January 2010, Contemporary Art in Washington DC

Maria Friberg, Alongside Us, 2007, Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery


Contemporary Art in Washington DC

As a petulant fifteen-year-old, I was less than grateful when my parents joined the Clinton administration and we moved from Manhattan to Washington DC. However, as an adult living in Berlin, I recognize that I owe my current career as a contemporary art critic to my teenage years in DC. So now that I live full-time in Berlin and am planning a trip back to see my family in the States, I know that DC will be one of my favored destinations. And instead of feeling petulant, I am as excited as a kid.

DC's main appeal for visitors interested in art is the extraordinary constellation of nineteen museums affiliated through the Smithsonian Institute. And like most art-loving out-of-towners, I am always thrilled by how the city blends enduring institutions housing iconic paintings and sculpture with forward thinking galleries that offer the hot art and young artists of the moment. I'm keen to delve into both.

For me, the main draw will be the first American retrospective of Yves Klein, which will be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden starting in May. Klein is best known for slathering women in his signature ultramarine paint and pressing them against canvases, so that unlike conventional artists who paint women as subjects, he actually painted with the women themselves. Here, the Hirshhorn tantalizingly celebrates Klein as "An artist, composer, judo master, Rosicrucian, proto-conceptualist and performance artist," and promises to provide a challenging display of his creations going beyond his always sexy and subversive paintings. But I am especially interested in seeing those iconic canvases installed in the Hirshhorn's graceful physical structure. The Hirshhorn Museum's three-tiered cylindrical building that architect Gordon Bunshaft designed in 1974 is one of the most distinctive and flattering spaces for contemporary art in the country. The experience of seeing the French artist's rich, deep blue set against luscious glimpses of the Hirshhorn's Sculpture Garden promises to be a rare treat.

The establishment of the Hirshhorn Museum propelled Washington DC from a bastion of significant historical exhibitions into a venue for innovative contemporary art.  The Hirshhorn's story began in 1962, when Joseph Hirshhorn loaned prime elements of his collection to the Guggenheim museum and became known as a significant collector of Modernist painting and sculpture. At the urging of Lady Bird Johnson and then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, Hirshhorn agreed to give his renowned collection to the Smithsonian, and Congress funded the construction of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden which has become the Capital's premier space for contemporary art.

Leo Villareal, Sky,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery

Thanks to the contemporary art climate the Hirshhorn continues to nurture, a cluster of exhibition spaces like Transformer have emerged. Transformer is a leading non-for-profit gallery which focuses on site-specific installations made by international young artists. Since it was founded in 2002, years after I had moved away, I missed the explosive impact its arrival had on the local scene.  But I always enjoy its shows that I make a point of seeing when I visit DC. The two-level roomy storefront space, tucked between a barber shop and a fish market, is like the tardis from Dr. Who - a tiny space that offers a remarkably expansive opportunity for exploration. And since it is funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation, it serves as a nurturing hive for artists to lecture, collaborate and show their work without worrying overmuch about collectors' tastes and concerns.

At times, the political nature of DC's environment has worked against its native artists. Because many of DC's more affluent personages are involved with politics and government, they are often personally in transit and don't commit to investing with the local art scene. However, today may be different.  As Transformer's director Victoria Reis explains, local artists are experiencing a particular hopeful and fertile moment, "DC overall is a city of transients and transplants - huge international community and influx of people from all over the country via political administrations. I think there is definitely more interest by audiences in the more experimental/cutting edge arts in DC during administrations that support creative thinking overall. The Obama administration has definitely helped pique a surge of interest in the arts in DC, and there has been much more audience turn-out at a variety of arts events - not just the traditional opera/ballet/symphony/major museum turn out. Audiences are better connecting with art happening in neighborhoods, at smaller organizations, much like the Obamas are reaching out to local neighborhoods in DC."

For collectors looking to scoop up rare works by leading artists, there are places with key internationally-known contemporary artists in their roster. The Adamson Gallery in the bohemian Dupont Circle neighborhood boasts limited edition pigment prints by Chuck Close, including the last stunning images of an earthy nude Kate Moss taken during Close's photo session with the supermodel, daguerreotypes that Close took of a craggy-looking Brad Pitt and placid winter landscapes by Lou Reed. And for anyone interested in another kind of star-power, Adamson is also one of the few galleries to offer limited edition prints by William Wegman of his elegant surreal portraits of his Weimaraner dogs.


Left: An early photo of Ana Finel Honigman; Right: The author's father, 1975


For my own contemporaries, and also my parents, a consistent highlight of an art-centered trip to DC is the Govinda gallery, where I interned through high school to the envy of my classmates. Govinda specializes in high-end historical, rock-and-rock-affiliated photography, offering iconic images by Rolling Stone Magazine's photographers Anton Corbijn and Mick Rock, coupled with romantic paintings and sculptures by Carlotta Hester. Not one to mince words, director Chris Murray promises that "Just walking in these doors on any given day is still the most interesting thing happening in Washington."

Those in the know reiterate the sentiment. "Govinda gallery is the corner stone of the city's art world," affirms DC-raised artist Zhivago Duncan. "From behind its storefront, Chris Murray is a man who lived and was part of a world that everyone fantasizes about and everyone cool in Washington DC knows that he is the coolest."  The coolness quota comes from the gallery's subject matter but also from the aura around Murray himself - a Warhol darling in his youth before opening the gallery at its current leafy Georgetown location thirty-four years ago. Govinda still attracts the city's avant-garde; it soon will host a show of its greatest hits, featuring images by Annie Lebowitz, Andy Warhol and Govinda's own powerhouse roster.

The rock-star spirit is also on display in the Smithsonian's august portrait gallery where One Life: Echoes of Elviscelebrates The King's 75th birthday with portraits of Presley by Andy Warhol, Red Grooms and other artistic admirers. And although its subject matter is set in Harlem, New York, another music-based historical exhibition, Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Theater Shaped American Entertainment at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture amply represents the rich cultural history of Washington DC's vibrant African-American permanent resident community.

I know that I'll be missing my cat, Charlie, who is also something of an art star after video artist Jordan Wolfson filmed her for New York's Swiss Institute. But despite the flare-up of yearning for my own pet they are sure to provoke, I can't wait to gaze at Artful Animals, at the Museum of African Art, in which more than a hundred and twenty-five works embody the manifold representational, allegorical and spiritual depictions of animals in African art history, from rock art to contemporary painting. And really, my most jealous feelings are now about the budding art critics who get to grow up amid the vibrant art scene in today's Washington DC.




Erik Thor Sandberg, Nest,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery



Erik Thor Sandberg, Fleet,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery



Kenny Hunter, Roche Rooks,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery



Kenny Hunter, Like Water,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery


Maria Friberg, Still Lives,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery


Maria Friberg, Transmission,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery


Leo Villareal, Outdoor Installation,
Courtesy Connor Contemporary Gallery



Ana Finel Honigman, Berlin

Ana Finel Honigman is a Berlin-based critic. She writes about contemporary art and fashion for magazines including Artforum.com, Art in America, V, TANK, Art Journal, Whitewall, Dazed & Confused, Saatchi Online, Style.com, Dazeddigital.com, British Vogue, Interview and the New York Times's Style section. A Sarah Lawrence graduate, Ana has completed a Masters degree and is currently reading for a D.Phil in the History of Art at Oxford University. She also teaches a contemporary art course for NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development students. You can read her series Ana Finel Honigman Presents

Photo: Maxime Ballesteros


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