Abraham Thomas: New Curator-in-Charge at SAAM's Renwick Gallery
January 18, 2017

Abraham Thomas recently joined the museum's staff as The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge at the Renwick Gallery. Thomas writes about the intersection of American craft, the Renwick, and his interests.

Abraham Thomas

Abraham Thomas, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge at the Renwick Gallery. Photo by Pepe Gomez

I've always been a big believer in dissolving boundaries between artistic disciplines. The most interesting conversations often happen when you bring objects together from disparate fields, and this sense of interdisciplinary dialogue is what makes contemporary craft so exciting. This zeal for hunting out areas of permeability was probably ingrained in me during my curatorial "youth," learning my trade at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There, I was the curator responsible for the V&A's vast design drawings collection, which ranged from the Renaissance to the present day, and spanned architecture, furniture, ceramics, graphic design, fashion, and everything in between. These sketches and drawings (and models and maquettes) really felt like the engine room of the museum. They represented a microcosm of the V&A's wider collections, but they also offered a unique insight into the working process and design thinking behind these objects. They revealed a trajectory of decision-making which included those areas of risk, failure, experimentation, and play which are often hidden from view when looking at finished pieces in a gallery. Working with this diverse collection allowed me to see what might connect a 19th-century Staffordshire bowl, a 1960s lounge chair, and an Italian Baroque funerary monument.

Similarly, at the Renwick Gallery we have the opportunity to explore how contemporary craft has a profound ability to be nimble across different forms of creative practice. In recent years we've moved beyond narrow definitions of craft, and engaged with broader ideas around making, materials, skill, and process. My predecessor, Nicholas Bell, and colleagues Nora Atkinson and Robyn Kennedy, have all done a brilliant job exploring these increasingly expansive definitions. The tremendous success of the WONDER exhibition has created a wave of momentum which allows us to prod and poke even further. For example, I'd love to explore the presence of craft in worlds as diverse as architecture, design, performance, fashion—even mathematics, science, and technology.


Leo Villareal's Volume (Renwick)

A good example of this is Leo Villareal's Volume (Renwick), an artwork where what's visible is simply an armature for the actual crafted "object," that is the complex algorithm which programs thousands of LEDs to create infinite dancing patterns of light and shadow. It's a poetic exercise visualizing the ephemeral nature of lines of code, the invisible 1s and 0s. As someone who worked as a coder in a former life, this is an artwork which particularly resonates for me on a personal level.

Similarly, our 3D-printed copy of the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers is a physical manifestation of millions of digital scan points taken from the plaster original in SAAM's collection. I've always believed in the huge potential of understanding the past through the lens of the contemporary, and vice versa, to use historical objects to contextualize creative practice today. Our 2015 Greek Slave "redux" offers a fresh perspective on how Powers used the 19th-century techniques of molding, casting, and pointing to create copies, and how that compares with today's technologies such as 3-D modelling and rapid prototyping, processes which open new areas of debate for contemporary craftsmanship.

Some of our upcoming exhibitions reflect these new intersections of craft, art, design, technology, and science. This summer we are commissioning architects to build a spectacular new installation for the Grand Salon, and later in the year our exhibition about the "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death" (intricate dollhouse-style dioramas of crime scenes) will examine craft through the context of forensic science; and our major exhibition in 2018 takes over the entire building and will explore thirty years of the art (and craft) of the Burning Man festival.

I love the fact that whether we're talking about lines of code, 19th-century sculpture, dollhouse miniatures, or a community of thousands gathering in the middle of the Nevada desert, here at the Renwick Gallery our collections, exhibitions and public program can play a vital role in that ongoing debate and discussion as we continue to explore future definitions for contemporary craft.

Posted by Jeff on January 18, 2017 in American Art Here, American Craft
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Folk and Self-Taught Art, Now in the Luce Center
January 13, 2017

Luce Folk Art Case

Works by folk and self-taught artists on display in our Luce Foundation Center

SAAM's open storage Luce Foundation Center is by no means a static place. With a calendar full of public programs and one of the most Instagrammable spaces in the city (we may be biased), you can see how the space is constantly changing in our folk and self-taught art cases. We just installed almost 50 newly-acquired and new-to-Luce pieces. This new installation features old friends like Howard Finster and Grandma Moses, but also artists and artworks which have never been represented in the Luce Center before.

Three of the newly installed artworks are by Eddy Mumma, who began to paint when he was 61 and in declining health. He attended a single class, during which he was criticized by the instructor for being "sloppy in his technique," so he walked out and never returned. He was hooked, however, and spent the last seventeen years of his life at home, painting with abandon. Mumma, or "Mr. Eddy," as he was often called, painted mainly portraits of figures with prominent eyes and large hands. SAAM curator Leslie Umberger sees Mumma's work as an extension of his identity as he got older; "As Mumma's physical presence faded, his art came increasingly alive. As a once-guiding religious faith flagged, his sense of self flourished."

The Saw and the Scroll is also new to the Luce Center, but might be familiar to any of you who have previously visited our folk and self-taught galleries on the museum's first floor. Jesse Howard was quite opinionated about politics, religion, and the lives of his neighbors in Fulton, Missouri. He proclaimed his views on hand-painted signs he displayed all over his his property. Here, he painted on an old saw and canvas (possibly an old window shade) and emphasized certain words with red. Howard's signs were an exercise of his First Amendment rights, and he urges us to, "READ ON, AND ON, AND KEEP ON READING."

The last piece I want to highlight is David Butler's Untitled (Angel). Butler filled his yard in Patterson, Louisiana with sculptures he made from cut, bent, and painted tin. His subjects were frequently inspired by the Bible, folktales, or mythology. And they often moved in the wind, or were placed so that the sun cast shadows through their cut-out forms. His fabricated garden always felt vibrant and alive.

The three artists I've featured in this post represent only a selection of the new artworks now on display in the Luce Center. While you're here, please pop by the information desk and let us know what you think of our new additions.

Posted by Bridget on January 13, 2017 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Gene Davis: The Cool Guy of Hot Beat
January 10, 2017

Gene Davis painting

Detail of Gene Davis' Raspberry Icicle, now on view in SAAM's exhibition Gene Davis: Hot Beat, captured by @tashmaj and posted by @jakebittle on Instagram.

Guest blogger Jean Lawlor Cohen is the consulting curator for Gene Davis: Hot Beat. She is an arts writer, independent curator, and co-author of Washington Art Matters: Art Life in the Capital 1940-1990.

Gene Davis, a journalist before he was a painter, knew the power of words. He spoke his wise and sometimes ornery mind, aware of the momentary impact and the eventual documentation of his life and career. This explains why his own bon mots (not the curators') flank most of the 15 paintings—all permutations of the stripe—in Gene Davis: Hot Beat, on view through April 2.

Interviews especially mattered to him. He enjoyed giving the press nuggets he had honed, quotes that read jargon-free, and he spoke for hours to historians who taped him for the Archives of American Art. He came to his maxims as he stuck to a self-imposed regimen ("early to bed," paint until noon), then filled his off-hours with teaching at the Corcoran School of Art or making lyrical, quirky drawings, seeing foreign films, reading the art critics (most of them parasitic and myopic, he said), and inviting friends to his studio and his dinner table.

In social conversation, Davis revealed a love of children's art (often rescued from the trash bin of a nearby nursery school), Mozart and the Sex Pistols, a passion for the Washington Redskins, and for the white XJE Jaguar he tested on a nearly empty Dulles airport access road. With sly humor, he named his slow-witted basset hounds "Gerry" for museum director Gerald Nordland and "Barney" for the admirable artist Barnett Newman. His parakeet was "Clem" for troublesome art critic Clement Greenberg.

Anyone who spent time with Davis heard stories of his White House correspondent years: how he played poker with President Truman on cross-country train trips or stood in the Oval Office on D-Day. He liked to call himself "an old newspaper man," and maybe some of that journalistic objectivity had kept him dogged and curious. Years later, when Davis left his post as an editor for the American Automobile Association to focus on painting, he already had a measure of national fame. With supportive wife Florence Coulson, he lived in a northwest D.C. colonial and added a below-grade studio, its transom shutters permanently closed against natural light. To explain himself, Davis liked to quote the advice of Gustave Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Indeed control marked his lifestyle: the shaven head (he was not totally bald), the insistence on punctuality, the precisely edged lawn and mulch beds, his all-white walls, the carefully positioned canvases and small sculptures, even the territorial limits imposed on his basset hounds. It was this sense of order that made the stripe "right" for him. He found in that vertical form an "exquisite monotony," a freedom from composing and "an uncompromising quality, a rectitude."

Even though Davis had abandoned turbulent 1950s expressionism for formal geometry, he held onto what he said distinguished his color works: their "most important quality...whim." He claimed to never plan a painting or make a preliminary drawing. "My whole approach is intuitive. Sometimes I simply use the color I have the most of and worry about getting out of trouble later. Perhaps I'm like the jazz musician who can't read music but plays by ear. I paint by eye."

To learn more about Gene Davis and the colorful art world of the 1960s, join us at SAAM for a panel discussion on Thursday, January 12, 2017, at 6:30 p.m. I'll moderate a conversation with Benjamin Forgey, independent art critic and former Washington Post art and architecture critic; Jack Rasmussen, director of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, who curates many exhibitions inspired by Washington art history; and Paul Richard, Washington Post art critic from 1967 to 2009, who has personal insights and stories about Davis and other artists active in D.C.

If you can't make it to the talk, watch the webcast. And be sure to take a look at John Kelly's piece in The Washington Post about Davis and his connection to the D.C. art community.

Posted by Howard on January 10, 2017 in American Art Here
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New Acquisitions: Self-Taught Art from the Margaret Z. Robson Collection
January 5, 2017

SAAM has acquired nearly one-hundred works of self-taught art from the collection of Margaret Z. Robson. The paintings, drawings, and sculptures were created by forty-eight artists including James Castle, Thornton Dial Sr., Judith Scott, and Bill Traylor. The Robson gift comprises the largest acquisition of self-taught artworks in 20 years and reaffirms the museum's deep and lasting commitment to this area of artistic endeavor.

Margaret Robson began collecting the work in the 1980s, a time when much of the mainstream art world overlooked the importance of the work of self-taught artists. Robson brought a distinctive point of view to her collecting and preferred works that were specific to a particular culture, time, and place. According to Leslie Umberger, the museum's curator of folk and self-taught art, "The collection speaks of empowerment and a 'can-do' spirit, and it will be cherished and shared here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum."

A couple of standouts by lesser-known artists in the collection include Albert "Kid" Mertz, whose painted stack of more than one-thousand railroad spikes was part of his vivid painted environment, and Leroy Person, who carved patterns into the window sills and doors of his North Carolina home before creating a large body of similarly incised abstract woodcarvings.

Five Bill Traylor paintings from the Robson gift will be included in the museum's planned 2018 retrospective Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor curated by Umberger. SAAM will produce an exhibition and book dedicated to the Robson collection in its entirety at a future date.

Posted by Howard on January 5, 2017 in American Art Here
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Isamu Noguchi: Watering the Art
December 27, 2016

The Well

Isamu Noguchi's The Well

Objects conservators have a challenging job. On any given day Ariel O'Connor, an art object conservator at SAAM, might be asked to research, examine, document, and treat works of art made with bronze, wood, plastic, stone, plaster, glass, and many, many other types of materials. The Isamu Noguchi exhibition Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern perfectly exemplifies this material diversity, with sculptures ranging from heavy stone obelisks to feather-light delicate bamboo and paper lanterns. Even with years of training and experience, one sculpture is proving to be a unique challenge for Ariel: a 3,000 pound basalt stone fountain titled The Well.

The Well is normally on view at The Noguchi Museum in New York, with a twist: it's usually outside. The dirt that accumulates on rocks outside does not harm the stone, but is not ideal inside a museum where we must follow strict guidelines for environmental conditions within the galleries.

Washing rocks

Washing the trap rock before taking it inside museum.

Before the piece could be brought inside SAAM, Ariel first had to clean the stones which surround the base of the fountain. Twelve buckets full of two inch trap rock were shipped on pallets from New York City to Washington, D.C. On a warm sunny day on a loading dock outside the museum's storage area, with Exhibit Specialist Nick Primo's assistance, the rocks were spread out, washed with brushes and soap, and dried in the sun before their journey inside the museum. Sometimes a conservator's day involves complicated analytical research, but sometimes they're scrubbing large piles of rocks!

Installation of The Well

Installing The Well in SAAM's gallery.

With the trap rock clean and dry, The Well and its many components were brought inside the gallery. Riggers, or specialists who install large and heavy artwork, worked with SAAM staff to lift the fountain and place it carefully inside a steel catch pan. The fountain had to be perfectly level, or the water wouldn't flow evenly across the top. Three fountain pumps were placed in the catch pan, and plastic tubing was fed up through a hole in the stone.

Pouring water into Noguchi's The Well

Water being added to The Well.

With everything in place, 18 gallons of tap water were added to the catch pan and the pumps were turned on. The water filled the sculpture and trickled down all sides of the stone, filling the galleries with soothing sounds of flowing water. The catch pan and pumps were neatly hidden below pounds of freshly-cleaned trap rock.

Usually a conservator's work would finish at this point after an installation, but The Well requires ongoing attention and maintenance throughout the exhibition. One challenging issue in the dry winter months is that the running water slowly evaporates. To check the level of the water, Ariel uses a low-tech but effective solution: a hidden ruler. When the levels get below the specific marker, water is added.

The water chemistry is also extremely important to the safe exhibition of The Well. Each week, Ariel and conservation intern Anna Ersenkal check the water chemistry to make sure it is safe for the basalt stone. A sample is collected and the water pH and alkalinity are tested and recorded. If any of the levels are off, Ariel and Anna adjust them by adding small amounts of deionized water, or by draining the water completely and refilling the fountain. Algae growth inhibitors called "polyquats," are added when necessary to prevent algae from forming on the surface of the artwork.

It's a delicate balance and unique challenge to keep an artwork which also functions as a fountain running safely inside a museum, but the sculpture is a highlight in the gallery for all of our visitors. Besides, fountain chemistry can now be added to Ariel's diverse and interesting conservation job description at SAAM.

Isamu Noguchi, Archaic/Modern is open through March 19, 2017. Ariel O'Connor contributed to this post.

Posted by Abigail on December 27, 2016 in American Art Here, Conservation at American Art
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