When I first moved to D.C. from New York in late 2019, I developed something of a Hirshhorn habit. On crisp fall and winter weekends, better suited to cozying up at home, I’d take empty buses from Petworth to hushed downtown streets, watching as the brightly colored homes blurred into beige government buildings. Beneath the low slung sky, I’d slip into a crowd of tourists, bound, once again, for the concrete doughnut on the National Mall.
From the beginning, the Hirshhorn felt familiar. The museum has the round shape of the Guggenheim, a museum where I’d spent Saturdays volunteering during college. And it has the texture of the now-idle concrete grain elevators, an indelible part of the skyline in Buffalo, my hometown (one I share with Hirshhorn architect Gordon Bunshaft).
Even on days when I’d visit other museums, I’d usually end up back in the Hirshhorn lobby by the end of the day, drinking coffee at those big glass tables — designed by artist/architect Hiroshi Sugimoto — and staring out at the austere courtyard, like a stray cat returned home.
Inside the Hirshhorn, I became uniquely present. The building’s round shape meant I never had to think much about how to navigate. As I circled the interior, the outside world narrowed, and a lens somewhere in me came into focus. This past year and a half, I didn’t just miss the place, I missed the calmer self I had become there, fully engaged in the simple act of seeing.
In March of last year, the Hirshhorn — like museums around the country — closed its doors indefinitely, due to the pandemic. Unlike most other museums, it would be 17 months until the building reopened, in August — the second to last of the Smithsonian museums to do so.
Over those long months — just as some people got dressed up in fancy clothes at home to reconnect with the feeling of going out — I approximated the feeling of going to the Hirshhorn the only way that I could: from the outside. I’d go for runs down to the Mall and tell myself I’d turn around once I made sure the place was still there. Sometimes, I’d go all the way to the entrance to peek in through the glass. Once, this past winter, I sat on the steps outside at sunset, trying, in my mind, to retrace my footsteps inside, recalling artworks I’d forgotten. I thought of a hat rack by Marcel Duchamp — included in an ongoing exhibition that opened nearly two years ago — floating like a ghost in a silent gallery just a few feet away.
It was one loss among many: the places we once frequented, now unfamiliar and empty. Over the last year and a half, many of us found ourselves looking through the glass, at places that used to be, missing habits and routines that were more fragile than we could have known.
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When I finally returned to the Hirshhorn, it had changed. Exhibitions, like Pat Steir’s “Color Wheel,” had departed with little fanfare. New ones had come together behind closed doors. The exterior was outfitted in dizzying towers of scaffolding. And the shine the museum had in my wide-eyed, early days of living in D.C. had shifted to a quieter glow.
The Hirshhorn welcomed me back with its familiar scent of fresh concrete, the smell of having-just-rained. Being back reminded me of the museum’s little idiosyncrasies: the mirrors in the women’s bathroom that face each other, creating an unintentional echo of Yayoi Kusama’s 2017 “Infinity Mirrors” show; the large, curved black couches on the third floor that are so worn-in they could have been lifted from someone’s basement; the squeaky escalator that fills the hallways with the nostalgic sound of suburban shopping malls.
In my time away, I had forgotten what it means to share a space you love, to feel strangers’ enthusiasms and explorations as your own. I watched newcomers wander into the Duchamp show with an unwarranted sense of pride because I had first seen it on the eve of opening. I watched antsy little kids treat the Hirshhorn’s inner ring like a running track, and found myself tempted to join them, wondering what Mark Bradford’s “Pickett’s Charge” might look like at 2x speed.
The world is reopening, but on shaky ground. It’s hard not to hold onto our places a little tighter, to linger a little longer, unsure whether we’re standing on another precipice.
At the Hirshhorn, I lose my sense of urgency. Time seems to be charted not in hours and minutes, but in bands of golden light, falling on the interior like on a sundial. After dusk, the entire building is illuminated from below, as if it is about to take off for some far away planet. Sometimes, I stay inside late enough to feel like I might just take off with it.
Compared with nearby museums, the Hirshhorn is quirkier and quieter — but that may be what makes it so charming. Those who venture to the Hirshhorn experience something singular and personal, unrivaled by its sprawling neighbors. Here are five reasons to appreciate this oddball on the Mall.
It's a shape-shifter
A glance at the Hirshhorn today might lead you to wonder: Where did the building go? In its place: ancient apparitions, icy eyes, curtains borrowed from centuries ago.
The museum is hidden behind Nicolas Party’s artwork “Draw The Curtain,” a 360-degree hanging scrim that covers the museum’s facade. Rendered in clean lines, in the style of Greco-Roman sculpture, several luminous, anonymous faces peek out from tromp l’oeil curtains — made to emulate famous paintings by such artists as Rembrandt and Magritte. You get the sense the figures — huge yet hushed — have been waiting there a long time, and somehow you only just noticed them. Beneath their cool gazes, museumgoing arrives with new drama and mystique. Here you have something to uncover, they suggest: This regal portrait doubles as a temporary construction shroud, obscuring ongoing restoration of the museum’s facade.
Responding to contemporary art trends has been part of the Hirshhorn’s DNA since its opening in 1974 — even if those trends are “mercurial” or “quixotic,” as S. Dillon Ripley once put it. The museum has embraced nontraditional art forms, particularly performance art, which is at the center of a heated debate over whether the museum’s sculpture garden should have a dedicated space for the medium as part of its proposed renovation.
The Hirshhorn’s newest show, a major exhibition of work by Laurie Anderson, “The Weather,” features projections, music, immersive installation and will have a performance component. But perhaps what’s most Hirshhorn-ian about the show is that Anderson has spent the last few weeks painting all over several walls and a gallery’s floor, transforming space into a kind of living sketchbook.
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It makes the inaccessible accessible
The Hirshhorn may be the only contemporary art museum where a guard feels the need to address a recent visitor’s question about the museum’s name with an answer that begins with a broad, almost existential statement: “So, the Hirshhorn is an art museum.” (The museum takes its name, as it happens, from financier and philanthropist Joseph H. Hirshhorn, whose collection of nearly 6,000 artworks formed the museum’s original endowment.)
Maybe it’s because they’re used to people who have mistaken the Hirshhorn for the nearby National Air and Space Museum. Or maybe it’s because it’s a free, public space, open to everyone: They assume your knowledge base is zero.
And rightfully so. This is art for the masses, which also means art with a side of honesty. Overhearing the occasional comment about what an abstract painting really looks like — or the sort of frustration a found object might stir — could do the art elite a bit of good.
The institution has a reputation for eye-popping installations that look great on social media: most famously, the 2017 Kusama show, which broke visitation records. Even if they are crowd-pleasers, the Hirshhorn’s installations aren’t superficial. Barbara Kruger’s “Belief + Doubt” installation — which covers the walls and floor of the museum’s lower level lobby and bookstore with the artist’s signature black, white and red text panels — asks questions that rattle around in your head all day. It’s prime photo material, but the words are so large that when you try to snap a picture, her messages break down into question marks and jumbled sentence fragments. You can almost hear Kruger saying, “Nice try.”
It’s easy to feel cynical watching art get reduced to backdrops for selfies or sold off for cheap social currency. But there’s also something to the drive to post that we should pay attention to: the desire to be associated with art, and at best, to feel a part of it.
It fosters a keen awareness of the body
On the Mall, there is no end to the sensory overload. But walk into the Hirshhorn, and you have a sudden keen, physical awareness, as if you’ve been snapped back into place.
It begins in the courtyard. The museum — a squat, ring-shaped concrete form — is elevated on four sculptural piers, so you enter from below. Its mass presses down on you, with nine-foot-deep recesses that could swallow you up. Step into the glass-walled lobby and you hit mute on the outside world — still visible, but silenced.
As you move through the building, curving walls draw horizontal lines, stretching your sightlines. On the inner ring of the museum, there are often site-specific installations. Some are in concert with the shape of the building — as in Bradford’s cyclorama. Others harmonize with it — as in Steir’s vertical “Waterfall” paintings.
Joseph Hirshhorn was known for his extensive collection of modern bronzes by sculptors Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and others. You can still sense the museum’s early emphasis on sculpture through its sensitivity to the body and physical space.
Out in the sculpture garden, the works on display have an uneasy — even haunted — energy. Some sit eerily at the edges of recognition. Two towering bronze candles by Sterling Ruby, made to evoke the twin towers, strike an unsettling chord in the American psyche; Jean Arp’s “Evocation of a Form: Human, Lunar, Spectral” could be a molten meteorite or a hunched over human, depending on your vantage point.
Others turn bodies into uncanny forms. At the garden’s southern entrance, an elongated rabbit by Barry Flanagan — a mash-up of Bugs Bunny and Slenderman — greets you. From the north, Huma Bhabha’s hulking, five-faced figure sets a scene of homely horror. Henry Moore’s “King and Queen” looks like a pair of emaciated aliens.
With sounds trickling in from the Mall, strolling through the sculpture garden feels like waking up in broad daylight from a bizarre dream.
It has an affinity for the absurd
In the Duchamp show, an unassuming ball of twine sits between two metal plates in a glass case. At first, it looks boring, the kind of object you might find when cleaning out a junk drawer. But the work, “With Hidden Noise,” contains an object unknown to the artist (his wife placed it there) and viewer. When you really look at it, the fact that you cannot know what it contains can become almost maddening.
Duchamp aspired to an art of ideas rather than optics. Here, the work is seen first, and only, in your mind. Known for his “readymades,” he plucked ordinary objects from their everyday context and raised them to the status of art by putting them on display (most notably, in “The Fountain,” a urinal he submitted to an art show in 1917).
He also took so-called high art down a peg. On display at the Hirshhorn, you’ll find his “L.H.O.O.Q.,” a print of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee scribbled on it, a century old meme.
The Duchamp works — promised gifts of Washington collectors Barbara and Aaron Levine — were the most significant donation to the Hirshhorn since its founding, and add to the museum’s spirit of irreverence. It’s a jumping off point to explore more nonsensical, tradition-defying works in the collection. (The museum is currently planning an online exhibition named after Duchamp’s famous quote, “It’s art if I say so.”)
And it’s a fit for the Hirshhorn, which is the same museum that had a car crushed by a boulder (a work by Jimmie Durham) parked outside on the plaza for years. An eye to the absurd makes for a museum that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
It's made of raw concrete — an ideal vessel for art
Critics have called the Brutalist museum a “maimed monument,” and a “jarring note” on the National Mall. But you can’t really get more American than a concrete doughnut.
From behind the wheel of a car, at least, the nation’s landscape is, essentially: earth, sky, Dunkin’ drive-throughs and concrete sculpture — geometric parking garages and expressive, curving highways.
If the Hirshhorn was, as Bunshaft said he intended, a large piece of “functional sculpture,” it strikes me as one where the “artist” got to have a little fun: It seems to hover, just off the ground, with a playful levity. Coffered recesses on its underside suggest a sculptor’s delicate hand. Whereas many buildings In D.C. look like a tangle of windows and lines, all trimmed to the same height, the Hirshhorn stands alone in its distinctive curves. It has so much personality that when I walked up to it recently and saw it covered in scaffolding, I wanted to compliment its outfit.
Now is an interesting time to appreciate the architecture of the Hirshhorn, as the facade gets a facelift. Along Jefferson Avenue, you can see giant sheets of concrete, hung like canvases, and if you were able to peek below the scrim, you could see the structure’s bare bones.
Contrary to what many think (and despite the Hirshhorn’s fortresslike associations), “Brutalism” refers not to brutality, but comes from the French term for raw concrete. Raw as in exposed, undecorated, unfiltered. In that way, exposed concrete might be the best showcase for art. It offers an implicit instruction for how you should approach art: as vulnerable and as unguarded as the structure around you.
Editors Note: The possibility of a federal government shutdown after Oct. 1 may affect the opening status of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Please check the museum’s website for the latest information.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue and Seventh St. SW. hirshhorn.si.edu.
Laurie Anderson: The Weather (through July 31).
Nicolas Party: Draw the Curtain (through spring 2022).
Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection (through May 8).
Barbara Kruger: Belief + Doubt (ongoing).
Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge (ongoing).
One With Eternity: Yayoi Kusama in the Hirshhorn Collection (dates to be announced).
Toyin Ojuh Odutola: A Countervailing Theory (Nov. 19-April 3).