Author Archives: Philip Kennicott

What do you see? It all depends.

In 1967, Garry Winogrand took the photograph on top left, now on view at the National Gallery of Art. It was controversial: At first it seems a tasteless joke about a mixed-race couple with their “children,” but over time it reveals a complicated dignity and humanity in its subjects. The man on the right was, in fact, a well-known animal handler in New York. Tod Papageorge, now director of the graduate photography program at the Yale University School of Art, was photographing with Winogrand that day and made the image on the bottom. While Winogrand composed the scene tightly, capturing a somber couple apparently passing through a hostile, voyeuristic space, Papageorge discovered a moment of levity (Winogrand is at left). Photographer Carrie Mae Weems (see exhibition review page E5) appropriated the Winogrand in a series that explored the exploitation of African Americans in photography. By including Winogrand’s dispassionate image along with 19th-century slave images, and by emblazoning the words “Some Laughed Long & Hard & Loud,” Weems suggests that the original was part of that deeply racist photographic history. That wasn’t fair. Winogrand unleashed meaning without making a definitive statement, Papageorge captured the context and neutered the ugly racism some people found in the image, while Weems assumes the racism is intended and uses it without reference to Winogrand’s larger, more ambiguous body of work.

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In Carrie Mae Weems’s photographs, revelation and resistance

Late last month, the National Gallery of Art announced the acquisition of its first work by artist Carrie Mae Weems, a photograph of three African American girls lying on the grass with flowers in their hair. One of them gives the camera a slightly suspicious, perhaps even defiant glance, as if to defy a centuries-long history of being objectified by art and photography.

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Japanese vases at the Walters: Poetic statements that hold water

Many of the objects in the Walters Art Museum’s exhibition “Designed for Flowers: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics” might well function as vases, but almost all of them would upstage any flowers stuck inside them. The show features the work of contemporary artists, continuing and expanding a tradition that dates back to the wonderfully weird, almost expressionistic Jomon period (about 10500-300 B.C.), when vessels, sometimes with elaborately sculptural rims, were fired with patterns impressed on the clay.

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A haphazard ‘Modern American Realism’ at Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Modern American Realism” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum makes an interesting pendant to a larger and more compelling show at the Phillips Collection, also devoted to American art from about the same period. The Smithsonian features many of the same artists, and in several cases, important works by some of the lesser-known artists who appear to such good effect in the Phillips exhibition. But it is also a more haphazard show, and that, too, is interesting when compared with the more consistent vision found in the Phillips’s “Made in the USA,” which opened on March 1.

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New Smithsonian leader may have outsider’s edge in leading Institution into the future

Last December, then-New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg transferred 12 acres of city-owned land on Roosevelt Island to Cornell Tech, a graduate-level offshoot of Cornell University. This enormously expensive land was the brass ring in a competition that pitted some of the nation’s top universities against one another in the hope of being chosen to create a new technology center in the heart of the nation’s cultural capital. Cornell University President David J. Skorton, whose appointment as the next secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was announced Monday, led his university’s bid for the project, promising an investment of billions of dollars over decades in what is billed as a futuristic reinvention of higher education.

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Phillips Collection’s ‘Made in the USA’ showcases founder’s keen eye for American art

Most of the time, Duncan Phillips, the founder of the Phillips Collection, is irrelevant to the average visitor. Although he created the museum, and put his stamp on its core holdings, one needn’t bother too much with his legacy. He died almost 50 years ago, and it’s the art that matters, not the collector. And rich people, after all, can buy art so promiscuously that it inevitably seems, in retrospect, that they were particularly ingenious on betting on all the right horses.

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In Garry Winogrand’s photos, an America of perpetual motion and bottomless hunger

It’s not clear why a woman is swimming with a pig in Texas, or what overturned the tricycle in the desolate suburb of Albuquerque, or whether the dwarfish man in New York who looks menacingly at the woman in the dark hat is angry, or hungry for an assignation. The photographs of Garry Winogrand, on view in a comprehensive retrospective of his career at the National Gallery of Art, give only enough information to establish which pieces are on the chess board, but we don’t know who is playing, if anyone is winning, or whether there’s a game on at all. It’s possible, like the pattern waves make on the beach, that this is all random, undirected and meaningless. 

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The Corcoran Gallery is going away just as its mission is more important than ever

Recent leaders of the Corcoran Gallery of Art complained of its location on 17th Street NW, off the Mall and far from the National Gallery of Art and the principal venues of the Smithsonian. But in 1859, when William Wilson Corcoran broke ground on the first home of the Corcoran — the ornate red-brick building that now houses the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery — proximity to the White House was part of the new museum’s essential message.

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