I woke Saturday morning wanting most of all to see some Whistlers. I'd ended Friday night the same way I'd ended the night before -- up the block from my hotel, sitting at Al Tiramisu's bar sipping grappa with Luigi, under Adriana's watchful eye. A little grappa goes a very long way, and I was cautious, but Luigi loves the stuff as I do, and he's always got something new to try. So when I rose to consciousness, and called down for my pot of coffee, I still had a bit of a pleasant buzz around the ears. And I knew the best thing for me was to spend an hour with Jimmy Whistler.
Friday had been a very long, and quite wonderful day, and frankly, I wasn't sure what my energy level for the rest of Saturday would be. I'd come to DC strictly on holiday, for the express purpose of seeing the completed expansion of the Phillips Collection, and the newly (and finally!) reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum. I'd taken a late flight on Thursday, so that I could put in a full work day, and it was after 10:00 when I got to the hotel and considerably later when I got back from Al Tiramisu. But I'd gotten up eager to get into my day and cleared my head with a long, brisk walk through Georgetown, and then a light lunch of mussels and frites at Bistrot du Coin. I'd spent hours at the Phillips, thrilled with what they'd done, making repeated stops in the renovated Rothko Room. Then I'd walked down to American Art for a brief overview before heading back into Georgetown for supper at Bistro Francais, and then ending up for that grappa nightcap with Luigi. Like I said, a long and wonderful day.
I had a ticket for the Saturday evening performance of Richard III, and I knew I wanted to spend some hours at American Art, and I really wanted to try to pace myself -- but I needed to see some Whistlers. Ever since that revelatory retrospective back in the late eighties (one of the few art exhibitions that I can truly say changed my life), he's been among my pantheon of painters (the others being Goya, Daumier, and Rothko), and I knew exactly where to go. For several years now, the Freer has devoted their long lower gallery to rotating exhibits of small Whistler works. I wasn't sure what was currently up, but I knew I'd love it and that it would fill me with that sense of astonishment and wonder and delight that Whistler always gives me.
It turned out to be a series of his small oils, most of them from the 1880s. These are remarkable pictures, mostly seascapes, punctuated by some wonderful urban scenes. I've been looking closely at Whistler paintings for most of my adult life, and even the ones that I know well leave me breathless, thinking, "How does he do that? How, in such tiny spaces, with just a handful of confident, seemingly careless, brushstrokes, does he evoke whole worlds and the deep and complicated hearts of the people who live in them?" As usual, the placards emphasize that Whistler was all about art for art's sake and was only concerned with composition and color and line. I suppose it's true to a point, but it's also an excessively academic way of looking at the work. He is among the most deeply human painters I know, and to claim that in a painting like the little red glove, for example, all he cares about is composition, is to willfully ignore the life that he has put into that young girl's eyes. Sometimes art historians annoy me to tears.
After filling myself up for awhile with those paintings, I was ready for some lunch before continuing on to the major event of the afternoon (I had another french bistro in mind, of course), but wanted to take a quick stroll through the rest of the Freer first, and that's when I came across the most unexpected revelation of the entire trip -- Gwyn Hanssen Pigott's Parades. I'd never heard of Pigott, but she turns out to be a well known Australian ceramicist, who, in her own work, arranges her pieces in very precise still lifes, so that the relationships of one to another creates a whole that is much more than the individual pieces. She was invited into the Freer's ceramic storerooms to see what she might do out of their collection. I find the results absolutely astonishing. Because she was looking at the pieces from the standpoint of an artist, looking to create a new work from what she found, she wasn't interested in provenance or history or type of piece (all of that stuff that the art historians dote on), but on how the forms could relate to each other. The beauty of what she has accomplished brought me to tears. (The online exhibition is useful, by the way, but it doesn't give a hint of how powerful the arrangements are in real life).
I walked out of the Freer about noon and headed across the mall, feeling, quite literally, as if my feet were barely touching the ground. That hour or so would've been worth the trip to DC all by itself, and my Saturday was barely underway. As it turned out, it wouldn't end until some fifteen hours later, when I'd walked back to my hotel from the Dubliner, after a long talk with the bartender Joel and the guitar player Conor Malone, but that, as they say, is another story...