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Selected Works at the National Gallery

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Contributing editor James Conaway is also our resident art buff, so and we always appreciate his willingness to offer us a tour of some of the new exhibits he finds during his travels.

National Gallery of Art in Washington: so-called “modern” art has ingeniously been made not just accessible, but practically participatory. We’re not talking about amateurs here, but the likes of Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, and Jasper Johns up close and personal, at least as far as inspiration and technique are concerned.

For the gallery’s latest exhibit, The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works, curators dipped into the permanent Meyerhoff trove, came up with 126 exemplary works from the late ’50s to the present, and then radically grouped them according to theme, i.e. “Scrape,” “Line,” “Drip,” even “Stripe to Zip,” as well as more conceptual categories like figure, frame, and “concentrity.” The result’s a riveting meander through half a century of fine painting, sculpture, drawings, and prints categorized not by year or artist, but according to the ways in which the artists themselves made the leap from idea to creation.

For instance, at the outset you’ll encounter, in the Scrape chamber, Hans Hofman’s Autumn Gold (above, left), a gorgeous example of paint applied in geometric swaths with a big palette knife that manages to convey both depth and a surface brilliance. Nearby, Willem de Kooning muses in Untitled VI with some airy squiggles in blue, red and black on a scraped white background, an unusually approachable work for this artist. In Line, Stella’s ironically-titled Gray Scramble is in reality a whimsical, almost floral arrangement of geometric squares that create a colorful vortex that’s the antithesis of gray.

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In the Gesture room, Franz Kline does just that, in Turbin, with broad, black strokes in oil and enamel that are pure assertion and were no doubt as freeing for the artist as they are instructional for the viewer. In the final room – Picture the Frame – you’re ready for Roy Lichtenstein’s whimsical colored pencil studies for Fragmented Painting of Lemons and Melon on a Table (right) that make an implied frame of the rest of the canvases. Howard Hodgkin’s Old Money has the lines of the frame within the painting’s deep greens and complementary reds, suggesting that the universe is really what frames art. Or is he saying that really old money has no parameters?

The only way to see this daringly-conceived exhibit is in its entirety, gradually, reflectively.

One of many quotations on the walls of the exhibit, this one by the artist Brice Marden, “The rectangle is a great human invention,” made this light bulb go off for the umpteenth time, and I thought, “But, of course, so is art.”

The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works, is at National Gallery of Art, and runs from October 1, 2009-May 2, 2010.

Images: Above, Hans Hofmann, Autumn Gold, 1957, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. Below Roy Lichtenstein, Fragmented Painting of Lemons and a Melon on a Table, 1973, oil and Magna on canvas, Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff.

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