American Prints & Drawings

Just before Christmas, my friend Emily and I made a trip to the National Gallery to see the El Greco exhibit.  On our way out, we stopped on the museum’s lower floor to see the small, two-room exhibit of 20th century American prints and drawings from the Kainen Collection.  I’ve been reading a lot about early twentieth-century American artists recently, and so was particularly excited to come across this collection of drawings.

The Kainens collected through most of the 20th century, and their collection includes early works and experimental prints and drawings by showstoppers like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  In this 1951 drawing, Pollock experimented with the effects of allowing ink drips to soak through thin Japanese paper — I love the way this medium allowed him to create a melodic tone entirely different from his more iconic paintings.

Jackson Pollock, Untitled

The exhibit’s collection of lesser-known twentieth century artists is equally exciting.  I’ve been interested in the explorations of American artists in the 1930s, and there are a number of stellar prints and drawings here by artists like Stuart Davis.  I especially love this one by sculptor William Zorach, whose work in watercolor allowed him to embrace a more improvisational style.

William Zorach, View of Distant Hills

Like the Pollock, Zorach’s View of Distant Hills was done on Japanese paper.

One of the exciting things to me about the Kainen collection is how closely it brings us as museum viewers to the process and impact of contemporary collecting.  Though the Kainens collected widely, both were deeply committed to buying work by contemporary American artists.  Both Kainens were highly knowledgeable and well-connected in the art world (Jacob Kainen was an artist himself), so they certainly had the expertise to gauge the importance of the work they collected.  But buying work by experimental living artists always carries a heightened risk — and a heightened impact.  I’ve been reading about how artists like Zorach and Davis struggled because their work was innovative enough that it was seldom salable.  These purchases by knowledgeable collectors like Jacob and Ruth Kainen therefore had the double-impact of asserting the experimental works’ value and literally sustaining the living artists’ continued explorative practice.

Karl Schrag, The Influence of the Moon

Modern American Prints and Drawings from the Kainen Collection is on view at the National Gallery through February 1, and is absolutely worth visiting.

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Degas / Cassatt

Cassatt by Degas

Last month, I went in to the National Gallery to see their Degas/Cassatt exhibit before it closed.  The exhibit was a fascinating glimpse into a long-time friendship between two artists — and the ongoing conversations that informed both their work.

Degas and Cassatt shared certain artistic interests and sensibilities.  Both depicted spaces of performance, dabbled in printmaking, and explored the ways Japanese art might influence their own formal innovations.  Through their lifelong collegial exchange, the artists encouraged each other’s growth; collected each other’s prints, drawings, and paintings — and occasionally even challenged one another to creative projects.  But they each developed distinct paths and diverged frequently in their approaches; their friendship was a matter of mutual artistic admiration and not one of influence.

Cassatt Print

In telling this story of artistic friendship, the exhibit also offered fresh insight into each artist.  The exhibit included works by both Degas and Cassatt that I had never seen, and reframed slightly the narrative of each’s artistic development.  Certain aspects of their work were lingered over for a beat longer than they would be in a traditional solo exhibit; more attention was given to the process of creative growth and experimentation than to the resulting masterpieces.  The artists’ sketches and shared period of intensive printmaking wound up being an illuminating glimpse into each of their individual creative trajectories.

And some of these lesser-exhibited works were absolutely stunning.  Cassatt’s Japanese-inspired print above is just luminous in is color, pattern, and flattened planes.  Degas’s fans, which I had never seen before this, are extraordinary: the reproduction below does not come close to the metallic depth and vibrancy of this palate, nor the delicacy and detail of those dancers.

Degas - Fan Mount - Ballet Girls - 1879

Perhaps my favorite piece in this exhibit of memorable pieces is Degas’s pastel portrait of Cassatt at the Louvre.  He did a series of these drawings and paintings, capturing something of her relaxed, spirited engagement with the art that surrounds her.  These portraits, like the story of their friendship, reveal the interchange between artists and artistic community.

The Degas / Cassatt exhibit closed earlier this fall, but there’s a new Degas exhibit on view now at the National Gallery.  This one, on his Little Dancer, is held in conjunction with a world-premier performance commissioned by the Kennedy Center to explore the ramifications of the artist’s sculpture in the life of the real-life ballet dancer who posed for it.  I’m going to see the performance with a friend this week, and am so intrigued by these intersections between art, ballet, and storytelling.  The performance runs through November 30, though the exhibit stays open to January 11.  Have any of you been to see it?

Wyeth at the National Gallery

After visiting Wyeth’s paintings at the Farnsworth in Maine this summer, I knew I wanted to make it down to the National Gallery to see the “Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In” exhibit.  I finally made it down to DC on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago.

The exhibit is centered around Wyeth’s depiction of windows and inspired by the museum’s recent acquisition of Wind from the Sea.

Wyeth - Window

I found, as I had at the Farnsworth, that the paintings carry a depth in person that muddies in reproductions.  The National Gallery actually has a pretty nice digital image of Wind from the Sea, but even that doesn’t quite convey the delicacy and flight of those curtains, and the way the landscape mutes and shifts between the open window and the gauzed lace.

Wyeth - Wisteria

It was interesting to see Wyeth’s paintings from Maine and Brandywine all mixed together in one gallery space.  He is a painter whose work seems so anchored in place — so deeply tied to particular atmospheres and textures.  Wyeth talked about his habit of walking and its role in his life as an artist.  That connection to landscape feels intrinsic, also, in the finished paintings.  Seeing his work in Maine — in that old white church behind the Farnsworth — felt like a means of immersing more deeply in place.

At the National Gallery, I lost some of that deep-seated sense of connection, of immediacy.  In a way, though, freeing the paintings from place allowed me to understand them differently: to acquire a more overarching, canonical sense of Wyeth as an artist.  Which may be one of the more important legacies of this exhibit.  So often during his lifetime, Wyeth’s work was critically underappreciated in an era of radical redefinitions of visual art.  “Looking Out, Looking In” reclaims the bold invention of Wyeth’s oevure, and calls on the contemporary viewer to reconsider the impact of his work.

Wyeth - Frostbitten

If you haven’t yet been to see it, “Looking Out, Looking In” is on view at the National Gallery through November 30.

Ballet Russes

I made a last-minute trip down to DC this weekend to see the Ballet Russes exhibit at the National Gallery.  I’ve always loved ballet and modern dance, so this collection was going to be of interest right from the start.  But the exhibit was really a testament to the way many art forms — music, visual art, dance — collaborated in and propelled one another’s stylistic revolutions.

From Stravinsky to Matisse to Picasso to Chanel, the exhibit commands full sensory commitment.  I was awed by the scale of the art on the full stage curtains, by Picasso’s massive Cubist costumes, by the music and dance recordings strategically played throughout the space.  Then, contrasted against that majesty of scale, Chanel’s bathing costumes, the sketches of set designs.  I was so taken by the costume sketches of Leon Bakst (like the one above).

Much as I was awed as I walked through the Gallery yesterday, this is not an exhibit you can comprehend as you see it.  It takes longer than that. Thirty-six hours later, I am still absorbing its impact.

p.s. If you’re near DC (and the government isn’t still shutdown), definitely check out the Ballet Russes exhibit before it closes next weekend.  

p.p.s. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for this documentary.