Before Betsy Broun retired from the helm of the Smithsonian American Art Museum last fall, she gave a talk where she revealed her top ten works (ok, seventeen works) of art in the collection, beginning with Albert Pinkham Ryder's Jonah. Ryder, who died one hundred years ago today, was an artist close to Broun's heart and the subject of a book she published in 1989.
"I worry that he's in danger of being forgotten," she told us while sharing her thoughts about his work, his era, and his influence on the next generation of artists. According to Broun, the difficult later years of Ryder's life—depression, ill health, loneliness—can be seen in Jonah, as the hero struggles in the churning sea for dear life. He was 70 years old and had been declining since a hospitalization in 1915; the cause of death was basically kidney failure.
Despite the difficulties, when he died, Ryder was already lionized as an icon of American art. According to Broun, "There was an entire room dedicated to his work at the famous Armory Show of 1913 where his art was offered as a precursor to modernism. In 1918, the Metropolitan Museum of Art did a memorial exhibition with 48 paintings. Ryder's deep involvement with the properties of oil paint and the painting process, and his intuitive powerful approach to composition, led such modernists as Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Jackson Pollock, and many others to view him as the key inspiration for a new modern style, despite his fondness for historical, Shakespearean, and Biblical subjects."
What makes Ryder's legacy a bit fuzzy is that even before he died, suspicious paintings were starting to circulate, and, as Broun tells us, "the first Ryder biography (by Frederic Fairchild Sherman in 1920) was inaccurate, full of romantic made-up legends, and illustrated with several forgeries. By 1932, there were literally hundreds of 'wrong' works clouding the market and making Ryder a difficult artist for scholars, collectors, and museums to study and collect. Art historian and former director of the Whitney, Lloyd Goodrich, led the way in using new lab techniques such as x-radiography to sort out the originals from the fakes."
SAAM has the most important collection of Ryders in the world, including a gallery on the second floor featuring nine of his visionary works, including Jonah. In this dramatic, psychologically-charged, life-or-death seascape, the artist fashioned a god of light spreading his wings, exhibiting what Broun called "a spiritual tenaciousness."
The Renwick Gallery and the Space in Between
March 23, 2017
What drew me to want to be an artist was, I have always been interested in how the space I'm in changes the way I feel and therefore who I am at any given moment.
Walk through the doors of the Renwick Gallery and the first thing most people notice is Odile Decq's curving red carpet, flowing up the stairs to an arched doorway. Next, at the top of the stairs, framed by the arch, a soft light shifts from magenta to marigold to dusky blue. For more than a year, Janet Echelman's woven sculpture 1.8 Renwick has beckoned people into the Grand Salon. Suspended high above, the billowing nets transform the space. At once an artwork and an experience, people walk around the room as colors projected on the hand-knotted nets shift, or stretch out on the floor for a new view and a moment of peace.
This space feels different, and it shows in the groups of people gathered on the floor or drifting through the room. Babies toddling through the pink light. Groups of teenagers relaxing. Couples posing for the perfect hazy shot. Here and there, visitors absorbing the atmosphere, undisturbed. Stealing a visit over a lunch hour, a special trip to meet a friend, accidental discovery, first dates, and reunions.
In the video below, Echelman talks about what makes her installation at the Renwick Gallery different from her other works, how she finds inspiration in the interstitial spaces of the world, and how sometimes the criticisms you need to protect your ideas from are your own.
As often as art conservators do a standard treatment on a work of art in our collection, there is always an opportunity to learn a new approach to solving a challenging task. In the case of Gene Davis: Hot Beat (closing April 2, 2017), paintings conservator Amber Kerr coordinated with staff members from our design and registrar teams to manage the conservation treatments for several extremely large canvas paintings. Each had been rolled in storage for years.
From the construction of a "secret room" in the gallery in which they treated these oversized canvases, to designing a custom-built portable, yet lightweight "table" to treat them on, to calling sail makers for tips on stitching canvases, Amber found there was a lot to consider. And she had to come up with some new approaches for cleaning, stretching, and displaying Davis' canvases. In the video above, you can see Amber along with an intern, a fellow, and a contractor sewing new edge-lining strips to the tacking margins of Davis' painting so the canvas could be stretched.
SAAM's sculpture curator, Karen Lemmey, gives us some insight about the close relationship between sculptor, Isamu Noguchi and dancer, Martha Graham as referenced in our exhibition, Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern.
On March 3, SAAM hosted the Martha Graham Dance Company for two performances of Cave of the Heart. Over the course of half a century, Noguchi and Graham closely collaborated on numerous set designs for her groundbreaking modern dances. They held each other in the highest regard—Noguchi once said, "I felt that I was an extension of Martha and that she was an extension of me," while Graham described sharing "an unspoken language" with the sculptor.
Graham's Cave of the Heart premiered in 1946 and retells the ancient Greek myth of Medea, a sorceress who is consumed by jealousy when her husband Jason abandons her and their children to marry the Princess of Corinth for political gains. Graham's dance distills the story of the absolute destructive powers of jealousy in the movements of four dancers: Medea, Jason, the Chorus, and the ill-fated princess. Noguchi's spare and elegant set design is well suited to Graham's choreography. His row of flat stones represents the Greek archipelago across which Jason leaps in his ambitions to consolidate his power through conquest. A large grey form at the back of the stage, Noguchi's abstraction of a human aorta, serves as an emotive home base for the Chorus, who is omniscient but powerless to stop the unfurling tragedy. The unequivocal star of the stage is Medea, the role originally played by Graham for whom Noguchi created Spider Dress that sits on his Serpent, both of which are on view in the Noguchi exhibition.
Throughout most of the dance the Spider Dress stands majestically at the front of the stage, as still as a sentinel. But as the performance draws to a close, Medea slides into the cage-like brass dress and dances, reveling in her evil deeds: the murder of the Princess and her own children. Noguchi dubbed his sculpture a "dress of transformation" while Graham called it "a chariot of flames" that carries Medea back to her father, the Sun. Noguchi admired how Graham used his sculptures "as extensions of her own anatomy," but the Spider Dress seems to come alive as if it were a fifth character. Even after the dancers leave the Spider Dress behind as they take their final bows, the sculpture continues to scintillate.The matinee workshop, organized by SAAM's departments of Education and Public Programs, was attended by 240 local students and led by Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. The sold-out evening performance was followed by a discussion with Janet Eilber, myself, and Dakin Hart, guest curator of Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern and senior curator at The Noguchi Museum.
Crucial support for both performances came from the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the Smithsonian National Board. The evening performance was dedicated to the memory of Jack Rachlin, a longtime volunteer and an ardent supporter of SAAM's sculpture program, who passed away on February 22, 2017.
Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern, closes March 19.
Movies at SAAM Continues This Spring
March 9, 2017
From March to May, "Movies at SAAM" will screen five eye-opening films about American art. All films will be shown on selected Saturdays at the museum's McEvoy Auditorium, beginning at 3 p.m.
On March 11, we will start off with Beautiful Losers, a documentary by filmmakers Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard. See how a group of young artists and designers, using DIY methods like skateboarding, graffiti, and underground music, inadvertently impact the art world.
On April 1, "Movies at SAAM" screens Between the Folds. Experience how five artists (including Erik Demaine and Martin Demaine whose work, Green Balance is on display at our Renwick Gallery) and an eccentric scientist reveal the secrets of modern origami. Directed by Vanessa Gould, this film is a fascinating look into the magic of paper folding.
On May 13, come to a showing of Hockney, a 2014 documentary by Randall Wright about the artist David Hockney. After the show be sure to check out Hockney's installation, Snails Space with Vari-Lites, "Painting as Performance" on the third floor.
Last but not least, on May 20, in honor of the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's birth and our exhibition, American Visionary: John F. Kennedy's Life and Times, we will end the season with two films about our 35th President. Adventures on a New Frontier and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, were shot in cinéma vérité, also known as observational cinema. This technique uses only one or two cameras to document subjects without the aid of a narrator. Both hour-long films will be shown back-to-back with a 15 minute break.
All films start at 3 p.m. in the McEvoy Auditorium and will be followed by a 20 minute discussion. We hope you can join us on this journey though art and art history!