In the plaza garden outside the Hirshhorn, on the perimeter wall next to a pop-art sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, stands one of an array of security cameras surrounding the museum. Only this one faces up and away, monitoring the sky, not the grounds. It’s one of a few quiet additions to the courtyard at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (There’s also the sculptural kale and cabbage plants growing from the pre-cast concrete planters standing in front of the museum.)
That wayward security camera streams constant video to a small monitor inside the museum, installed in a corner on the third floor. The feed is part of Yoko Ono’s “Sky TV for Washington” (1966/2014), one of nearly 60 works in the new installation of the museum’s permanent collection, and for now, my touchstone in the museum. I know when I’ll visit that piece next: when it rains. And then when it snows. That’s where I’ll start to get to know what I hope is a changed museum.
“At the Hub of Things: New Views of the Collection” is the latest hang of the museum’s permanent collection of modern and contemporary art. Over the past nine months, and for the first time in its history, the Hirshhorn has renovated its third floor, ripping up carpet all along the ring and exposing mechanicals in the ceiling. This nip-and-tuck might fall short of last summer’s outsized plans for celebrating the Hirshhorn’s 40th birthday this year, which once included the Diller Scofidio + Renfro–designed “Bubble” and other shovel-ready plots for the courtyard. Nonetheless, “At the Hub of Things” gives viewers what they need: a reason to rethink the museum.
Visiting a museum’s permanent collection isn’t like seeing a newly opened show. The worst way to see “At the Hub of Things” is to walk the ring, from start to finish, expecting some curatorial insight to reveal itself. The permanent collection is less of a book and more of a library—to be pored over piece by piece. So the Yoko Ono is one that I know I’ll need to see during weather, when the camera draws the storm inside the museum.
There are some old friends on view. Bruce Nauman’s “South America Triangle” (1981), an inverted chair circumscribed inside a suspended steel triangle, is one of them. This is never the piece I think about when I think about Nauman’s work: His witty neon wordplay or frenetic studio films come to mind first. Yet the Hirshhorn has pushed this odd-duck Nauman sculpture now for so long that it’s a piece the Hirshhorn is known for, at least in my heart.
The way to see a permanent collection is the same way you’d approach your bar’s favorite jukebox. At the start of “At the Hub of Things” are some contemplative numbers that would be better off buried a bit further in, at a more private remove from the entrance and its fussy hanging light-bulb installation (Spencer Finch’s 2006 “Cloud (H20)”). There’s Anish Kapoor’s “At the Hub of Things” (1987), an abyss of darkest Prussian blue that takes the form of a semi-conical sculpture. Paired with this piece is one of the few photographic prints on the whole floor, one of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s long exposures of an entire film screening, which uses the captured light of the film projection to illuminate the interior of the movie theater. Also near in are “Garden” (1964) and “Play” (1966), two lovely grid paintings by Agnes Martin. On the rainy day that I visit Yoko Ono, these twin Martin paintings will be my second stop.
The third floor features one room dedicated to temporary exhibitions, and through late February, it is host to “The Dangerous Logic of Wooing,” a massive installation designed for the space by Ernesto Neto in 2002. It’s too soon to bring this one back. Neto’s boorish biomorphic room-sized work, with its hanging sacs and dangling sphincters, is bound to drown out some of the more profound points of contemplation crafted by curators Evelyn Hankins and Melissa Ho. Neto’s work is alternatingly out of fashion and too fashionable: He is yesterday’s vision of the future of post-minimalism. (I’d love to see the pantyhose-and-sand feminist sculptures of Senga Nengudi, from which Neto has drawn liberally, in its place.)
There’s plenty that viewers might expect but won’t find in this hanging of the collection. Modernism writ large is better represented by “Speculative Forms,” an installation of the museum’s more modest sculptural offerings that now occupies the inner rings of both the second and third floors. That’s where you’ll find Matisse (represented by four stellar sculptures). There’s no Jackson Pollock on view in the permanent collection, no Robert Motherwell, no Clyfford Still, no Barnett Newman. There’s one Mark Rothko painting—I wish the curators had left it out, to make the route complete (although I’d leave up the Joan Mitchell painting hanging adjacent to it).
Hankins and Ho are steering the conversation away from the canon, of course. The time I used to treasure with the Hirshhorn’s terrific Still paintings, I’m happy to spend getting to know Christopher Wool’s “Knee Deep” (1995) and Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” (2009) better instead. I don’t expect all these new associations to be productive: “Amerika—A Refuge” (1990–91) by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. strikes me as a hasty inclusion among works by Janine Antoni and Louise Bourgeois.
The Hirshhorn curators have done viewers a favor by treating the collection as a sampler of different strategies and tactics—for example, the unexpected clinic on collage from Joseph Cornell (including a newly acquired shadowbox). There is no limit to the number of times Washingtonians will want to take in the sun-drenched Lerner Room and its commanding view of the National Mall, so Hankins and Ho have given the space a Lawrence Weiner text installation that viewers can return to again and again.
Permanent collections are too often hung as greatest-hits exhibitions: “Here is our Picasso, here is our O’Keeffe, now you’ve gotten your money’s worth, this way to the gift shop.” “At the Hub of Things” is a riskier hanging. I would say it verges on imbalanced, and I figure I’ll keep visiting it until I can put my finger on why.
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