Smithsonian Horticulturalists Talk About American Art's Flora
April 17, 2014


Melanie Pyle and Joel Lemp are horticulturists with Smithsonian Gardens, and they lead tours through the garden growing in American Art's Kogod Courtyard. The natural beauty of the plants complements the art in our museum so well. This spring they will lead tours through the courtyard on Thursday, April 24 at 10:30 a.m. and Thursday, May 22 at 2:30 p.m.. Katie Crooks, public program coordinator, spoke with Pyle and Lemp about the gardening at the Smithsonian.

Garden tour of Kogod Courtyard

Smithsonian Horticulturalist Joel Lemp talks about the flora in American Art's Kogod Courtyard.

Eye Level: Most people don't think of gardens as museums, but Smithsonian Gardens is an accredited museum; how is that possible?

Melanie Pyle and Joel Lemp: Smithsonian Gardens received this high honor last year because of its commitment to public, service, professional standards, accountability, excellence in education and continued institutional improvement. We are one of only 25 public gardens in the country to have achieved this.

To make our gardens truly successful, SG collaborates on a daily basis with the museums. There have been additional collaborations in developing specialized gardens such as the Bird and Butterfly Gardens on the grounds of Natural History, the Victory and Heirloom Gardens surrounding American History and the NMAI's native gardens. The multiple festivals hosted by the American Indian Museum are further examples as is our bi-annual orchid exhibit through which we have partnered with Sackler/Freer, the Environmental Research Center, and several departments of the Natural History Museum. Our education department collaborates with all the units, blending the missions and exhibits of the museums and the gardens.

Overall we design and maintain the exterior and interior gardens of 12 museums as well as the Smithsonian's support facility. The Kogod Courtyard houses the Smithsonian's only interior landscape which makes it such a special place!

EL: It must be challenging gardening in the Kogod Courtyard; how do you choose the plants that go into it?

P & L: The low light levels and restrictive growing space of the planters present the biggest challenges for the horticulturists. Caring for the large trees successfully under these conditions has become a foremost task for Smithsonian Gardens' staff. The Interiors' Section horticulturists select plants for the Courtyard based their ability to survive the challenges of an indoor environment. They are largely tropical varieties which tend to perform best in low light situations and generally have the same growing requirements.

EL: Wow, it sounds like you all really know your stuff. What does it take to be a horticulturist at the Smithsonian?

P & L: Most of the Smithsonian Gardens' horticulturists have at a degree in horticulture or plant related sciences or a combined equivalent of relevant work experience and education. There are SG internships offered throughout the year which is an excellent way of deciding whether to pursue a career in public gardens.

EL: Of all of the plants you take care of, what is the easiest and what is the hardest to care for and grow?

P & L: In our experience, the Dracaena or "corn plant" varieties seem to withstand the challenges of indoor growing the most successfully. They can survive with minimal light and watering. The plants we have the most difficult time with are plants requiring higher levels of light such as black olive trees.

EL: Do you have any tips for people who are limited to gardening indoors? There are a lot of apartment dwellers (like me!) who read this blog.

P & L: For successful long term gardening, it is essential to choose the right plant for the right space. Tropical plants are the best for indoors and can take the lower light conditions. Proper watering is essential as over watering is the number one mistake made with indoor plants. When in doubt, let it go another day.

Posted by Jeff on April 17, 2014 in Behind the Scenes
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Picture This: Spring, Cherry Blossoms, and Family
April 15, 2014


The Onoe Ryu Dance group performs at our Cherry Blossom Family Day.

Spring has arrived (well, I'm not sure it's made up its mind just yet). But the weather was very spring-like this last Saturday when the American Art celebrated D.C.'s famous trees with a Cherry Blossom Family Celebration. Kids enjoyed craft activities like making tissue paper blossoms, drawing their own cherry blossom tree, folded Japanese screen painting, and origami. Here, the Onoe Ryu Dance group performs a traditional Japanese dance in the Kogod Courtyard as part of the festivities. Join us for our next Family Festival in celebration of Mother's Day on Saturday, May 10.

Posted by Jeff on April 15, 2014 in Picture This
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Picture This: Our America Travels to The Frost Art Museum
April 10, 2014


Opening Reception at the Frost

At of the opening reception for Our America at the Frost Art Museum

Last week American Art's exhibition Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art opened at The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, the first stop on a multi-city journey across the country. The show will be at the Frost until June 22, 2014, then travel to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, the Arkansas Art Center in Little Rock, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, and the Sioux City Art Center in Sioux City, Iowa. Check the specific dates for each tour venue on our exhibition page.

Read more about the preparations for the exhibition on our blog Eye Level, view a slide show of the work, and visit our bilingual website. We will post updates about the exhibition as it travels using the #OurAmerica hashtag from American Art on Twitter.

Posted by Jeff on April 10, 2014 in American Art Elsewhere
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April Gornik: Cloudy with a Chance of Clouds
April 8, 2014


April Gornik

April Gornik's Virga

The weather in American Art's Lincoln Gallery has gotten a bit cloudier, thanks to the addition of April Gornik's 1992 painting, Virga. Its dramatic swirls of cumulus that dip like a crow's wing over troubled water depict a storm brewing on the horizon. The painting is a recent gift to the museum from James F. Dicke II, the sponsor of the museum's annual lecture in contemporary art that bears his name.

Three words appeared on the screen shortly after Gornik took the stage: Binaries, Details, Process, giving a bit of a roadmap to the lecture as the artist took us on a tour through her oeuvre, from her earliest paintings on plywood, to her formative paintings on canvas, and ending with images from an upcoming exhibition. Her signature works, like Virga, are unpeopled landscapes that are often imagined or reinterpreted through time and memory, and largely influenced by 19th century landscape painting. Virga (defined as when rain falls but evaporates before it reaches the ground), where "the painting is starting to devour itself," came after a difficult time in her life, and reflects the process of "coming back into the light from the dark."

In terms of the binary, Gornik's work often skates between dreams and the real world, the familiar and the unknown. Is a storm coming or is the storm retreating? The canvas holds a balance between shapes and shadows, between tension and release, the action in the upper register, and the often meditative space on the ground. With detail she wondered about the scale and physicality of the painting, "how much detail is enough." She added, "Painting is a strange animal, you really can't control it."

Process gave Gornik a chance to show a fascinating series of images of a painting from start to finish, beginning with the underpainting she applies at first. It begins with a vision and she draws it out until it's finally realized, and no more changes are necessary.

One of my favorite moments of the evening came when she commented on the power and importance of seeing a painting in person, rather than solely viewing it online. "If I'm staring at my computer for a long time and then I go to the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], and see Northern European Renaissance paintings in all their crazy, insanely detailed glory, I feel like I've fallen into a literal other world that is rich and satisfying and amazing as can be imagined. I worry about other people going through the museum and just seeing them as an image. I think it's so important for people to be taught what makes art powerful."

Watch the webcast of Gornik's talk.

Posted by Howard on April 8, 2014 in Lectures on American Art
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Pop Art Prints: A Closer Look at James Rosenquist
April 3, 2014


Pop Art Prints has just opened in American Art's graphic arts galleries. The installation showcases thirty-seven works from the museum's extensive holdings of works on paper from the 1960s and 1970s. The featured prints are bold, bright, and filled with references to popular culture. Four lively prints by James Rosenquist are showcased in the installation. Nina Williams, a curatorial assistant at American Art, writes about one of Rosenquist's pieces in the show.

James Rosenquist

Art © James Rosenquist/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Expo 67 Mural Firepole 33 x 17'. 1967, color lithograph on paper, 33 1/8 x 17 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum

In Rosenquist's lithograph titled Expo 67 Mural Firepole 33 x 17'. two uniformed legs twist around a shiny fire pole. Exuberant white lines stream across a red and yellow background, suggesting commotion or celebration. This small print was inspired by a much larger but identical painting titled Fire Slide that Rosenquist exhibited at Expo 67, the 1967 world's fair in Montreal.

Rosenquist's painting Fire Slide was included in American Painting Now, a contemporary art exhibition held in the American pavilion of Expo 67. The exhibit featured large-scale works by the "who's who" in 1960s American art, among them: Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg. Expo 67 promised to transport visitors through elaborate displays of art, technology, and material culture from sixty-two countries. Maverick architect R. Buckminster Fuller designed the American pavilion, a twenty story geodesic dome to house exhibitions of American creativity and ingenuity. Attracting more than eleven million visitors over six months, the American pavilion was the most popular of the entire exposition. Rosenquist's painting was thirty-three feet high by seventeen feet wide. It was so large that had to be made in twelve different pieces and then put together on site.

Because the pavilion was so intimidatingly large, the artworks on display for American Painting Now had to be chosen carefully. With its clean lines, solid colors, and recognizable forms, Pop art stood out beautifully against the flurry of activity in the pavilion. Pop art also illustrated the American zeitgeist through an accessible language that millions of visitors could understand. The artworks were suspended from the dome's ceiling alongside exhibits such as Destination Moon, a display of NASA's Apollo space program that included actual space capsules and a simulation of the lunar landscape.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Expo 67 Mural Firepole 33 x 17' is the meaning behind its fragmented yet straightforward image. Why would Rosenquist choose to depict the legs of a man sliding down a fire pole for the World's Fair? According to Rosenquist, the work represents the U.S. president acting as a fireman who puts out fires around the world. I find it fascinating that he made such a politically charged work for the expo. What's more, those who saw the painting at the time had no clue of the subversive meaning behind the colorful artwork. The image was clearly significant to Rosenquist, as he also made a smaller forty-eight by twenty-four inch painting of it that year. And by producing an edition of forty-one lithographic prints, he ensured that the image would be seen by an even wider audience.

Unfortunately, Fire Slide was recently destroyed in a fire at Rosenquist's studio. This makes me all the more grateful that the print version in the American Art's collection will forever preserve the history behind this significant work.

Pop Art Prints will be on display until August 31, 2014.

Posted by Jeff on April 3, 2014 in American Art Here
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