It’s been there for years… staring at me, taunting me, a self-confident concrete donut complacent on the Mall: the Hirshorn Museum. I give in… I confess, since my arrival in the city (1999) I’ve never thought any good could come from a place that flies so obviously in the face of classical culture. Recently, however, my conscience got the better of me, “If you really believe in looking for Christ in all things, you have to seek him at the Hirshorn too!” So I did. Admittedly, my first thought was, “That’s not a museum it’s a space station!” but I have to say the contemporary art collections at the Hirshorn led to some fruitful meditations.
The most striking part of the Hirshorn immediately formed a key for my understanding of it. The museum is a concrete circle. Other than its third-floor balcony, which offers stunning panoramic views of the entire Mall, there are no windows on the outer ring. Inside, however, all eyes look to the circular courtyard and its centerpiece fountain.
Calm pervades the inner court. Taking in the geometry of the place, there’s a sense of earth being lifted heavenward as the squares (earthly symbols) are elevated into the perfect [heavenly] circle of the structure. It’s a dynamic similar to the National Gallery’s rotunda: a perfect cube base containing a perfect sphere (i.e. the dome).
Circles and squares, heaven and earth, inward-facing windows… add to this the subjectivity of modern art: It exists to (a) reveal the inner thoughts of the artist and (b) invite a subjective analysis by the viewer. The Hirshorn is a place of deep introspection.
Entering the museum itself, my initial sense was “infinite.” Looking down each corridor, I could never see the “end” of the circle. It was comforting at first, the concept of having all the time in the world to explore art, both on the walls and in the human heart.
Further examination of the art brought changing thoughts, sadder thoughts.
Works by artists like Lucian Freud, Willem de Koonig, and Alberto Giacometti were among the most expressive to me because they directly represented and expressed the human form.
The humanity explored by these artists is broken, deeply wounded. A form without nobility, confused, frustrated, sorrowful. Consider Freud’s “Nude with Leg Up.” The stripped subject reclines next to a stripped bed, collapsed, as it were, on his crumpled linens. The subject’s upraised leg gives sense of having fallen out of bed. All representations of humanity necessarily show humanity’s fragility… we are, after all, fragile fallen creatures, but this art shows no indications of redemption or even the hope of it. The Hirshorn’s circle was changing from an orbit of infinite possibilities into a self-enclosed loop of futility.
Giacometti’s sculptures and de Koonig’s paintings are indicative. Both artists made their careers in post-war Europe. The destruction and broken hopes endemic of the time is obvious in their works. Giacometti’s busts of his brother Diego are described by curators as rough and naturalistic. I suppose there’s something to be said for roughness as a style, but as to the message conveyed I see only sad incomplete man, frozen in abstraction perpetually incomplete. Likewise, de Koonig’s studies of the female form which, we are told, were a search for the true identity of “woman.”
Two other works summed up and, really, confirmed my sense of loss, of mourning for the human condition portrayed by contemporary art. The first is “Untitled,” by Jannis Kounellis (1980), in which a series of classical sculptures are unceremoniously piled into a closet-like space. The broken shelves of the space intensify the sense that not only has form been passed by, but that it has been actively shunted onto the ash heap of history.
Finally, Hector Zamora’s video work, O Abuso da Historia shows a traditional courtyard in Brazil, into which dozens of potted palms are thrown crashing from the upper stories of the structure. A throwing out of history? It felt to me as if the whole structure was being prepared for demolition, destruction, fall.
Leaving the Hirshorn, sad as my impressions were, I was so glad I had encountered the art and the building. I offer no judgment against contemporary art. It is only a record of what people are feeling. It is data. Reflecting on my experience, I felt as if I’d just finished listening to the stories of a grieving family preparing for a funeral, but the family is my society, my neighbors, the men and women who’s culture has given rise to the art.
If we want the Church to be a place of encounter, if we want to go out “ad extra” as Pope Francis encourages us, modern art can give us a prescient snapshot of just how much work, how much love and hope we need to bring to bear upon our world. I’m glad I went to the Hirshorn, and I highly encourage the faithful to do likewise. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.