In My Own Back Yard

I am particularly fond of the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, which is a 33 minute walk from my front door. Essentially it is in “my own back yard.”

The East Wing, designed by I.M. Pei (who also designed the pyramid entrance to the Louvre in Paris) has fielded criticisms from the art establishment as being more of a social space than an effective art museum. But my soul begs to differ with that assessment. The critics say the actual spaces in the gallery to hang and present art, mostly painting and sculpture, is limited, clunky, secondary to the architecture, and an utter failure at giving the art displayed its due. I would have to do a “rainbow roll” of delight over that whole assessment.

The magnificence of the architecture never prevented me from gazing full on at any individual piece of masterwork any artist had displayed in the East Wing of this architectural nirvana. In fact, the cathedral like qualities of the East Wing put me in a mood of elevation that always prepares me to receive higher truths of any given single or collective work of art displayed there within its glorious spaces.

The Guggenheim by Frank Loyd Wright

Not Since The Guggenheim

In the late 1970s when the East Wing was conceived and constructed, not since the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in New York, built in the late 1950s by architect Frank Loyd Wright, had such a “cathedral to art” been manifested with such dramatic lines and spacial openness. One could say the “Art Looking” there was also a different experience, and most paintings are viewed within the slightly inclined spiral space that towers up to the heavens in its central core. That a social space is created is not a distraction but an enhancement.

When I walk through the Galleries of modern paintings in the East Wing, it is my responsibility to Look and See. The works have been adequately presented for me to delve into them. And, the spaces are inspiring enough, even if I only wish to do a quick “walk through.” I am never disappointed. I can find a couple of my favorite Jasper Johns here, or Arshile Gorky, or Mark Rothko. These paintings may not have the expansiveness of space around them that some modern art aesthetes may require to be satisfied, but I deeply feel the works themselves, up close and intimate, regardless of the number of yards between one work and the next.

Space You Can Have

There is a space you can have in the huge interior atrium of the East Wing. Imagine the size of some modern painting, such as this action painting by Franz Klein, in the central atrium gallery of the East Wing. It needs a great space on this scale to even house it, definitely not fitting into your living room, rivaling the scale of The Last Supper.

Franz Klein in the East Wing
Calder in the East Wing
Calder in the East Wing

And Alexander Calder’s huge mobile is dangled from the clerestory, complimenting the architectural elements of line, material and color. I am compelled to gaze upward. I am lifted into appreciation for the Light raining down from a roof grid of glass pyramids that spans overhead. The pedestrian gangways are suspended as well, and I feel like I am floating through the East Wing on the benevolence of I. M. Pei’s lofty design. I take delight meandering through “my cathedral to modern art.”

Something very important to get about modern art is that it is an encounter with the pure elements of the materials, and the process of formulating those materials into an organized body of a sculpture, a painting, or even a happening that is unique to a particular time. It is more akin to music, than a “depiction of something.” It relates to us more like a “performance,” even if we end up with an “art object” frozen in the time/space continuum.

Sondra Ray with Henri Matisse in the East Wing

This is an Henri Matisse painting of “cutouts” in the East Wing, with Sondra Ray in repose. There is something immediate about it. The forms are flat and bright and direct. In his later years, Matisse was bedridden and did a series of these “cutouts” from his bedside, putting together his compositions from a collage of brilliantly colored puzzle shapes. By then his name was well known enough to gain attention. Below is an overview of his work in about 60 seconds. Note his love for Islamic architectural patterning.

Matisse Overview

One can sit and relax around the brilliance of the creative soul. The East Wing allows us to take a respite from the “doings” of modern work-a-day life in order to just “BE.” The space is conducive to loafing, which is like the poet said. One can “observe a spear of summer grass,” as Whitman wrote, and “celebrate myself.” In this celebration is great beauty, which abounds infinitely in the collection freely accessible to the people of this nation, and any visitor from foreign lands.

Our “Greats” Are Recognized

Our American Greats are recognized as well. This is a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. “Jack-In-The-Pulpit #IV” takes us to a kind of interstellar flight within the intricacies of flower components in front of us. We are transported by modern art to interpretations that transcend the depicted subject matter. The piece is a portal to experiences newly formed in us, as we give this art our attention. Two of us could have totally different experiences of a work depending on our own inner make-up and compositions. Open-Mindedness is invoked. A seed of reference is all we need to expand into a totally new dimension. And perhaps that seed refers only to the thing at hand, the materials used, the colors set in harmony or discord.

O’Keeffe – “Jack-In-The-Pulpit #IV”

We cannot limit the visual experience of art, nor can we confine it to places in our mind that hope for certain limited explanations. There are no certain explanations in the terms it shows us of “this” or “that.” It is a whole different world of East versus West, or the “past” with the “now.” We encounter a thing in the present no matter when it was made, with a mind in the present, we would hope.

Through a Tunnel of Light

Between the East Wing and the West Wing of The National Gallery of Art there is a tunnel. I call it the “Tunnel of Light.” It is underground. It is like going from one dimension to another when you pass through it. It takes you from the Modern World back in time before there were even cars. The Galleries in the West Wing are devoted to the art of the 19th century and before. Masterworks were made deliberately and slowly, sometimes taking years to execute. Even the architecture is of a different era. We pass through the Tunnel of Light to see a different kind of cathedral, and different kind of icon in the world of visual effects and art objects of our highest aspirations.

Sondra and I in the “Tunnel of Light.”

Just across the way, through the “Tunnel of Light” to the West Wing of the NGA, there is a gulf of expectations crossed. We are taken through this tunnel back to a time when cultural canons and propaganda were the ruling forces of what produced art and supplied the more controlled artistic concerns. Which art was allowed past the gatekeepers of art history in order to be valued and to survive into this age? What stands before us today, and why does it stand? The collections in the West Wing answer these questions with stunning examples.

Just a hundred and fifty years before O’Keeffe in the East Wing, we have Jacques-Louis David in the West Wing with his romance of ideal hero worship in Napoleon Bonaparte. That Napoleon is a beautiful piece of art work is undeniable—a masterpiece in its own right. I am always mesmerized by its perfection. Yet, empires come and go, just like emperors and queens and artists. But Beauty may not come and go, and the qualities that lead us to the holy encounter with Beauty are in our own back yard when we have eyes to see, and hands to feel, and hearts to love.

Jacques-Louis David – Napoleon

This is not to say that “hero worship” left us when Modern Art arrived. Warhol’s Self Portrait, a kind of modern day hero worship of the narcissistic variety gives us pause. Have times changed that much? We used to have political figures whom we idolized, and now we have “pop-culture” figures whom we idolize. The academy trained portraitist traded in his painstakingly precise anatomy drawings and laboriously intricate painting methods for a photo booth snap-shot of quickly squeegeed silk-screened fame. Be it only for fifteen minutes. We move on, and ponder something else that catches the eye of our visual arts consumption.

Self Portrait of Warhol

The Thing Is A Thing

In the end, the painting is a painting. It is a thing. We see the Beauty in it or not. A layering of pigments and colors on a surface catches our eight seconds of attention. Or more if we are truly moved. The sculpture adds another layer of visual experience. Three dimensions grip us instead of two, and usually color is at a minimum. The East Wing—we go there to look at things other people made. When we move from the West to the East Wing, about all we can do is strip down our expectations to the bare minimum: what we thought we knew is best to stay back with the kings, curators and art historians. We have something more important to discover about ourselves.

Black Metal Construct of Cubes; A Red / Maroon Monolith; An Oak Wood Floor; A Washed Out Yellow Wall Construct; A Square of Subdued Color Field—all in a spatial constellation we can walk through. Mondrian could not have done it better in this kind of East Wing Washington Boogie-Woogie. The whole thing is music to our eyelids. We need not even know who made the things. I don’t. But they moved me enough to take this photo.

Various Modern Works of Art

The thing is a thing, for God’s sake. We put it in a museum because we give it value. Enough of us did that for the thing to be here. We are immersed in the man-made compendium of objects d’art. But at some point we have to see nothing exists that is not God Created. The materials of wood, metal, pigments, light, space, and shadows harmonize to bring us to this sacred moment, always right in front of us. Here we are in the East Wing, meandering around aimlessly it seems, taking some breaths, “Looking at Art” we may not understand. But we think we understand Napoleon. Do we really? Who was that guy? An egomaniac military man bent on his own version of fraternite, egalite, and liberte—as long as he could be the ruler of the whole thing.

But that said, a Beautiful Painting is a Beautiful Painting anyway, regardless of the subject it embraces. When the Gods of Painting and Sculpture freed the artist from “depicting something,” the Thing became free to inspire us beyond our thinking. And this was necessary. It had to negate itself before it could re-construct itself. The Phoenix had to die and be “born-again,” rising from the ashes of its own demise, to resurrect into the present of Art with something meaningful to look at. And we, for the most part, the viewer, supply the meaning. It is not rammed down our throats by church or state. Or even the most gifted artist. We have a creative part in the end experience. We bring our Self to it, just as much a part of the creative vortex of action as the painter’s brush put to the canvas, or the sculptor’s chisel put to stone, or the architect’s drawings handed over to the master builder.

I Leave You With This

An artist makes altars to the truth. No matter what the thing is that he creates, whether it be a portrait of the Emperor, a building with a great space of expansive proportions, a sculpture of skeletal cubes on an endless floor of oak wood, or a organically cut out puzzle of spectrally brilliant shapes pasted to a canvas, he is scanning the heart of his being to make a True Thing. The Thing is the Thing, and it moves his whole being to posit it in the Life Stream of Infinite Possibilities. You may not see what he sees, but because he has given his truth to it, you can give your truth to it, and take away what you will. That could be Everything—or nothing. That is all up to you.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

John Keats

This is the direction of my new work. We shall see where it goes. I will keep you posted.



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Markus Ray – “Babaji, Butterflies, & Angel”
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