The National Gallery of Art’s East Building galleries are already beginning to close in preparation for a three-year renovation beginning in January, and that means a slump in the usual exhibition schedule. Add that to the lingering impact of the economic downturn and sequestration and the museum community is facing an unfortunate but unavoidable reality: It’s not a great season for art at Washington’s museums.
But there’s always a bright side. When a major blockbuster lands at the National Gallery it takes a lot of oxygen out of the local system. With the exception of an intriguing exhibition of art from the Byzantine Empire, the National Gallery will play a much smaller role in the arts ecosystem this season. Which means other actors will receive deserved attention.
Of great interest to everyone who watched the Hirshhorn’s woes over the past few months will be the first major exhibition since the whole “Bubble” debacle unfolded earlier this summer: The decision to kill the innovative temporary inflatable structure, the resignation of Director Richard Koshalek and the flight of important board members including Board President Constance Caplan. “Damage Control” (opening Oct. 24) is organized by chief curator Kerry Brougher, rumored to be the inside contender to replace Koshalek. The subject is art and destruction since 1950, with a focus on the anxieties unleashed by the invention of the atom bomb and the possibility of complete world annihilation. The exhibition will include haunting photographs by the Swiss photographer Arnold Odermatt, images by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon and paintings and drawings by the Latvian-born Vija Celmins. But one well-known 1960s image, already used to promote the show, seems to capture both the theme of the exhibition and the state of the Hirshhorn: Ed Ruscha’s classic painting “The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire.”
So the exhibition will be watched closely. The decision to kill the Bubble, which would have hosted public programs and performances, was made for financial and fundraising reasons. But it was also a decision by the Smithsonian for the Hirshhorn to retrench: Away from a larger cultural role in the nation’s capital, back to a smaller, more focused custodial and curatorial function. With the Hirshhorn going backward, the question will be: Is it still good at what it used to be good at? Is the exhibition comprehensive, well-documented, richly theorized and contextualized, with a thorough and provocative catalogue and supporting intellectual material?
The major National Gallery of Art Show, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections,” borrows from key art and archaeological institutions throughout Greece, to give a sense of the cultural material of the Byzantine world. For more than 1,000 years, until its collapse in 1453, the Byzantine Empire was a center of Roman and Christian civilization. The exhibition, opening Oct. 6, includes statues and busts that reflect pagan and Roman influence, mosaics, reliquaries, architectural fragments, icons and paintings. The National Gallery also presents the first U.S. retrospective of the work of the 19th-century French photographer Charles Marville (opens Sept. 29) and a show devoted to Augustus St. Gauden’s Shaw Memorial, which honored the African American soldiers of the Civil War-era 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The exhibition centers around the National Gallery’s patinated plaster version of a theme best known from the bronze memorial prominently displayed on Boston Common (opens Sept. 15). The intriguing element of the Shaw Memorial exhibition is the use of contemporary art to demonstrate the ongoing influence and relevance of the themes embodied in the St. Gaudens’s work. The National Portrait Gallery also presents a Civil War-themed exhibition, “Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: A Civil War Portfolio,” which focuses on local landmarks and notable Washington celebrities during the war (opening Dec. 13).
The Smithsonian American Art Museum takes on a huge subject — “The Latino Presence in American Art” — in its major exhibition of the season. “Our America” (opening Oct. 25) includes nearly 100 works, by 72 different artists, from a diverse range of countries and cultures. Like other exhibitions that attempt to forge meaningful connections between artists linked only by ethnic, racial, religious or linguistic affinities, it will likely be a game of simultaneously attempting to assemble and dismantle a coherent “Latino” identity. But the exciting thing is the novelty of the art: Well more than half of the work on view has been acquired by the museum in the last two years.
The Phillips Collection digs deep into van Gogh with an exhibition of some 30 paintings, several of them among the most famous and beloved in the artist’s oeuvre. “Van Gogh Repetitions” (opening Oct. 12) looks at van Gogh’s creative process and brings together two of his most important works: “The Road Menders” from the Phillips Collection and “The Large Plane Trees” from the Cleveland Museum of Art, both of which show the same scene and were painted in 1889. Some 13 different “repetitions” will be studied.
The major architectural exhibition, hosted by the National Building Museum, takes up car culture and Los Angeles. “Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940-1990” (opening Oct. 20) may prove to be an interesting counterpoint to the Hirshhorn’s study of destruction. The exhibition examines urbanism, architectural forms, art and culture from one of the most rapid periods of change and sprawl in American history, the amoeba-like spread of Los Angeles during and after the Second World War. Drawings, photographs (including the sexy, moody, haunting images of Julius Shulman) and models will be included. The exhibition was originally seen at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Out of town but nearby, the best bet is Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has at least two major exhibitions worthy of attention, one devoted to Fernand Leger and the other to surrealism. The Leger exhibition (opening Oct. 14) has more than 120 works, including material by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Theo van Doesburg, Le Corbusier, Piet Mondrian, and Man Ray. The surrealism exhibition (opening Nov. 3) draws on the museum’s own collection to provide an account of the movement that dominated art circles in the 1920s and ’30s. The Baltimore Museum of Art will focus on lesser-known early and “atypical” works by the great D.C. “color field” painter Morris Louis , some recently donated to the museum by the artist’s widow (opening Sept. 8). And the Delaware Museum of Art focuses on “American Moderns” with an exhibition of works (spanning a wide stylistic range) by Georgia O’Keeffe, Milton Avery, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Grandma Moses and Norman Rockwell, among others (opening (Oct. 12). Unfortunately, the main exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, “Hollywood Costume” (opening Nov. 9) continues a distressing trend of museums to focus essential energy and resources on trivia and ephemera.