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National Gallery of Art Acquires Works by McCracken, Paik, Torres-García
The National Gallery has acquired Ommah (2005) by Nam June Paik, a moving reflection on his Korean heritage and his last work of video sculpture. AP Photo/Markus Schreiber.

WASHINGTON, DC.- At its annual meeting in late March, the Collectors Committee of the National Gallery of Art made possible the acquisition of Black Plank (1967) by John McCracken (b. 1934), a rare black early plank in pristine condition, and Ommah (2005) by Nam June Paik (1932–2006), a moving reflection on his Korean heritage and his last work of video sculpture. Concurrently, the Gallery accepted one additional gift from Victoria and Roger Sant: Untitled Composition (1929) by Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949), an important work of Latin American modernism.

"This year, the Collectors Committee's selections brought the Gallery two important firsts: its first work of video art by Nam June Paik, one of the founders of that medium, and its first work of sculpture by John McCracken, one of the leading figures of minimal art," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "We are very grateful to the Collectors Committee, which enables the Gallery to continually enhance its holdings of contemporary art, and to Gallery president Victoria Sant and her husband Roger for the Gallery's first painting by Torres-Garcia."

The Collectors Committee discretionary fund for photographs, drawings, and prints supported the acquisition of three photographs by Francesca Woodman (1958–1981): Caryatid, New York (Study for Temple Project), New York (1980); Untitled, Rome (1977–1978); and Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1975–1978); two drawings by Al Taylor (1948–1999): Untitled (Can Study) (1994) and Untitled (Floaters) (1998); a set of ten lithographs by Glenn Ligon (b. 1960): Runaways (1993); and a photolithograph on newsprint by Robert Gober (b. 1954): Untitled (1991).

Black Plank by John McCracken
Black Plank is the first work by the artist to enter the collection, engaging not only with the Gallery's strong holdings of minimalist work, including pieces by Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Fred Sandback, Anne Truitt, James Turrell, and Larry Bell, but also with paintings by Barnett Newman, whose "zips" helped inspire the planks, and with the pioneers of abstraction before him.

McCracken is a unique figure among minimalists. Though he is often grouped with the "light and space" artists who formed the West Coast branch of the movement for his interest in vivid color and polished surfaces, his signature achievement, the "planks" that he invented in 1966 and that he still makes today, have the tough simplicity and singularity of New York minimalism. McCracken notes that his planks bridge sculpture (identified with the floor) and painting (identified with the wall), adding that in so doing they bridge the physical and the mental.

McCracken's first planks were hollow plywood structures sprayed with paint, but he found that over time the grain began to show through. His solution was to add a layer of fiberglass over the plywood and to apply pigmented resin for its intense color and high sheen. Despite their polished surfaces, for McCracken the planks have otherworldly "personalities" owing to their different colors and dimensions. He recalls "an ancient Egyptian portrait of Chepren, in black diorite."

Ommah by Nam June Paik
Created in 2005, the year before the artist's death, Ommah ("mother" in Korean) is his last video work of video sculpture, a genre that he helped to invent in the early 1960s. The first work of video art by Paik to enter the Gallery's collection, it joins three works on paper by the artist.

A traditional Korean robe or hanbok hangs suspended from a stick of bamboo. The diaphanous silk provides a screen on which images on an LCD TV monitor can be seen. The monitor plays a program lasting several minutes and looping continuously. Three Korean-American girls, dressed in their own traditional costumes, dance, play ball, beat a drum, and ride in a toy car. They are carefree but choreographed by Paik. The background imagery includes close-up views of early video games, and material from Global Groove, the video Paik made for WNET-TV in 1974. All are manipulated using a version of the color video synthesizer Paik invented with Shuya Abe around 1970. The music includes ambient sounds of the studio, both straight and processed, and snippets from Paik's own experimental music tapes of the 1950s.

This cruciform work appears stable and iconic, but our activity before it is crucial: viewers might move side to side or even peek around the robe for a better view. Paik attacked with gusto the passivity that he sensed early television imposed on viewers. Through endless play with the medium, which he eviscerated and recomposed, he reclaimed it as an expressive, democratic tool.

Untitled Composition by Joaquín Torres-García
Untitled Composition was bought directly from the artist by his good friend, the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, soon after it was made, and it has remained with Lipchitz‘s heirs. Its acquisition brings the Gallery its first painting by the artist (it joins a 1933 drawing titled Port of Uruguay).

Torres-García's paintings expand the grid of high modernism to include pictographs and symbols exhibiting a remarkable touch—subtle but direct, playful but profound. By 1929, the year of this work, the artist was already 55 years old, with a long career behind him. Untitled Composition is one of a few works from that year in which Torres-García arrived at his mature style. His allegiance to De Stijl is evident in the vertical-horizontal grid and the restriction of the palette to the three (muted) primaries. The articulation of the grid through delicately layered colors, however, is his own, as are the symbols filling it. They embody what Torres-García would call Universal Constructivism, proposing a harmony between the realms of the intellect (represented here by the triangle and clock), the emotions (the house), and the earthy, natural world (the fish and elephant). The artist expanded this system to include pre-Columbian elements with his move back to Montevideo, Uruguay, his birthplace, in 1934, but he remained faithful to its basic outlines for the rest of his career.

In Uruguay, Torres-García shook up the academic establishment and diffused modernism through the Grupo Arturo and his Taller Torres-García, laying the groundwork for the explosion of abstract art in postwar Latin America. He was also influential in New York, where a posthumous exhibition at Sidney Janis in 1950 was admired by Barnett Newman and no doubt influenced Adolph Gottlieb and Louise Nevelson. More broadly, his fascination with the compartmentalization of signs has its legacy in works by Jasper Johns, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others.

Photographs, Drawings, and Prints
In her short but impressive career, the American photographer Francesca Woodman (1958–1981) made a remarkable series of portraits and self-portraits. In her first works, such as Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1975–1978), she consciously explored earlier art, mining yet also subverting the sexually charged nature of mythological subjects such as Leda and the Swan. In self-portraits made soon thereafter, such as Untitled, Rome (1977–1978), Woodman utilized both light and movement to create an almost ethereal presence, simultaneously revealing and concealing herself, subjecting herself to the gaze of the camera but deflecting it at the same time.

Her most ambitious work, The Temple Project (1980), presents Woodman and a few friends dressed and posed as caryatids--the sculpted female figures that serve as an architectural support and the Greek term for the maidens of the goddess Artemis. In Caryatid, New York (Study for Temple Project), New York (1980), Woodman displays the female figure in a far bolder and more direct manner than in any of her previous work. Yet once again the figure hides her face from our view; she is the subject of the photograph but she remains mutable—unsettled and impossible to fix. These are the first works by Francesca Woodman to enter the Gallery's collection.

Al Taylor's Untitled (Can Study) (1994) and Untitled (Floaters) (1998) demonstrate that the humblest of subjects—lowly tin cans and fishermen's floaters—can occasion magnificent drawings that explore space, volume, and shadow. Like Marcel Duchamp, Taylor was heavily invested in shadows, which assume fully autonomous roles in the two drawings acquired.

Glenn Ligon's Runaways series (1993) consists of ten lithographs based on "run-away slave" ads published in 18th- and 19th-century newspapers. Without disclosing his intentions, Ligon asked friends to describe him, subsequently inserting their observations into the format of the runaway ads. Each friend's account differs somewhat, underscoring the fluid confines of identity.

An untitled photolithograph by Robert Gober (1991) for the journal Parkett simulates a page from the October 4, 1960, edition of the New York Times. Mixed in among pieced-together wedding announcements and gruesome news items that defy belief, Gober inserted a fabricated story about the artist's own death-by-drowning at the age of six, exploding the myth of the safe and nurturing home. He brought the story still closer to home by carefully hand-painting two coffee rings—the inevitable domestic mishap—onto the page.

National Gallery of Art | John McCracken | Nam June Paik | Joaquín Torres-García | Latin American Modernism | Earl A. Powell III |

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