Re-opening of Washington, DC’s Renwick Gallery: “Wonder,” A Feast of Eye Candy?

Elaine A. King
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The newly-renovated Renwick Gallery, part of Washington, DC’s Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The long anticipated reopening of the Renwick Gallery came to pass on 13 November.  This is the oldest museum in Washington, DC and the first art museum built in the United States. Moreover it is a prominent example of French Second Empire style in Washington.  The visitor will not only find a striking restored structure, but also an ambitious exhibition.

James Renwick Jr., the namesake of the building also designed the Smithsonian’s Castle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, as well as the Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel.  Its patron was William Wilson Corcoran who had it built to house his collection in the middle of the 19th century. Being a native of Washington and a prominent banker and philanthropist, in 1858 he commissioned Renwick since he wanted to elevate culture in DC by erecting distinguished architecture to Washington. The Louvre’s Tuileries new wings of 1852–1857, designed by architects Louis Visconti and Hector Lefuel, influenced Renwick’s design.  Senator Charles Sumner called it “the American Louvre,” and that title stuck for many decades.  After several delays due to the Civil War the building finally opened to the public in 1874, as the Corcoran Gallery of Art. xxxxx

This recent refurbishment of the Renwick is the first comprehensive makeover in 45 years. When the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s collection vastly expanded in the 1880s, it moved to a larger space, several blocks away on 17th Street, NW.  Its former site was repurposed and served for decades as the U.S. Court of Claims. (Unfortunately the Corcoran Gallery is no more, due to financial difficulties and deplorable administrative error over the past three decades. closed in 2014, with most of its 17,000 work collection going to the National Gallery of Art. The notable 17th street gallery and school have been assimilated into George Washington University).

Right: The Renwick, pictured on an 1875 3-D stereoscope card

Because the original Renwick building had deteriorated, Congress proposed to have it demolished to make way for a new structure.  However, in the early 1960s first Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy a champion of historic preservation, led a campaign to save it as part of the Lafayette Square revitalization project.  The building became a Smithsonian museum in 1965, dedicated to crafts and design. In 1972, it reopened as the Renwick Gallery, under the aegis of the Smithsonian.  Today, it is a branch of The Smithsonian American Art Museum [SAAM].

The significant two-year renovation of this 156 year-old structure encompassed an entire rehabilitation of the building’s infrastructure, including enhanced historic features and other improvements to transform this National Historic Landmark building into a 21st-century destination for both visitors, as well as www.artesmagazine.comresidents of D.C.  One discovers a polished exterior, new windows, LED lighting, repaired moldings and ornamentation, and structural improvements undertaken throughout the $30 million makeover, supervised by the architectural firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky.  Another eye-catching highlight is the dynamic theatrical fresh red carpet enhancing the museum’s grand staircase (left), by the notable French designer, Odile Decq.

What is somewhat surprising is that the façade containing the stone chiseled motto “Dedicated to Art,” that has adorned the building since the 1880s, has been altered by the presence of peculiar red LED signage floating above the word Dedicated.  Adding a caret and the words “…the future of… ” the original sign now reads “DEDICATED TO ^the future of ART (below, right).  From a distance this sign—costing  $72,000—resembles kitschy graffiti and appears out of place.  Given the Historic significance of this building, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts never approved such signage.  Thomas Luebke, the Commission’s secretary made it clear that that supplementary text never came up among the various involving the Renwick Gallery’s exterior renovation.[i]

Although this appendage is supposedly temporary, according to a SAAM spokesperson, Betsy Broun, who did authorize it believing it would be fun for the opening of the Renwick. Nevertheless, the add-on words to the building’s exterior perhaps reverberate a pertinent message about the changes that might be afoot for the “new Renwick,” as a place that is “dedicated to the future of art.”

One might ask, is this a preamble to what will unfold at the Renwick in upcoming shows? Will the Renwick evolve into a showcase for 21st century 3-D works, as SAAM’s Lincoln Gallery has become a space for 20th c. sculpture? Furthermore, this deliberate emphasis on the future is enforced by Betsy Broun in the Renwick‘s Press Release, “For the next chapter in its 156-year history, we will showcase exemplary artists like these nine who are dissolving boundaries that once existed between craft, art and design. ‘WONDER’ rededicates this landmark museum to the future of art.”  Broun’s recognition that transformation is vital is appropriate.  Increasingly museums are recognizing that they must change in an age of information so to reach a new generation of viewers as well as to accommodate new art.

Left: The Renwick’s new color palette and gilding detail

Early in the 21st c. acknowledging the ever-changing mindset and shifting attitudes about the arts, Holly Hotchner, the director from the American Museum of Crafts dropped the word “craft” name –it was changed to the Museum of Arts & Design (MAD) in 2002. The tolerance for multi-faceted approaches and media is expressed by Dipti Desai, “Many contemporary artists, who have blurred the boundaries between not only high art and low art, but also art and other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, have challenged both artistic process and artistic authority.”[ii] More recently this recognition of mixing art forms was apparent in the exhibition Cast From Life held at the Skarsted Gallery in the fall of 2014.[iii]

It appears as though SAAM is strong on organizing thematic exhibitions around the concept of ‘Wonder’.  In July 2011, it assembled a show titled The Great American Hall of Wonders (catalogue, right), examining the nineteenth-century innovations in the United States.  The Renwick’s inaugural exhibition titled “WONDER” organized and curated by Nicholas R. Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator in charge of the Renwick Gallery.  According to Bell, “The concept of ‘wonder’—that moment of astonishment in the face of something new and unknown that transports us out of the everyday—is deeply intertwined with how we experience art. These nine artists are masters of constructing works that startle us, overwhelm us and invite us to marvel—to wonder—at their creation. These elements matter in the context of this museum, devoted for more than four decades to the skilled working of materials in extraordinary ways.”[iv]  In the entrance wall text that Bell explains that he invited the artists to visit the emptied Renwick Gallery in order to respond to the individual spaces of their choice. Making his point so prominent one might think it was something new for artists to be engaged in large site work.  The reputable Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh (The Museum of Contemporary Art) has commissioned sculptors for over 25 years to interact with its spaces and resulting in ingenious site-specific installations.

Encompassing almost every square inch of the Renwick’s galleries, Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin and Leo Villareal fabricated nine immense installations.  According to Bell each artist was invited to pick a gallery and www.artesmagzine.comdesign a new work.  However, surely this is not the case with Tara Donovan – her piece Untitled first débuted at the Pace Gallery in NYC in 2014 and was much more successful in that commercial gallery’s large setting[v].

Left: Tara Donovan, Untitled (2014), styrene index cards, metal, wood, paint and glue, 12 ft. 5 1/2 in. x 22 ft. 4 in. x 22 ft. 11 ½” © Tara Donovan, courtesy of Pace Gallery.

On one hand, Wonder is a commanding, stunning display, and yet on the other, it ostensibly seems to be trying too hard to entertain and please viewers.  Why this selection of artists in this sprawling group show prompts inquiry.  Group exhibitions need a theme to unite the work beyond a generalized concept such as ‘Wonder’.

The exhibition’s very title ‘Wonder’ calls to mind the important essay “Resonance and Wonder” by Stephen Greenblatt (below, right), the founder of the new historicism. Greenblatt scrutinizes museum exhibitions and identifies the two elements at the heart of viewers’ response to the things they see in museums.  One is about resonance and the museum artifacts connectivity to people, cultural societies, and history.  In a resonant exhibition the works are not isolated and disjointed. In other words, to paraphrase Greenblatt, “A exhibition takes the viewer away from the object as its sole aesthetic focus and asks such questions as, How did this object come to be displayed? Why this object and not another?”  When it comes to the term Wonder, Greenblatt defines it as our sense of awe in the face of a grand aesthetic object.

Surprisingly, Bell extensively quotes Greenblatt in the well-documented catalogue to enhance the relevance of wonder. The latter is definitely the emphasis of the Renwick’s debut show however, I am not positive that Greenblatt is a supporter of overall wonder, despite the curator quoting his writing to reinforce his theme. When commenting about an experience at the Mayan ruins, at Coba in Quintanto Roo, about a Coca-Cola stand an engineer called to his attention, Greenblatt advised, “…that the whole Coca Cola stand should be shipped to New York and put on display in the Museum of Modern Art.  It is that kind impulse that moves us away from resonance and toward wonder.”[vi]

Without question, too much intellectual rationalization can stultify an exhibition, contributing to its loss of visual appeal; whereas too much sensation results in a simplistic, beautiful circus!  Plainly, this exhibition’s overarching focus aims is to regale its visitors.  Reinforcing the goal of audience appeal are the wall cards carefully placed in each artist’s installation site, with reassuring quotes about wonder from historical figures including Aristotle, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, and John Stuart Mill.  Surely their inclusion was to enhance the www.artesmagazine.comviewer’s ‘wondrous’ experience yet they add nothing to the work or exhibition, and, for the most part they are annoying resembling as a type of pasteurized Hallmark card.

Left: Leo Villareal, Volume (Renwick), 2015, white LEDs, mirror-finished stainless steel, custom software, and electrical hardware, 9 ft. 6 in. x 20 ft. 9 1/2 in. x 6 ft. ½”. © Leo Villareal, courtesy CONNERSMITH.

Unlike most museum exhibitions that provide a place and structure for art to be seen, with the exception of one or two installations, most of the pieces appear to have conquered the building, invading all possible space within the Renwick.  The vitalized interiors and its invigorated architectural details become engulfed and one cannot appreciate the overall eminence of each refurbished unique

Notwithstanding the exhibition’s glitches, there are several notable works to be experienced. A highlight is Leo Villareal’s oversize sparkling LED chandelier, dangling high above the entrance staircase consisting of 320 steel rods embedded with 23,000 LEDs programmed to display a code written and manipulated by the artist (right, during installation).  Viewers can detect that this artist put much thought both into its making and its placement.  The work illuminates this interior setting as well as integrates its form into its architectural setting despite its cool fluctuating illumes and contemporary style.  In a subtle way the 19th century structure and the 21st century design fuse, adding a new dimension to this historic setting.

Patrick Dougherty has been making stick work environs for over 25 years employing his astute carpentry skills and his love of nature.  Aware of primitive techniques of building and investigating tree saplings as a construction material he has engineered a vast theatrical oeuvre through his bending, weaving and flexing saplings into architectural forms.  In his vast installation “Shindig,” occupying a large gallery this sprawling piece comprised six tons of willow saplings, demonstrates labor intensity and inventiveness.  The use of particular lighting affords the multiple nests and cocoons to cast intricate shadows that www.artesmagazine.comresemble drawings throughout the walls and floors of the gallery.  An otherworldly milieu is attained in this organic setting and perhaps out of all the works in the exhibition Dougherty’s sculptures are most akin to the realm of craft, the ‘previous’ focus of the Renwick.

Left: Patrick Dougherty, Shindig (2015), willow saplings, 16 x 90 x 12 ft. Courtesy of Patrick Dougherty.

An exceptional sculptor is Tara Donovan who is an adroit magician at converting functional, commonplace objects into astounding all-encompassing abstract floor and wall illusory settings suggestive of landscapes.  In previous pieces, each of her biomorphic site forms is a product of an analytical dialogue between the actual architectural spaces of a specific exhibition place and the play of light on forms, along with the artist’s ideas and the materials she chooses to employ. Her “site responsive” structures, as she refers to them, are born out of a process of accumulation of disposable artifacts.  In the piece Untitled, 2014, Donovan stacked hundreds of thousands of styrene index cards to create fragile mounds resembling the haunting shapes found in Bryce Canyon, Utah. Unsuitably, this installation was transported from a previous space that permitted sufficient footage where as at www.artesmagazine.comthe Renwick squeezed into a small first floor gallery. It is puzzling as to why Donovan did not produce a site-specific work and perhaps offered the Grand Salon to unleash her numinous art.

Right: Tara Donovan’s, Untitled (2014), detail.

Instead Janet Echelman’s 1.8 [referring to the 1.8 millionths of a second that the Earth’s 24-hour rotation lost from the impact of the 2011 momentous quake that induced the tsunami hitting Japan in March 2011] occupies the Grand Salon.  Echelman is known for fabricating intriguing urban outdoor ethereal environments that address the forces of nature — wind, water and light. Wherein the past her projects are intimately entwined to a specific place through the use of local materials, www.artesmagazine.comthis installation with its billowing, colorful netting, suspended high above a huge overpowering wave-like patterned carpet does very little to activate the grand hall.

Left: Janet Echelman, 1.8 (2015) knotted and braided fiber with programmable lighting and wind movement above printed textile flooring, 96 x 45 x 40 ft. Courtesy of Janet Echelman, Inc.

Although the artist anticipates sparking awe as in previous dynamic creations such as in Seattle or Vancouver, this piece is static. Its visitors sit on a simulated rough ocean, carpet beneath the hovering fabric; they appear to be totally unconcerned with the art and more engrossed with their cell phone devices.  Notwithstanding 1.8’s volumetric form, it neither prospers here nor is fitting to this mammoth space.

Right: John Grade, Middle Fork (Cascades), 2015, reclaimed old-growth western red cedar, 26 x 18 x 26 ft. Courtesy of John Grade.

John Grade’s “Middle Fork (Cascades)” a colossal plaster cast of a giant hemlock consists of half a million small blocks of reclaimed wood, sparks astonishment.  Modeled on a 150-year-old hemlock tree he discovered in the Cascade Mountains, its age coincides with that of the Renwick’s.  The gargantuan tree suspended on its side, fills the entire room and is an imposing form that forces visitors to tiptoe squeeze around the room’s www.artesmagazine.comedges so not to disturb this gigantic yet delicate structure.

Left: Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake (2015), marbles and adhesive, 26 ft. 6 in. x 32 ft. 7 in. x 22 ft. 9”. Courtesy of Maya Lin Studio.

Folding the Chesapeake, by Maya Lin attempts to map the Chesapeake Bay and to call viewers’ attention to issues about our environment and the preciousness of water.  Using countless greenish glass marbles to capture the glistening quality of water she simulates the geographic contours of the watershed.  It is a tedious piece that not only sprawls throughout the gallery floor but also overflows up its walls going nowhere.  Activist concepts rein over enactment subsequently the dominance of eco concerns dilute the installation’s visual impact.

Collectively the only thing shared among the artists in Wonder is the process of making big labor-intensive installations from small parts in a methodical manner.  This harkens back to the methods of craft.  “Wonder” yields in the varied installations examples of the 21st c. components that are being used in craft making.  Nevertheless it is a disjointed exhibit with no curatorial voice or vision transcending the word ‘Wonder.”  In today’s museum world there is growing tendency to amaze the public with wow, wow experiences, so to pack the crowds in.  This approach is evident in the Renwick’s convivial yet innocuous display.

Right: Gabriel Dawe, Plexus A1 (2015) thread, wood, hooks and steel, 19 x 48 x 12 ft. Courtesy of the artist and Conduit Gallery.

Both the entertainment industry and the media comprehend the power of razzmatazz, with technology affording endless ways to draw attention so to promote ticket sales!  Let us hope that when the Renwick reinstalls its permanent collection later this year as well as with future shows, visitors will get to experience more in-depth curating evincing a significant balance between ‘resonance and wonder’.  The Renwick is a unique jewel in the crown of the Smithsonian: one might ask is there more to “wonder” than wow?

By Elaine A. King, Contributing Writer


[i] Peggy McGlone, “Smithsonian says no to federal agency’s request to change new signs,” Washington Post, December 1, 2015.

[ii]  Dipti Desai,”The Ethnographic Move in Contemporary Art: What Does it Mean for Art Education?” Studies in Art Education, Summer 2002, p. 320.

[iii] Press Release from the Skarstedt Gallery, New York for the exhibition “Cast From Life,” September 18 – October 25, 2014.

[iv] Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Press Release, 10 November 2015.

[v] Press Release, Pace Gallery: New York—Pace Gallery is pleased to present new work by Tara Donovan on view from May 10 to August 10, 2014 at 534 West 25th Street. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, May 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. In this exhibition, Donovan presents two new large-scale sculptures. With these works, the artist continues to explore the phenomenological effect of work created through the accumulation of identical objects. Untitled (index cards), the first such work created by Donovan, is a 13’ x 25’ x 30’ sculpture in eight parts comprised of several million 3×5″ white cards stacked and glued into scores of interweaving columnar forms combining to reach a summit on each element.

[vi] Stephen Greenblatt in “Wonder,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, exhibition catalogue, Nicholas Bell, 2015, Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with D Giles Limited, London, p. 24.

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