Round And Round: Two Art Museums

Posted on Friday July 13, 2012

I guess you’ve heard of NYC’s Guggenheim, and marveled at its modern, spiraling form. But the Hirshhorn? The what, you say? Is it some kind of alpine sheep?

The Hirshhorn is a part of the Smithsonian stable of museums, in downtown Washington DC. It’s housed in a hollow cylindrical 1960s building (completed 1974) designed by Gordon Bunshaft (an evocative name, but one that I would change if it were mine). The building is elevated one storey off the ground, on four arched legs, surrounded by a sculpture garden.

The Hirshhorn and sculpture garden

It looks a bit like a flying saucer or moonlander, appropriate enough given that it was built around the time of maximum US optimism. Back then, we were all going to be able to travel to the stars by now. Or maybe it’s a nuclear reactor, to honor the collection’s donor, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who made much of his wealth from uranium mining investments.

On the other hand, it also looks like a home deep-fryer, which is possibly more appropriate to today’s America.

There’s a central courtyard with a fountain (currently surrounded by Ai Wei Wei’s Zodiac Heads, 12 large scale bronze heads of the animals in the Chinese zodiac), and the inner ring of the galleries looks down into it. Although constrained by the shape of the building, the galleries don’t feel cramped.

The courtyard and supporting arches, late afternoon

By contrast, The Guggenheim building (completed 1959) is so full of itself that there’s hardly any room for the artworks or the audience. It looks like one of those buildings where the architect (Frank Lloyd Wright) was playing sculptor, and to hell with the functional needs of the client and users. As the building spirals upward and outward, the floors seem to get steeper, so that by the top I felt I was leaning about 45 degrees just to stay upright. It must be hell for the curators to hang a show in here, and it certainly detracts from the viewing experience.

Much of The Guggenheim’s collection was once the avant-garde, but like everything new it has become old, almost quaintly so. One of the shows I saw featured Abstract Impressionist works from the late 40s-1960. How is it that these works, which were so revolutionary in their time, would struggle to light even a small match now? I found the temporary exhibition of photographs by Dutch artist Rineke Dykstra far more satisfying. Many of her photos show adolescents, and Dykstra captures their uncertainty and awkwardness as they move into that confusing netherland between childhood and adulthood, in a way that is palpable.

The shows at The Hirshhorn were far more interesting and edgy. They currently have an exhibition of works using light, and Carlos Cruz-Diez’s complex of rooms washed with different coloured fluorescent lights was intriguing, ethereal even. Everyone walking through seemed quietly awed.


In another show there, Antonio Rovaldi has a two-channel video projection, Directions. At one end of the room we see a baseball pitcher wind up and let fly; at the other end, where he’s aiming his virtual ball, is a video of a black plinth upon which stand various ceramic domestic items – plates, vases, ornaments.

The pitcher winds up…

…while the monkey awaits his fate

We watch, breath held, to see whether the ball will hit, and what damage it will do. It’s mesmerisingly violent, all the more so because when the ball misses, we feel a sense of reprieve, coupled with the knowledge that the next pitch may smash the item to smithereens. Video art is hard to do well; this work is a model of a strong idea, done simply.

Also intriguing the audiences was Dutch performance artist  Jeroen Eisinga’s Black Box. It’s another video work, and together with Rovaldi’s, is shifting my feelings about performance/video art. In this case, the ‘black box’ is a shroud of 250,000 honeybees. We watch as the bees progressively cover the artist’s body, head and face. During the performance Eisinga stays still, a remarkable feat given that the bees crawl all over his face, into his nose and ears. All the while we are waiting – not for the baseball to hit, but for the first sting to occur. While I was watching, it didn’t.

Don’t try this at home

The Hirshhorn also has on show six Francis Bacon paintings I hadn’t seen pictured before, that are so gorgeously, fleshily, even erotically, painted that I almost came on the spot. Coupled with other top-flight work on show by Willem De Kooning, Philip Guston, Manuel Neri, Milton Avery and others (their permanent collection is outstanding), The Hirshhorn was a real treat – I gave it an A+.

I wish I’d traded a day in Boston to spend another day there.