The Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., reopens to the public on Nov. 13 after a two year, $30 million renovation by the local offices of Cleveland-based firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. Concurrent with the reopening, the Renwick Gallery launches Wonder, an exhibition of nine contemporary artists whose sensitive installations, one in each room of the museum, reflect curator Nicholas Bell's acknowledgment that, as he put it in the exhibition's catalog, "The most valuable object in our collection is the building itself."
The museum was completed in 1858, and had undergone several prior renovations in its nearly 160-year history—which is detailed in American Louvre: A History of the Renwick Gallery Building, by Charles J. Roberston—but was in dire need of MEP and fire suppression system modernization as well as basic upgrades to restrooms, elevators, and telecommunications systems. During the latest round of renovations, Westlake Reed Leskosky (the top firm in the 2014 ARCHITECT 50) removed dropped ceilings in the upper floors, uncovering the remnants of original, 38-foot-tall vaulted ceilings. These required extensive restoration, which was administered with watchful consideration by the Smithsonian's Office of Historic Preservation. Gallery lighting was replaced with an all-LED system capable of illuminating the full heights of the galleries without compromising color stability.
The Renwick Gallery's debut exhibition for its renovated spaces is Wonder, which features installations by Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal. These artists were chosen, according to Bell, for their respective interests in materiality, their shared knack for blending digital processes with meticulous handicraft, and the way in which their installations transform the spaces in which they are exhibited:
"Each of the artists has demonstrated a talent for conjuring the right balance of materials, scale, and sensitivity to a site to prompt reactions among viewers that hinge on surprise, awareness, and, crucially, awe," Bell writes in the exhibition catalog's introduction.
The installations, which will be on view for six months, draw inspiration from the specific galleries in which they reside. On the first floor, immediately inside the entrance to the left of the lobby, Tara Donovan has stacked innumerable styrene index cards into fuzzy stalagmites in her piece, Untitled.
Just beyond her gallery, Gabriel Dawe takes advantage of the linearity of his with Plexus A1, a woven rainbow of threads that stretch from floor to ceiling and create a multi-hued intersection above the gallery's center point.
Maya Lin's Folding the Chesapeake, comprised of thousands of 1-inch diameter blue glass marbles, maps the Chesapeake Bay estuary upon the gallery floor, with tendrils that extend across HVAC returns and windows before winding their way up to the ceiling. Lin says that she never imagined herself as a geographer, but her recent works continue her investigations of natural wonders, re-imagining them through an artistic cartography in various media, as with her 2013 piece, Silver Missouri, which traces the path of the Missouri River in recycled silver.
Janet Echelman's 1.8 is a billowing, catenary net of more than 50 miles of twine and knotted more than half a million times, which is suspended from the Rubenstein Gallery cornice and represents wave heights recorded in the Pacific Ocean following the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Japan; a custom grayscale carpet reflects the same topographic information beneath it, and a thirty-minute lighting program shifts colors and angles to produce a constantly-changing series of shadows on the bare gallery walls. Echelman said she worked closely with the architectural team to develop the structure from which 1.8 hangs, and that that dialogue during the renovation process was crucial to her ability to install a piece of that scale.
Once known as the Corcoran Gallery of Art (named after and commissioned by banker and art collector William Corcoran), the Renwick Gallery was conceived by James Renwick, Jr.—who also designed St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C.—in the style of the Louvre's Napoleon III wing by Louis Visconti. The museum was completed in 1858, and had undergone several prior renovations in its nearly 160-year history—which is detailed in American Louvre: A History of the Renwick Gallery Building, by Charles J. Roberston—but was in dire need of MEP and fire suppression system modernization. In 1967, John Carl Warnecke and Associates worked with Universal Restorations of Washington, D.C., to replace the Renwick's rapidly eroding original sandstone exterior with a crushed stone and latex compound known as Dekosit; by 1975, that, too, was deteriorating and had to be replaced with cast concrete tinted to approximate the original sandstone.
Wonder will be open through May 8, 2016, when the Renwick Gallery will begin reinstallation of its permanent collection.