Last week, we highlighted some often-overlooked pieces in the Smithsonian’s collection—but they aren’t the only institution in or around D.C. that has an impressive collection of art. Below, we’ve gathered five more pieces in other area museums that absolutely deserve a look.
If you saw “Mystery” on its own—or even next to, say, works by Gaugin (a close friend of his) or Cézanne—you might assume Odilon Redon was a typical post-impressionist (if there is such a thing), painting still lifes and mundane scenes in vivid color and thrilling brushstrokes, breaking from traditional representation. But Redon’s specific corner of the late 19th century French painting world was Symbolism; as a result, his paintings and the objects they depicted were both full of meaning and intentionally inscrutable. “Mystery” is an apt title. Its subject’s face rises from a cloudy, formless background full of different hues, and it’s looking down with an unreadable expression at a vibrant shock of plants and flowers growing out of nothing in the foreground. The figure seems dreamlike, perhaps judging the plants, perhaps longing for them, a hand pensively on the chin, but Redon leaves the viewer without further clues. In 1902, about eight years before this painting was made, he wrote: “The meaning of mystery is to be always in ambiguity.” From that ambiguity, he hoped, individuals could find meaning in the hazy strokes of paint on the canvas, even if their understandings all differed. And around the corner from “Mystery” is Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life, an exhibition of work from Les Nabis, a group of painters who adopted Redon the Symbolist as their inspiration and mentor. In short, they looked at his mysterious fantasies and were rewarded with meaning.
You can see “Mystery” in the Phillips Collection’s Goh Annex, Gallery 304.
“Jar with lid”
Before Dumbarton Oaks was a Harvard University museum and research facility, it was a home, owned last by Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred Barnes Bliss. The Blisses bought the house in 1920 and expanded its gardens and home; they also set the tone for what the museum collects today. Robert Bliss was especially attracted to Byzantine and pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art, and the museum’s extensive collection reflects his tastes. This jar, which Bliss purchased from an art dealer in 1954, is one of many pieces in Dumbarton Oaks’ storied pre-Columbian collection. It stands out, though, as the only Teotihuacan vessel in the collection with a lid (one that overhangs handsomely). It’s also notable for its careful, unhurried design, which evokes the cultures’ murals. The vessel and its lid are decorated in deep blacks and reds, accented with faded blue-green hues that, on closer inspection, depict headdresses and a mouth full of fangs. Black teeth stand out below a mustache and above a tongue, and the headdress’ elements—quetzal feathers, jade beads—signify high authority. The vessel’s decoration tells us, centuries later, the extent of Teotihuacan’s power and influence.
You can see “Jar with Lid” in Dumbarton Oaks’ Pre-Columbian Gallery I.
Viriato was not a dog, but “Viriato” is. The man was a folk hero, a leader of the first-century Lusitanians who resisted the Roman empire’s expansion in what is now Portugal. Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos draws on his legend for her piece, one of dozens of ceramic dogs she’s covered in intricate needlework over the last decade. Vasconcelos’ work always has a sense of humor—in 2005, the same year she made “Viriato,” she burst onto the international art scene with her piece “A Noiva,” “The Bride”, a chandelier made of thousands of tampons—and it shows up in her four-legged work, too. “Viriato” isn’t alone in carrying a bold name; other Vasconcelos canines are named for Charlemagne, Lancelot, and Eurydice. The juxtaposition, though, of that venerated name and a dressed-up lawn ornament is intentional. She’s elevated the commercial product, first through the carefully crafted knit textiles in a spectrum of blues and greens that adorn the statue, and again through the naming of the object. Using textiles to turn a piece of kitsch into art is also a clever and piercing choice. For decades, and even today, textiles have been dismissed as low art, as feminine folk art or craft materials—yet here is “Viriato,” sitting proudly in a major museum far from its creator.
You can see “Viriato” in the National Museum for Women in the Arts’ permanent collection gallery.
Ellsworth Kelly began this “Spectrum” series in 1953 with “Spectrum I,” which looks an awful lot like the “Spectrum IX,” the 9th iteration of the series. They both depict a rainbow that travels from yellow to yellow, left to right, made with paint. (For what it’s worth, “Spectrum I” is oil paint, and “Spectrum IX” is acrylic.) In fact, the whole group of paintings look like that, but they’re not exactly the same: “IX” is paler, its colors less saturated than the first one, yet brighter than some others in the series. But don’t jump to a juvenile conclusion when you see it: No, a child could not have done this. Kelly was a pioneering practitioner of color field painting, minimalism, and hard-edge abstraction. His work is unassuming, even when its hues are bold. He thought hard about geometry and the forms his canvases, sculptures, and colorful painted shapes would take. The untitled redwood Kelly sculpture (he often called them “totems”) also on display is a quick primer on the diversity of his works. But “Spectrum IX” is also worth viewing as a culmination of the work Kelly had been doing for 60 years. He made it in 2014; it was one of the last pieces he completed before his death. It’s a cap on decades of manipulating the visible color spectrum, but it’s also as rhythmic, as solid, and as dispassionate as ever.
You can see “Spectrum IX” in the Glenstone Museum.
“Dream Building II”
William Christenberry is rightfully known as a photographer. The Alabama native (and longtime D.C. resident) advanced color photography as an art form, returning again and again to Hale County, Alabama, to photograph the slow-motion decay of the rural world he was so heavily steeped in. But he was also a painter and a sculptor, and “Dream Building II” draws its visual language from the hand-painted signs he so often photographed on the sides of barns and stores. On the sculpture, there’s a tiny “JESUS SAVES” block and another advertising RC Cola. Christenberry built multiple sculptures like this one, not necessarily trying to faithfully model a real building but instead trying to invoke in three dimensions the buildings and homes that were always on his mind. To supplement the project, he collected bottle caps and metal scraps to add to the dozens of dream buildings he made, some much larger and more dream-like than this small barnlike box. And this one, early in the series, has resonance beyond the small, graphic signs covering its sides: Its tall, peaked roof evokes the Washington Monument, the steeples of Alabama churches, and a Ku Klux Klan hood—a powerful, frightening, evil force strongly rooted in his home, one that Christenberry attempted to grapple with in his art for years.
You can see “Dream Building II” in the Kreeger Museum’s contemporary gallery.