Washington Social Diary

The new atrium of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the setting for John Alexander's exhibition party.
Pictures at a Boldface Exhibition
By Carol Joynt

The nation’s capital early on found relevance in art when Gilbert Stuart painted a portrait of George Washington that for more than a century has graced the one dollar bill. That’s artistic synergy at the federal government level, and not to be discounted. When art works for Washington, Washington works for art. After all, it was an income tax debt that prompted Andrew Mellon to endow the glorious National Gallery of Art, which is, by all measure, the mother ship of our city’s ode to the artist, and to this day, the admission is free. Free there, free across the street at the NGA’s East Wing, and free up and down the Mall at any number of Smithsonian museums. No other city can claim this kind of vast user-friendly access to the rare and priceless.

A few blocks walk from the National Gallery is a relatively new museum in a very old building that is dense with history – it’s had more than a few architects and identities in the last 170 years, but seems well settled now as the Smithsonian American Art Museum which is, as their own press release proudly crows:

“America's first federal art collection, dedicated to the enjoyment and understanding of American art. The museum celebrates the extraordinary creativity of our country's artists, whose works are windows on the American experience.”

It’s all that and fun, too. While housed in the most sober of Greek Revival buildings, inside it is eye-candy for art nuts. The galleries range from bright, large and cheerful to somewhat more modest and conventional, but still never boring.

The sweetest new addition opened this past November – the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard – and it’s worth a trip to Washington to experience this pleasing mix of interior columned buildings backed by a sweeping granite landscape of shallow pools and tall ficus and black olive trees. (It has free Wi-Fi, too). It’s the creation of architect Norman Foster and designer Kathryn Gustafson.

It was the setting for a celebration of the artist John Alexander, a New Yorker out of Texas, who also is fun and not boring. He has New York friends and fans who like him so much many of them hopped on a jet and zipped down to Washington for the night to walk through the exhibition, “John Alexander: A Retrospective,” imbibe a little tequila and nibble on ham biscuits and barbecue in the Kogod Courtyard, and then hop in a mess of limos to head over to the Four Seasons Hotel for more partying and celebrating in the hotel’s lobby lounge.
The opening of the exhibition
Alexander's Alpha Males
La Casa de los Locos, in other words, an art auction
A close up of Alexander's Dancing on the Water Lilies of Life, on loan from the Dallas Museum of Art
Melon Fields, loaned to the exhibition by Jimmy and Jane Buffet
Owl Farm, from the collection of Alice and Lorne Michaels
This “first tier” group included Ed and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Lorne Michaels, Paul Simon, Dan Ackroyd and Donna Dixon, Dorothy McGhee, Van Schley and Magnolia Niederhauser, Steve Kroft and Jenny Conant, Mark Ein, Charles Waterstreet, David Lyle, Sen. Chris Dodd, Carol Harrison and Bill Dunlap. They added undeniable gloss to an otherwise fine reception on one of the coldest nights this year. Those well-known and devoted Alexander fans not present in Washington, but with “loaners” on the walls in the exhibition, included Jimmy and Jane Buffet, Julia Reed and John Pearce, Jayni and Chevy Chase, Michael and Eleanora Kennedy, and Bill Murray, among others.

Eleanora Kennedy messaged in from Bali as to why she and Michael are 20-year members of the Alexander fan club: “John is a consummate artist. What distinguishes him from his colleagues is his appreciation of the foibles in all life, particularly in his rendering satire on the human condition.” She particularly likes, “the precision and wit with which John imbues his animals.” This same kind of enthusiasm was expressed by Lorne Michaels who, when he wasn’t detailing the impact of the writer’s strike on his day job, was optimistic that the very funny “30 Rock,” and its cast, will clean up at the upcoming SAG awards – just about the only awards show left with a functional red carpet. (Note: Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin both won best actor awards).
The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington on a cold January night.
Ed and Caroline Schlossberg with artist John Alexander at the Museum of American Art.
Many in the large crowd at the Alexander reception were complaining about what they considered to be an unfair and mean review in The Washington Post. The exhibition – with its 40 paintings and 27 works on paper – is so provocative, compelling and even occasionally amusing, that I can only imagine through word of mouth it will prove entirely Post-proof.

It is the first full scale look at Alexander’s work and was put together by independent curator Jane Livingston and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s chief curator, Eleanor Harvey. Bugs, birds, lobsters, melons, dancing skeletons, “loco” art auctions, rock stars, politicians, powerful landscapes – they are all there in the canvases on the walls of the SAAM, and will be until March 16, when the exhibition moves to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for a mid-April opening. No doubt John Alexander’s merry band of faithful friends, plus many more in his native Texas, will show up there for him, too. Note to MFAH: have the tequila ready.
Clockwise from top left: Timothy Deal and Eric Rubin; The buffet, with live goldfish swimming in the centerpiece; Peggy Cafritz and Paul Simon.
Sharon Savinski and Jim Walsh
Donald Syriani, Yahia Lababidi, and Diana Restrepo
Michael Lowe and Melissa Kroning
Peggy Jones, her grandson, Duncan Harvey, Cathy Abbott, and Ernie Abbott. Both Duncan and Cathy are proud owners of John Alexander paintings.
Rachel Pearson with Elaine Webster of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Dr. Robert Wilson, his father, James Wilson, Betsy Broun, and Steve Kroft
The exhibition's chief curator, Eleanor Harvey, artist John Alexander, and Smithsonian American Art Museum director Betsy Broun
Jim Duffy and Susan Raines
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Tom Quinn
Betsy Broun and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg
Steve Kroft, Carol Harrison, and artist Bill Dunlap
John Alexander and Paul Simon
Laura Thorne, Marilyn Stern, and Camilla McCaslin
Lorne Michaels
Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, and his wife, Cathryn Keller
Jennifer Isham and Steven Shafran
Dan Ackroyd and wife Donna Dixon
Charles Waterstreet, Jenny Conant, and David Lyle
Magnolia Niederhauser with her mother, Dorothy McGhee
Dancing in the museum's shallow pools
Harry Shearer, one of the stars of “The Simpsons, and his wife, Judith Owen, the singer and songwriter, spent a couple of nights in Washington this past week. Judith was in town touring with the legendary Richard Thompson in his show “1,000 Years of Popular Music.” (They will be at New York’s Nokia Theatre, Thursday, Jan. 31). Harry flew up from their second home in New Orleans (home base is Santa Monica) so they could have a brief reunion while she’s on the road.

If you haven’t heard Judith sing, you should catch the show, get her CDs or download her off her site, judithowen.net. Her voice is another – and lovely – form of liquid. Her version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” a showstopper in the Thompson show, is like no other. A treat for me was a double dose of their company – dinner one night and then they also joined the audience for the taping of “The Q&A Café,” my talk show, where Sam Donaldson of ABC was the guest. Had Sam been delayed, Harry could have filled in with his pitch-perfect Sam Donaldson impression.
Judith Owen and Harry Shearer, visiting Washington
Harry always savors a stop in Washington, because it plays to one of his greatest interests: media. He is a keen observer of media, all media, but particularly television media, and Washington/political media in particular. He is tuned into the content as well as the performers, be they politicians or stars of print and broadcast journalism. One of his performance art specialties is to capture live satellite feeds – what he calls “found objects” – of these notable people in those moments of unscripted repose before the interview begins, or while the broadcast is in commercial, or while they are simply being themselves.

These “captures” have been exhibited in art galleries and are regularly featured on harryshearer.com, where he recently posted a much-watched clip of CBS News anchor Katie Couric dishing with her off-camera staff while on location in New Hampshire. You wonder: did no one tell Katie that while not officially on the air she was still being broadcast globally via satellite? That’s precisely the type of moment Harry Shearer looks for. He’s particularly proud of a clip he claims is the only known video record of Bill Gates swearing.

Harry Shearer and Judith Owen after dinner out in Washington while she's on tour with Richard Thompson's "1,000 Years of Popular Music."
For years, after the Oval Office tapes of Richard Nixon were made public, and before they were available online, whenever Harry was in Washington he found time to travel to nearby Alexandria, Va., where the tapes were held, to listen for an hour or two. Bob Woodward may be the only other person on the planet who could relate to this behavior as a hobby. On this visit, Harry’s Washington field trip was to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, where he and Judith enjoyed the exhibition of paintings by their friend, John Alexander.

Harry’s been with "The Simpsons" since the show began, and performs the widest range of characters. My son counted 75, of which the best known are “Mr. Burns, “Kent Brockman,” “Reverend Lovejoy,” and “Ned Flanders.” In common with virtually every other scripted show in Hollywood, the program is “dark” due to the writer’s strike, but this has not made Harry idle; his talents are too diverse. He writes for Huffingtonpost.com, has his own block on mydamnchannel.com, has a weekly radio show and is the voice of the TVLand.com.

His work ethic may be due to the fact that Harry has earned a living in show business since childhood, when he appeared in his first film, “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars,” as “the boy.” That was 1953. Then it was on to “The Jack Benny Program” and many other early TV broadcasts. He was the original Frankie Bennett in “Leave It To Beaver.”

His IMDB bio lists 115 credits and they are a timeline of the last few decades of popular television and movies. He and Martin Short created some priceless sketches during their time together on “Saturday Night Live.” His movie career is active, and among a devoted cult following he’s probably best known for his turn as Derek Smalls in “This is Spinal Tap.”

Harry is among the ensemble group of brilliant comic actors who regularly appear in the films of Christopher Guest. In “A Mighty Wind,” he was the cross-dressing banjo-player, Mark Shubb; in “For Your Consideration,” he was the Oscar-nominee wannabe, Victor Allan Miller. The good news for “Tap” fans, Harry told us over dinner, is that the group plans to tour for their upcoming 25th reunion, gray hair and all. They reunited this past summer for the Earth Aid concert in London.

Harry and Judith met in London in the 80s, when Spinal Tap was on tour. During a night off, Harry heard Judith perform at a club. It was love at first sight. They still make beautiful music and in more ways than one. They own their own record label, Courgette, and Harry often backs-up Judith on bass when she’s performing her own solo act in clubs – in New York, you’ll find her at The Metropolitan – and she helps with musical bits on his radio show, “Le Show,” which is syndicated out of KCRW-FM in Santa Monica.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.