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Collection Highlights: East Building-English

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Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, welcomes visitors to the East Building and modern art collection. The East Building audio tour explores a wide range of work from the turn of the twentieth century to the present day through the voices of several National Gallery curators, artists, and the building architect I.M. Pei.

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Mitchell was a leading figure in the group of artists known as the second generation of abstract expressionists. In this painting, the bold, animated lines against a white ground capture Mitchell’s spontaneous and impulsive painting method. She often drew upon childhood memories of Lake Michigan when composing paintings, some of which she called “expressionist landscapes.” Because they are totally abstract, the viewer is invited to connect to her works on an emotional level.

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Pollock’s drip painting technique was instrumental in the development of action painting, one method of the abstract expressionist style. Abstract expressionist painters sought to create works that evoked pure emotion from the viewer. In this piece, splashing lines, puddles, and drips create multiple layers that suggest energy and depth. The result seems spontaneous yet controlled, intuitive yet thoughtfully considered.

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The rough texture, somber color palette, and coarse style of Dubuffet’s paintings confront the viewer with their directness. In this work, he depicts a city in a graffiti-like figurative style. He created the animated, crudely drawn stick figures of this postwar apartment complex by scratching through black paint to reveal hidden, delicate colors beneath.

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While this sculpture might seem abstract, Brancusi insisted that his works revealed the inner essence of his subjects. Brancusi did not have a large workshop or use plaster or clay models; rather, he worked alone with the materials, in this case carving stone and polishing brass.

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Though totally abstract, Mondrian’s “neo-plastic” paintings attempt to capture the complex equilibrium found in nature. The reduced color palette and stark opposition of black vertical and horizontal lines against blocks of white and primary colors were meant to spiritually represent natural harmony. This was the first neo-plastic painting to be created in the lozenge, or diamond, format.

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One of the great surrealist sculptors, Giacometti often incorporated themes of games and play into his early work, as with this piece. The form the artist uses here resembles a board game with moveable pieces, yet the nature of the game is unclear. The ambiguous space and unknowable rules of the “game” represented in No More Play make this piece feel like an object one might encounter in a dream.

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Fresh Widow is one of Duchamp’s “readymades”—commonplace objects that the artist signed and then exhibited as art. Working with a dealer in 1964, Duchamp oversaw the production of eight reproductions of his original Fresh Widow, of which this is the second. The title is a pun on the phrase “French window,” which alludes to both the doors commonly found in Parisian apartments and the new generation of widows created by World War I.

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Kandinsky created dozens of compositions he called “improvisations” from 1909 to 1913. In this work, strong black lines and scrubbed patches of color course across the canvas, but their movement is constrained by a monumental triangular composition. The use of the term “improvisation” suggests spontaneous expression, while “sea battle” evokes a military engagement.

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This work dates to early in Kirchner’s prolific career, when he was a founding member of the expressionist group called Die Brücke, or The Bridge, in Dresden in 1905. In this painting, Kirchner has depicted two nudes in a natural setting, rather than in the contrived space of an academic studio. This work is also an example of the artist’s use of bold, often crude, forms and vibrant color. 

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This is the only sculpture by Modigliani in the Gallery’s collection, which otherwise features his painted portraits and nudes. However, this sculpture reflects the artist’s distinctive stylization of the figure with the elongated features and almond-shaped eyes found in many of his paintings. Modigliani focused on sculpture from about 1909 to 1914, before his death from tuberculosis at age 35 in 1920.

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This painting shows a group of itinerant, socially marginalized circus performers who would have traveled from town to town to earn a living. Though the figures in this work stand close to one another, they are emotionally remote. The bleak, featureless landscape enhances the feeling of isolation and estrangement. This early work could reflect the sympathy Picasso felt for those who shared the transient lifestyle he had experienced in Paris before settling in a ramshackle apartment in Montemarte in 1904, a year before this was painted.

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Matisse’s work as a fauvist painter was one phase in a lifelong engagement with color. This small but explosive work is celebrated as one of the most important early paintings of the fauve school, a style distinguished by a startling palette of saturated, unmixed colors and broad brushstrokes. This work was painted in Collioure, a small town on the Mediterranean coast of France, to which Matisse traveled in the summer of 1905 with André Derain, a fellow fauvist painter.

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Braque famously worked alongside Pablo Picasso as the two developed the new style of cubism around 1910. This painting is typical of a later phase in Braque’s career, when he incorporated elements of cubism into still lifes and other subjects. In this work, the wood grain on the table, the design of the wallpaper in the background, and the text on the newspaper emphasize the interplay of pattern and texture.

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Though associated with the post-impressionist symbolist group of Les Nabis, Bonnard rarely engaged with symbolist subject matter. Rather, he captured unguarded moments like this one and used his work to explore and experiment with color and color harmonies.

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This painting is one of a set of five decorative works commissioned in 1895, all of which show intimate interior scenes, Vuillard's principal subject. All five display rich harmonies in a restricted range of color and densely arranged, intricate patterns. The introspective woman arranging flowers here perhaps represents the red-haired Misia, an accomplished pianist and wife of the patron of the series. Vuillard adopted the symbolist idea of synesthesia, whereby one sense can evoke another. The sumptuous visual qualities of Vuillard's reds in this work may suggest the lush chords of music that Misia performed.

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O’Keeffe, an important artist in the development of American modernism, is best known today for her abstracted representations of flowers. This painting is one of a series of six depictions of jack-in-the-pulpit flowers, which the artist would have found near her husband’s family estate in Lake George, New York. Each painting in the series zooms in closer to the center of the flower and becomes more abstract.

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Hopper painted this work in South Truro, Massachusetts, where he and his wife had built a home and studio in 1934. Despite its bright palette and seemingly serene subject, Ground Swell echoes the themes of loneliness and escape typical of Hopper’s oeuvre. The blue sky, sun-kissed figures, and vast rolling water strike a calm note; however, the visible disengagement of the figures from each other and their noticeable preoccupation with the bell buoy at the center of the canvas belie the initial sense of serenity.

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Bellows became known early in his career for his uncompromising depictions of New York City, where he studied art and lived for 20 years until his death in 1925. As a major figure in the Ashcan School of urban realists, Bellows’s work captured the raw reality of everyday life in the city. This painting shows the corner of Madison Square at Broadway and Twenty-Third Street, which was notorious for its glut of advertising signs, including the city’s first electric sign.

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Johns was known early in his career for returning recognizable objects, like targets, to the visual arts following the intensely personal, gestural painting of the abstract expressionists. He presented these familiar items in a cool, seemingly detached, and often enigmatic manner. The tactile quality of his surfaces in works like this one stand out and are a testament to the close relationship Johns perceived between painting and sculpture.

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At the center of the composition, a powerful black Gabriel stands astride earth and sea, summoning the nations of the world to judgment with his trumpet call.  This 1939 painting is based on an illustration Douglas had created more than a decade earlier to accompany James Weldon Johnson’s popular and influential book of poems titled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.  Johnson had been inspired by charismatic black preachers, while Douglas, in turn, was inspired by Johnson’s remarkable poetry.

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Louis was a leader of the local Washington Color School, a branch of the larger color field movement. He is best known for experimenting with a process called staining, in which he diluted acrylic paints and poured them onto unprimed canvas. He then tipped, bent, or folded the canvas or its support to control how the color moved over the surface.

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This is one of several so-called color veil paintings Gorky made in 1944, in which films of paint have been washed unevenly across the canvas and evocative but indistinct forms have been brushed in. Gorky thinned his paint with turpentine and might have applied it with a turkey baster. Overall green and brown hues suggest a landscape, but there are no identifiable landscape forms and no spatial recession. Instead, vertical drips and the alternation of light and deep tones create a shifting, shimmering effect across the surface of the canvas.

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This work is typical of the Fauvist style, which Derain developed alongside Henri Matisse, featuring vibrant and unblended colors. This scene was painted when Derain visited London and captured similar subjects to those Monet had famously painted just a few years previously, though Derain’s color palette and perspective on the scenes contrast sharply with the impressionist master’s work.

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This work is a perfect example of Frankenthaler’s technique of making pictures entirely by "staining," a process in which she poured thinned paint onto raw, unprimed canvas. This method results in fields of transparent color that seem to float in space, with the weave of the canvas establishing the flatness of the image. Her arrangement of colors and shapes often evoke the natural environment, and each work creates a unique visual space and atmosphere.

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This work was created while Kelly was working in France from 1948 to 1954—a period when he realized his first abstractions. This was the first time he used differently sized, individually crafted stretchers in one painting, lending special significance to this work of his early oeuvre. Kelly's abstract works are derived intuitively, even though they may appear to be based on mathematical formulae, such as the ratio of one panel to another or to the work as a whole.

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After studying scale models of the Gallery’s East Building before it was complete, Calder composed the original maquette, or small three-dimensional model, of this mobile. Starting with the bottom arm and working progressively upward, he established the centering for each part before attaching it to the next higher, unfinished section. Once the model was complete, it was enlarged to 32 times its original size and was constructed from aluminum.

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The top row of letters in this work are painted black and turned toward the wall so the viewer looks at the illuminated backs of the letters. The bottom row depicts the word upside down with the outward facing sides painted black, which allows the white neon light to reflect off the wall. This arrangement of skewed perspectives evokes the political turmoil caused by the election of America’s first black president and the country’s contemporaneous involvement in two wars.

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This is one of six silkscreened paintings that show enlarged handprints taken from declassified United States government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The handprints belong to soldiers accused of detainee abuse in Iraq, and the titles of these pieces are also taken from those documents.

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This work is a perfect example of Frankenthaler’s technique of making pictures entirely by "staining," a process in which she poured thinned paint onto raw, unprimed canvas. This method results in fields of transparent color that seem to float in space, with the weave of the canvas establishing the flatness of the image. Her arrangement of colors and shapes often evoke the natural environment, and each work creates a unique visual space and atmosphere.

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This painting reimagines a boat ride into a haunted tunnel at an amusement park as the Middle Passage—the forced journey of slaves from Africa to the Americas. What might in other hands be a work of heavy irony becomes instead a delicate interweaving of the histories of painting and race. The canvas, which is stretched directly onto the wall, creates a screen or backdrop onto which viewers project their own associations triggered by the powerful imagery.

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This painting is the first of 14 abstract representations of the Stations of the Cross, and it is also the first work to feature Newman’s signature “zips.” These vertical elements, which could be sharply or loosely defined, were used to punctuate the single-hued fields of his canvases. This series exemplifies Newman’s efforts to blend abstract expressionism with mystical and spiritual subjects.

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Paik was born in Seoul, South Korea, but grew up and lived in Japan, Germany, and, finally, New York. Paik pioneered the use of new media, including video, in art. For this work, Paik altered a 19th-century Japanese scroll by adding his handprint and placing a flashing red light behind it. The juxtaposition of a traditional art form with modern technology would become a hallmark of Paik’s work.

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This piece was created during a crucial turning-point in Judd’s career, when he moved from painting to overseeing the construction of large but simple three-dimensional objects. This piece sits on the ground without a pedestal, directly in the space of the viewer, and is unframed and exposed in a way that almost no previous sculpture had been. Judd took aim at what he saw as the continuing illusionism of European modernism, pursuing instead a purely lucid form that would exist simply as an object.

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This work was one of several studies for the final piece, which is comprised of eight similar banners that now hang in the National Gallery of Australia. The entire project ended up being a swan song for Hesse, as she succumbed to brain cancer shortly after the final work was installed at its original home, the Finch College Museum of Art.

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This painting was the first for which Lichtenstein borrowed an image directly from popular culture: a children’s book called Donald Duck: Lost and Found. He began this work by making a sketch from his source and then recomposing the image for narrative and formal purposes. He traced the drawing onto a canvas, making more adjustments, and then painted the dots using a perforated metal screen as a stencil, imitating industrial printing techniques. Lichtenstein would later refer to this work as his first pop art painting.