Today, NMWA does not shy away from politics. Earlier this summer, the museum displayed a large “Votes For Women” flag, slung across its exterior. And in the permanent collection, you’ll find a neon artwork that reads “What if Women Ruled the World?” (Sure, it’s mainstream feminist Instagram-bait, but it’s still feminist.) Arranged thematically rather than chronologically since 2017, the museum’s collection can even feel like a direct rebuttal to the sweeping historical narratives of encyclopedic museums. And these days, the fancy main hall seems like it is meant to challenge rather than appeal to classical aesthetic tastes. Beneath the glitzy chandeliers and ornate crown moldings (leftover from the building’s past life), a provocative, diverse collection defies its uptight staging.
On August 9, the museum will close for two years of renovations and shutter its genre-bending, era-blending, delightfully eclectic collection. Here are a few must-see artworks in the collection to seek out before then.
In this 1961 painting by Remedios Varo, a radiant orange woman moves through a blue catacomb lined with stone-cold, female figures with their eyes closed. Her feet have a ballerina’s grace, her gown a timeless ripple, her hair a meteorite’s strength as it swoops around a sphere in the sky.
While male European surrealists manipulated and fragmented the female body — see Hans Bellmer’s dolls or Magritte’s “The Eternally Obvious” — this Spanish-born, Mexican painter (1908-1963) and her contemporaneous female surrealists — Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington — treated the body not as a site of breakdown but as a vehicle for mystical connection. Varo, who dabbled in alchemy and witchcraft, often painted magic-wielding women in her own likeness.
Some scholars have interpreted this work as an image of one soul’s awakening as others stay ignorant, with their eyes shut to the world. But the orange woman has an airy, ethereal glow that looks almost contagious. She holds up her hand with intentionality, and it seems as if she were to simply touch the other figures enshrined in stone, they would spark to life too.
Elisabeth A. Kasser Wing — Mezzanine
A small, easy-to-miss gallery, tucked in the back of the mezzanine level of the Kasser wing — converted to exhibition space in 1997 — seems removed from the rest of the museum. Entering it feels like stumbling into a Victorian drawing room. The walls are filled almost exclusively with portraits of wealthy women.
From the couch in the center of the gallery, the portrait sitters’ emotions flow over you like cool and warm currents. The mother in Sofonisba Anguissola’s “Double Portrait of a Lady and her Daughter” has blank eyes that suggest domestic ennui. Anne Vallayer-Coster’s “Madame de Saint Huberty in the Role of Dido” has an enchanting irreverence. Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun’s portrait of a wide-eyed, almost Disney-like Princess Belozersky betrays a youthful naivete.
Even though the room features mostly formal portraits, there’s an edginess to it: You’re caught in a closed circuit of female gazes. On an art historical Bechdel test, this gallery would earn a very rare A.
Chakaia Booker’s 2,000-pound abstract sculpture “Acid Rain,” has the scale and dynamism of a history painting. But its medium — shredded automotive tires — gives it a postindustrial, apocalyptic gravitas that conjures the future, not the past.
Booker works primarily with scavenged rubber, which she tears, curls, knots and stacks to build all-black forms. With “Acid Rain,” Booker explores tires’ textural possibilities. To the left, serpentine strands spill out from the wall. Rubber chunks cluster in the center. On the right, thick loops suggest a fish’s puckering lips. There is a dizzying motion to it all that evokes the feeling of a sharp turn on a curving highway.
Booker’s sculptures can be read in the context of industrial decline — familiar to the artist, who lives and works in Allentown, Pa. In this particular work, the dominance she asserts over her material, and by proxy, car-culture machismo, seems particularly salient.
But there is also something rabidly overgrown about “Acid Rain,” like a deserted yard exploding with weeds. The title connects the piece to pollution and in it, we might see our waste embodied in a menacing form, a harbinger of things to come.
Abstract painters often reject representation in an effort to reach pure, distilled emotion, but, here, Joan Mitchell takes another approach: She associates her 1980 abstraction with an image so poignant it is practically synonymous with a feeling.
Mitchell (1925-1992) grew up in Chicago and found comfort and creativity in the isolation of winter. In “Sale Neige” (“Dirty Snow”), the way we usually see seasons is reversed: Winter departs as light, spring comes as darkness. Sit with the painting long enough and you can feel a lifting from the top of the canvas evoked by staccato white, snow-like brushstrokes. The abyss of deep purples and tar-like blacks pulls the bottom of the canvas toward the earth.
“Sale Neige” is an image of seasons in flux — the way spring emerges mangled and muddy beneath the thick coat of winter. But it is also about the messiness of change, the brevity of anything pure.
Two images of glamour from four centuries apart hang side-by-side on the third floor. On the left, Mickalene Thomas ‘s “A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y” (2009) uses rhinestones to create a newsprint-like image of a Black woman. On the right, Lavinia Fontana’s 16th century aristocrat is neck deep in lavish fabric — her collar swarms around her chin like bacteria, and she wears the bejeweled pelt of a marten — a weasel-like mammal — suspended from her belt.
These two images have an oddly similar mood. Both women have sober expressions and a sense of stillness. At first, you might read their proximity as the attempt of a museum curator to equate contemporary, bedazzled glam with that of the past, but it’s not so simple. Thomas has said she’s interested in how beauty products like rhinestones create masks. And just as you have to look a little closer to perceive the features of her low-resolution portrait, Fontana’s portrait is equally obscure. Sure, oil paint allows for more granular details, and the circa-1580 painting is chock full of symbols of wealth, but a question remains in both paintings: Who is actually depicted here?
The District is home to many museums, but it’s rare to see the city itself represented in those art collections. In this urban scene, captured on canvas in 1967 by Georgia Mills Jessup (1926-2016) — a D.C. native with African, Pamunkey and European roots — the street is a blur of warm colors, with signs that read “H Street NW” and “Trans-Lux Theatre”
The work generously blends styles, and in so doing, captures the unsteady, shifting vision of walking down a street on a rainy evening. Lights are treated as abstract, Georgia O’Keeffe-like orbs. The buildings are disorienting, cubist conglomerations. The brushstrokes are vertical and elongated, suggesting the way sight blurs through watery eyes. At the bottom of the canvas, dripped paint echoes the abstract expressionists and the falling of rain.
Displayed near the entrance, Jessup’s painting is, ironically, most visible on the way out of the museum. With its various stylistic choices, it embodies that refusal to be categorized that sets this museum’s collection apart.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
1250 New York Ave. NW. nmwa.org.
Dates: Through Aug. 8. The museum shop and library are closed.
Prices: $10; $8 for seniors and students; free for museum members, military personnel and ages 18 and under. Timed-entry tickets are strongly encouraged. During the museum’s closing week, beginning Aug. 1, the museum will offer free admission every day, and extended hours of operation on select days.