Objects in Time and Space: Sculptures and Such at the Hirshhorn
I was in Washington, DC, for a couple days. The first two days I was there, I never got farther than a frisbee throw from the hotel, but I did manage to get out for a few hours on my last day. I hadn't gotten much in the way of recommendations1, because literally everybody who had an opinion hated DC (with one exception, but I didn't hear from that party until I was on the plane home). Yes, our nation's capital city garners feedback like:
Enjoy yourself down there, to the extent such a thing is possible/practical.
the hotel bars are where it's at in DC--they all have their own weird, mildly off-putting vibes
I couldn't afford anything but canned beans and frozen berries the summer I was there so I literally did not try the food.
However, the hotel bar advice was both spot-on and well-targeted (my favorite bars are airport bars, with hotel bars maybe third on the list) and my own Noodles did come through with one perfect suggestion: try the Hirshhorn. And so, on my last day in town, when I finally dragged myself out of bed after a Rangers-fuelled hangover and endured a mildly hellish cab ride, I found myself wandering around looking at sculptures. An activity I literally could not review in more positive terms.
I did a couple laps around the building before starting to take any pictures. Needed time to think and to get into the groove of looking at the things.
The first one to pull a reaction out of me, Geometric Mouse made me say -- aloud, to no-one -- "Oh, I get it." Not my proudest moment, as it's a wonderful piece, and not a hacky one-liner; but the aesthetic response is sometimes a little slow to awaken to its fullest. A particularly nice thing about this one is that it flatly forces you to orbit it: you can just tell that there's an angle you're really going to like. It took me a couple minutes to decide on the one in the photo above, which I probably like best because it's the one that makes the wit the most apparent. Something about the chains also compels my eye to them, but I haven't figured out just what yet.
I've seen some of these before, and they never fail to compel my eye and brain. A lot of what I like about sculpture is embodied in these: incredible physicality, with one material evoking and highlighting another, with bronze looking like clay looking like something intensely organic, nearly living, and the inescapable sense of heaviness and density. (They're hollow, I discovered, which adds another layer to the tensions between what they are and what they appear to be.)
Soft, erupting eggs and slashed flesh, represented in cold metal. I could look at these all day.
This one was a perfect fit for its location: all the vantage points you can see it from enforce its perspectival trick, where it seems to be narrowing more and faster than is possible. (Stepping back a ways would ruin the effect.) It's also one of those engineering/architectural pieces that you could stare at for a million hours just wondering how it...works. Mechanical without being cold, rigorous and passionate. A device carefully built to fuck with your head.
Just around the corner, and much more human-scaled, was Antipodes. This was compellingly textural, with its wood and holed copper. The literally cryptic textual elements in the curved metal gave it a coded feeling: instead of being conceptually evocative or challenging, like the pieces before it, which said "this is like that" or "does this make you think of that?", Antipodes seemed to say "I have a secret." I should probably have spent more time with this one, as it seems somewhat slight, beyond the trick of advertising its hidden meanings, but I was more in the mood for scale, particularly after Needle Tower.
Speaking of scale, I thought this one was a good but underwhelming example of the "here is a little thing rendered real big" school of sculpture, but upon circumnavigating it, realized it was much, much smarter than that. From the front, it's indeed just a big rendering of some little tools of bureaucracy. But from the back, you see that the tools become disturbingly evocative of human heads and shoulders, and that there's a strong implication of hierarchy, as the human stamps aren't just juxtaposed, they actually carve space right out of one another. From the front, it's a well-organized, if somewhat dull picture of human organization; but from the back, it shows disorganization and conflict. I liked this one quite a bit.
More distorted forms interacting. These are unsettling and somewhat alienating. The lumpy, vaguely fabric-like bottom halves contrast with the regular and realistic features of the admittedly blank faces. If Antipodes invited you to crack its code, Last Conversation Piece repels you from the very notion of listening in. The way the figures are distributed reinforces this repulsion, I think -- there's a palpable sense of exclusion and even evil here.
More scale! The Lichtenstein didn't do a huge amount for me beyond its exceptional size and verticality -- but in terms of verticality, it was tough to compete with Needle Tower, but it's certainly at the very least an exceptionally pretty sculpture, and provided a nicely light element. The Calder is a nice example of a huge, heavy, stationary thing appearing to be light, delicate, and nearly in motion. It's a Calder, in other words. The image doesn't properly show its size at all.
I spent a huge amount of time in the actual sculpture garden, across the street from the museum and the pieces arrayed around it, but didn't document it much. Suffice it to say that the garden was brilliantly organized, driving home the core experience of attending very closely to objects as they exist in time and in space. The layout of the garden invites lingering on one item at a time, and wittily stages things so that you're continually being surprised and taken off guard by motionless objects. The best example came of this at the end: I'd been instructed to look for a particular Barbara Hepworth piece, and I hadn't seen it at all. As I left the garden, planning to loop back to the museum itself, I saw this.
Catching it from behind, then coming around to it from the front, as it opened up, was the perfect way to see this. And at the end of several hours of similar experiences was a good time for it.
Much of the museum itself was closed. However, there was a large Barbara Kruger exhibit, which reminded me of seeing her work at the Denver Art Museum in high school. A nice memory. And the combination of Kruger's aesthetic and the building's facilities made me laugh aloud at least once.
And there were two interesting video art pieces. The first, Oliver Laric's Versions, was a nice video for people who enjoy fun with Google Image Search and witheringly saying "Uh, yeah, I've seen Debord's film Society of the Spectacle". The second, Jeremy Deller's English Magic, combined fat, powerful owls with some deeply whimsical music and an inflatable Stonehenge that I would like to have seen in real life.
After all that, essentially exhausted and done, I found that one large room had a hell of a lot of beautiful color field paintings, including Morris Louis' Delta Theta from 1961, among my favorites in the genre, and absolutely unreproducible. (Scale matters!) Reminded me strongly of our best museum day in Berlin, when we saw a number of these. Also reminded me that I ended up somehow with a Morris Louis bookmark of, I think, maybe, Vertical Horizon as a kid, around the same time of the initial Barbara Kruger visit to the museum. Being challenged to say what I liked about that bookmark really forced me to look at it, to learn how to look at it, and learn how to articulate how I was looking at it. To put it another way, trying to convince my mom that it was cool was the first moment at which I started thinking explicitly about form.
Anyway, I staggered out of the museum, went and walked toward the Washington Monument for a mile or so -- I'd never seen it from ground level, only from movies, which always show it from above, I suspect due to the limitations of the wide-not-tall movie screen -- and it was, from that perspective, much, much more...monumental than I'd ever thought before. It's also -- and this is not a dick joke -- much thicker than it looks from above. As I approached, I saw a cab, and I got in it; next thing I knew, I was writing Barbara Kruger postcards from an airport named after Ronald Reagan. Thus does art short-circuit time and enhance our days. Yay art!, the official significant form of Reviewiera.
1To be fair, I did get a hell of a lot of restaurant recommendations, but I got completely hijacked by work functions and was unable to eat anywhere but the hotel, the shitty beer place next to the hotel, and the airport version of the shitty beer place next to the hotel. I'm never leaving California again.