I love to travel to distant cities, here in North America or overseas, but I always return with renewed fondness for my adopted hometown, Washington, D.C. I feel at home in our spicy pepper pot, with its swirling flavors of Africa, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, and Asia. I am grateful to live near the Library of Congress, with its vast collections that are so essential to my work. It's exciting to be close to the halls of government, or to walk along a sidewalk and have the president's motorcade pass by. Washington is home to sites all Americans revere: the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery, just across the river. Theater here is more affordable here than in New York, and as if all that were not enough, so many of our outstanding museums are free.
One day last week, my husband, John, and I visited one of those museums, the National Gallery of Art, because there were a couple of exhibitions we'd been wanting to see. The first was on street photography, a way of taking pictures that originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson. Street photographers capture life on city streets or in other public places. Their best images are candid portraits of people in their everyday setting, who likely had no idea they were being photographed.
Many photographers have contributed to this tradition, but the show began with Walker Evans and his portraits of riders on the New York City subway, made between 1938 and 1941. I am fascinated by pictures like these, because they offer a window back in time, but I also appreciate Evans's gift for capturing something of his subjects' character. These subway riders are tired, preoccupied, or caught up in a simple moment. A decade later, Harry Callahan surreptitiously photographed women walking along the street in Chicago. The concept is unsettling, but the best of these images are haunting and dark, vague faces emerging from blackness.
Evans, Callahan, and others worked largely in black and white, but Bruce Davidson chose bold color for his subway series from the 1980s. Color was the only way to capture the vibrancy of the graffiti that covered New York's subway cars in these years, inside and out, as well as the reeling hues riders often wore. These big photographs had to be the grittiest in the show, but they were among the most beautiful and memorable. The exhibition, titled "I Spy: Photography and the Theater of the Street," closed on August 5. The images are too recent for me to post without permission, but the brochure is available online: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2012/ispy/ispy.pdf.
George Bellows, "Blue Morning," 1909
The second exhibit we saw was of paintings, prints, and drawings by George Bellows, an important figure in American painting in the early twentieth century. His name might be more familiar if he hadn't died too early, in 1925, at age forty-two. I knew him from his paintings of the boxing ring, a scene that attracted him for its sweat, blood, and physical drama, but the show in the National Gallery offered a chance to see a broader range of his work: urban landscapes, portraits, imagined scenes of war, seascapes, and paintings of outdoor tennis matches.
I was captivated by Bellows's fearless use of color. A painting might glory, for example, in blue or purple or white. He painted a number of his cityscapes in winter, a season he clearly loved. John, in contrast, preferred the work in black and white, the lithographs and drawings. I asked him why, and he answered that as a photographer he appreciates black and white images, and that he savored Bellows's fine detail when working with a pencil or pen.
Then it was time to go, but before leaving the museum I paid a quick visit to an old friend:
Gilbert Stuart, "The Skater (William Grant)," 1782
And here's something else I like about Washington--our Chinatown is small, but its restaurants are outstanding. So after a morning well spent looking at photographs and paintings and building up an appetite, John and I walked a few blocks to one of our favorite places for lunch:
I learned to knit when I was very young by asking questions of adult knitters and getting piecemeal help in reply. A great aunt with no patience showed me how to wind yarn around a needle but grew snappy when I did it wrong; my grandmother's friend who was knitting something pink and enormous taught me to purl. Through learning and practice I gained proficiency, and knitting became a lifelong avocation, although I don't do everything by the book. As my mother once wisely said, "There should not be too many rules in knitting,"
Knitters share a love of working with their hands. We all take pleasure in the look and feel of beautiful fibers, although we may have different styles. Some knitters fashion delicate gloves and hats and socks; others boldly combine colors and textures and then sail ahead without the anchor of a pattern to produce brilliant scarves and fingerless gloves. I tend to make garments, mostly sweaters, and I have knitted more of them than I can count or even remember.
I have given many sweaters away, but I have kept many others, and I continue to wear them--and make them. Most will last forever, and certain ones have come to represent periods or even moments in my life. There is the alpaca pullover that I wore to hear Jorma Kaukonen sing and play when I was newly pregnant, or the yellow cabled number that my mind's eye can see still on its needles, on my kitchen table in the Pacific Northwest. When I consider the sweaters together, I see how my interest in knitting has evolved, how conventional styles gave way to experiments in nontraditional color choice and asymmetry, and to explorations of vintage patterns and yarns. Is it a stretch to say that every sweater tells a story? If I were to seek deeply enough, maybe each one does.
A time came, though, when I needed to find a new way to think about this thing I do. I had so many sweaters, yet I wanted to create more. What was the sense in this? I discovered what I was searching for in the world of conceptual art. In its simplest form, this is art viewed as a process, with the making of the art at least as important as the tangible work. The work must be considered along with the idea that underlies it. According to this definition, all my sweaters and the making and wearing of them are conceptual art. Those sweaters that I give away and the actions of others upon them may be part of the process, too.
But let's not get too serious. It is fun to play with ideas, just as it is satisfying for me, conceptual artist that I am, to search through my books and yarn stash and plan my newest sweater.
The GPS insisted that we were in the right place, so who was I to argue? Still, as my husband and I walked toward the heavy door, I had my doubts. Could this unmarked warehouse in a shabby industrial part of Miami really house a world-class assemblage of contemporary art? We opened the door, and...
Yes! A step inside, and the world had changed. Our eyes took quick note of sculpted forms and figures, large-format photographs, and neon lights. Our ears picked up the jumbled hum of video soundtracks. We had found what we were looking for, the Martin Z. Margulies Collection. Appetites whetted, we ventured forward.
Martin Margulies's long and lucrative career in South Florida real estate has allowed him to indulge his passion for cutting-edge art. He is a businessman who believes in giving back to the community that brought him success, and one way he does this is by sharing his art. The ten-dollar donation that a visitor pays to view the collection goes to Lotus House, a shelter for homeless women and children that Margulies supports. These are ten dollars well spent, in more ways than one.
A collection reflects the collector's taste, and Margulies's runs to big sculpture and installations, photographs that offer social commentary, and experimental video art. We had fun encountering old friends like George Segal and Joan Miro. We also discovered some new ones, like the Dutch sculptor Folkert de Jong, whose installation Les Saltimbanques replicates the figures from Picasso's painting of the same name--life size. And Michelangelo Pistoletto, whose Two Less One consists of two gilded mirrors hung at right angles, one having been smashed with a hammer. I'm not sure I get it, but I like the bravado, and I trust that understanding will come in time.
As at a crowded party, before long there were too many new names to remember. Only faces, or in this case visual impressions, remain. We sat mesmerized before a lengthy video of a Rube Goldbergish chain reaction that was heavy on pyrotechnics. We got a kick out of a full-scale kitchen that was completely covered in polyester batting as though buried under an inch of silencing snow .What better image to carry with us as we stepped out into the Florida sun?
We left the Margulies Collection refreshed, as if we had spent the morning on the beach. Then we trusted the GPS to guide us to a waterside watering hole for lunch.