In science and in life, Albert Einstein recommended simplicity. His wisdom can be seen at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. A series of contemporary art exhibitions there illustrates how artists have counteracted modernity’s disorder with the simplicity of sparse lines, intense colors and varying perspectives.
Over the past two years, artists such as Anne Truitt, Josef Albers, Yves Klein and Blinky Palermo have given Hirshhorn visitors, including me, experiences that challenge the intellect and stimulate insight. Truitt used sculpture to explore the interplay between proportion, color, structure and surface. Albers created optical illusions on canvases using basic shapes and brilliant colors. Klein produced controversial and boundary-breaking single-color paintings, elemental canvases of fire, water and air, and even galleries emptied of all artworks. (You can experience the Klein exhibition on one of the Smithsonian’s first smartphone apps at si.edu/connect/mobile.) Palermo challenged conventional painting by fashioning alternative materials into vividly colored geometric forms.
Individually these were all powerful exhibitions, but combined they have demonstrated contemporary art’s transformative capacity. The Hirshhorn showcases innovative works that act like prisms, refracting our expectations and challenging our assumptions. Several current and upcoming Hirshhorn exhibitions and programs reflect this rich tradition. “ColorForms,” open through November 13, presents works that explore the meaning and potential of color. “Shadows” (on view through January 15 and complemented by an array of public programs and a Warhol show at the National Gallery of Art during “Warhol on the Mall”) for the first time exhibits all of Andy Warhol’s 102 vibrant canvases depicting color and shadow. And in March, artist Doug Aitken’s 360-degree video projection will transform the Hirshhorn’s exterior into a giant, ever-changing artwork. New perspectives through art are also reflected in such programs as ArtLab, which allows teens to create videos, animations, websites, games and podcasts.
Einstein peered through the lens of science to filter out the clutter of modern life and observe the simple elegance of the natural world. Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek, chief curator Kerry Brougher and their talented staff are similarly using contemporary art and hands-on experiences to refocus our perception of the world. I invite you to step out of life’s hustle and bustle, enjoy the profound simplicity and beauty of the Hirshhorn, and learn to look at your surroundings in a whole new way.
G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.