Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

A Visit to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.

by Lauren Kolumbic

As spring struggled to descend on Washington D.C., delaying the celebrated arrival of the cherry blossoms and the associated outdoor festivities, I took advantage of the chilly weather and visited the Hirshhorn. I was not sure what to expect from this tiny contemporary museum-in-the-round, but I was delighted by the substance of the permanent collection, as well as Barbara Kruger’s installation Belief + Doubt. 

On the lower floor of the main building, Kruger’s pithy slogans coat the walls in four to six foot font, covering part of the ceiling, and extending into the tile of the gift shop. The urgency of Kruger’s unanswered questions (WHOSE POWER? WHOSE VALUES? WHO SPEAKS? WHO IS SILENT?) that envelope visitors as they descend the staircase is tempered by gentle reminders to believe, to  and a giant smiley face emoticon. The experience of Belief + Doubt is akin to standing on the slick pages of a giant magazine, and as I looked around, I couldn’t help but notice each patron, the old and the young, smiling at the experience.

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I was instantly delighted as I descending into the space, but as I moved around trying to read all of the text I began to feel slightly frustrated. The text on the floor was so large that the words seemed to bump into each other as I read them, slightly blurring the question unless read carefully a second or third time. I went back upstairs seeking another perspective, but found my view blocked by the descending escalators. Each vantage point rendered part of the text unclear. Though Kruger was certainly working with the space she was given, it is plain that there is no easy way to see each slogan by virtue of the artists design. As in life, messages that appear to be clear at first glance subtly reveal the potential for misinterpretation. We live in a world of half-truths and obscured realities that often depend upon each person’s social, political, and/or economic position. Kruger shows us we have to work hard and think critically to understand, rather than relying on snap judgements or unquestioned beliefs. Kruger stated that the purpose of the exhibition is to introduce doubt, and she does so not only with the text, but also by the nature of the installation.

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The top floor of the Hirshhorn is reserved for the permanent collection of painting and smaller sculpture. I found it particularly interesting to pass from a collection of whimsical Alexander Calder mobiles into a gallery space dedicated to Francis Bacon’s paintings, including a macabre tryptic and brooding self portrait.

Unfortunately the frigid air prevented me from enjoying the outdoor sculpture, and I only briefly contemplated a monumental Lichtenstein Brushstroke juxtaposed with Luciano Fontana’s pod-like Spatial Concept: Nature. I am looking forward to another visit on a warm summer day, not only to spend more time with the sculpture but also to marvel at the Season Inflatable Structure that will expand the Hirshhorn’s auditorium space. Hope to see you there!

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