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."
I asked Suzanne Pender, who helps train the Hirshhorn's 79 volunteer docents, if they are up to dealing with the demands of the tourists, especially the querulous ones who want to know what everything means.
"Oh yes," she replied. "These docents are special." New Hirshhorn docents have all had college-level art history coursework, and train for nine months with museum staff and senior docents. Then they have to give a sample tour to experienced docents and are duly critiqued. Many docents speak foreign languages, a distinct advantage in polyglot Washington.
"We attract an unusual kind of person," Pender noted. "We don't simply tell them what to say about each work or give them scripts to memorize. We allow them to develop their own tours, based on their knowledge, interests and strengths. They improve and change the tours as they go along and as the collection changes." If the docent can't answer a question, she or he is supposed to go find out and write to the person afterward. "We don't have Acoustiguides at the Hirshhorn. We think docents are better. They encourage interaction. You can actually see a person learning something in an answer to a question; you can see the light go on. It's quite exciting."
It's just as well the docents are trained in depth, for as Pender observed, the audience can get quite technical. "I see staff people from other museums, some artists I know, students from the Corcoran, painters, photographers, all kinds of people."
Pender is herself an artist, a painter who also does three-dimensional works. All told, about 15 Hirshhorn staff members are serious artists.
This summer, films related to selected artworks are being shown at the Hirshhorn. For example, a watercolor from the startling "AIDS Series" by Masami Teraoka, who exhibited last year at the Sackler, will be discussed in connection with Cold Fever, a new film by Fridrik Fridriksson about a Japanese visitor to Iceland. Both works are concerned with the impact of today's frantic world upon cultural traditions.
Incidentally, the Hirshhorn is showing more works than ever from its permanent collection this summer. About 100 pieces acquired over the past five years are being displayed, some for the first time. There is also a small exhibition on French artist Raymond Duchamp-Villon. As a youth he visited the Halls of Machines at the Paris Universal Expositions of 1889 and 1900. His sculpture The Horse is an intriguing meld of machine-based imagery and equine anatomy. (The Hirshhorn Website is full of information on these shows and all aspects of the museum. You don't own a computer? No problem--many public libraries around the country now provide Web access.)
I asked Lee Aks, Hirshhorn sculpture conservator and an artist who does abstract works in cast bronze, what happens to all the outdoor art when the weather is bad. "We're busy all spring and summer, getting ready for winter," he said. "We clean every outdoor piece in various ways, depending on what they're made of, and put protective coatings on them, waxing, oil coating. We might have to touch up the surfaces, examine welds, replace fastenings, or whatever."
There are more than 70 sculptures outside the Hirshhorn in the garden and plaza areas. "We clean them using special detergents and a high-pressure washer," Aks explained.
"Sometimes we blast metal sculptures with crushed walnut shells to remove surface dirt. They bounce off the surface without grinding it as sand does. And they are biodegradable. Of course, you do have to wear a helmet and face mask while running the thing."
These sculptures have a hard life. Their linseed-oil coating deteriorates, turns brittle and flakes off in the sun. Cables snap in the wind. "Some of them are so tactile that many people can't resist touching," Aks said. "Thousands of touches can cause bronze to lose its patina, because the oils in people's skin are acidic, and they can actually etch into the metal surface. Kids start to climb on the pieces, or not knowing any better, parents put them up there to take a picture. They think the garden is a playground. But even tennis shoes have pebbles in the soles, and they scrape on everything. It's almost like vandalism."
Aks has to protect works of bronze, granite, painted steel, stainless steel, cast iron and mild (low-carbon) steel in sizes from mini to monumental. The big, black Calder stabile is among the hardest to preserve, but others face particular troubles in stormy weather, notably Kenneth Snelson's Needle Tower, 60 feet high, all tubes and cables. When those break in high winds, the whole sculpture has to be laid on its side for repairs.
"And that takes a lot of manpower," Aks sighed. "But we try to have everything ready before winter. Then, all we have to do is brush off the snow, especially from the stone pieces so they won't develop little cracks." Next time you stroll down the Mall on a balmy summer evening, think about those sculptures. They must wait there through all kinds of weather. Just so you can look at them.