Keeping Time

The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum makes as polite a statement of defiance as one could hope for in downtown Washington. Situated on one of the busiest corners of Pennsylvania Avenue—next door to Blair House, across the street from the White House—the Renwick occupies a lavishly embellished French Second Empire building designed in 1858. The conspicuous business of the neighborhood is politics. But high above the entrance to the Renwick, etched in stone, is a reminder to passersby that there’s more to life than the hectic Washington moment: "Dedicated to Art."

In fact, the historic location of the Renwick is appropriate to the gallery’s mission. As the department of the Smithsonian American Art Museum that collects and exhibits American crafts—objects made of glass, clay, fiber, wood and metal—the Renwick is very much about what’s up-to-the-minute (many of the one-of-a-kind objects on display are by living artists). But it is about the past and tradition as well, and one of the grandest things the museum has to display is its own landmarked physical presence.

Works of art come in all shapes and sizes, but apart from the monuments put under wraps by Christo, they don’t normally get much bigger than the Grand Salon in the Renwick, which is some 96 feet long and 44 1/2 feet wide and rises 38 1/2 feet to the highest point in the ceiling. The salon was completely restored last year to its take-no-prisoners Gilded Age/High Victorian glory, approximating its original appearance as a picture gallery, and the gorgeous excess is indeed something to see. The Victorians in their literature rarely used one word when two or three might do. In their design, too, more was always preferable to less.

Philadelphia in 1876. Paintings from the American Art Museum fill the walls, ascending upward from eye level to neck-craning level, the top of one frame only modestly distant from the bottom of the next.

The salon is like an extravagant reimagining of a living room from life. And, in that sense, it’s not at all out of place among the modern crafted objects on display in the Renwick. Desk, basket, box, tray, pitcher, teapot, bench, gate—so many are objects from life as well, turned fanciful by skill and imagination. We all know what a vase is—or a quilt, or a cup. The Renwick reminds us what each of those practical objects might aspire to be.

Among the pieces in the Renwick, there’s one in particular that, at first glance, you might think would be right at home in the Grand Salon. Ghost Clock appears to be an upright grandfather clock, a little more than seven feet high, draped in a shroudlike sheet such as a Halloween ghost might wear. But look again. The sheet is no sheet, and there’s no clock beneath. The piece, sheet and all, was carved from a block of solid mahogany—bleached white to the shade of the sheet—by artist Wendell Castle in 1985. Ominous and looming, mischievous and deceitful, Ghost Clock is as astonishing in its illusion as the Renwick’s Grand Salon is in its surrender to outsize exuberance.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.