Donald Sultan's Disaster Paintings
June 6, 2017


Donald Sultan, Yellowstone Aug 15 1990, 1990, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. Private collection, New York. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan's industrial landscape series depict an array of catastrophes, including forest fires, railway accidents, arsons, and industrial plants exuding toxic plumes. Twelve of these large-scale paintings are now on display at SAAM in the exhibition Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings. Begun in the 1980s and worked on for nearly a decade, the Disaster Paintings not only explore the dark side of industry, they are made of layered industrial materials such as Masonite, linoleum, tar and plaster. A smoldering black is the predominant color. Sultan was one of the first artists of his generation to employ a wide range of industrial tools and materials in lieu of traditional brushes and paints. Equal parts disaster and nightmare, they have a physical power as well as an emotional weight that keeps them suspended between painting and sculpture. Can a work of art be both?

In speaking of the series, Sultan mentioned that he wanted to create images that stuck with you and in some cases, give you the sense that you are at the event. Walking through the gallery at SAAM, I felt that most in the painting Yellowstone Aug 15 1990. Away from other works depicting firemen, burning bridges, and useless factories, I found my eye rested on the most colorful of the paintings in the exhibition. With a predominance of yellow, it has the beauty of a gold-flecked Japanese screen. As you get closer you can see that the yellow is fire and the dark colors are the trees going up in flames. The closer I got the more I almost could hear the flames crackle.

"The series speaks to the impermanence of all things," Sultan said. "The largest cities, the biggest structures, the most powerful empires—everything dies. Man is inherently self-destructive, and whatever is built will eventually be destroyed....That's what the works talk about: life and death."

SAAM is the third stop on a five-city national tour, organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings remains on view through September 4, 2017.

Watch the webcast of Donald Sultan in conversation with Sarah Newman, the James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art at SAAM:

Posted by Howard on June 6, 2017 in American Art Here
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Movies at SAAM: The New York Latino Film Festival
June 1, 2017

On June 9 and June 10, Movies at SAAM is proud to co-host a two day film festival with the National Portrait Gallery's Taína Caragol, Curator of Latino Art and History, and SAAM's E. Carmen Ramos, Curator of Latino Art. In addition to these films, the New York Latino Film Festival will also be holding free salsa dancing, and conversations highlighting the social and cultural contributions of New York's Latino community and the Puerto Rican diaspora. To learn more about this exciting film festival we sat down with NPG curator Taína Caragol, who originally came up with the idea for the series.


Camilo José Vergara's 65 East 125th Street, Harlem

EyeLevel: How does this film festival contribute to SAAM's exhibit Mean Streets and NPG's extended loan of the portrait of Luis Muñoz Marin by Francisco Rodón?

Taína Caragol: When I think about art expressions that complement each other and provide a wider context for an audience to understand a theme, film programs usually come to mind (I'm secretly a frustrated film curator). I like how film, through visual and sound narration engages the viewer, placing us somewhere, telling us a story, and helping to fill in the details of the story. I like that details can be absorbed much faster in film than reading a novel or a history book.

EL: Where did you get the idea for a film festival?

TC: I had seen a number of these movies through my association with Judith Escalona, Nuyorican film expert, TV producer and filmmaker. As Judith and I started discussing the program, I realized the film program and NPG's pertinent artworks intersected with SAAM's exhibit Down These Mean Streets.

EL: What is your favorite film in the festival?

TC: I can't decide! I look forward to many things, including seeing the venerated and recently deceased actress Lucy Boscana in La Carreta and being able to look critically at this film (adapted from the play by René Marqués) which narrates a foundational story of the Puerto Rican diaspora. I am also looking forward to seeing Fania's Live in Africa, for the musical genius of those who star in it, but also for what it brings to the conversation about "Black is beautiful" and the affirmation of Afro-diasporic cultural heritage in the 1960s and 1970s. I also want to see how that idea evolves with the development of hip-hop as seen in Style Wars, and a younger generation of Latinos interacting with African Americans and Caribbean people in the Bronx, the Lower East Side and other parts of New York City.

EL: Are there any films that focus on younger generations of Latinos?

TC: Yes! Style Wars is about the evolution of hip-hop. Also, Brincando El Charco and Bx3M address younger generations of Latinos, some who have chosen a kind of "self-exile" that is freeing.

EL: What do you hope audiences get out of the festival?

TC: I hope that the film festival, in conjunction with our exhibitions, will create a larger picture to think about the Latinx presence in US urban centers since the 1950s and urban identity. I hope people who do not know much about Latinx culture come and participate and learn something, and I hope that Latinx from DC and its metropolitan area come see and enjoy the series.

The New York Latino Film Series is presented by SAAM and the National Portrait Gallery, and inspired by SAAM's exhibition Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography and by NPG's portrait of Luis Muñoz Marin by Francisco Rodón. For a complete list of events and screening times please see SAAM's calendar page.

Posted by Ryan on June 1, 2017 in Post It
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Luce Unplugged: Five Questions with Bad Moves
May 23, 2017

On Thursday, May 25, Bad Moves will perform in the Luce Foundation Center as part of Luce Unplugged, our free, monthly concert series presented with DC Music Download. This power pop quartet features members from well-known DC groups including The Max Levine Ensemble, Hemlines, Booby Trap and Art Sorority For Girls. In the spirit of collaboration and cautious optimism, Bad Moves creates music filled with tight drum beats, punk influence, and lyrics touching on their own personal DC experiences. We spoke with them to learn more about their creative process, and hear their perspective on the District's music scene.

Bad Moves

Bad Moves. Photo by Michael Cantor.

Eye Level: Each of you come from different bands around the District. What is it like collaborating together as Bad Moves?

Bad Moves: We started the band wanting to play around with anonymity, and the idea of a back-and-forth conversation. All of our other projects are focused around one singer, with other voices playing a supporting role. If you listen to this band's recordings, you might not always be able to tell who's singing what. That's very much a choice. The focal point isn't an individual or even several individuals. It's all about the group.

EL: How would you all describe the DC arts scene? What about the District's music scene do you value most?

BM: DC has a storied history of political action and activism and that's been a strong vein in the city's music, and among the people who support that music, for as long as any of us have known it. In recent years, we've seen a good deal more femme and queer-identified artists populating the scene and taking leading positions, which is always good news. Also, local shows are all-ages more often than not.

EL: How do you all continue to stay inspired?

BM: Inspiration is hard to come by right now, but we do find it in our friends and peers. We toured this spring with our friends Nana Grizol from Athens, Georgia, and their unqualified earnestness and positivity on stage can shake a smile out of almost anyone. We've done a few incredibly fun shows with a newer DC band called Bacchae, and we share a practice space with Chill Parents. We also had our faces blown off at a label showcase this winter by Sammus, a super-engaging and inventive rapper who wears a robot arm cannon onstage (like the hero from Metroid!). They had a room full of indie-rock kids standing at rapt attention.

EL: Tell us a little bit about the origin of the band's name, Bad Moves.

BM: We are four indecisive people who overthink everything. And, we scrambled to come up with a name before our first show; Bad Moves is kind of a best case scenario. But once we found it, it rang true to us. Perhaps that's because so much of the songwriting is about just getting through the day in a terrifying world, and that battle is often waged one tough decision or one good or bad move, at a time.

EL: What advice do you have for aspiring musicians in the District?

BM: Stop aspiring, that isn't a thing! Skill and savvy have their place, but most bands worth being in are an answer to the question, "Who do I want to hang out with?" When the answer to that is less obvious, investigate the resources that exist to connect people who want to make stuff. For the past few years, Girls Rock! DC (one of many Girls Rock camps all over the country) has thrown a spring benefit event called Hat Band, in which participants submit their name and preferred instrument, are matched up into groups, and have a few months to practice and put together a 10-minute set. It's always fun and exciting, and some of those randomly assembled bands end up sticking together.

Hear Bad Moves play on Thursday, May 25, in the Luce Center after a staff-led art talk on Ad Reinhardt's piece, Red and Blue Composition. Performance details can be found on Luce's Facebook page and check out Bad Moves' music before the show. See you Thursday!

Posted by Madeline on May 23, 2017 in In This Case: Luce Foundation Center
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Framing the City: Mean Streets and Urban Photography
May 19, 2017

American cities went through a period of upheaval and transformation in the period following World War II due to many factors, from economic downturns to highway construction that cut through established communities and migrations to the suburbs. The changes were particularly hard in African American, Latino, and working class neighborhoods. The exhibition, Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography, takes as its starting point, the response by Latino artists to the "urban crisis," a term that emerged in the 1960s to refer to the changes that were going on in many cities throughout the United States. The exhibition title is inspired by author Piri Thomas, who grew up in El Barrio (aka Spanish Harlem), and captured the decline of the urban environment in his memoir Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967.

Photographers working at this time, particularly in New York City and Los Angeles, approached the urban landscape with a similar intent, and, as the exhibition illustrates, with a varying degree of technique, vision, and even activism. Down These Mean Streets features ninety-three photographs by ten photographers: Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas and Camilo José Vergara, who were driven to document and reflect on the transformation of American cities beginning in the late 1950s. According to E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino art at SAAM, the exhibition grew out of her desire to learn more about Espada's work and the world he had documented. Born in Puerto Rico in 1930, Espada migrated to the United States when he was nine years old. After serving in the Air Force, he attended the New York Institute of Photography in New York City on the GI Bill. He became a photographer about the same time he became involved with the civil rights movement. His portraits show a great humanity and poet's eye for bringing a subject's inner life into focus.

In addition to portraiture, the exhibition features cityscapes, interventionist approaches, and serial projects, such as Vergara's time-lapse work. In 65 East 125th Street, Harlem he photographs the same site year after year, using color photography to highlight the resourcefulness of urban residents and business owners during periods of economic decline and the cultural history embedded in public spaces. Although there is variation in technique and approach among photographers, the works featured in Mean Streets share the same common denominator: to document the urban landscape and the people who inhabit it.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has one of the most important and comprehensive collections of Latino art in the nation. This exhibition is the latest example of a major collecting initiative, still underway at the museum, to build a significant collection of Latino art in the nation’s capital. All works in Mean Streets are in our permanent collection; and many are new acquisitions. The Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Latino Center provided generous support for the new acquisitions featured in this exhibition. Mean Streets remains on view through August 6, 2017.

Watch Mean Streets curator, E. Carmen Ramos talk about the exhibition (Note: Facebook video will not display on Internet Explorer.):

Posted by Howard on May 19, 2017 in American Art Here
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Reading Into the Throne: On James Hampton's Notebook
May 16, 2017

James Hampton notebook

James Hampton's notebook, written in an invented script.

An expanded presentation of the now iconic Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly (aka The Throne) by James Hampton is currently on view in the newly installed and reimagined galleries for folk and self-taught art at SAAM. Created during a period of about fourteen years, and representing Hampton's total known artistic output, Hampton created the throne in response to several religious visions that prompted him to prepare for Christ's return to earth.

Anticipating the second coming, he created a visionary installation, assembling an altar-like throne with found objects from his work in a federal office building and his Shaw neighborhood in Washington, DC, including burned-out light bulbs, discarded furniture, old desk blotters, and empty jelly jars. He covered many of the elements with salvaged silver and gold foil, and put it all together in a carriage house he rented near the boarding house where he lived.

James Hampton

James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly has been one of SAAM's most popular artworks since its acquisition in 1970.

Hampton made over 180 individual elements for his installation, which vary in size, detail, and state of finish. The current larger configuration of the throne includes two items that are on view for the first time: a chalkboard showing some of Hampton's sketches or working plans for the throne and a small book he kept, written primarily in an invented or "asemic" script, meaning it is unreadable or lacking specific semantic content. Hampton referred to himself as "Director, special projects for the state of eternity," as well as "Saint James," an echo of Saint John who was divinely instructed to record his vision of the second coming in a secret script in a small book.

Hampton, too, felt he was divinely inspired in his writing and the creation of the throne. He may have believed his arcane "spiritual" script to be the result of communication with a higher being—the word of God as received by him. "It's an enigmatic book," says Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at SAAM, "but it gives us insight into how much he wanted to fulfill this role and be present if this event he believed in was going to happen."

Over the years, a handful of people including scholars and art historians have tried to decode Hampton's writing, but nobody has succeeded. It seems he invented his own language. This may have been a conscious act or a symbolic transcription of his visions. Another possibility is that he wrote it in a spiritually-induced trance, that it is a "spirit script," or automatic writing akin to glossographia (a graphic variation of glossolalia) or "writing in tongues." Hampton's writing, however, seems more measured and controlled than that which would have been written by somebody in an ecstatic state.

Though Hampton's writing remains a mystery, when we're standing in front of the throne, our eye gradually fixes on the reassuring words he attached to the top in silver foil, "Fear Not."

Posted by Howard on May 16, 2017 in American Art Here
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