Smithsonian American Art Museum Reopens Its Contemporary Galleries with New Stories to Tell

Women, queer artists, and artists of color have finally become the protagonists of recent American art history rather than its supporting characters. This is the lesson to be learned from the programming at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art since it reopened in 2015, and it is now the big takeaway in the nation’s capital, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, whose contemporary art galleries have reopened after a two-year closure.

During that time, architect Annabelle Selldorf refurbished these galleries, which have the challenge of pushing art history’s limits without going too far. (The museum’s staid spaces for modern art and everything before it are up next.) Her interventions in these spaces are fairly inoffensive. Mainly, she’s pared down some of the structural clutter, removing some walls that once broke up a long, marble-floored hallway. To the naked eye, the galleries are only slightly different.

What is contained within, however, has shifted more noticeably—and is likely to influence other museums endeavoring to diversify their galleries.

For one thing, I have never encountered a permanent collection hang with more Latinx and Native American artists, who, until very recently, were severely under-represented in US museums. That unto itself is notable.

It is a joy to see, presiding over one tall gallery, three gigantic beaded tunics courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson, a Choctaw artist who will represent the US at the next Venice Biennale. Printed with bombastic patterning and hung on tipi poles, they hang over viewers’ heads and allude to the Ghost Shirts used by members of the Sioux to reach ancestral spirits. One says on it “WITHOUT YOU I’M NOTHING.” That statement can also be seen as a confession on behalf of SAAM’s curators to the artist now included in this rehang: a multiplicity of perspectives is more nourishing than having just one.

Jeffrey Gibson, the artist representing the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale, has three works based on Ghost Shirts worn by members of the Sioux nation.

Photo Albert Ting

Something similar can be seen in Judith F. Baca’s Las Tres Marías (1976). The installation features a drawing of a shy-looking chola on one side and an image of Baca as a tough-as-nails Pachuca on the other. These are both Chicana personae—the former from the ’70s, the latter from the ’40s—and the third component, a long looking glass, sutures the viewer into the piece. It’s no surprise this piece is shaped like a folding mirror, an item used to examine how one may present to the outside world. Baca suggests that a single reflection isn’t enough. To truly understand one’s self, many are needed.

It is hardly as though the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection ever lacked diversity. Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (2002), a video installation featuring a map of the country with each state’s borders containing TV monitors, is a crown jewel of the collection. It has returned once more, where it now faces a 2020 Tiffany Chung piece showing a United States strung with thread. So, too, has Alma Thomas’s magnum opus, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976), a three-part stunner showing an array of petal-like red swatches drifting across white space.

But the usual heroes of 20th century art history are notably absent. Partly, that is because the Smithsonian American Art Museum doesn’t own notable works by canonical figures like Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. (For those artists, you’d have to head to the National Gallery of Art.) Yet it is also partly because the curators want to destabilize the accepted lineage of postwar American art, shaking things up a bit and seeing where they land.

A gallery devoted to Abstract Expressionism focuses on women such as Claire Falkenstein, whose Envelope (1958) can be seen at center.

Photo Albert Ting

There is, of course, the expected Abstract Expressionism gallery, and while works by Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still are present, those two are made to share space with artists whose contributions are still being properly accounted for. The standouts here are a prismatic painting by Ojibwe artist George Morrison and a piquant hanging orb, formed from knotted steel wire, by Claire Falkenstein.

This being the nation’s capital, there is also an entire space devoted to the Washington Color School. Come for Morris Louis’s 20-foot-long Beta Upsilon (1960), on view for the first time in 30 years, now minus the pencil marks left on its vast white center by a troublemaking visitor a long time ago. Stay for Mary Pinchot Meyer’s Half Light (1964), a painting that features a circle divided into colored quadrants, one of which has two mysterious dots near one edge.

Morris Louis’s Beta Upsilon (1960) has returned to view for the first time in three decades.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

From there, the sense of chronology begins to blur. The Baca piece appears in a gallery that loosely takes stock of feminist art of the 1970s; a clear picture of the movement’s aims fails to emerge because the various artists’ goals appear so disparate. It’s followed by an even vaguer gallery whose stated focus is “Multiculturalism and Art” during the ’70s and ’80s. Beyond the fact that all five artists included are not white, the gallery doesn’t have much of a binding thesis.

This partial view of recent art history leads to gaps, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing because it offers due recognition for art-historical nonpareils. Audrey Flack is represented by Queen (1976), a Photorealist painting showing a view of a sliced orange, a rose, photographs, a playing card, and trinkets blown up to a towering size. It’s both gaudy and glorious. Hats off to the curators for letting it shine.

Audrey Flack, Queen, 1976.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Then there are two totem-like sculptures by the late Truman Lowe, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, that are allowed to command a tall space of their own. They feature sticks of peeled willow that zigzag through boxy lumber structures, and they refuse to enjoin themselves to any artistic trend. Later on, there are three deliciously odd paintings by Howard Finster, of Talking Heads album cover fame. One shows Jesus descended to a mountain range strewn with people and cars who scale the peaks. Try cramming that into the confines of an accepted art movement.

That’s just three lesser-knowns who make an impact—there are many others on hand, from Ching Ho Cheng to Ken Ohara. And yet, herein lies this hang’s big problem: its gaping omissions in between them all, which are likely to be visible not just to the literati of the art world but to the general public, too.

Despite the focus of these new galleries being the 1940s to now, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and their resultant offshoots are skipped over entirely as the curators rush through the postwar era in order to get closer to the present. The Paik installation aside, there is almost no video art in this hang (although there is a newly formed space for moving-image work where a Carrie Mae Weems installation can be found), and no digital art or performance documentation at all, which is a shame given that the museum owns important works by the likes of Cory Arcangel and Ana Mendieta, respectively. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s and its devastating impact on the art world isn’t mentioned a single time in the wall text for these new galleries, and queer art more broadly is a blind spot.

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s Run, Jane, Run! (2004), at back center, is one of the more direct artworks about racism, colonialism, and other ugly parts of the nation’s history.

Photo Albert Ting

Protest art periodically makes the cut, but any invocation of racism, misogyny, colonialism, and the like is typically abstracted or aestheticized. That all makes a work like Frank Romero’s Death of Rubén Salazar (1986) stand out. The painting depicts the 1970 killing of a Los Angeles Times reporter in a café during an unrelated incident amid a Chicano-led protest against the high number of Latino deaths in the Vietnam War. With its vibrant explosions of tear gas (Salazar was killed when a tear gas canister shot by the LA Sheriff Department struck his head) and its intense brushwork, it is as direct as can be—a history painting for our times. So, too, in a much different way, is Consuelo Jimenez Underwood’s Run, Jane, Run! (2004), a piece that ports over the “Immigrant Crossing” sign, first installed near the US-Mexico border in Southern California in the 1990s, and remakes it as a yellow tapestry that is threaded with barbed wire.

In general, this presentation could use more art like Romero and Jimenez Underwood’s. Yet the curators at least cop to the fact they’re seeking to hold handsome craftmanship and ugly historical events in tension, and the methods on display are productive in that regard.

By way of example, there’s Firelei Báez 2022 painting Untitled (Première Carte Pour L’Introduction A L’Histoire De Monde), which features a spray of red-orange paint blooming across a page from an 18th-century atlas documenting Europe’s colonies. One could say Báez’s blast of color recalls the bloodshed of manifest destiny, but that seems like an unfair interpretation for a work that provides so much visual pleasure. Rather than re-presenting the violence of a bygone era, Báez beautifies it. The result allows history to begin anew—on Báez’s own terms.