Venice Biennale: Overblown Spectacle, Shallow Content

The 54th edition of the Venice Biennale opened this month and remains on view through late fall. The core of the show is the Giardini park where 29 national pavilions present official exhibitions sent from Europe and the Americas, with a few from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, relative latecomers to the international art circuit. Nations lacking permanent pavilions get space in the nearby Arsenale or around town. A record 89 nations are participating this year, up from 77 in 2009.

Calder in Washington

There was no decree naming Alexander Calder (1898-1976) the capital’s official artist, but walking around the National Mall, you’d think there had been. His abstract sheet-metal sculptures are in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and on the grounds of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn and American History museums, and a mammoth mobile dominates the atrium of the National Gallery’s East Building. An abundance of his works is on display in these museums as well as in the Phillips Collection. He also invented meatl-wire drawing in space. All told, he made a few hundred wire figures before abandoning the medium for abstraction in the 1930s. Among them were several dozen celebrities, athletes and art-world friends that are the main focus of “Calder’s Portraits: A New Language” at the National Portrait Gallery through August 14, 2011.

Washington Portraits – and a correction about my take on museums and private collections

“Capital Portraits: Treasures from Washington Private Collections,” at the National Portrait Gallery is hardly an ingenious or groundbreaking curatorial conceit, but it’s a display of high-quality works by John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Andy Warhol and others that otherwise would not be accessible to the public. Blogger Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes condemns me for not trashing the show. I respond to him here.

Vik Muniz’s Oscar-nominated “Waste Land” on PBS Tonight

“Waste Land,” a film about the Brooklyn-based, Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, which recounts a celebrated artist using his work as an instrument to promote social justice.

The documentary accompanies Muniz to Brazil, where he plans to harvest garbage from one the world’s largest landfills and use it to assemble portraits of people who scavenge the dump for their livelihoods. Expecting to be met with hostility, he and an assistant visit the site and discover instead a community of amiable and well-mannered workers. Rather than proceed on his own, he decides to collaborate with the workers on their “garbage” portraits and to return proceeds from sale of the artworks to improve their lives.

John the Baptist’s Tooth is in Baltimore

John the Baptist’s tooth, the arm of Saint George and the head of Saint Sebastian are currently at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore as part of “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe,” a rich exhibition on view until May 15 that brings together 130 golden sculptures, jewel-encrusted and enameled boxes and crosses, paintings and illuminated manuscripts.