“Two Women in the Country” by Willem de Kooning (1954)
“Two Women in the Country” by Willem de Kooning (1954)

Earlier this month, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered a significant speech. It was long for an official who left 10 Downing Street almost 10 years ago. He spoke for an hour and 49 minutes, protesting the 2.6 million word conclusions of the Chilcot report, a 12-volume investigation just released by the U.K.’s Iraq Inquiry Committee—an indictment seven years in the making.

History at that volume is hard to fathom. It is even harder to depict—or consume. Greater truth may lie in the other direction, orthogonal to facts and figures, in the abstract. An example now hangs in D.C.: “Five Nights,” a set of prints by Reynier Leyva Novo. “Five Nights” measures the manifestos of five of the most influential authoritarians in history—Lenin, Hitler, Castro, Mao, and Gaddafi—by mapping out the ink required to produce them.

The only thing that “Five Nights” is missing as a perfect political commentary for our present predicament is a black square measuring the ink poured into one of Saddam Hussein’s romance novels. Novo’s simple but severe prints hang in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Lerner Room, which overlooks federal Washington. At a time when Blair is defending his decision to depose Hussein—while U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump defends Hussein himself—Novo’s piece condenses dark arguments into bare truths.

“Five Nights” is on view as part of “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection,” the first take on the permanent collection by chief curator Stéphane Aquin. It may be the most political exhibition of collection works that the museum has ever mounted, although it won’t beat viewers over the head with politics. There are some old friends on view, most notably Ron Mueck’s “Untitled (Big Man)” (2000), the Hirshhorn’s fat, bald, glowering mascot, as well as some new friends to be made, namely Eduardo Basualdo’s “The End of Ending” (2012), a vast paper boulder that viewers will experience by edging around its perimeter. Other works are subtler than these two giants, though. The show is an argument for ambiguity and anxiety in an era of extremes.

“Masterworks,” which occupies the outer ring of the Hirshhorn’s third-floor, proceeds in two loose semi-cycles. The show is partly historical and partly thematic; Aquin’s attention shifts gallery by gallery. One room, for example, pairs up works by Willem de Kooning with pieces by Alberto Giacometti, a mini-survey contrasting these two mid-century masters. Jean Dubuffet, Alexander Calder, and the lesser-known George Rickey go in for similar in-depth examinations.

Yet another gallery is centered around acts of destruction. It includes Héctor Zamora’s “O Abuso da História” (2014), a video in which potted plants rain down from overhead balconies into the central courtyard of São Paulo’s Hospital Matarazzo, as well as Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “World Trade Center” (1997), a photo so ominous that someone along the Bush–Blair axis could have cited it as casus belli. Still another room focuses on anxious experiments in form, with sculptures by Mona Hatoum, Louise Bourgeois, and Rachel Whiteread alongside a major triptych by Joan Mitchell. (Aquin says that it’s a coincidence that all the artists in this gallery are women.)

“Masterworks” loses itself in micro-currents (like the de Kooning and Giacometti room), but the overall installation is epicyclic, conveying the big tidal forces in the collection. The cylindrical space of the Hirshhorn museum has never been pushed so far to the fore as by its current curators: ongoing solo shows by Lynn Meyers and Bettina Pousttchi and a forthcoming show by Mark Bradford all make use of the building’s donut-shaped galleries. Robert Irwin’s “All the Rules Will Change,” which is also on view, couldn’t happen in a museum with a different configuration. Aquin’s permanent collection hanging is one that uses the museum’s circular space to free up some connections while obscuring others. Mitchell’s “Field for Skyes” (1973) pairs with a work by another under-regarded abstract painter, Jean-Paul Riopelle’s “Large Triptych” (1964)—even though these masterworks hang on different sides of the museum.

Two works at the end of the survey draw the whole permanent-collection hanging together. One is Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “Venus of the Rags” (1967), a classical sculpture in white plaster that faces a mound of colorful fabric. The piece embraces contradictory impulses in art and history, acknowledging a rejection of the classical framework of beauty without condemning the spirit of mass consumption that has supplanted it. The other is Edward Hopper’s “Eleven A.M.” (1926), a painting of a woman, nude and sickly wan, seated and staring out a window at a sight unseen. Other works in the show may draw more admirers (especially a pair of unspeakably beautiful Van Gogh–style portraits by Francis Bacon), but these works are the Hirshhorn’s state-of-the-union address.

As we look backward as a nation, unable to make sense of the past, we also look outward toward an ominous future. Hopper and Pistoletto’s artworks are powerful antidotes to the potion that was popular 25 years ago: that we had reached the end of history and transcended it. Francis Fukuyama and others who sold the idea are now exposed. Here and now, in 2016, with fascism trending and global unions de-coupling, history looms large again, as large as it ever has. Great artworks remind us that history never ends. Powerful artworks give us an opportunity to try to learn what went wrong the first time.

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