It’s been more than 50 years since I first visited the National Gallery. At that time there was no dedicated space for modern art and what we think of as modern was mostly absent from its collection. There was no abstract expressionism, no color field painting, no installation environments, no minimalist art, and the printmaking renaissance of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg was still in the future. Fresh out of college, my own taste ran to French Impressionism and Picasso’s blue, rose, and cubist periods.
The one “modern” painting I found memorable on that visit was Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper. At the time it seemed shocking.
I wasn’t a sophisticated art viewer but I was awestruck. The painting dominated the room and obviously made a lasting impression. It still hangs there, in the main NGA building, and I’m still impressed with the draftsmanship and spatial organization, but now it seems almost classical and appreciably less shocking than on that first visit.
Today there is an additional NGA building, the East Wing, devoted entirely to modern art, but the Dali remains in the old NGA. Why isn’t it in the modern wing? The Dali painting is a prime example of surrealism and while Picasso and other 20th century innovators were moved to the new space Dali was not. The reason, according to TripAdvisor, is that an unnamed curator didn’t like the painting but wasn’t allowed to take it down. Instead, he located it in the “elevator room” of the main building near the cafeteria – a fun fact and minor example of how politics and intrigue also play in the art world.
The modern East Wing, designed by I.M. Pei, was finished in 1978, almost 20 years after my first visit. The design incorporated his signature glass pyramids outside (think the Louvre but smaller) and a ceiling of intersecting glass triangles that flooded the interior atrium with natural light. Two weeks ago on September 30th, after an expensive three year long renovation, the “new” East Wing reopened just in time for our arrival in Washington. The renovation maintains the building’s original footprint while reimagining and reconfiguring the space in order to display more work (from 350 to 500 permanent collection works), bring in more light, and create additional special exhibition spaces. The $69 million fixer-upper seems perfectly suited to its purpose – to display all manner of modern and contemporary art from the cubism of Braque and Picasso to the realism of Hopper and Bellows and further on to the monster blue fiberglass chicken that dominates the new sculpture terrace.
Today, upon entering the old NGA, one is directed to descend to an underground passageway where a thoroughly modern moving sidewalk transports the visitor, almost in a time travel way, to the East Building. There, in a thoroughly modern space visitors can feast on large rooms full of Rothko’s, Newman’s, Pollacks, Motherwell’s, and Frankenthaler’s, mobiles by Calder and sculptures by Giacometti, and adjoining the East Wing is an outdoor sculpture garden with large installations by Oldenburg and Richard Serra.
Tired metaphor or not – it’s hard not to feel like you’re drinking from a fire hose when visiting the National Mall. The opportunities are overwhelming, and it’s always difficult to prioritize the attractions. There are so many – monuments, museums, gardens, memorials, reflecting pools and vistas. This time we had a week, much better than the 2 or 3 days of previous visits, but still a challenge. Art was at the top of our list and we had the historic National Gallery, the new East Building, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to choose from. We managed to cover most of them but spent the better part of two days in the newly opened East Wing.
It was an extraordinary visit. The weather was Seattle-like but we were inside much of the time. DC couldn’t have been better. We booked an Airbnb apartment in NW Washington and made friends with the engaging host couple – Curtis, a police detective, and his attorney wife, Tracy. We ate well and walked it off. We had dinner with Ed and Bonnie Moon who came into town from the Maryland suburbs. We didn’t see everything, but it’s always good to leave a little on your plate. At the end of the trip, after visiting Monticello, Mt. Vernon and some Civil War battlefields we returned to Washington to spend a day at Arlington National Cemetery. More about that in a future post.
For this one, I’ll leave you with a photo of Gunnery Sergeant Lawrence L. Meyers (USMC retired). Gunny Meyers is part of the protective detail in the East Wing. The two of us bonded when I remarked on his Marine Corps lapel pin. It turns out we were both part of the 3rd Marine Air Wing at El Toro, California. Now Gunny Meyers is protecting our nation’s art treasures. Oorah!!!
Semper Fi, Gunny