We lived in The District – Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia) – when our youngest child went off to kindergarten. I went right down to the Smithsonian and said “I volunteer.”
The Smithsonian was welcoming – by then I’d published some articles and worked in public relations – and sent me off to the National Museum of American Art, then not yet open in the renovated building originally designed as the Patent Office. This splendid edifice, first under construction in 1836, is the size of two city blocks, lined off by F and G, 7th and 9th Streets. “You can help handle p.r. for the opening,” the Volunteer Coordinator said.
So that is how I came to be among the staffers entering the building at a small basement door every Tuesday morning and staying into the afternoon – until needed at home as school was out – and writing about a collection I’d never seen. We passed it, in the basement, as we came in, storage shrouded. Not for the first time, public relations writing was an act of the imagination, grounded so far as possible in fact.
“We’re starting docent training,” I was told. “You should go to classes, see the slides.” So I came even more often, and did begin to get a better sense of American painting and sculpture. The classes wound up; the program head said to me “You’re a docent.” “No,” I explained, “I’m a p.r. assistant. I was here to learn the collection.” “You’re also a docent,” I was told. “We need everyone we’ve trained.”
And that is why many of my Washington memories are centered on American art – which frankly had not interested me much before – and on that glorious mid-19th century building that started out as the patent office and is generally conceded to be a fine example of classical public architecture. It was a hospital during the Civil War – Walt Whitman came to read poems to the soldiers – and generally, down the years, has proved to be handsome accommodation for whatever is in it. When I knew it the National Museum of American Art had half the space, the Portrait Gallery the other half and the two museums existed separately. In the years since there have been other renovations and when I went there last month the two collections flowed into each other and expanded the visitor’s experience in the most satisfactory fashion I had yet seen.
The collection has grown and been wholly re-installed since I was spending time there, and on my recent visit I went round looking for old friends. Not people friends, the staff has turned over since my time, but the art itself. It all looked different now, until I rounded a corner and came on Edward Hopper’s “People in the Sun,” a triangle of five persons, in chairs, faces turned up to the light. “Hi guys!” I wanted to say. “Remember me?” But they are Hopper people, so inward turned that recognition is unimaginable. I was glad to see them, however. Near by was a 1960 Stuart Davis I also remembered, “International Surface #1,” in which he plays with a few flat colors, some letters and some numbers in a manner other artists would either pick up or perhaps think they invented. “Hi, Stuart,” I didn’t say, as I had no desire to be turned in as crazy. But the pleasure in coming across these remembered works, in the face of so many new ones, was absolutely real.
On another day I went with a friend to the National Gallery, heading by habit to the rooms just north and east of the main floor rotunda, and finding there exactly what I knew I’d see: paintings that told my generation, plus several before it and some after, that painting would not be the same again. Now they never cease to please, these 19th century French works, although their original reception was stormy, and even at this late date they can surprise. No need to write more about Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, the rest of them; they’ve been pretty fully covered. But drop by to see these fine examples, the next time you’re in D.C.
The Phillips Collection! How many people would put that at the top of their personal list of favorite museums? And why? My answer is that beyond the quality of the works and despite the addition to the building that took place some years ago, the Phillips Collection retains its personal quality. Duncan Phillips collected it, hung it in his own house, made his house its museum. The pleasure in going there is as though you’ve stopped in on an extraordinarily discriminating friend. My son, who happened to be in Washington when I was, went to the Phillips with me. We paused at a Paul Klee. “I know this one. We had it in the hallway,” he said in pleased recognition, meaning that I had come home with a printed copy of it and pinned it up where we passed it regularly. I came home with printed reproductions often and our house was informally studded with copies of great works along with a few originals, often by artists we knew. We moved on, into the Phillips house itself, through the library – set up for a concert later that afternoon – to the modest-sized rooms beyond. In the back parlor there wasn’t a painting I didn’t know, some of them from postcards once mounted above my sink to give me something to think about when peeling onions. Onions, in fact, appeared themselves in at least one still life.
At one time a very early Italian painting, small, unobtrusive, hung in the Phillips hallway. It’s been gone for years – in storage, I was told when I asked about it – but I still miss it. It’s the beginning of the world, as I interpret it – orange light signifies the sun is rising between two hills – and the figure I take to be God has just invented time, as he’s holding a large hour glass. He has to, because the angel who’s with him is holding a violin, and you can’t make music without time. My postcard of the piece has disappeared and I’m sure the gallery would give another version of the intended message, but I always liked the painting’s slightly awkward, serious air. I wish they’d hang it again.
There was also a visit to a space wholly new to me: the Mansion at Strathmore, part of an arts center just outside the Beltway in North Bethesda. The Mansion, where you can have tea on certain days of the week and look at art exhibitions on any day but Monday, was built as a private summer house in 1899 and has sloped with ease into its role as gallery and tea room. The exhibition on now through May 31st is If the Shoe Fits. It presents shoes you never dreamed of and for the most part couldn’t wear, but they are intriguing and frequently beautiful. Some are actual shoes, the product of designers giving range to their imaginations, some are shoes as metaphor or sculpture or both. There are things to be done with shoes that most of us have not contemplated.
But I had gone to Washington primarily to see old friends. Some of them were of the human variety, but quite a number of them were hanging on walls.