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Summer at the Museums: Hirshhorn

The Hirshhorn Museum is one of my favorite places to spend a few hours in the city. The building by Gordon Bunshaft is one of the most aesthetically pleasing examples of modern architecture in the city, the collection begun by Joseph Hirshhorn continues to be expanded with shrewd new purchases, and it has one of the great views of the Federal city (from the third floor, shown here), not least because it is not only easily accessible but free. The museum has a problem, in that its collection has outgrown its gallery space, forcing curators to keep the artwork in constant rotation with visiting exhibits, something discussed in Tyler Green's excellent interview with Richard Koshalek, the museum's new director. So the Hirshhorn seemed like the right place to start off summer vacation with a visit to see what is in its galleries.

The best exhibit right now is in the Black Box space, a small theater for video pieces in the basement. A video by Dutch artist Guido Van der Werve is being shown there at the moment, Nummer Acht (everything is going to be alright), one of the most striking of the conceptual short films in his Nummer series. An artist right up my alley, Van der Werve studied piano at the Rotterdam Conservatoire and art at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and is also a chess aficionado. In Nummer Acht Van der Werve walks slowly across the frozen Gulf of Bothnia (at a point near Kemi, Finland), just in front of an enormous ice-breaking ship.

Excerpt from Guido Van der Werve, Nummer Acht

The sounds of the ship's rumbling engine, the crack of ice under its hull, and some whispering add to the perceived menace lurking behind the lonely figure in black, not really wearing a coat in the driving snow. The tension created by the closeness of the ship, seeming to follow the walking man, is reinforced by the flux of solid and liquid, as the ice under the walker's feet becomes the sea under the ship. The unexpected juxtaposition and the sense of the improbable location or subject matter are Van der Werve's specialty, seen in another light in Nummer Twee, in which Van der Werve is unexpectedly struck by a car. When an ambulance arrives on the scene, five tutu-clad ballerinas emerge from the vehicle to heal the victim with dance. Continues through October 11

James Rosenquist, The Light That Won't Fail I, 1961, image courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Also in the basement is Strange Bodies: Figurative Works from the Hirshhorn Collection, a regrouping of some important works around the theme of the human body. It includes work by some famous artists, two Giacomettis, the paired sculpture and painting Delusions of Grandeur by Magritte, a Chuck Close. There is also a whole room of works by George Grosz. A gloomy little Balthus (not the disturbingly pedophilic Golden Days, but the somewhat gray Brother and Sister) makes an interesting counterpoint to another smut-inspired painter, John Currin, represented by The Pink Tree on a nearby wall.

One of the best works in this show is a somewhat film-noirish James Rosenquist, The Light That Won't Fail I, a beautifully composed 1961 canvas combining a yellow woman's face and someone putting on galoshes, underneath a comb evoking shadows cast by blinds. It is matched by an enormous, kitschy portrait of Andy Warhol by Julian Schnabel, painted on black velvet. The use of queasy colors in both is memorable. One note of warning about this show relates to my previous recommendations of the Hirshhorn for parents with young children, who tend to be fascinated with the large-scale, colorful, and whimsical art in the Hirshhorn's collection. Be aware that the show includes one of Lucian Freud's provocative male nudes (well, provocation is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose) and Ron Mueck's thoroughly creepy Untitled (Big Man). Miss Ionarts would have taken one look at it and run screaming. Continues through the fall

Up on the third floor the Directions—Walead Beshty: Legibility on Color Backgrounds show was fun mostly because of how often people set off the alarms by walking too close to the sculpture pieces: cracked glass boxes perched precariously on shipping cartons. No one, including the guards, seemed to care. Through September 13

Expect Ionarts to be back at the Hirshhorn this fall, for the upcoming Anne Truitt exhibit (October 8 to January 3).

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