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Contemporary Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is a repository of portraits, historical paintings and contemporary American paintings located in Washington, D.C. Carefully selected works dating back to post WWII are presented in a quiet, well-lighted space where visitors are encouraged to walk, reflect and use the imagination.
A visit to the National Museum of American Art on a bright Sunday was a worthwhile trip. In particular, we went into the 21st-century contemporary section. The resident exhibition was a collection of painting and sculpture affecting a balance that hovered between modernism and postmodernism.

The Cage’, Tom Nakashima 1990: hand colored etching and photo etching paper

Differences between sensibilities, and a museum is a place where all sensibilities which pass the test of importance are put on view.
Derek and I visited to see if Tom Nakashima’s painting, “Sanctuary” was still exhibited between Sean Scully and Martin Puryear, Yes, it was still there, holding its space like all the others in the Portrait Gallery, looking old-fashioned, as all the flash and glitter screamed for attention.
Reflecting current trends certain non-white painters are included. The well known Chicago artist Theaster Gates had a wall sculpture, “Ground Rules, Free Throw”, constructed of salvaged gymnasium floorboards from South Side high schools. Created in 2015, the sculpture was impressive because the golden brown of the vertical slats was intercepted with bright small geometric leftover color shapes used as organizing markers for basketball.
This was an attractive piece as its powerful draw rested in both form and nostalgia.
In contrast Tom Nakashima’s 1992, oil on canvas painting, “Sanctuary at Western Sunset”, a surrealist image had a painterly urgency from the high day of modernism. For Nakashima painting is a form of meditation. His well-known solitary pilgrim fish was flowing through the temple of life.
Kerry Marshall presented well-rendered realist painting, acrylic/fiber,“SOB SOB”, of a black girl sitting on top of the stairs in a suburban-style house sobbing while reading the History of Africa since 1413, Kerry with painterly finesse has resolved the painting of black people in diverse settings.
The spectacular neon light show that diagrammed the U.S. with nearly a hundred television screens playing themes ranging from anti-war to Martin Luther King sermons by Naim June Paik called “Electronic Highway, 95-96, mesmerized its viewers.
On exiting we noticed the dull and not so worthy Frankenthaler titled “Small’s Paradise,” 1964.
The star of the exhibit was the profound installation of abstraction by David Hockney, “Snails Space with Vari-Lites,” Painting as Performance 1995, oil/acrylic. Hockney believed that painting can save us from the sterility of despair.

Annie Markovich & Derek Guthrie

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