Spring Gallery Exhibits

The Hirshhorn Museum – Isamu Noguchi: Master Sculptor (Until May 8)

What makes one a master sculptor? Is it a mastery of materials? An ability to create a realistic figure one day, and an abstraction the next? Or perhaps just the talent to create a simple, but strong image?

Isamu Noguchi is, as the title of his solo exhibition suggests, a master indeed. His sculptures vary widely in form and subject matter, but leave a lasting impression with the viewer nonetheless.

Noguchi should be admired for his ability to sculpt in nearly any material, with works made from bronze, granite, terra-cotta clay, paper, aluminum, cement and electric lights. However, his stone sculptures are most commendable due to his choice of stone. Some large-scale sculptures are made of unusually beautiful pink, yellow and red marble, most notably “Sun at Noon,” a striking circle of red French and pink Spanish Alicante marble that stands more than 5 feet tall.

Noguchi began his career intending to communicate ideas such as his hopes for technology, which is exhibited in “Portrait of R. Buckminster Fuller,” a chrome-plated bust of a robotic looking man. However, his career took a sudden turn when World War II began, and Noguchi, a Japanese-American, voluntarily entered an American internment camp. After leaving the camp, Noguchi began to sculpt the horrors of war.

Many of his works from this time period use the motif of destruction and bodies. “This Tortured Earth” depicts a barren, war-torn landscape, and “Monument to Heroes” shows the stark horrors of death by prominently featuring a humanlike bone. Noguchi also began a series of sculptures comprising abstract, curvilinear shapes put together as though they were part of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

The most striking piece in this exhibit is “Death (Lynched Figure),” which depicts a hanging from a gallows with a four-foot tall metal figure whose features are so distended and wrenched that it can be painful to look at.

If the mark of a master sculptor is a mastery of materials or the ability to create many types of sculpture, Noguchi has the title. What puts him beyond the rest is an ability to depict emotions such as hope, despair and pain in an abstract figure made of simple stone.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts – Berthe Morisot: An Impressionist and her Circle (Until May 8)

Berthe Morisot was a woman painter in a man’s territory – Impressionism. As the only woman in the boys’ club whose members included Monet, Degas and Renoir the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ latest exhibit would appear to be a triumph in feminism.

Morisot was indeed somewhat of a feminist – continuing her career in art after marrying fellow Impressionist Edouard Manet, and using her maiden name professionally – but the museum falls short in its attempt to illustrate this fact.

The problem lies in the show’s design. It appears to be a solo exhibition – yet a great many of the works that fill the exhibit’s galleries do not belong to Morisot, but rather, to her contemporaries. All of the aforementioned artists have a piece or two hung alongside Morisot’s, which forces spectators to compare works between artists, rather than analyze Morisot’s for its own merits. It is a shame that this artist, whose entire life was spent displaying her work with men, must continue the cycle more than 100 years later.

The wall texts in the museum focus on Morisot’s family life, rather than her professional career, often describing her daughter, Julie Manet, who served as a model for her mother and all male Impressionists. Julie was orphaned at age 16 and sent to live with another of the Impressionists, Henri Rouart, and his son Ernest. Julie and Ernest painted for a few years, and the addition of their paintings only add to the clutter of this confused display.

Had the National Museum of Women in the Arts actually kept the focus on the artist herself, this exhibit would have been a nice way to focus on an artist whose works are not frequently seen outside Europe. However, the museum fails to keep the spotlight on Morisot, focusing on her contemporaries to the point of distraction.

The National Gallery – Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha (Until May 30)

Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha once said, “I’ve always had a deep respect for things that are odd, for things that which cannot be explained. Explanations seem to sort of finish things off.” This statement seems to be the perfect means of approaching his new retrospective. How else does one look at drawings of “hot” words such as “Ace,” “City,” “Promise” and “Sweets, Meats, Sheets” without searching for a correlation between art as words, or words as art?

These are the very questions that remain ambiguous in Ruscha’s “smoke and mirrors” paintings and drawings, which incorporate words, images and a variety of techniques to form new meaning and perspective on familiar subject matter. Influenced by artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenburg, Ruscha experimented with media such as gunpowder and beet juice.

Once employed as a sign painter and later as a pressman, this comprehensive collection reflects Ruscha’s transition from commercial to fine art, as well as his interest in pop art. His inclusion of deadpan humor, such as in his piece “Several Monograms” that consists of traditional monograms painted in acrylic over the dark shadow of a female body, provides the viewer with a subtle narrative and immediate familiarity with the work.

What is most intriguing about this retrospective is Ruscha’s adaptability. Despite his lack of “explanation,” he has remained a contemporary artist since his early works of the 1960s-a feat few artists have achieved with such consistency. With subject matter ranging from gasoline stations, apartment buildings, palm trees, Hollywood logos and vacant lots, Ruscha’s work playfully experiments with present aesthetics such as graphic design and themes that transcend time.

The National Gallery – Andr? Kert?sz (Until May 15)

“The Miguet Seller” is a simple image. The setting is an urban landscape in Paris, 1928. A man with no legs holds a handful of flowers and a hopeful stare at a passerby, who takes no interest, and proceeds down a flight of stairs. As residents of D.C., we have all shared this same experience – a non-responsive passerby on a busy street. But there is something different and haunting about photographer Andr? Kert?sz’s depiction of this interaction.

As city dwellers, it is rare not to encounter quixotic juxtapositions found in such a varied, populated landscape. Yet what differentiates one of many images we ignore daily from Kert?sz’s is his decision to immortalize a moment. We must confront the image repeatedly until it is elevated from reality to immortality.

This poetic, reverent depiction of reality is captured in the majority of 113 vintage photographs. From Kert?sz’s early photographs of his native Budapest, to his studies of Paris and the final series of photographs he took of New York shortly before his death, his photography captures time and place with a transformative gaze.

One sees the intimacy between Kert?sz, his environment and subjects. In a black-and-white no larger than 2″ by 2″, the artist’s brother, Jeno, is photographed as Icarus, leaping upward into the sky. The ambition and suggestion of possibility in this photograph provides the foundation and challenge that drives Kert?sz’s work.

This exhibition may cause viewers to ask, “are all photographers responsible for capturing life within the confines of dimensions, a type of Icarus?” It seems that in Kert?sz’s attempt to capture life in photography that breathes, speaks and moves, he has given wings to an art form thought impossible to fly.

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