The Eyes

The Eyes

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Light of Truth | A New Museum on the National Mall


To say that the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture takes you on a journey is a masterpiece of understatement. It is one that is far overdue for all of us and best traveled alone. Although this museum encourages a national conversation, the contemplative nature of its architecture, art, exhibitions, and the incredible quotations pushing out from its stone walls makes you think about your own responsibility to the future, being on the right side of history. Stepping into this majestic space for the first time, filled with people in the soaring atrium, I did not feel dwarfed or intimidated or awkward. The vibrations of the room were like the activity in the main hall of Grand Central Station, with travelers to destinations unknown.

The winding staircase down to where the exhibition space begins is a visual extravaganza of sweeping arcs, steep angles, and ironwork patterns overhead with as much significance as the historical exhibitions even deeper below. On an enormous elevator, above the decibel of conversations within the crowd, a woman near me said, "Oh, my God. This is like a time machine." Everyone fell silent, as we looked to our right and left out the glass sides of the elevator time machine to watch the dates tick backwards on the cement walls as we descended. We came to a halt at the year 1400 and exited into an undeniable history lesson. Suffice it to say, the rest of this journey was filled with reverence.

At times, I admit I was overcome with emotion. I ascended the museum's ramp system from one exhibition to another, moving through history that was not sanitized. Images and text outlined in red came with a warning about its suitability for children. Make no mistake though, this museum is not merely a retrospective of an abhorrent past, but it excitingly celebrates brilliance in art, literature, music, science, entertainment, sports, and politics. The best part is how it shines a light on people doing extraordinary things and changing the course of history.

The shear volume of items in the collection, video installations, and narrative that leads you through will take years of return visits to consume it all. The most poignant moment came when I was at the top of the ramp and I looked behind me. I could see images being cast simultaneously on the walls from illustrations of slavery, to the civil rights movement, to President Barack Obama being sworn into office. Off to the left, high upon a wall, was a quote from early civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells, "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them." 



Sunday, September 18, 2016

The President's Neighborhood Exhibition


Yesterday, I visited a small exhibition at the Decatur House about the buildings and statues surrounding the White House and Lafayette Square—The President's Neighborhood.

Since the White House was first occupied by President John Adams in 1800, influential people and organizations—or those who hoped to have influence—have bought property and built homes and offices along the streets surrounding the White House. In front of the White House, across Pennsylvania Avenue, is Lafayette Square and its park, the centerpiece of many of Washington’s and the nation’s most historic sites.

That these structures have survived today is owed to a first lady and the modern preservation movement. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy intervened to block a congressional plan that would have replaced the historic structures with modernist government office buildings. This effort, among many, led to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. 

The key sites within Lafayette Square featured in this exhibition include Blair House, Dolley Madison House, Decatur House, Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Hay-Adams Hotel, St. John’s Church, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and U.S. Treasury Department. Note the beautifully illustrated cut-outs of these various structures lining the exhibition space, images created by a local artist, then blown up large scale by the White House Historical Association.

The exhibition runs through September 27, 2016.





Source:  The White House Historical Association

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Beach Umbrellas at Blue Point

William Glackens's buoyant view of well-to-do vacationers at the beach at Blue Point on Long Island's south shore, recalls the work of the French impressionists, especially Renoir.  The cheerful white and orange striped umbrellas punctuate the sun-washed sand fronting an elegant resort hotel.  Feathery brushwork contributes to the festive quality of the scene as we observe it from out on the water.  The joyous color and light describe a world far removed from the realities of World War I, then raging in Europe, or even from New York's alleys and elevated railways, which Glackens illustrated early in his career.

The sense of immediacy that animates this summer spectacle stems from the artist's familiarity with his subject.  He and his family summered in nearby Bellport, then becoming an artists' and writers' colony.  Their presence signaled the burgeoning pursuit of leisure on the part of America's growing middle class.  The 1880s had witnessed a boom in tourism; by 1915, the beaches were already crowded.

Beach Umbrellas at Blue Point | 1915
William Glackens
Oil on Canvas | 66.1 cm x 81.3 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Source:  "Scenes of American Life: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum"

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Art and Controversy of Paul Cadmus

Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) is recognized as one of the first contemporary artists to chronicle gay life. Pushing the envelope with his depictions of naked and muscled male physiques, museums consistently rejected his work because of its gay themes. 

In the 1930s, Cadmus worked for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of the federal art programs conceived as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. He created paintings for a planned PWAP exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. One of these works, The Fleet’s In, is a provocative depiction of U.S. Navy personnel carousing with women dressed like prostitutes. It includes a subtle homoerotic image of a sailor flirting with a civilian man offering him a cigarette, while another sailor lies draped across them. The painting generated controversy, causing the Navy to remove it from the exhibition. The scandal brought the artist national attention.


At the Smithsonian's American Art Museum hangs the striking Night in Bologna, a dark comedy of sexual tensions played out on a stage of shadowy arcades. In the foreground, a soldier on leave throws off a visible heat that suffuses the air around him with a red glow. He casts an appraising look at a worldly woman nearby, who gauges the interest of a man seated at a café table. The gawky tourist is unaware of her attentions, and looks longingly at the man in uniform. Cadmus left the outcome unclear because he was more interested in the tangle of human instincts than in tidy resolutions.


In a lengthy oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Cadmus said that after 50 years as a painter, he was happy with the trajectory of his career, though he had never achieved lasting fame or a consensus of critical appreciation. He quoted a line from one of his favorite painters, the French neoclassicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. "'People say my paintings are not right for the times' or something like that," Cadmus recalled. "But then he says, 'Can I help it if the times are wrong? If I'm the only one that's right, it's all right.'"


Sources:  Smithsonian American Art Museum and Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Carnegie Library of Washington

At lunchtime today, I took an opportunity to tour Washington, D.C.'s Carnegie Library. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. currently occupies what was the central public library for the City of Washington for nearly 70 years. It's location at Mount Vernon Square was part of Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the District of Columbia, which included more than a dozen open spaces for parks or memorials throughout the city. Mount Vernon Square sits on a plot where seven different streets converge in the northwest quadrant of Washington. The square is located where Massachusetts Avenue, New York Avenue, K Street, and 8th Street would intersect, and further bounded by 7th Street, 9th Street, and Mount Vernon Place.

In 1899, industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was visiting the White House when he heard about the need for a library building in Washington. His contribution to Washington totaled $375,000, making it one of the largest of the Carnegie libraries built. In the end, Carnegie funded the building of 1,679 libraries around the United States.

The building was designed by Albert Randolph Ross of the New York architectural firm Ackerman and Ross, who had studied at the influential École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Ross designed it in the Beaux-Art style that became popular at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and its "White City." The lead architect of the World's Fair was Daniel Burnham, designer of another Washington Beaux-Art building, Union Station, completed in 1908. 

Dedicated on January 7, 1903, the ceremony was attended by President Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. During that time, Washington was a heavily segregated town, except for the federal government. One of Carnegie's requirements for his donation included that the building could not be segregated. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson and his Administration, resegregated federal workers. With oversight of the Carnegie Library falling to the hands of the federal government, the library staff were segregated, but the citizens of Washington who used it were not. That policy remained in effect until Wilson left office in 1917.  Heavily used and short on space, the central public library was moved to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in 1970.

The Historical Society leads 45-minute free tours of the beautiful Carnegie Library on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1:00 p.m. Visit www.dchistory.org to register and for more information.





Photos by Cary Knox