March 10, 2011 | by David J. Hoffman
Artistic acquisitions

Thomas Moran's masterpiece 'Green River Cliffs, Wyoming.' (Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art)

It is a magnificent and dramatic evocation, a grand panoramic viewscape of the American West, the most impressive of all the Green River (Wyoming) paintings of Thomas Moran (1837-1926), one of the great masters of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting.

And the stunning new acquisition — “Green River Cliffs, Wyoming” — is now on exhibit in a special setting on the main floor of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth and Constitution Avenue N.W., through June.

Influenced by the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, Moran took his brushes and pigments and water-colors with him, headed by train in 1871 to reach the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the land of geysers and hot springs. But en route he stepped off the train in Green River, Wyo., and in that dusty railhead town, he saw a landscape unlike any other he had seen. Rising above the frontier town were towering cliffs, and captivated by the bands of color revealed by eons of nature’s wind and water, he decided one day he would return and paint what he saw there.

A decade later, he did, and the 1881 painting, oil on canvas, is the astonishing result. Missing, however, was any sign of the bustling town, for Moran erased all the realities of train tracks and church steeples and roads. Instead there was his imagined world of a pre-industrial West that neither Moran nor anyone could have found in 1871.

Where Moran looked back, others of his generation looked forward, to Impressionism and all the breakthroughs of modern art that followed in its wake. Such a new expression  — modern art — is the centerpiece of the museum-wide exhibit, “90 Years of New,” at the Phillips Collection.   In a year-long special series of exhibits, gallery talks and other activities, America’s first museum of modern art marks the beginning of its decade-long coundown to its centennial year in 2021. Visit its website at phillipscollection.org for a complete list of what’s going on, but also be sure and pay attention to the stand-out display, through May 8, of Howard Hodgkins’ “As Time Goes By” — two 20-foot-long etchings with eyepopping starbursts of vibrant color.

But modern art does not end with Picasso (1881-1973) — speaking of which, a journey to Richmond becomes a pilgrimage of necessity before the exhibit there, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts of the Masterpieces (170 works the Spanish modernist kept for his own collection) from the Musee National Picasso in Paris, ends May 15. An example is his “Portrait of Dora Maar,” a remarkable oil on canvas of a woman whose face tells us all we need to know about the fractured identity of modernity. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for lovers of modern art in a show at its only East coast venue. For tickets call 804-340-1405 or visit vmfa.museum. The museum is at 200 N. Boulevard in Richmond.

Modern art is also contemporary art — and serious collectors have a special chance on Saturday to bid on more than 180 original works of art by painters and sculptors at work in the Washington area, in a cocktail reception and seated dinner arranged under the rubric of “Select” in a distinctive gallery in 26,000-square-feet of raw space with sweeping views of downtown D.C. Organized by the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), this event, now in its 30th year, will be held on the 10th floor of 700 Sixth Street N.W. Tickets for the auction gala dinner are available at wpadc.org/auction.

A different vein of local art features “street” as well as gallery artists in the group show, “Fridge5,” by five artists showing their work on canvas and other materials and handmade prints on paper and wood at the Fridge, with an opening reception there Saturday from 7 to 11 p.m. The Fridge is in the rear alley at 516 8th Street S.E. on Capitol Hill. All five artists also collaborated on an external mural, the result of pieces painted directly on the building’s exterior wall.

Finally, pay attention also to the work at three local galleries of note — Galleryplanb, 1530 14th Street N.W.; Long View Gallery, 1234 9th Street N.W.; and Touchstone Gallery, 901 New York Avenue N.W.

With an opening reception Saturday from 6-8 p.m., for its show of three artists, running through April 10, Galleryplanb’s gay director David Kalamar says that their work is a first-rate exemplar of the best new art. He points to the narrative paintings of Kathy Beynette that he calls “fun and whimsical,” and to Patrick Campbell’s paintings “complex and saturated with color,” and to the work of Michele Montalbano, creating “a ghost-like presence in her works layered onto deconstructed paintings.”

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