Renwick Gallery: The United States of WONDER

A photograph of colorful mesh hung from the ceiling inside the Grand Salon at the Renwick Gallery.

Janet Echelman, 1.8 Renwick2015, knotted and braided fiber with programmable lighting and wind movement above printed textile flooring, Smithsonian American Art Museum, photo by Tony Powell

After extensive renovations to the galleries and behind-the-scenes mechanicals, SAAM's Renwick Gallery reopens to the public today with WONDER. The new exhibition features installations by nine contemporary artists who reimagine—and reinvigorate—the spaces.The artists have three things in common: they are sensitive to architectural space, are passionate about making and materials, and create a sense of wonder that provokes the visitor. The site-specific installations feature the works of contemporary artists Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin and Leo Villareal. Each artist worked intensively with unusual materials—including tires, thread, insects, branches, netting, glass marbles and LED light strips—to create larger-than-life installations that transform the museum into an immersive artwork.

Today's Renwick is really tomorrow's museum: a place for the 21st century visitor to experience art, and as Nicholas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler curator in charge, reminded us the other day, it is also "a place to marvel...and to wonder." Bell also told us that when the Renwick was emptied of its artwork in preparation for renovations in 2013, he realized that the museum's greatest asset was the building itself. Designed by Renwick to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran, a 19th-century banker, philanthropist, and art collector, the building was hailed as "the American Louvre" upon its completion in 1874. The building has had many lives since that time, and was almost torn down in the 1960s to make room for modern office buildings, but First Lady Jackie Kennedy almost single-handedly put a stop to that. Over the main entrance, the inspiring words etched in stone, "Dedicated to Art" now resonate with the words "Dedicated to the Future of Art."

The Future is now. You really can get lost in the materiality and sense of changing environment, as you wander the galleries, perhaps no more so than in Janet Echelman's wondrous takeover of the Grand Salon. But before you get there, you have to ascend the stairs now draped with a flowing red carpet designed by Odile Decq. Look up, and you'll be under a lightscape by Leo Villareal, a sculpture made of LED lights in a never-repeating series of illuminations. Echelman's woven sculpture corresponds to a map of the energy released across the Pacific Ocean during 2011's devastating tsunami. One of art's powers is the ability to transform events in our daily lives, into powerful expressions of the human spirit. In addition to the suspended sculpture, Echelman's installation includes programmable lighting, wind movement, and printed textile flooring.

States of WONDER, indeed.