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 his 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.
And don’t overlook the special exhibits. The museum’s current curators are unusually talented at picking of-the-moment, outside-the-box works, like the film and live performance art series “Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body?” staged in summer 2018. It mixed dance, music, and film in performances designed specifically for the Hirshhorn’s circular galleries.
Sculptures are on display outside, on the 4.3-acre plaza surrounding the museum, and across Jefferson Drive in the sunken Sculpture Garden. Sadly, a lot of people miss the garden, maybe because it’s below ground. A giant red-painted steel and cable piece, Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore), by Mark di Suvero, stands guard at street level helping to attract attention to the sculptures in the lower landscape. Head down the steps to view such renowned works as Rodin’s Monument to the Burghers of Calais, Barbara Hepworth’s Figure for Landscape, and Henry Moore’s King and Queen, 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! 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.