Friday Afternoon in the City

Today was the first day in, maybe, a decade when the temperature hit 50 degrees, so I thought it would be a good day to explore the world. I actually had a goal in mind, a 12:30 short film at the National Gallery, but other than that I had no plans.

I left the house at about 11:30, and headed for the Metro. I was surprised to see that Brandywine Street was being repaved, and a new sidewalk was being installed on the north side of the street. This meant that the street was closed, except for local traffic, and five plastic cones were set up at the corner of Connecticut Avenue, with just enough room in the curb lane for a car to leave.

The woman driving the car did not think there was enough room, so she got out of the car to move a cone. A workman, from about 40 feet away, yelled at her “Don’t move that cone. Leave it there! You have room.” She ignored him, and moved the cone maybe two feet to the left. He must have realized that he lost, so yelled at her as she returned to her car: “After you leave, you have to move it back.” (“What?”, I thought loudly to myself.) She drove off.

Then came the Van Ness Metro stop, where I saw that two of the three lower escalators were out of service, one being worked on, the other just turned off. That meant that everyone had to walk down 91 steps. No sign, no warning. Just 91 steps down.

Oh, well.

The film at the Gallery was a 30 minute black and white National Educational Television film from 1965 about the artists of the Washington color school. OK, you have to imagine it. You see black and white images of paintings by Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and the narrator is telling you that what is important in their work is not the design, not the technique, only the color. Seemed a little weird, but I thought it worked. You had to imagine the colors, I guess, but you could do that (although they weren’t identified) enough to get a sense of what you were looking at.

Morris Louis was described as an eccentric, as someone who thought about nothing but painting and wanted to do nothing but paint, and who had no friends at all, except for fellow artist Noland, art critic Clement Greenberg, and perhaps artist Helen Frankenthaler (she was described as a friend, but claimed not to know him very well). He painted in a room in his house which was supposed to be a dining room, and his wife rarely saw what he was working on and took pains not to disturb him. She, Marcella, was extensively interviewed. My wife knew Louis’ wife in her later years, and I met her once or twice, shortly before she died, when she was in, I think, her early 90s. She was an old woman then, but in 1965 (3 years after Louis died at age 50), she was probably in her mid or late 40s, slender and attractive, and quite well spoken. Clearly their marriage was an odd one, but perhaps it worked. She came across as a very normal person.

So Louis was an oddball, and Kenneth Noland was at first a young man treated more like a student by the older Louis than an artist, but that changed as time went on. I can’t say, though, that Noland came across very well in the movie. (And I can’t say that I am particularly fond of the Nolands that I have seen; I love looking at Morris Louis’ work) We saw Noland, chain smoking (as was Greenberg) in his Vermont studio, working on a large canvass, where he was drawing a black column. Paraphrasing him: “I don’t know what other colors I am going to use. I can decide to use any color that I want. Yellow, green, purple. Whatever I want.” He also said that he was very pleased to be getting some recognition because it allowed him to sell his paintings for more money, and he was quite interested in making more money.

The structure of the film was odd, as well. The first 2/3 were devoted to Morris, and there were conversations with Marcella, Greenberg, Frankenthaler and Noland. The other 1/3 was devoted to Noland, but no one spoke about him; we just visited him in his studio.

Navigating the National Gallery is a little confusing right now, because several galleries are closed for the installation of a new exhibit of paintings from the Chester Dale collection; it opens the end of the month. I think it will be a great exhibit, concentrating on Impressionists and more recent modernist paintings. I did get a chance to look at the exhibit entitled “The Art of Privacy, 1850-1900”, which includes about 100 prints. The name, to me, is odd. The concept of privacy has nothing to do with the subject matter of the prints – it has to do with the facts that collecting prints was a private matter, and the prints themselves were usually stored away rather than displayed. At any rate, many of the pieces are very enjoyable, including some wonderful works by Kollwitz and Munch and Klinger and Redon and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as by lesser known artists.

I had meant to go and see the photographs of Yousef Karsh, which have been on display in the gallery of the Canadian embassy for some time. Very worth while. It’s not a big exhibit, but it includes about 30 photographs, many quite well known, and all worth looking at: Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Glenn Gould, Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, Marian Anderson, Pablo Casals, Pablo Picasso, Robertson Davies, Mies van der Rohe, Martha Graham, Joan Crawford, Paul Robeson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Man Ray, Anna Magnani, Jean Sibelius, Ansel Adams, Henry Moore, Christian Dior, Isamu Noguchi, Georgia O’Keefe, Francois Mauriac and others. I am not sure how long it will be there, but it worth going to see. The Canadian Embassy is directly across from the National Gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue (the American embassy in Ottawa is similarly located).

Other than that, lunch at the Gallery, a short visit to a local book store, and a stop at the wine shop on the way home. The weather was good and, lo and behold!, the days are growing longer.

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