Art attack

Published: December 21st 2011
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National Gallery East BuildingNational Gallery East BuildingNational Gallery East Building

Central cortyard of the East Building, designed by I. M. Pei
My goal for today was simple: to visit two of the best modern art collections in DC.

They are located at the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art.

The former is part of the Smithsonian. Everyone assumes the latter is as well although it is actually separate.

The two museums are located across the Mall from each other, so visiting both is very convenient.

Getting there from DuPont Circle required taking the Metro.

It’s widely regarded as the best subway system in the US.

The stations have an early 70s futuristic architecture that looks dated by modern standards but is still much better than the rat holes that pass for the subway in most of the US.

This being DC, most of the stations also contain public art exhibits.

The subway is also notable for being the first to use stored fare cards instead of tokens (a very good thing) and the first to have different prices depending on how far you travel and the time of day (a much less good thing).

National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art was started by Treasury Secretary and robber baron
Metro stationMetro stationMetro station

1970s futurism at its finest in the Washington DC Metro.
industrialist Paul Mellon in the early 1930s.

He commissioned John Pope to create a neo-classical building to house it.

The facade is made entirely of Tennessee marble.

Inside is a rotunda, two separate Garden courts, and a maze of rooms containing the artwork.

This museum in many ways is the gourmet Sunday buffet of art, with entire rooms dedicated to major artists and schools.

Among them is the only picture by Leonardo da Vinci in the US, an entire room dedicated to Rembrandt van Rijn, another dedicated to Paul Cezanne, yet another dedicated to Claude Monet, and a room split between Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

Cezanne created the theoretical basis for Modern Art, so I spend more time in his room than any other.

His paintings consist of still lifes, landscapes, and portraits, all of which attempt to present the geometric reality of a scene on a two-dimensional surface.

He was the first artist since the Renaissance to design the picture to enhance its own internal structure rather than portray the scene with strict perspective.

This stance led to his being rejected by the art establishment until the very end of his life (at which point younger artists
National Gallery of Art facadeNational Gallery of Art facadeNational Gallery of Art facade

Facade of the National Gallery of Art west building, designed by John Pope
treated him as a patron saint).

The theories he created were ultimately extended by younger artists to create what is now known as Modern Art.

Many of those artists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Gauguin, owned paintings by Cezanne.

The National Gallery owns a good sample of this work, which illustrate his ideas well.

Next to the Cezanne room are rooms with work by Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Van Gogh.

These rooms are much more popular than the Cezanne room.

They are, in fact, the most popular artworks in the entire museum.

The National Gallery's Modern Art holdings are housed in a separate building, which was designed by I. M. Pei in the late 1970s.

The building is a geometric study of lines and space.

Unfortunately, this design means that there is not much space to show the actual artworks.

The building is also heavily used by special exhibits, which cuts down on the space for the permanent collection even more.

Nonetheless, a good selection of highlights is on view, including major work by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Miro, Pollock, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Calder, and Rothko.

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Neoclassical courtyard designed by John Pope

The National Gallery keeps descriptive captions to a minimum on the artwork.

Most list the artist, date, nationality, and little else.

I know art history well, so I found this approach refreshing.

For those who don't, one could easily get lost.

They try to make up for this by providing handouts in each major room describing the work, but the effectiveness is mixed at best.

One other thing to note is that the official White House art collection is on permanent loan to the National Gallery.

These are the only works that can’t be photographed.

I had lunch in the National Gallery Cascade Court.

It is a food court located underground.

It has a view of the side of a sunken water fountain.

Seats near the fountain are very popular.

The food was good by food-court standards, but rather pricy.

A soda cost over $2.00.

Hirshorn Museum

The next museum was the Hirshhorn Museum.

It is located across the mall from the National Art Gallery.

It is housed in an elevated circular building that is often called the
Hirshhorn Museum Geyser FountainHirshhorn Museum Geyser FountainHirshhorn Museum Geyser Fountain

Located in the museum plaza, it raises and lowers every few minutes
"concrete donut on stilts".

At the center of the plaza is a geyser fountain.

Periodically, it shoots jets of water high in the air like Old Faithful.

The art at the Hirshhorn starts at the visitor desk, where even the notice of the rules for visiting is done in a clever way.

The Hirshhorn has four floors, but only three of them have actual art.

The basement is where the newest pieces are displayed.

They are all big, and like most contemporary art, not always easy to understand or like.

The second floor is all temporary exhibits.

It was closed for installation when I visited.

The third floor has the permanent collection.

It is organized in rough chronological order, and then by movement and artist.

Certain artists have many different pieces on show, including Wilhelm de Kooning and Ellsworth Kelly.

I like this approach because it shows how an artist's work has developed over time.

One of the pieces loved by most visitors is the film "The Way Things Go".

It was created by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss in 1987.

It consists
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Any questions where the name comes from?
of a series of objects and events that trigger reactions in further objects and events, creating a chain reaction.

Much of it involves catching things on fire, blowing things up, moving stuff on rollers, or soaking things in water.

The overall effect is a demented cross between Rube Goldberg and Marcel Duchamp.

DVDs of this film are available in the gift shop, and I couldn't resist.


Dinner that night was at one of DCs most legendary bars, the Brickskeller.

The name comes from the fact that it is located in a brick basement.

Many bars claim to have the world's largest selection of beer.

The Brickskeller is the one certified as such by the Guinness Book of Records.

They display their certificate in the entrance lobby.

In the Brickskeller's menu, four pages cover the food items; the remainder is the listing of the available beer.

At last count there were over 1000 varieties to choose from!

It’s a good thing the servers can recommend specific drinks based on what you want; otherwise people may never be able to order.

The food is all classic
The famous Brickskeller Beer MenuThe famous Brickskeller Beer MenuThe famous Brickskeller Beer Menu

Just one page from the largest beer menu in the world!
bar food, and it’s quite good.

The food is also just a sideline to the real reason people come here.

The most notable of the beers I had that night was Young's Double Chocolate Stout.

It’s been brewed in England since the mid 1800's.

This is one of the more unusual beers in existence.

It’s made by adding bittersweet chocolate to the mix before it is fermented.

The end result tastes like alcoholic hot chocolate.

I consider myself fortunate that I avoided a hangover the next morning.

Additional photos below
Photos: 9, Displayed: 9


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National Gallery Fountain Cafe

View of the fountain from the cafe
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Brickskeller Beer Cans

A small sampling of beers once sold here

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