Walking past the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden the other day, I heard someone mutter, "Oh, that's where the modern art is," in a way that would make you think she was talking about some low saloon or maybe a jail.
Just a few steps away I could see on the lawn Juan Muñoz's Conversation Piece, a bunch of life-size bronze figures whose bottoms are rounded like those naughty punching-bag clowns that come right back up after you knock them down. At first glance, it was funny, and so was the rusted steel sculpture next to it, Tony Cragg's Subcommittee, a giant rack of bureaucratic rubber stamps. They looked like a witless chorus huddling together to give their opinions an authority that they lacked as individuals.
This was modern art, all right, and it wasn't so bad. It made me smile. I decided that maybe if people didn't try so hard to understand it, they would get along with it better.
Heading inside, I found Nam June Paik's Video Flag, a bank of 70 TV screens whose images form a giant American flag. The computer-driven laser-disk images change every half-second or so to create a manic but wonderful kaleidoscope of American scenes--rotating Miss Liberties, news photographs, Presidential faces that morph incredibly from one to another, and lots more stuff than I could keep track of. What does it mean? Paik, a Korean-born American video artist who has lived in New York for 35 years, simply wanted to give a silent cheer for his adopted country.
I met Sidney Lawrence, who handles public affairs for the Hirshhorn, and he told me that the Hirshhorn, including the Full Circle Café on the plaza, and other nearby Smithsonian buildings (the Sackler and Freer galleries, the National Museum of African Art and the International Gallery in the Ripley Center) are open late on Thursday evenings this summer thanks to the Art Night on the Mall program. The National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Corcoran Gallery and the Phillips Collection are also open late Thursdays, and there are hopes that the idea will spread in future years to other Washington art museums. Museum shops are open, too, and if you haven't seen the Hirshhorn's shop, you're missing a great source of unusual art books, postcards, brightly colored puzzles, games, jewelry and doodads. As part of Art Night, there are gallery talks and films at the Hirshhorn; a show by Latino photographers at the International Center; kinetic sculptures and music at African Art; Asian dance and three magnificent exhibitions of Indian art at the Sackler and the Freer; and, of course, a chance to see all the permanent collections without the usual crowds.
Civilization at Work
"My own theory," said Lawrence, "is that by 5:30 many family groups are ready to call it a day. The kids are getting cranky; they want to eat a hot dog, jump in the hotel pool and chill out. But the families with older children and couples on dates and office workers often find that evening is the best time to come to the Mall." I couldn't agree more. In the daytime it's the strollers that get me. They seem to grow bigger every year, like cars, so that some models hold all the family baggage as well as two, three or four children. I expect to see chauffeured versions any day.
But I'm interrupting Lawrence. "Most Thursdays last summer we got literally hundreds of people. One person quipped, 'The bathroom.' Yeah well, the bathroom, that's true. But most of them stayed and looked." Evening is made for quiet contemplation of any art, modern or not. And with its circular form, the Hirshhorn is ideal for this sort of walking meditation. It is rather hypnotic: you meander through, heading always in a gentle curve, noting perhaps, as you go, the changes that mark an artist's development--until suddenly the works look familiar and you realize you've started around again.
Of course, this is a world-class collection of contemporary art, but as I wandered through the Hirshhorn galleries I was impressed by the power of the spaces themselves. An artist I know remarked, "You could put almost anything in there and it would look terrific." I once saw a youth in a backward baseball hat setting some coins in an enigmatic pattern on the floor at the Hirshhorn and squatting down to stare at them as though they were part of an exhibition. He got a couple of takers, who stopped to gawk with him, but then he started to giggle and gave himself away.
"We get a range of reactions to our pieces," observed Lawrence, himself a respected artist whose work has been compared, for its quirky humor and layered meanings, to that of Red Grooms and Julian Schnabel. "You sometimes hear comments like, 'This stuff is junk.' You expect that. I've also talked to sophisticated people who just can't stand modern art. For that matter, some people refuse to go to movies with subtitles. But if you come in thinking of contemporary art as a barometer, a new experience, it can be really great. And many of the works here are just plain fun to look at."