The bad news about visiting Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum now is that the entire third floor of the museum is closed for renovation. I am not sure when the floor is expected to reopen. I would bet it will not be in 2014. The third floor comprises about 1/3 of this four story museum – the ground floor has no exhibit space. In addition, at least half of the second floor is also closed, being prepared for an exhibit not scheduled to open until mid-October. Thus, a visit to the museum seems to have less to offer than usual.
But look at it another way. You can concentrate more on what remains behind, or in the alternative have a shorter visit. Neither, is necessarily a bad thing.
I spent about an hour in the museum this afternoon.
Today was the opening day of a fascinating and very unusual exhibit of the work of Salvatore Scarpitta (1919-2007). Scarpitta, New York born of Italian and Russian parentage, served in the Army during World War II as a “monuments man”, a member of that group tasked with locating art work stolen by the Nazis (you may have seen the – not too good – film). He stayed in Rome after the war, returning to New York in 1958.
His work is unusual, and runs in a number of different directions. One of his interests was sleds..and skis. And he constructed both out of “found materials”. Not modern constructions, they were the kind of sleds you might find in the mountains of Europe a hundred years ago. One of the descriptions said that they were to memorialize the year that Scarpitta spent in the Apennine Mountains hiding from the Fascists with his Italian-Jewish wife. They are very evocative. They are very sad. And at the same time, artistically appealing.
He was also interesting in automobile racing – and built (using old car parts) several full size model racing cars (one is in the exhibit), as well as wall hangings made of car parts on colored canvas. Again, very well done. (He also sponsored his own “sprint car” team – his car, not made by him, is on display.)
The third part of the exhibit is comprised of torn canvasses and medical bandages and similar items to make textured, but colorless hangings. Understated, but effective, they are meant to turn the flat canvas into a textured piece evocative of war and suffering. As his cars are realistic, his canvasses are completely abstract. Yet they fit together.
In speaking about racing, Scarpitta made an interesting comment. He said that art creates something with form (a sculpture, a painting, etc.) and turns it into an idea or a dream. Racing, he says, takes a dream (the dream of speed) and turns it into something real – the car, the race. It was the opposite of the usual trajectory of art. When I read exactly what he said (which he said much better than I just did), I was very impressed, but in fact, didn’t really understand it.
But, if you really want to see something that I didn’t understand, walk down the hall into one of the Hirshhorn’s two black box theaters, and see the two films (one in front of you and one in back) by young Austrian film maker Oliver Laric. The films are called “collages”, and they are a bunch of photos of sculptures, pieces of art, and other items – with an “original” and “copies” or “variations”. Well, I guess I am simplifying, but you can’t always tell which is the original and which are variations. And this is the point.
Although the voice over sounds like a college lecture that goes over one’s head, the concept, as best I can understand it, is correct. Nothing is really an original – everything is based on something else. There is nothing wrong with copying, or slightly changing, or more generally modifying an object; it may be better than the original. And whatever you do, the better it is, the more likely someone will take it and change it and make it better. There is no design, no object, that cannot be improved. And you can use a lot of creativity in copying, or changing, something. And this is not only a question of art. It is also true in writing – all writing is based on something else. And look at translating – translating gives the translator an opportunity to start with someone’s work and improve it, improve it in a new language. But there is, I am sure, more to it than these simplistic thoughts – I just didn’t understand them.
The other black box film, Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic” is a terrific short – beautiful scenes of rural England with large birds flying and moving in slow motion, parades in London, military, the formally garbed London Lord Mayor, all with a steel orchestra, playing Ralph Vaughn Williams and others.
Finally, there is an exhibit of a small selection of photography from the museum’s collection – including several bigger than life – a large green skyscraper in Berlin, visitors in the main exhibit room in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, a series of photographs of buildings in Reykjavik, and more. Fewer photos than you would like to see, and they will only be there a short time.
So, visiting the Hirshhorn is not a mistake, even with half of the museum closed. And you can see everything in about an hour. That’s a benefit – not a problem.