The museums and galleries of Washington, D.C., have shifted and regrouped in unexpected ways this fall. Out on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art resembles "Dia South" as it dedicates itself to a retrospective of the late Minimalist Dan Flavin -- especially with the expansive courtyard of its sharp-angled East Building enveloped by the fluorescent green of a 120-foot wide modular piece from 1973.
Once inside, much of Flavins early work bears an almost comic resemblance to holiday lights, makeup mirrors and interiors from 2001: A Space Odyssey, complete with unrelenting electronic buzz. But you cant deny the compelling power of Flavins light baths, even in I. M. Peis NGA, which while good isnt quite the right architecture. The museum deserves kudos for having a go at plug-in Minimalism.
Other Mall museums have a certain contemporary electricity of their own. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a bit ragged-looking at 30, hits a countercultural note with two exhibitions -- one self-organized (but launched by the Whitney Museum earlier this year) probing Ana Mendietas fulsomely feminist, now-you-see it, now-you-dont performances and body art from the 1970s and 80s, and the second shared with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, documenting artist Cai Quo-Qiang's wispy-violent gunpowder paintings and, winning the over-the-top award, his installation sculpture of a full-size rotten boat in a chard-and-statuette "sea."
The National Indian Museum
But the real new star on the Mall is the National Museum of the American Indian, a streamlined organism of a building whose Pueblo-casual design, directly across from the NGA, stands in startling contrast to this citys aura of uptight officialdom. The $219-million, 250,000-square-foot five-story structure looks great outside, and inside boasts a soaring atrium court with a sun-activated spectral prism that helps the spirit soar. The building is the work of Native American architect Douglas Cardinal, who also designed the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Commissioned art is all through the building, and the museum has galleries displaying works by two Native-American modernists -- Allan Housers figurative and Henry Moore-ish bronzes and George Morrisons paint-encrusted paintings and assemblages. But the more exciting moments come from accidental encounters with the bits and pieces of the sprawling installation.
For instance, in the AV theatre, of all places, are several absolutely gorgeous beaded and ceramic artifacts. Another surprise are the Kiowa Aw-Day beaded sneakers by Teri Greeves, subsumed in a show about Native life so overflowing with recorded voices, pulsating videos, typefaces and blow-up photos that I ultimately had to flee, only to find several hallway exhibits using interactive screens instead of object labels. Grrrrr. With the objects right there, why not let your eyes explore? There is too much Education with a capital E here.
But several quiet corners of "Our Universe," an installation on the fourth floor, cant be beat. Here, strange, druggy animations play on video monitors, telling back-to-nature stories that tug at a Western Hippies aging heart. Then there are the amazing, alien sounds of Native languages.
Finally, dont miss the long, snaking glass case that is the centerpiece of the fourth-floor "Our Peoples" exhibition. Some 20 succinct texts tell the thorny history of Native-European "encounters" while the eye takes in a trippy, radiating display of hundreds of related objects -- pre-Columbian gold ornaments and clay figures, conquistadors swords, European medallions made from melted American metal, range rifles and revolvers from the Wild West and some nasty-looking contemporary firearms. Its a history lesson like psychedelic artist Fred Tomaselli might tell.
D.C.s New Art Hotspot
After hundreds of Native Americans marched in a colorful procession down the Mall to open the museum in mid-September, another ritual took place along the 14th Street corridor near P Street -- a hoped-for new hotspot for D.C. art -- as the local art-worlds crme de la crme descended upon the area for an informal street fest.
The occasion was the dedication of 1515 14th Street, a three-story warehouse that art-friendly developer Giorgio Furiosos is renovating into a new art gallery building. Furiosos development is part of a broad neighborhood boom that already includes two of Washingtons more progressive galleries, Fusebox and Transformer.
At the Furioso building, Annie Gawlaks G Fine Art was the one gallery ready to pack em in, opening with a show of Maggie Michaels biomorphic, solid color abstractions. While her earlier works look vaguely bipolar, a little like cell mitosis, her newer paintings -- like Crest (2004) -- are freewheeling inventories of mark-making.
Next to open in 1515 14th Street are HemphillFine Arts from Georgetown, Adamson Gallery from 7th Street, and an exhibition-organizing business by former McLean (Va.) art center director Andrea Pollan. A cavernous unfinished street-front space, slated to hold a restaurant, was the site of the disco after-party, dubbed a festa furiosa by one middle-aged participant.
Spotted on the rialto that night -- not necessarily black-clad, as local mores accept color -- were pioneering D.C. art booster Alice Denney, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, new-art collectors Danny and Mirella Levinas, and a host of local artists, including Sam Gilliam and Robin Rose. Waves of new blood kept the scene a scene.
At Fusebox, the hordes saw James Huckenpahlers chilly, erotic digital photo-abstractions, which blend a blind-your-eye, aluminum lasagna, Frank-Gehry feel with Ed-Paschke-acrid color. Supposedly based on portraits, the images are impressive but seem content-free -- except for an occasional imagining of fornication. In the back are some automatonish drawings of nudes by Kristofer Lee of mild interest.
The Transformer gallery is so small as to be almost newsstand-sized, though its "SubTEXT" show thought big with a stenciled-to-the-window protest piece by Chuck Ramirez from Sala Diaz, an art space in San Antonio, and installations by Jesse Amado and Andrea Caillouet.
Lest We Forget
Also hatching an art scene is Penn Quarter, clustered around and northward of the 7th Street axis between the National Gallery and the currently closed Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery. Or should we say, "re-hatching." The area saw a mini-boom of galleries in the early 1980s, which had faded by the early 1990s, but the seeds were sown again after the MCI Center for sports events and concerts opened five years ago. Chinatowns restaurants were first to upgrade, and then. . . boom.
Along with a "spy museum," a Shakespeare theater, a boutique hotel and a post-Memphis furniture store are the Numark Gallery and a multi-use space called Flashpoint. The formers smart, engaging fall opener, "Architecture Untethered," offered scrambled/scary/twisted photographs, paintings and installations based on chairs, buildings, hallways and interiors by Scott Anderson, Isidro Blasco, James Casebere, Joanne Greenbaum, Robert Lazzarini, Adam Ross and Lebbeus Woods. At Flashpoint were a promising group of re-worked slick-fuzzy, school-of-Richter photo abstractions by Kristi Mathews. This space showcases locals.
These and Penn Quarters other art-related spots (including galleries at a Goethe Institut and the National Academy of Sciences and coffeehouse displays way north) stay open late once a month for an open-house called "Third Thursdays," translated from the design-ese "3rd 3sdays." The moniker apes the "First Friday" fetes of Washingtons granddaddy of gallery districts, Dupont Circle.
Not what it once was (New York art-and-architecture stalwart Max Protetch, among others, got started there), the Dupont Circle area, nonetheless, retains serious coolness if you know where to go. The tiny but energy-charged Conner Contemporary on Connecticut Avenue, for instance, opened the fall season with Harry Shearers flat-screen video installation of 17 monitors transfixing viewers with sphinxlike, mumbling, nose-powdering, scowling, smirking, snarling faces of various newscasters and politicians awaiting live broadcasts. No slow-motion a la Bill Viola was required to make these almost-still shots as arresting as paintings, but no Viola could ever make a person look so smarmy. How in the hell did the artist ever get this footage?
Full of different surprises on Duponts thinned-down R Street gallery row is the Robert Brown Galleryseccentric but sumptuous show of mostly prints (Lovis Corinth, James McNeill Whistler, David Nash, Jennifer Bartlett) plus some quirky contemporary trompe loeil paintings and Chinese furniture and ceramics. Also worth noting on that street is Marsha Mateykas blue-chippy show of Gene Davis paintings from the estate, which still pack their soothing punch.
Dupont Circles art aura remains anchored by the Phillips Collection on 21st and Q Streets, an iconic showcase for Bonnards, Diebenkorns, Klees and other works that make one smile, rather than wince, in a house-like setting. This fall the Phillips offers a big "Calder Miró" show.
Different from the Picasso-Braque oneupsmanship, the Calder-Miró relationship was a more gentle, long-term, cross-fertilizing friendship between two playfully intuitive artists. It resulted in some of its eras most accessible modern art, if kidney-shaped, Surrealist-tinged, primary-color, abstraction-manqu is your thing.
The crowds appear to be responding, which should make sponsor Ford Motor Company happy. The rest of us, however, would appreciate a bit more understatement in the corporate billing -- the Ford logo on the wall at the museums brand-new oval entrance is an eyesore. And damn, the Phillips has moved the shop to that entrance, too. But rest assured -- the museums devotion to commerce ends once the show begins.
Calder is a sculptor, and Miró a painter. Therein lay this exhibitions strength and its weakness, too, for there are plenty of goofy wire figures by Calder and hackneyed Miró insect-ladies here. But more often than not, Calders orbiting, breathing mobiles have the same sense of surprise and wonder as the best of Mirós works, especially the complex, compact "Constellations" of the early 1940s. The compare-and-contrast essence of this show, with or without the gabby wall texts, is enlightening and worth a return visit.
If the Phillips has succeeded once again in pleasing the eyes and souls of its audience, so too has the Corcoran Gallery of Art with its Caio Fonseca show. About 30 examples of Fonsecas deft, musical canvases, large and small, fill two galleries there. The Vanity Fair puff piece on the artist notwithstanding, I was seduced. And for the investment-minded, a Georgetown drawing-room gallery called the Ralls Collection had a show of the artist's etchings. At its trendy opening, none other than D.C. mayor Tony Williams made an appearance. And at the Corcoran Gallery a few nights later, soigne Europeans and New Yorkers such as Susan Simon, the cookbook writer, came to honor "Kye-oh," as their friends first name is pronounced.
Also in Georgetown -- home to galleries like Addison-Ripley, Govinda, District Fine Arts and M.O.C.A. -- a gallery called Strand on Volta started the fall season with transplanted Vancouverite Lucy Hoggs oval and rectangular canvases spinning off the imagery of 18th century capriccio paintings from Venice. This newish gallery wins the Picturesque Prize for its Nantucket-esque exterior and very select Volta Place address in Georgetowns terribly attractive "West Village." The gallery is run by restauranteur James Strand Alefantis, whose Bucks Fishing and Camping in another part of town -- upper Connecticut Avenue near the Birkenstocker-preferred Politics and Prose bookstore/coffeehouse -- is the local art worlds ne-plus-ultra dining spot these days.
Finally, a bit of a brushfire riled locals in mid-October when the Corcorans Washington Project for the Arts (WPA/C) asked Philip Barlow to resign as the quest curator for its forthcoming "Options 2005" show of emerging artists. It seems that Barlow had told the Washington Post that he would pass over any artist who had participated in the recent "Party Animal" or "Panda Mania" sidewalk art shows.
These public projects, where artists, pretenders and amateurs decorated precast-concrete donkeys, elephants and pandas, were generally viewed as amusing at best and irksome at worst. Except that (and heres where the trouble begins) the D.C. government that funded them also provides funds to the Corcoran, which in turn oversees WPA. Get it? In any case, after his impolitic -- or principled -- remarks -- Barlow was out.
The "Options" snafu is haunted by the weird irony that in 1989, the WPA put on a show of Robert Mapplethorpes "X Portfolio" after the Corcoran had cancelled it -- and now the two institutions are allied. What would life be without ruffled feathers?
SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and writer living in Washington, D.C.