Thursday, December 1, 2016

Get Your Fresh-Sliced Serenity and Calm

I was lured to Washington on false pretenses.

A couple of weeks ago, an artist friend suggested a road trip to the National Gallery to see the Caravaggio show, so I responded by choosing a 72-degree day to do it. Simple.

In the meantime, I read about the opening of a Stuart Davis show, meaning we now had two killer shows to see.

And because I'm the person in this relationship to whom research - not just about the art offerings, but also which restaurants and bars to investigate - and itinerary-making falls, I did my job, albeit at the last minute last night.

Because I waited until the eleventh hour, when I finally did go digging, it was only to discover that Caravaggio was indeed at the National Gallery.

In London. Caravaggio was at the National Gallery in frickin' London.

But, not wanting to be a spoil sport, I didn't immediately share this tidbit when my friend showed up at the crack of dawn (9:15 a.m.) to fetch me.

Sure, I had the Stuart Davis exhibition to offer up as a replacement - not to mention that even without a banner show, we could have easily occupied ourselves at the NGA from opening to close - but there seemed to be no reason to rush the bad news.

But when we stopped at a gas station in Aquia, it seemed like the right moment and I gently broke the news that there'd be no Caravaggio for us.

"Wait! I've got two credit cards in my wallet! We could be there in, what, six or so hours?" Apparently some people deal with disappointment by joking.

The good news is that the unfortunate turn of events worked out just fine. First we saw "Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959-1971," a fascinating show about Virginia Dwan's avant garde galleries, first in LA in the early '60s and then later in NYC.

All the pieces in the show were from Dwan's personal collection and reflected her interest in new art movements, ideas and techniques.

For proof, how '60s revolutionary sounding is this?

Shusaku Arakawa's 1969 "Stolen" got its name because the artist had painted the message, "If possible, steal any one of these drawings including this sentence," with the letters of "sentence" getting progressively lighter as if they'd been stolen already.

Naturally a group of students sent the artist a letter of intent to steal the piece, then stole it and sent a telegram confirming what they'd done. Arakawa responded, saying what a great surprise it was to be "collaborating" with them and suggesting they donate the work to a museum.

This being the '60s, most museums scoffed at the notion of accepting a gift of a stolen artwork until finally a Connecticut museum accepted it and renamed it "Stolen."

Hell, that's a practically perfect short story circa 1969.

For sheer impact, it was tough to beat Robert Smithson's "Glass Stratum," 37 stepped glass pieces, each 2" smaller than the last, for a pyramid effect of brilliant translucence and opaqueness simultaneously.

I bet it must have seemed incredibly modern in 1967.

After making a detour through a collection of small French works - Bonnard, Vuillard, Modigliani, Matisse - in the East Building to cleanse our artistic palates, we headed directly to the replacement main event: "Stuart Davis: In Full Swing."

We could practically hear the jazz music just looking at the scads of canvases on the walls.

Despite being able to recognize his distinctive later canvases, neither of us had any more than a cursory knowledge of Davis so we arrived eager to soak in this retrospective, only to be rewarded again and again by an artist whose career didn't begin to take off until he'd passed the mid-century mark.

Kind of reassuring, isn't it?

I'm sure it's completely coincidental, but the exhibit was made possible by Altria and began with Davis' early paintings of tobacco packages in muted colors. Zig Zag rolling papers put in frequent appearances in his works from the '20s, as did Lucky Strikes.

It was, after all, the era of smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Making our way through the next couple decades' worth of still lifes, urban scenes and landscapes, we watched as he began adding in commercial elements and advertising language, moving closer to the Stuart Davis we knew.

But where he truly nailed it to the wall was when he began giving reality a make-over, providing the ultimate American take on self re-invention.

He did that by recycling his old compositions, reworking them into something wholly different, something immediately recognizable as the decidedly abstract, prominently pop culture-referenced and defiantly American Stuart Davis paintings that could be mistaken for the art of no one else.

With 100 paintings in the show, it's impossible to pick favorites, but I don't know who could resist the sleight of hand as Davis took the perfectly pleasant "House and Street" with its simple buildings, signs and ladders and re-imagined it as the oh-so hip "The Mellow Pad," a painting that took six years to finish and is filled to bursting with musical energy, rhythmic patterns and brilliant colors.

Despite the name suggesting someone very much in tune with NYC's jazz scene (he's referred to as "the artist laureate of the Jazz Age"), the last thing it evokes is a mellow place.

When I think mellow, I think of my friend's recent description of my apartment - "Your slice of serenity and calm" - not the swingin' hot spot abstractly depicted in Davis' canvas.

We felt completely at home looking at his "Champion," a work on loan from the VMFA and so familiar to me that I could tell you where it usually hangs in the 20th century gallery.

Oh, that old thing? We're practically on a first name basis (although I hand't been aware of the Kirk Douglas movie tie-in).

But what we hadn't seen was the heartbreaking final work of Davis' career, worked on as recently as the night before he died of a stroke.

Masking tape still marks off straight lines and the work is clearly unfinished, yet the artist painted "Fin" at the top and then was gone the next day. Perhaps he sensed something.

All I know is that the two of us left there in a Stuart Davis-induced euphoria, unwilling to take on another exhibit despite being in a city full of world class art, because our minds and hearts were still busy happily processing what we'd just experienced.

We were jazzed and the original reason for our excursion was by then no more than a distant memory.

But, oh, Caravaggio, we'd have happily met you in London if only we'd had our passports with us...

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