It was the sort of perfect early autumn day where the sun is warm, but there’s a sort of cool breeze, and the sky is blue and cloudless, and I was walking back to the metro under the influence of several mimosas that I had enjoyed at brunch with several close friends, when I happened upon one of my all time favorite divas, Leontyne Price.
It’s not something I do very often, but upon seeing this ad, I thought, well, it’s not like I’m in a hurry, and admission to the Smithsonian doesn’t cost a penny, so I decided to go in to the gallery and take a look. When I asked about the ad I saw, the woman at the information desk directed me to the third floor where I found an exhibition of portraits of great American entertainers, which included the above portrait of Leontyne Price, and two other opera singers, Marian Anderson and Maria Callas, alongside portraits of the likes of Duke Ellington, Ethel Merman, and Leonard Bernstein.
I had only intended to see the exhibit advertised with the portrait of Leontyne, but it’s so easy to succumb to an art binge once you’re in the gallery, isn’t it? So, of course, as I was making my way back out of the gallery, a flashing light caught my eye, and I went to take a look at the large exhibition room of modern art where that light was coming from. I became immediately drawn to a sculpture of a horse built from driftwood, whose skeletal form was striking and beautiful from every angle. Ok, just this hall and then I’ll head home, I thought, and wandered around to look at the other works on display.
I never could have guessed what was about to happen to me as I made my way into a darkened alcove where there was a colorful installation painted on the wall and floor, with colored lights shining on it. It seemed to glow. Neat, I thought the artist used a black light on florescent paint. But then, as I started to leave the dark room, I noticed that something had changed. It had turned red. Oh, the lights change color. As I made my way back into the center of the room, the painting changed again. I gasped as the lights now made the paint appear black and white. It was like it was an entirely new painting. I sat down on the bench as the light began to alter again. Now light was focused on just one small area of the painting, leaving the rest black, now the light changed to a blue-green tint causing one shape to appear to emerge in three dimensions; as the light and colors continued to change the painting seemed to come alive. Maybe it was the mimosas, but I felt a knot in my stomach as my pulse quickened. I suddenly felt quite emotional. It was beautiful and strange and haunting and cheerful and sad.
I’m not sure how long I sat, bewildered and in awe of this magnificent art installation, but eventually I made myself get up. Outside the darkened chamber was information about the artist and the work:
When I read in the blurb that Hockney had a long career designing sets for opera, the emotional response I had experienced seemed to come into context. This art installation is like a silent opera, with all the drama and catharsis a good opera ought to have. It moved me, just as an opera should. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so affected by a piece of visual art.
All of this is to say that, the next time you’re out wandering the city, and you see an ad promoting an art exhibition, go take a look! You might find something unexpected and wonderful. And if you’re in DC, go see this piece!