and the similarly structured Diebenkorn painting “Interior with View of the Ocean” (1957), inspired by that Matisse, are on view.


In the spirit of the Phillips’ passion for inclusiveness, it acquired “Migration Series” (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence. The lavish suite of 60 small tempera paintings on panel depict the relocation of African Americans from the South to the urban North in the early 20th century. These brightly colored narrative paintings extol the drama of the Great Migration in a way that a book or course on the subject cannot fully convey.


Jacob Lawrence, “When It Is Warm the Parks Are Filled with People,” 1943, gouache and pencil on paper, 22 7/16 × 15 9/16”. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum of Art, Washington, D.C. © 2022 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I concluded with a daylong visit to the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art to view “Revolutions: Art from the Hirshhorn Collection, 1860–1960.” With 270 artworks in numerous styles by 126 artists — many of them American and European superstars — the massive show explores western civilization and daily life during a time of major growth, mechanization and modernization. “Revolutions” also addresses how artists’ new approaches to formalism and aesthetic theories helped propel the art world to embrace modernism and abstraction.


The broad range and depth of what I viewed during my week in our nation’s capital provided illuminating perspectives extending beyond the evolution of art over the last two centuries. My experience catalyzed a meditation on our society and its unique history at our historical crossroads. It served as confirmation of the indispensable role of art in nurturing both individual growth and social cohesion, and as a testament to the unifying power of art.

Liz Goldner is an award-winning art writer based in Laguna Beach. She has contributed to the LA Times, LA Weekly, KCET Artbound, Artillery, AICA-USA Magazine, Orange County Register, Art Ltd. and several other print and online publications. She has written reviews for ArtScene and Visual Art Source since 2009. 
Liz Goldner’s Website

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