Luce Unplugged: Aaron Abernathy
August 18, 2017

Luce Unplugged brings DC's best musical acts to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for an evening concert after a staff-led art talk. On Thursday, August 24, soul artist Aaron Abernathy takes a break from working on his current projects to perform a set at 6 p.m. Luce Unplugged is presented in collaboration with DC Music Download.

Aaron Abernathy

Aaron Abernathy

"My albums are books," Aaron Abernathy said in an interview last year on Bandcamp, comparing the experience of listening to his music to learning from a book you've pulled from your shelf. And Abernathy certainly has plenty to share with his listeners. His most recent record, Monologue (2016), reflects on his relationships with his family, friends, and high school girlfriend, something we can all relate to, even if we never put it to music. An earlier single from last year, "Now A Days," is especially poignant as it explores what it means to be Black in America today. The song also features the words of his great uncle, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a leader the Civil Rights movement and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Abernathy is from Cleveland, Ohio, where he took his first piano lessons as a child. He moved to Washington, DC to attend Howard University. Here he made his first foray into our local music scene and he credits the support of fellow artists in the DC community with his decision to live here. The singer/songwriter/producer includes Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, and Earth, Wind, and Fire among his many influences and fosters his creativity through everything from conversations, movies, and music. Abernathy has toured across the globe, recently returning from a sold out show in Tokyo, and we're so excited to welcome him to the Luce Center. Please join us at 5:30 p.m. for a talk on Edward Mitchell Bannister's Sunset Scene, a painting selected by Abernathy, before he performs at 6 p.m. If you can't wait until Thursday, you can take a listen to his music on his website.

Posted by Bridget on August 18, 2017 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Peter Voulkos: Breaking with Tradition
August 15, 2017


Red Through Black #3, 1959, vinyl paint, sand and clay on canvas. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Manuel Neri, 1996.167.1

On view in our current exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, Peter Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years, are three of the artist's large-scale paintings: Blue Remington, Red Through Black #3, and Falling Red. Some people may be surprised to find paintings in Voulkos' oeuvre, but that's what makes their discovery (at least for me) all the more exciting. Though renowned as the most important ceramic artist of the last century, Voulkos trained as a painter. From 1953 to 1968, his radical ideas and methods transformed his field. His disruptive techniques and monumental works forever changed the nature of ceramic making. These years of critical invention are celebrated in the Renwick's exhibition that closes this Sunday, August 20.

What captured my eye is the artist's relationship between his paintings and ceramics. Voulkos is often quoted as saying, "Painting helps the sculpture, sculpture helps the painting, pottery helps both." In the 1950s Volkous spent time at the influential Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina, before a one-month stint in Manhattan with fellow potter M.C. Richards. In these heady, post World War II years, he visited the Cedar Tavern, an artists' mecca in Greenwich Village, where he met painters Jack Tworkov, Franz Kline, and Philip Guston, whose works influenced his own. Additional influences include Picasso, Matisse, Cubism, and Japanese ceramics. His ceramics became three-dimensional works of abstract expressionism, and his paintings have the gestures of action painting and the DNA of ceramics. Red Through Black #3 is made of vinyl paint, sand and clay on canvas, while Falling Red is comprised of lacquer and sand on canvas. Does that make them paintings or sculptures or both?

And though I haven't heard of any connection, Falling Red reminded me of James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Perhaps it was the word "falling" that brought me to Whistler's ethereal work from 1875 as well as the downward gestures and verticality of the use of paint. This is the painting that caused critic John Ruskin to accuse Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face," and led to one of the most famous libel cases in the art world. But that's another blog post (probably for another museum). I just imagine Voulkos applying sand and clay to his canvas with his determined gestures and confidence as if to say to any critic who may doubt his methods, "Don't you even dare."

Peter Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years is on view at the Renwick Gallery until this Sunday, August 20.

Posted by Howard on August 15, 2017 in American Art Here, American Craft
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In This Case: Art’s Role Regarding the Sacred
August 10, 2017

In This Case is a series of ongoing posts on art in the Luce Foundation Center, a visible art storage facility at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that displays more than 3,000 pieces in sixty-four secure glass cases. This piece was written by Luce Center volunteer, Laurna Strikwerda.

Santa Barbara, Artist Unidentified

If you have ever visited a centuries-old Roman church or an Islamic mosque, you may have glimpsed the role visual arts play in the beliefs, practices and narratives concerning the sacred. In the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center, three pieces of art provide a snapshot of the different ways art has connected individuals and community to spirituality: a concrete object for protection; a narrative about hope; and a symbolic representation of prayer.

In case 21B, there is a small statue titled Santa Barbara from 18th-century Puerto Rico. Catholics pray to her to ask for protection against lightning storms, hurricanes, and sudden death. This connection derives from an account passed down that her father—who killed her after she refused to renounce her newfound Christianity—was struck by lightning as retribution. This narrative hints at how she became popular in Puerto Rico. The patron saint for lightning expanded to become the patron saint for violent storms and hurricanes as well. The small sacred image, or santo, (Spanish for "saint") had a protective function and was integrated into the daily lives of those who used it. Art conservators' research (PDF) has shown that santos were repainted multiple times, which was part of the devotion rituals associated with these objects.

Centuries later, American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner also used narrative to evoke the sacred. He frequently painted images of Biblical stories that focus on themes such as justice, trust, and hope. The son of a minister and a mother who had escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad, Tanner began painting at age eleven. By twenty, he had entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as the only African American among 200 students. Tanner's piece Moses in the Bullrushes depicts one moment in the story of Moses, a member of the Israelites, who was enslaved in Egypt. The Egyptian Pharaoh feared the Israelites' were becoming too numerous and ordered all Israelite baby boys to be killed. Moses' mother and aunt hid the baby on the Nile River bank to save him. Eventually, he grew up and led the Israelites out of Egypt into freedom. In the painting, the baby Moses is escaping a violent fate, but Tanner's soft colors, still figures, and gentle brushstrokes create a sense of calm, while the moonlight reflected in the water may symbolize God's presence. Tanner's depiction of a moment of trust in an otherwise violent story reminds its viewers not to lose sight of hope.

In addition to the narrative, symbolism can be used to connect spirituality to everyday objects. Richard de Menocal's painting, Calligraphy with Box and Glasses, uses a full glass of water on the right and an empty one on the left, moving the viewer's eye from right to left, with the Arabic phrase, which is also read right to left. The phrase, the Basmala in his painting, means "in the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful." It is frequently used by Muslims at the beginning of a speech or major text. De Menocal may be evoking this idea of offering with the full glass at the beginning of the phrase and an empty one at the end, symbolizing an individual emptying, or offering, himself to God.

Posted by Madeline on August 10, 2017 in American Art Research, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Picture This: SAAM Arcade 2017
August 8, 2017

Indie Developers

Indie developers held court in SAAM's Kogod Courtyard. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

This past weekend, SAAM celebrated all that is good about video games when it hosted its annual SAAM Arcade. Almost 20,000 attended the two-day event held in the museum's Kogod Courtyard and throughout the museum. This is the third year SAAM has held this event as part of an ongoing initiative to showcase video games as an important part of our visual culture as well as study at the museum.

More than 40 student and professional developers participated in our "Indie Showcase" and visitors got to play classic games such as pinball, "Centipede," "Asteroids," "Pac-Man," and "Donkey Kong." Game-building and coding workshops were conducted by Boolean Girl and the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Meanwhile, in the museum's McEvoy Auditorium, musical groups Bit Brigade and Triforce Quartet performed songs inspired by classic video games. Here are some photos from the event:

Dance Dance Revolution

The Great Hall and SAAM's Luce Center were arcade game central with pinball machines, and games like "Street Fighter" and "Dr. Mario." Two visitors try out "Dance Dance Revolution." Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Boys and Girls Youth Esports League Championship

The Boys and Girls Club Youth Esports League Championship with NRG's Nairo. NRG is one of electronic sports' most successful teams. Last year, top Super Smash Bros. for Wii U player Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada joined the team. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

A young player experiences the non-stop trip as a shapeshifting bird in a voxel three-dimensional world of the Norwegian game, Fugl. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation supported SAAM Arcade. Arcade cabinets, pinball machines, and consoles were provided by MAGFest, Death by Audio Arcade, Arcades4Home, and CrabTowne USA. The Washington City Paper was the official media sponsor for this program.

Posted by Jeff on August 8, 2017 in Museums & Technology, Picture This
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A Sense of Place: New Mexico as Seen by Artist Gene Kloss
August 3, 2017

Gene Kloss felt that immersion in nature was essential to the production of art. Her paintings and etchings were directly informed by nature and she couldn't conceive of making art any other way. "An artist must keep in close contact with nature... in order to produce a significant body of work," she said, and she was prepared to live by her words. Taos, New Mexico had no electricity or running water when she first visited the town on a honeymoon camping trip in 1925, and yet, she chose to make it her home. She and her husband, Phillips, built an adobe house where they lived by the light of kerosene lamps and used water carried from a nearby stream.

For more than a century, artists have traveled from across the United States to live and work in New Mexico. Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of amenities, artists found a source of inspiration in the desert that was worth forgoing modern conveniences. The dramatic landscape of the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains and their distance from the bustle of industry captured the imaginations of artists who felt confined by life in major American cities. Georgia O'Keeffe is perhaps the best known of these artists, but there were many who traveled to the southwest to live a life that was inaccessible anywhere else. Our open storage Luce Foundation Center cases 32B and 33A display the work of artists who made their home in New Mexico, often in Taos, in order to enjoy and document the beauty of the landscape.

Gene Kloss painted what she saw. While others used the mesas and mountains of New Mexico to bridge the transition between figurative and abstract imagery, Kloss remained steadfast in her devotion to realism. Artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley stretched and molded natural forms to express their individual points of view. Kloss, however, considered abstraction a fad. In her own words, abstraction lacked the "conscious development in the language of art to express the significance of a subject that gives a 'fullness' to art."

Kloss developed a style of etching she called "painting" that allowed acid to bite deeply into the copper plate and create the large areas of darkness, which she used for night scenes. She dug into plates again and again with a dental implement shaped like a small spatula in order to achieve soft variations in light.

Midwinter in the Sangre de Cristos, the work on view in case 33A, is an oil painting, but her distinctive use of light and shadow is evident in any medium. Subtle variations in the gray of the sky give the impression of an oncoming storm. A common theme for Kloss was the insignificance of human creations when compared with the overwhelming scale of nature. The grandeur of the mountains turns the little house at their base into a toy. For Kloss, it was nature, not human enterprise that gave art its true purpose.

Posted by Anne on August 3, 2017 in American Art Here, In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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