“Pretty as a picture.”
We sometimes say that when we spy something or someone that is pleasing to the eye. The color, the subject, the composition — there’s just something about what we’re looking at that raises it above the run-of-the-mill photons that continually fall against our retinas and stimulate our optic nerves.
The arched footbridge above a sun-dappled creek, the clouds scudding over a scene of pastoral calm, a toddler in sunglasses and a comically large hat: pretty as a picture, each one.
I thought of that recently after learning about Art Everywhere U.S., a new promotion going on around the United States. Fifty-eight works of American art from five U.S. museums were selected to be reproduced on thousands of billboards and bus stops around the country during August. The idea, as the organizers put it on their Web site, is “to acquaint millions of Americans and visitors to our country with some of America’s best and most memorable artworks.”
The museums from which the art was selected are the Dallas Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and our very own National Gallery of Art. In fact, the National Gallery has more works than any other museum — 14 of the 58. They include a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, “The Boating Party” by Mary Cassatt and one of my favorites, John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark.”
It’s all funded by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America and was inspired by a similar program in the United Kingdom. You can even download an “augmented reality” app called Blippar, which is typically used by advertisers to make products explode with special offers, games and videos. It sounds like the sort of insidious marketing parodied in Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” but here it’s used to provide extra information on the artwork.
You can find the list of locations at arteverywhereus.org. For now, walk with me to the southwest corner of 15th and K streets NW. In a bus shelter there, we find a reproduction of Childe Hassam’s “Allies Day, May 1917.” It’s an impressionistic painting of flags fluttering over midtown Manhattan, painted when the United States was entering World War I.
It reminds me of the many buildings in Washington that have flags flying outside. And, in fact, the building right behind the bus shelter, 1500 K St. NW, features the flags of the United States, the District, Maryland and Virginia above the entrance.
Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is another of the paintings featured as part of Art Everywhere U.S. That means, depending on where the billboards are placed, Hopper’s imitation counter-surfing diner patrons could be staring down at actual counter-surfing diner patrons.
Art imitates life imitates art imitates life. Heavy.
Meanwhile, back at 15th and K: A few feet from Hassam’s painting is an ad for Air France. An attractive woman holds nine forks in one hand, each topped by a delicacy — a testament to the tasty treats that await the airline’s passengers. The forks are spread out like a fan. For some reason the photograph reminds me of a fan-wielding Spanish noblewoman as rendered by Goya or Velasquez.
Advertising imitates art.
And art imitates advertising. Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Can” is among the 58 works on display.
Part of the point of Art Everywhere U.S. is to encourage people to visit museums. Frankly, that isn’t hard to do in Washington. The National Gallery of Art is free. So are the Smithsonian’s museums.
But I hope the promotion will do something else as well, something its organizers probably didn’t intend: remind us that art really is everywhere. I mean the modest tableaux we encounter every day as we move about the city: the beautiful Picasso woman in the crosswalk, the Mondrian geometry of the serried office buildings, the cubist disarray of overlapping posters glued to a construction fence. . . . With the right eye, it’s all pretty as a picture.
And you don’t need an app to find any of it.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.