The great sequester is coming to an end—we hope. At least here in Washington it looks that way. All the political hoopla seems to have died down, and the National Gallery is open again. What a relief. Now I can get back to the business of ART LOOKING. I had taken a hiatus, and now I am back in the flow again. Last Wednesday I took a saunter up to the East Wing, the Modern Section of the National Gallery. I usually go there alone as Sondra does not have much patience for the so-called “modern art.” I can see why. Most people want to see paintings of pictures of things they can identify. This is just the way it is. So I took my own traipse to the holy land, as Thoreau would have put it. I became a Saint Terrer, or “saunterer” to the National Gallery, my “Holy Land.”

I walk to the National Gallery

It takes me 33 minutes to walk to the National Gallery West Wing from our apartment here in the Navy Yard. I go past the Department of Transportation, turn up New Jersey Avenue, head north and go under the I-695 overpass, along the Electric Company fenced in plant, head toward the National Arboretum and Conservatory, over past the American Indian Museum, across the Mall and I’m there. Its a good walk, and sometimes beauty surprises me while immersed in the meditation of the walk itself.

Going through Capitol Hill

I walk through the Capitol Hill neighborhood which is made up of century homes with well manicured front yards. Often there are flowers planted, making the walk very colorful. And many of the sidewalks are brick, as that was the paving material back then. In the Navy Yard many of the buildings are new. But in Washington there is a mixture of the old and the new. Much of the residential architecture is over a century old in the neighborhoods around the Capitol.

Approaching the Mall, there are big trees on either side. I am caressed by the shade. When I get up near the Museum, it is very beautifully landscaped. I feel like I am engulfed in a “green of graciousness.” For the first time in over a year the East Wing is open for entry. I have my entry pass in my Apple Wallet on my iPhone. How convenient. Many things are digitalized these days. Good to save paper.

The first thing I see in the museum

I come into the huge atrium space of the East Wing. This feeling always is expansive. The materials and the elements come together in a purity of sacred space. There is a brilliance of light in the space, more even than the cathedrals that are so grand in Europe. The light engulfs one, and the feeling of illumination enhances the feelings of expansiveness. I am always moved by just the massiveness of this space. Five minutes in this hallowed hall can always pick my spirits up.

The East Wing of the National Gallery

Some artists I know and some I don’t.

It does not seem to matter who made the art. It is all a visual treat. And just the quality of the materials, or the color, or the spacial contrast of one piece to the next, or to its environment, is the experience of the things.

It does not seem to even matter if I “like or dislike” the art I am seeing. It is what it is—stuff to think about, look at, take into my sensory world. One of the purposes of Modern Art is for us to suspend our judgments and expectations and just “see” what is in front of us. It is a context rather than a position. And within this context of pondering, looking, taking in, one discovers something in themselves as much as in the art work.

A Stack of Folded Vinyl Panels

This stack of folded red vinyl panels is quite striking. The oak boards of the flooring are just as much a part of the statement as the “piece of art” itself. And also the minimal “L” shaped paintings hanging on the wall, in a kind of dull Aquamarine Blue, contribute to the brightness of the red. The red seems more brilliant and the blue seems more dull. “Please do not touch” is contributing to the statement as well. You wanna touch it all the same. In fact, part of me wanted to wait until the guard was not looking and then touch the thing. I imagine I would be on video somewhere if I did that.

Kandinsky is my favorite

Kandinsky is one of my favorite abstract painters. He was one of the first who bridged the gap between the visual image of something, and the spiritual essence of it. Basically he got lost in the color, and the paint, and the action of the paint itself. He was one of the first to say the pure elements in the painting are their own subject. Marshall McLuan coined the phrase: “the medium in the message.” This is somewhat true in the case of “abstract painting.” Kandinsky’s painted forms, lines, swatches of bounding colors compose the “message,” much in the same way a musician composes a symphony.


This movement in the masterful symphony of Kandinsky’s color is exquisite. There is a build up of orange. A range of warm tones with a crescendo into a sanguine red—and up in the left corner a green swatch so much in harmony with the orange. His mastery is superb. Then the vectors of warm black hold the skeletal necessity for structure. Specifically stroked, but open enough to keep the whole composition fluid, clear, and expansive like the space it occupies—parallels its place in this Modern Art Museum.

As much as one may dislike Picasso….

Some people actually cannot stand the macho nature of Picasso and his violent dissection of the human form into fragmented cubes and angles and shapes and whatnot. But I always liked him and his sensitivity was unsurpassed. I even like his explosion of cubism into a kind of atomically blown apart form of modern life. This blessing is angelic, by him.

Picasso of a Girl Blessing

Girl with a Spanish fan giving a blessing

Who is she blessing? It is a holy gesture, whether intended or not. I suspect it was intended. We have seen those black Spanish fans that women hold in Valencia. It almost takes on a religious status here. She could be a modern Virgin Mary giving her benediction to the world. The angles of her hands are deliberate; the three visual parallel “dashes” of staccato dark shadows under the eyelid, nose and lip are shooting forward a gaze of graciousness—taking our gaze forward as well, off to the left of the picture. There is something remarkable out there, no? Why else would she be giving such a holy gesture of a blessing?

And the whole color scheme of the work is set up to speak “cerulean blue” to us. It is seared into our memory. The “blessing of blue” one could call it. An unforgettable Art Look Moment. I will ask you in a month if you remember that “blessing of blue” in the Picasso painting. You probably will. Just like I always remember that orange in the Kandinsky above.

The construction of architectonic form

Cubism was one of Picasso’s call to fame. He broke stuff up and put stuff back together in a kind of architectonic construct of his own making. Man as the ultimate CREATOR in a kind of Baroque barrage of geometrically intertwined “sounds” of form, shape, shadow, and lines.

Later on in the 1920’s Picasso goes wild. Kandinsky has already blown the picture plane apart and taken it to the stars, now the Spaniard synthesizes the explosion into purely graphic compositions as well. A lot of poetic license now gives the artist full range to construct and compose. There is an architecture in Picasso that never leaves. He builds a painting like a house, or a street, or a living room. The organism of desire is channeled along the lines of a master builder.

Blast of Color

We all want a blast of color in our life. The Saunter to the Holy Land of Artistic Revelation is a basic need in life. I am fortunate to have this resource 33 minutes of walking away. And in between there are also some great sensual delights along the way—colonnades of trees; flower beds of petunias; brick walkways; and fields of green. There is a BLAST OF COLOR on the saunter to the Holy Land. We go our way rejoicing when we are aware of it; we tailspin into the doldrums when we are not.

My weekly “Saunter to the National Gallery” is one of God’s greatest blessings for our life here in Washington. I am happy to share them. Thank you for showing up for this Art Look. Please write to me:

Frank Stella
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