This cylindrically shaped, concrete-and-granite building holds provocative art at its best, from de Kooning to Jeff Koons. Look for Thomas Hart Benton’s dizzying sprawl of figures in the 1920 painting People of Chilmark, Ellsworth Kelly’s vivid minimalist paintings, Dan Steinhilber’s sculpture made out of paper-clad wire hangers, Henri Matisse’s bronze casts, and Damien Hirst’s The Asthmatic Escaped II, 1992, in which one of two conjoined glass cases holds a camera on a tripod, and the other holds the clothing, inhaler, and other personal effects of “the escaped.” The museum rotates works from its near 12,000-piece collection, 600 at any one time, so if these exact artworks are not on view, others in the avant-garde family will be.
Some of the Hirshhorn’s most famous art is on display outside, on the grounds surrounding the museum plaza and across Jefferson Drive in the sunken Sculpture Garden. Sadly, a lot of people miss the garden, maybe because it’s below ground, but also because, in my opinion, the Hirshhorn doesn’t point it out well enough. The sculptures are world-famous: Rodin’s Monument to the Burghers of Calais, Giacometti’s Monumental Head, and Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure No. 4, among them. Note: The Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, located directly across the Mall from each other, are not the same! It astonishes me how often people confuse the two. They offer two very different experiences, and you should visit both.
The Hirshhorn exists thanks to a man named Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who was born in Latvia in 1899 but immigrated to the United States as a boy. In 1966, Hirshhorn donated his collection of more than 6,000 works of modern and contemporary art to the United States in gratitude for the country’s welcome to him and other immigrants, and bequeathed an additional 5,500 upon his death in 1981. The museum opened in 1974.
In addition to films, concerts, and lectures, the Hirshhorn sometimes holds Hirshhorn After Hours events, ultra-popular parties for 20-somethings, with cocktails, live music, art, and dance. (The schedule is erratic, so look on the Hirshhorn’s website for calendar and ticket information.)
Stop by the museum noon to 4pm daily for docent-led, free, 30-minute tours.
- Elise Hartman Ford