Ten Exhibitions to See in Washington, D.C. Over the Holidays

Several innovative art shows, some which close early in the new year, are a must-see

Top Left: Horace Poolaw, American Indian Museum; Ming Dynasty and Rothko, Sackler, Any Sherald, Visual Arts Gallery, NMAAHC; Noguchi, SAAM. Bottom Left: Bill Viola, Portrait Gallery, Jacob Lawrence, Phillips Collection, Steven Young Lee, The Renwick and Ragnar Kjartansson at the Hirshhorn (SI, 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw, Bill Viola, The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, The Phillips Collection, Duane Reed Gallery, Luhring Augustine, NY )
smithsonian.com

If you happen to be in the Nation's Capital for the holidays, there are a number of notable art shows and museums worthy of a winter visit. Keep in mind, the Smithsonian Institution shuts down operations just once a year on Christmas Day, closing the doors of its 19 museums, galleries and the National Zoo. Here are ten we recommend, plus a bonus—admission to all is free, unless otherwise indicated.  

The National Museum of African American History and Culture 

The chances to score the hottest tickets at the Smithsonian for its newest museum just got easier for the holidays—or at least warmer. Instead of waiting in long lines outside each morning for the opportunity to get same-day, free passes to the popular new museum, hopeful visitors can now stay home and go online. But here's a tip—set the alarm and act quickly. Same-day tickets go up on the internet at 6:30 a.m. daily, and have been snapped up in the first five minutes. There is still a physical line that forms at 1 p.m. at the museum for possible afternoon entry. Here's another tip—wait a bit longer and plan ahead, springtime in D.C. is lovely. In the meantime there is plenty to read about the museum here herehere and here

The Phillips Collection 

Two artists who appear in the African American History and Culture museum are explored in more depth currently at The Phillips Collection, the nation’s first modern art museum. The Phillips owns half of Jacob Lawrence’s monumental The Migration Series, but currently all 60 images from the complete epic are on display showing the emotional movement of more than one million African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North between the World Wars. The show is on display through January 8, along with The Kin Series and Related Work by renown contemporary artist Whitfield Lovell. The exhibit pairs his exacting pencil renderings of African-American faces with renderings of everyday objects. There is an admission at the Phillips, which is closed December 25 and 26, and January 1 and 2. 

“For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw” 

No waiting whatsoever is needed for the second newest museum on the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian, where a current featured exhibition looks at the work of Horace Poolaw, a Kiowa tribe member in Oklahoma who took photographs of every day life as a hobby, and whose insights now provide a window into the transitions of tribes into the 20th century. Through June 4. 

“Ragnar Kjartansson”

Not all exhibitions include a singalong, but that’s what happens at the first American survey of Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. A showing of the artist's films, paintings and drawings and one striking live performance called Woman in Ealso features an cavernous room where multiple video screens depict the artist and his friends jamming on a mesmerizing 64-minute song based on a couple of lines of his ex-wife’s poetry in a piece named after an ABBA song, The Visitors. Crowds sit, wander among the screens, or stand and listen, to the sweep of music. Through January 8.

“Gene Davis: Hot Beat”

The dean of the Washington Color School made his mark with stripes—bold, repeated combinations of color bars in such vivid color that the Smithsonian American Art Museum painted the walls bright yellow as well to intensify their 1960s pop optimism. Fifteen canvases by Gene Davis, many of them wall sized (but others stamp-sized) adorn the vivid survey of a groundbreaking homegrown artist. Continues through April 2. 

“Isamu Noguchi, Archaic / Modern” 

It’s fitting that this major survey of American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is the old U.S. Patent office—the sculptor applied for dozens of them for various devices, including an adaptation of Japanese paper lamps that use electricity (and are widely copied today), attractive modernist furniture that is still manufactured and the first baby monitor. Like his monumental sculptures, they freely blend elemental touches of the ancient world with that of the future. Most of the 74 works are on loan from the Noguchi Museum in New York. Through March 19. 

“Red: Ming Dynasty / Mark Rothko” 

Don’t have a lot of time for a full museum experience at the National Mall? Here’s the most succinct show in town: a fascinating comparison of a single Mark Rothko painting from the 1950s with a single dish from the Ming Dynasty at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery that serves as a meditation on the use of the color red over the centuries. Through February 20.  

“Visions and Revisions: Renwick Invitational 2016” 

When the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum reopened last year after two years being closed for renovation, it came, literally, with “Wonder,” a spectacular array of installations that will never quite be replicated in a museum dedicated to decorative arts and crafts. But the current Renwick Invitational does a good job combining both missions. Artists such as Steven Young LeeKristen Morgin and Norwood Viviano begin with basic approaches to pottery, ceramics and glass, respectively, but add smart contemporary twists and brainy approaches to their work. The exhibition, which also includes the alluring work of sculptor Jennifer Trask, continues through January 16.  

“Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait” 

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery presents its first all-video exhibition with the machinations of a man who has worked for nearly four decades in the field. Bill Viola’s method often involving super slow motion and water can be surprisingly spiritual and meditative. It also required an extensive retooling in the museum gallery, a structure built before electricity. For those who can’t be lured away from their screens of one kind or another, this may be just the art that connects. Through May 7. 

National Gallery of Art East Building  

After three years of renovation, the galleries in I.M. Pei’s striking masterwork are open again, with more than 12,250 square feet of new public space and a roof terrace. Its impressive collection has been decontextualized and shines anew, augmented with a significant number of additions from the now closed Corcoran Gallery of Art. But if modern art still doesn’t fill the requirements of winter activity, there is also the popular skating rink at the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, open through March 12.  

About Roger Catlin
Roger Catlin

Roger Catlin is a freelance writer in Washington D.C. who writes frequently about the arts for The Washington Post and other outlets. He wrote for many years at The Hartford Courant and writes mostly about TV on his blog rogercatlin.com.

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