This museum is named for Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who amassed a reported $100 million fortune in Canadaǯs uranium mines during the 1950's. With that bankroll, Hirshhorn expanded an art collection that began in his teens, eventually acquiring more than 12,000 works. Those were willed to the Smithsonian upon his death in 1981 along with an endowment to fund the museum that now includes his name (funding is also provided by the U.S. taxpayers and the Smithsonian). Joe's wife, Olga, continued to donate both to this museum and the Corcoran, which recently merged with the National Gallery. The museum's current, futuristic building opened in 1974.
The Hirshhorn collection focuses on 19th and 20th-century modern and contemporary art. Since most of the collection comes from Joe and Olga Hirshhorn, it obviously reflects his taste and bankroll. While we are neither art critics nor artists, the Hirshhorn's taste and judgement were very good. If you've got even a passing interest in contemporary art, you'll recognize some familiar names in his collection: Brancusi, Moore, Calder, Johns, (Yoko) Ono, Rothko, and Koons.
Our background research of the 150 or so artists on display when we visited indicates that many of the not-as-well-known names (to us, anyway) either started or helped define a major art movement during their lives. For example, Robert Delauney, a founder of Orphism, is represented here, as is Joseph Cornell, one of the major artists in assemblage. If you see a piece you like by an artist you've not heard of, then, chances are that their entire body of work got them here.
In addition, our research seems to indicate that some of the art the Hirshhorns collected from famous artists, are pieces done well after their more famous works or most celebrated periods of creativity, or done in a field the artists isn't known for, such as a sculptor's paintings (or vice versa). That's probably a reflection of the Hirshhorn family's funding. While a $100 million fortune is nothing to sneeze at, even in Mr. Hirshhorn's day, many of these artists' most iconic works were either not for sale or beyond that budget.
In addition to paintings and sculpture, the Hirshhorn hosts many rotating special exhibits on the second and third levels. These frequently use video and other multimedia, and change every few months.
Should you go to the Hirshhorn? Yes. Much of the sculpture is excellent, and many of the works will have you and your family discussing things like what "art" really is, and which pieces remind you of other artists' work. That's not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
The rest of this entry contains brief summaries of the Hirshhorn's better works, starting with the third floor and working down to the sculpture garden outside. The summaries are necessarily brief because a great deal of modern art is abstract or, to varying extents, only indirectly representative. What a room full of slightly blue fluorescent lights "means", for example, is left for you to decide.
We think it's best to start your tour on the third floor and work your way down to the lower level. Because the exhibits can move and change, we've listed the artists alphabetically by last name for easy reference.
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Note: If you take the escalator to the third floor, look to the ceiling for Spencer Finch’s Cloud (H2O) from 2006. Finch's works are known for their attempts to convey transient light and color, so the Hirshhorn staff are geniuses for putting this above the escalator. Notice how the wide plane of light is compressed into a smaller space as you approach the 3rd floor landing. Also walk around the landing to see how the lights' shape and intensity shifts with you.
Here's what should be on display:
Janine Antoni Lick and Lather (1994) – Two busts of the same human head and shoulders, one made of chocolate and one of soap. The artist sculpted part of the chocolate head by biting, licking, and gnawing at it, and the soap one by bathing with it. (We humbly suggest the next one be called "Two Doves.")
Mary Bauermeister In Memory of Your Feelings, or Hommage à Jasper Johns (1964) – Bauermeister used "found objects"– a case of glass lenses here – in her work. Why? The use of pre-made objects, assembled by the artist according to their mood, was supposed to challenge the conventional idea of "what art is."
Alighiero e Boetti Untitled (1994) - Boetti's best-known works are a set of intricate, embroidered geographic maps, from the early 1970ǯs to the early 1990's, and made by artists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This watercolor on paper isn't a map, but is a good representation of his style, and it's probably not a coincidence that it looks like a rug that might have been woven in that region.
Louise Bourgeoise The Blind Leading the Blind (1949)– Bourgeoise is better known for her sculptures of giant spiders (there's one across the street at the National Gallery's sculpture garden), but this is an interesting piece with an only slightly less disturbing background story. As Bourgeoise recounts it, one day when she was a child, she was playing under her family's kitchen table while her parents were preparing lunch. That apparently brought up a host of questions in her young mind, such as "What are they doing?", "What is their purpose?" and "How do I relate to them?"– thoughts for which we'd prescribe medication if expressed today.
A straightforward interpretation of this piece, which Bourgeoise endorsed, is that it's a view of the legs of each person in her family, and the table, from her spot under the table; the legs don't all fall over because they (the family members) support each other. Others have interpreted it in ways ranging from the lockstep conformity of 1950's McCarthy-era politics, to the rejection of patriarchal society.
Constantin Brancusi Torso of a Young Man (1924) – Brancusi is one of the most significant artists in the Modernism movement, and this is an excellent piece done during his peak creative period. Torso of a Young Man emphasizes the geometric shape of the torso and thighs while eliminating secondary characteristics you'd see in representational sculpture, such as bone, muscle, and skin. That reduction clarifies the shape so that it's both new and recognizable.
Reg Butler Family Group (1948) – Approach this work from a couple different angles and heights to see the "family,' and you'll be rewarded with a clever, abstract view. A second work by Butler – Musee Imaginaire – is also on display on this floor.
Cai Guo-Quiang Tide Watching on West Lake: Project for China Academy of Art (2003 )– Guo-Quiang ignites gunpowder on paper to produce these works, as a statement on the control the Chinese government exerts on its citizens. Later works have moved from gunpowder to full-on explosions as performance pieces. We can definitely see this as art.
Alexander Calder Mobile (1958) – By law, every contemporary art gallery must include at least one Calder mobile. If you're a fan, there are several more over at the National Gallery of Art. Calder's Two Discs sculpture has a prominent spot in the Hirshhorn's plaza, too.
Nick Cave Soundsuit (2009) – Nick Cave is famous for these intricate, colorful dance costumes, made of everything from plant fibers to human hair. They're often displayed in museums, but also used in theater productions and possibly as Nicki Manaj loungewear. We're not sure. PBS has a short video of them in motion over on YouTube.
Christo Store Front (1964) – Christo was famous for huge, temporary, outdoor art installations; he once wrapped eleven small islands off the coast of Miami in 6.5 million square feet of pink fabric, for two weeks. In another, he installed 2,100 blue and yellow umbrellas, each 19 feet tall and 25 feet across, in Japan and California.
Compared to those, Store Front is small and subdued. It's been described as either as a commentary on mass-merchandising, or a tribute to the architecture of urban retailers and the cities around them.
Joseph Cornell Untitled (Aviary with Yellow Birds) (1948) - Cornell was one of the founders of assemblage, arranging existing or "found" objects into visual commentary, or as a reminder of a specific place or time. In this case, Cornell has put these birds and the tree they fly to into a box, sort of like a zoo puts nature on display.
Besides this, Cornell has several other pieces on display on this floor.
Hanne Darboven 27K-No8-No26 (1969) – It's a huge piece, more than 15 feet long, and consists of uniform sheets of print, seemingly taken from various technical manuals and assembled into a rectangle. The individual pages contain complex charts, formulas, and tables, and don't seem to relate to one another. Perhaps this is a late 60's observation on how specialized and complex life was becoming?
Robert Delaunay Untitled (1937) – Delaunay, a painter, was one of the founders of Orphism, an art technique that emphasized bright colors and abstract shapes that links Cubism to the Abstract movement. This is a bronze sculpture that still shows an emphasis on abstract shape.
Lucien Freud Nude with Leg Up (Leigh Bowery) (1992) – If you've toured the National Gallery of Art, you probably think of portraiture in terms of formal clothes and poses, and done in a style that compliments the subject. Freud's approach was the exact opposite. His portraits were designed to be uncomfortable to look at, and often used a limited color palette of yellows and browns (he also really liked painting nudes, so maybe the subjects dictated the colors).
Alfred Jensen The Sun Rises Twice (Per I, Per II, Per III, Per IV) (1973) – This is typical of Jensen's work - a set of calendars, astrological charts, and other artifacts used to measure time, executed in excruciating detail. It's the kind of thing that ends up in a museum, or shown on the wall at the beginning of a C.S.I. episode.
Jasper Johns Untitled (1954) – Still living as we went to press, Johns is one of the most recognized and influential artists of the past 50 years (even appearing in an episode of The Simpsons as himself). He's known for using popular images such as the U.S. map and flag. This isn't one of his more popular works, and doesn't seem to display the characteristics for which he's known.
Anish Kapoor At the Hub of Things (1987) - Kapoor was trying to capture the characteristics of "void" when he did this, and we think he succeeded. The piece, roughly the shape of an egg, is done in a deep Prussian blue that seems to absorb light. It's mesmerizing.
Ellsworth Kelly White Relief over Dark Blue (2002) – This is one of Kelly's later works, done in his late 70's, but exhibits many hallmarks of the style he's developed over the last 50 years. Kelly is known for crisp lines between colors, and the emphasis on basic shapes and colors. The typical Kelly painting would not look out of place as an icon on your iPhone or as the logo for some new Internet company. That is, even though he's been producing these for years, they're arguably more in-style and modern now than at any time before.
An untitled, stainless steel sculpture of Kelly's is outside in the garden.
Anselm Kiefer The Book (1985) – Another huge painting, this one taking an entire wall, in which Kiefer has made a darkened ocean and beach. In the middle of the scene is an unnamed, unidentified book, placed above the scene, directly in front of the viewer. Most of Kiefer's work is supposed to relate to German history, especially World War II or the Cold War, but we're not sure of the connection here.
Sol LeWitt 13/11 (1985) – LeWitt was one of the founders of Minimalism, an art movement that, as its name implies, sought to remove from each work any extraneous shapes, colors, or characteristics. This pyramid sculpture is a good example of his output.
Morris Louis Point of Tranquility (1960)– Morris "painted" this piece by pouring a small amount of each paint color into the middle of the canvas, then tilted the canvas so that the paint ran to the edge. The result resembles a flower, which led to Louis naming this series of works Floral. Louis would go on to do similar works, including Delta Theta, during the same period.
Brice Marden Cold Mountain 2 (1991) – It's from Marden's later work, inspired by Chinese calligraphy and done on a large scale. You might see human forms, trees, or fog-bound landscapes in this, possibly a response to Marden's travel in Asia in the early 1980's.
Agnes Martin Garden (1964) and Play (1966) – These are two good examples of Martin's minimalist work, which typically feature straight, lightly-drawn, colored pencil lines on largely monochromatic backgrounds.
Joan Mitchell Cercando un Ago (1959) – One of a series of similarly named and executed works from Mitchell's early career, this is an example of abstract expressionism, the same style as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Like works from those artists, the point of Cercando un Ago isn't to tell a story or replicate a scene – it's to convey emotion.
Bruce Nauman South America Triangle (1981) – A colossal work of iron and steel, suspended from the third floor ceiling, Nauman was inspired to create this piece after hearing a story of torture and imprisonment in Argentina. In this work the chair represents the tortured.
Robert Rauschenberg Dam (1959)– Part of Rauschenbergǯs DzCombinesdz work from 1954 to 1962, this supposedly contains Dzcoded messagesdz to the (then underground) gay community of New York. As far as we've been able to research, though, no one has yet put forth a definitive meaning to any of these words or symbols – the work's meaning seems to have died with Rauschenberg.
We suppose this could be interpreted two ways: First, that the act of displaying the painting is now an art performance itself, celebrating not needing to display "coded messages" to an underground gay community; or second, an open question as to whether there's a difference between undecipherable code – that is, a message that has permanently lost its meaning – and random gibberish.
George Rickey Marsh Plant (1962)– Rickey is known for his kinetic sculptures, and his works display a simple, slender balance. Amazingly, a few of his pieces are still within the budget of a middle-income collector.
David Smith Agricola I (1952) – It's a series of farm tools welded together to look (roughly) like a farmer, then painted red. The most popular interpretation is that the modern farmer depends so much on his tools, it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Besides this, three other similar Smith sculptures are present in the Garden.
Hiroshi Sugimoto Akron Civic, Ohio (1980) – Sugimoto visited cinemas across the U.S. to do a series of these images. In each, he exposed a single film slide for the duration of a full-length film playing in the theater. This one is from Akron, Ohio.
Paul Thek Warrior's Leg (1967) – It's a copy of a Roman soldier's leg, amputated just below the knee. But the main thing to know was that it was unveiled during the Vietnam War. In that respect, it's similar to Bourdelle's Great Warrior of Montaubanin commenting on the true cost of conflict.
Cy Twombly Untitled (Roma) (1959) – Twombly was far better known as a painter, and actually stopped sculpting for 17 years shortly after this piece was done. But this piece, assembled from materials Twombly found, vertical orientation, and painted monochromatically, is good example of his work in the 1950's.
Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe's Lips (1962)– Ostensibly this piece - a mechanical reproduction of Monroe's lips 168 times, arranged in a rectangle and writ large – is an observation that over-commercialization damages anything special that we hold dear.
The second floor is used primarily for short-term special exhibitions. They're worth a visit. New for 2016 is Suspended Animation, works by six artists who "use digitally generated images as a tool to question conceptions of reality." These are supposed to be immersive exhibits, which should be fun. We're looking forward to seeing it.
The first floor is primarily the entrance, security checkpoint, and a set of escalators for getting to the other levels.
Jeff Koons Kiepenkeri (1987) – Koons is a commercial but talented artist. His Balloon Dog (Magenta), in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, manages to convey the hyper-eager personalities of puppies, modeled as a building-size balloon sculpture. But we're not sure about this piece – a copy of another work in Germany, with Koons using stainless steel instead of bronze. It's not as playful or fun as his other work and itǯs not clear what stainless steel adds.
f it's still around, you won't be able to miss Barbara Kruger’s Belief + Doubt, because it's plastered all over the walls and floors of the lower level.
Dan Flavin "monumentdz for V. Tatlin (1967) and untitled (to Helga and Carlo, with respect and affection) (1974) –vThese are two installations using fluorescent lights as sculpture. It's a creative idea, because like bronze or steel, these lights both illuminate and cast literal shadows. The hum of the light fixtures adds another element to the installation. Taken together, the light, darkness, and sound make you want to stare at the bulbs, even though you know it's terrible for your eyes.
A plaza surrounds the Hirshhorn, and the space is used for some eye-catching work.
Tony Cragg Subcommittee (1991) – It's a collection of giant rubber stamps whose handles resemble human heads. Combine that with the piece's title, and it's kind of funny.
Lucio Fontana Spatial Concept: Nature series (1960) – Fontana, a sculptor, was one of the first to consider the artist's techniques as performance rather than the process of making art, sort of a precursor to performance art itself. Fontana's early works in this line started by slashing paintings, often done in shades of white to emphasize the tear in the canvas. These 5 bronze sculptures follow that pattern. The slashes are done in a single stroke, on a terracotta mold that's cast with bronze. The slash is supposed to relate to "the 'atrocious unnerving silence' awaiting man in space." We were thinking "It's walnut season."
Roy Lichtenstein Brushstroke (1996) – Better known for his pop art paintings, this is Lichtenstein's attempt to capture in three-dimensional sculpture the essence of the artist's brushstroke motion.
Claes Oldenburg Geometric Mouse: Variation I, Scale A (1971) – If you've ever seen a giant typewriter eraser done in sculpture – they're in Las Vegas, Seattle, and across the street here in D.C. – that's also Oldenburg. With Geometric Mouse, Oldenburg is emphasizing the geometric qualities in the shape of each part of the mouse's body, rather than trying simply to sculpt a giant rodent. Several other Oldenburg pieces are inside the Hirshhorn, on the third floor.
Yoko Ono WishTree for Washington DC (2007) – It's safe to say that Ono would be more highly regarded now as an artist if she had never been married to John Lennon. In the years before she met the Beatles, Ono was active in the New York art scene, with her own shows and critical success. This piece, Wish Tree for Washington DC, invites viewers to write down their hopes and dreams on small pieces of paper then tie them to the tree.
Mark Rothko Blue, Orange, Red (1961) – One of the most famous American artists of the last half of the 20th , Rothko was a pioneer in the Abstract Expressionist movement. Like those on display at the National Gallery, this work comes from late in Rothko's "multiform" series – by 1961, he's famous enough in the U.S. to be invited to meet the Kennedy family in Washington.
James Sanborn Antipodes (1997) – Antipodes is a two-part sculpture and coded message, written in Cyrillic and English. It's similar to Sanborn's more famous work, Kryptos, installed at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Virginia. All of the Cyrillic side of this sculpture has been decoded (as have 3 sides of Kryptos) –it's a couple of Soviet-era documents on how to recruit sources, and some text on dissident Andrei Sakharov. The remaining unsolved sides are the sources of obsession for a remarkably large number of people.
Tony Smith Throwback (1979) – One of the leading sculptors in the Minimalist movement, this piece was done late in Smith's career. The title of this piece, though, indicates that Smith was going back almost two decades, to when he was experimenting with pyramid and hexagonal forms.
Kenneth Snelson Needle Tower (1968)– Snelson's work is interesting because it uses tension in steel cables to assemble large towers of steel and aluminum pipes. Without tension on the steel cables, the pieces would fall apart. The use of cables allows Snelson to great very tall, delicate works, and to play with perspective near the top of the pieces. This is a good example of his work.
Arman Eros Inside Eros (1986)– Arman is known for sculptures that are a collection of things – one of his better-known works is a stack of axes welded together. He's also known for "slicing" or decomposing his more traditional representations, and this is an example.
Jean (Hans) Arp Evocation of a Form: Human, Lunar, Spectral (1950) – Arp was already well respected within the art world by the time he made this, and would in a few years start winning awards for his works. The curves in this torso are a good example of Arp's style, and this particular piece is a good representation of Arp's sculptures.
Emile-Antoine Bourdelle The Great Warrior of Montauban (1900) – Bourdelle was an influential sculptor whose pupils included Giacometti and Matisse. This bronze work, commemorating the townsmen's effort in the Franco-Prussian War, was controversial when it was unveiled. The town thought it was getting a conventional "marching soldiers and parade horses" statue, not a nude in a literal battle of life and death. Many considered the work inappropriate. It took the support of Augustus Rodin to bring around the town. They eventually considered it a faithful representation of war's reality.
Anthony Caro Monsoon Drift (1975) - Caro was an assistant to sculptor Henry Moore, then switched to modernism in the 1950's. Monsoon Drift is typical of Caro's work, with an emphasis on geometric planes and textures. Also notice that you're allowed to walk right up to this piece. That's by design – Caro's intent was that it be observed up close, not from a distance.
Willem de Koonig Clamdigger (1972)– de Koonig became famous as a painter, and took up sculpture later in life. This possible self-portrait was done when he was 68, and is his first large-scale work in bronze. The rough texture and exaggerated features remind us more of Giacometti than, say, Rodin.
Mark di Suvero Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore) (1967) di Suvero is widely recognized as one of the first to use a construction crane as an artist's tool. This is considered one of his best works. We have no idea what it means, but it's colorful, proportioned well, and looks good.
Barry Flanagan The Drummer (1990) – It's an 8-foot tall bronze rabbit with a drum. That you'll be seeing in your dreams for weeks.
Alberto Giacometti Monumental Head (1960) – Giacometti studied sculpture under Antoine Bourdelle in Paris, and was one of the leading sculptors of the 20th century. He's best known for his tall, almost impossibly thin human figures, with rough surfaces and exaggerated features: Imagine this head on a statue about 30 feet tall.
Dan Graham For Gordon Bunshaft (2006) – Graham is known for these outdoor, architecture installations that feature unusual mirrors, glass, steel, wood, and stone. In this piece, you can simultaneously see through the glass, and see yourself in the mirror – have one of your group go around to the other side to get the full effect.
Marino Marini Horse and Rider (1953) - Marino is known for his equestrian statues that are modernist takes on Etruscan art, and this is a good example.
Henry Moore (Many works) (1952-1970) – One of the best-known sculptors of the 20th century, Moore specialized in the kinds of large bronzes you see here. The sculptures all come from Moore's post-World War II style, which featured reclining figures, sometimes of families, but whose bodies are often pushed to the limits of abstraction.
Susan Philipsz Sunset Song (2003)– No modern art garden would be complete without a sound installation! In this case, it's Philipsz's Sunset Song, which plays at a low, slow way as background music while you're in the garden.
Auguste Rodin The Burghers of Calais (1889), Crouching Woman (1882), Walking Man (1900), Monument to Balzac (1898) – Along with The Age of Bronze, these sculptures are some of Rodin's most important works. Like The Age of Bronze, The Burghers of Calais was controversial when it was unveiled. It tells the story of how six city leaders offered to sacrifice themselves to save Calais from the English army, the sculpture doesn't portrait any of them as heroic, noble, or larger than life. Instead, each of the half-dozen appears resigned to their fate. Adding to the unexpected design, the sculpture is installed near ground level, not on a pedestal like traditional public works. The Hirshhorn owns one of only 12 copies of this sculpture.
Rodin's Monument to Balzac has an interesting history. It was commissioned as a tribute by Balzac's friends at the Société des Gens de Lettres in Paris after Balzacǯs death. It did not go well for Rodin. The Société was expecting a two-year turnaround for the finished sculpture, but Rodin took seven years to complete just the plaster prototype. And even then, Rodin decided to sculpt Balzac's personality, not his physical appearance, so that the identity of the subject was hard to identify. (That may be a better idea than Rodin's earlier approach, which had Balzac nude.) The plaster model went unused for more than 20 years after Rodin's death. It was finally cast into bronze in 1939.
The Hirshhorn is rarely crowded enough for lines to form. That makes the museum an excellent stop either before or after a visit to a larger museum such as Air & Space. The Hirsshorn's tiny gift shop is excellent, with a well-curated, interesting selection.