I am always impressed by the courageous tourists who flock to Washington, DC, during the unbearably hot and humid summer months. Particularly so this year when the planet seems determined to break its own heat record on a daily basis. Fortunately, the city is blessed with many museums behind whose walls you can escape the heat. Below are a few choices to consider before wandering through their revolving doors. The good news is, all the exhibitions listed here are free. But be careful, even if you can dodge the heat outdoors, you will be confronted with heated metaphors indoors.
Going Through Hell: The Divine Dante
The show brings together a small but distinguished selection of works inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The artists include usual suspects like William Blake, Auguste Rodin, and Robert Rauschenberg, who are shown alongside a range of rare objects and prints, all testifying to the wider appeal of Dante’s classic. The anonymous “Allegorical Portrait of Dante” from the 16th century that greets the visitors at the entrance is enough to make you appreciate the fact that you wandered into the gallery. Other treats include a first edition of Gustave Doré’s illustrated Inferno from 1865, which he self-published, and a late-15th-century engraving of the Inferno depicting the same scene from the well-known Camposanto of Pisa fresco.
The National Gallery of Art (nga.org)
6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC
Through July 16
National Small Works Competition & Exhibition
While DC may be famous for its massive architecture and museums, some people here still like it small. Such are the members of the Washington Print Foundation, who organize a small works competition every year to recognize innovation and experimentation in printmaking. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the competition, and the exhibition highlights the first round of its juried selections. Works from 36 artists offer a satisfying peek into the studios of a much bigger printmaking community, most of whom practice their craft out of love and out of pocket. The range of techniques included in this show includes but is not nearly limited to, collagraphy, stone lithography, solar plates, intaglio, and photopolymer etchings. The spirit of experiment and innovation lives on and a catalogue of the show is available for free online.
Washington Printmakers Gallery (washingtonprintfoundation.org)
1675 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC
Through July 30
Looking for a glimpse of what DC area emerging artists are up to these days? This is my summer pick. Re/Envisioning features the works of Adele Yiseol Kenworthy, Antonio McAfee, Stephanie Mercedes, Fargo Tbakhi, Jessica Valoris, and Stephanie J. Williams, most of whose works I am familiar with through regional venues. These artists are unapologetically open-minded in terms of their use of mediums, but truly focused in terms of their intent and passion. They explicitly state that their work represents only a few drops in a much larger pool of human struggle for self-determination, and they re/envision what personal and collective identity could and should have be in the age of social media, migration, war, and popular conservatism.
DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities (reenvisioningexhibit.com)
200 I Street SE, Washington, DC
Through August 18
Philip Guston Now
The infamous Philip Guston retrospective — which was supposed to open in 2020 but was shelved due to the presumed consequences of showing works that featured Ku Klux Klan imagery — is finally on. The retrospective maps Guston’s career as he switches back and forth between figurative and abstract painting. More relevantly, it replicates his controversial 1970 show at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, where he first showed his Klansmen paintings. More than 50 years later, these paintings are still shocking, mainly because they are brutally honest depictions of Guston’s personal experience of living in a racist society and feeling complicit to injustices on a daily basis. If they are unsettling and hard to stomach, it is because they depict personal daily routines and silences that enabled institutionalized injustice throughout history.
National Gallery of Art (nga.org)
East Building, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC
Through August 27
I Dream a World: Selections From Brian Lanker’s Portraits of Remarkable Black Women
More than three decades after its first publication, the National Portrait Gallery brings together the original portraits that appeared in Brian Lanker’s photography book I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. In a two-part exhibition, portraits of the charismatic Black women who shaped American culture, their careers, and their personalities are juxtaposed. They include Civil Rights Movement fighters and luminaries including Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Septima Poinsette Clark, Lena Horne, Alice Walker, and Elizabeth Catlett.
National Portrait Gallery (npg.edu)
8th Street NW and G Street NW, Washington, DC
Through September 10
Put It This way: (Re)visions of the Hirshhorn Collection
There is a hidden lounge on the third floor of the Hirshhorn Museum, the only place from where you can look beyond the curved walls of the building and enjoy a fabulous view of the National Mall, the premiere site of political protest in the United States. Presently, this lounge is taken over by the Guerrilla Girls, who transformed it into a feminist activist’s quarters. It is part of Put It This Way, an exhibition dedicated to radical feminist works from the museum’s collection. The title of the show comes from Rosalyn Drexler’s 1963 painting, which is included in the show. So are Ana Mendieta’s performance video “Blood and Feathers” (1974) and Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s mosaic piece “Untitled” (1973–1974), legendary works which are being shown for the first time in Washington, DC. Showcasing the works of 49 historically overlooked women and nonbinary artists, this exhibition bears witness to the Guerrilla Girls’ iconic 2007 poster/zine cover that declared, “Thousands of Women locked in basements of DC museums!”
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (si.edu)
Independence Avenue at 7th Street SW, Washington, DC
Through September 17
John Akomfrah: Purple
This is a six-channel video installation in which Akomfrah masterfully combines his own cinematography with archival footage. The 62-minute-long projection is an ode to human interaction with nature and climate change. Accompanied by a massive ceiling installation at its entrance made out of hundreds of oil dispensers, it starts as a criticism of the fossil fuel industry. However, as its real and imaginary characters watch and participate in the demise of the only planet they have ever known as their home, Purple becomes a statement of grief. Akomfrah’s work is probably more significant today than when it was first released in 2017, for it depicts our collective regret and complicity with an astonishing style.
Hirshhorn Museum (hirshhorn.edu)
Independence Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, DC
Through January 7, 2024
Afrofuturism: A History of Black Futures
Sun Ra released his infamous Space Is The Place album exactly 50 years ago. And he was only one of the artists following an old tradition of reimagining Black identity within the parameters of a fictional future. The Afrofuturism exhibition digs deep into the past and brings together a fascinating show which looks at the enduring appeal of the creative freedom and futuristic thinking offered by the Black community. The galleries are designed like an interstellar spaceship and there is some time travel involved. But you shouldn’t be fooled by any of the glitter and glamor as if it is entertainment. In this show, George Clinton’s rainbow wig from the 1980s accompanies Benjamin Banneker’s 1795 anti-slavery Almanac, Aaron Douglas’s 1928 cover for the Crisis magazine, and Octavia E. Butler’s handwritten manuscripts. Together, they provoke the audience to contemplate how Black identity was deconstructed and reconstructed countless times.
National Museum of African American History and Culture (nmaahc.edu)
1400 Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC
Through March 24, 2024
Sharing Honors and Burdens: Renwick Invitational 2023
The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery biennially invites a select group of artists over a chosen theme. This exhibition features 55 works by six Native American and/or Alaska Native artists, all addressing the issues related to family and tradition. Joe Feddersen’s 2013 glass installation “Charmed (Bestiary)” is one of the highlights of this show, evoking the transcendence and fragility of tradition and memory. Another is Maggie Thompson’s On Loving (2022–23) builds on a painful personal experience, reimagining the coroners’ body bags, in which her father was taken away, as ornate Native American sacks.
Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (americanart.edu)
Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC
Through March 31, 2024
One Life: Frederick Douglass
Did you know that the most photographed American of the 19th century was the formerly enslaved and lifelong abolition activist, Frederick Douglass? How about the fact that he called photography the “true art” because it depicted reality in a way that can transform society? Utilizing more than 36 prints, photographs, and ephemera, One Life traces the legendary life of Douglas, including his friendship with Abraham Lincoln, who adopted Douglass’s views on photography as a campaign strategy. The contrast between the 1818 slave ledger in which Douglass’s name made its first appearance as an infant and later his face on a c. 1841 daguerreotype that was one the earliest taken in the United States is hard to put into words.
National Portrait Gallery (si.edu)
8th Street NW and G Street NW, Washington, DC
Through April 21, 2024
Janet Echelman: 1.8 Renwick
Echelman’s massive installation covers the entire ceiling of Renwick Gallery’s main hall. It is in essence a data visualization project, basically an enormous information cloud. The installation takes its title from the seismic activity registered during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. The geological event was of such proportions that it shifted the Earth’s axis and shortened the day by 1.8 millionth of a second, hence the work’s title. Visitors are invited to lie down on the carpeted floor and contemplate the enormity of a natural force beyond their control.
Renwick Gallery of National Museum of American Art (americanart.edu)
8th and G Streets, NW, Washington, DC