November 13, 2015 - July 10, 2016

Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW)

In November 2015, the Renwick Gallery—the first building in the United States designed expressly as an art museum—opened its doors after a major, two-year renovation. To celebrate, we transformed the entire museum into an immersive artwork with our debut exhibition, WONDER.

Nine leading contemporary artists—Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal—each took over different galleries in the building, creating site-specific installations inspired by the Renwick. Together, these installations turned the building into a larger-than-life work of art. WONDER was organized by Nicholas R. Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Senior Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art.

While the nine artists featured in WONDER create strikingly different works, they are connected by their interest in creating large-scale installations from unexpected materials. Index cards, marbles, strips of wood—all objects so commonplace and ordinary we often overlook them—were assembled, massed, and juxtaposed to utterly transform spaces and engage us in the most surprising ways. The works are expressions of process, labor, and materials that are grounded in our everyday world, but that combine to produce awe-inspiring results.

WONDER what they created?

Jennifer Angus covered gallery walls in spiraling, geometric designs reminiscent of wallpaper or textiles—but made using specimens of different species of shimmering, brightly-colored insects.

Chakaia Booker spliced and wove hundreds of discarded rubber tires into an enormous, complex labyrinth as Gabriel Dawe hung thousands of strands of cotton embroidery thread to create what appear to be waves of color and light sweeping from floor to ceiling. Patrick Dougherty wove monumental structures from countless tree saplings while Tara Donovan constructed looming spires from hundreds of thousands of individually-stacked index cards.

Janet Echelman explored volumetric form without solid mass, overtaking the museum's famed Grand Salon with a suspended, hand-woven net surging across its hundred foot length. Using hundreds of thousands of pieces of reclaimed, old-growth cedar, John Grade built an intricate structure based on plaster casts taken of a massive, old-grown hemlock tree in the Cascade Mountains. Maya Lin's deluge of green marbles flowed across the floor and up walls, recalling the tides of the Chesapeake Bay, while 23,000 LEDs—programmed by Leo Villareal to display a code manipulated into endless variations—flashed above the Grand Staircase.

“The experience of ‘wonder’ is deeply intertwined with how we experience art, and why these nine artists create the works they do. They are each masters of constructing works that startle us, overwhelm us and invite us to marvel—to wonder—at their creation. These elements matter in the context of this museum, devoted to the skilled working of materials in extraordinary ways.”

—Nicholas R. Bell, The Fleur and Charles Bresler Senior Curator of American Craft and Decorative Art

Plexus A1

Gabriel Dawe, Plexus A1, 2015. Photo by Ron Blunt

Mobile App

Download the WONDER 360 mobile app for Android and iOS devices to experience the artworks in 360 degree virtual reality.

Exhibition Catalogue


WONDER celebrates the renovation and reopening of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery with an immersive web of magic. A wide-ranging essay by Nicholas R. Bell connects these artworks to wonder’s role throughout Western culture, to the question of how museums have evolved as places to encounter wondrous things, and to the symbolic weight of the moment as this building is “dedicated to art” for the third instance in three centuries. The book is available for purchase online

Online Gallery

Jennifer Angus

Angus’ genius is the embrace of what is wholly natural, if unexpected. Yes, the insects are real, and no, she has not altered them in any way except to position their wings and legs.

Chakaia Booker

Booker was inspired to explore tires as a material while walking the streets of New York in the 1980s, when retreads and melted pools of rubber from car fires littered the urban landscape.

Gabriel Dawe

Dawe’s architecturally scaled weavings are often mistaken for fleeting rays of light. It is an appropriate trick of the eye, as the artist was inspired to use thread in this fashion by memories of the skies above Mexico City and East Texas, his childhood and current homes, respectively.

Tara Donovan

Employing mundane materials such as toothpicks, straws, Styrofoam cups, scotch tape, and index cards, Donovan gathers up the things we think we know, transforming the familiar into the unrecognizable through overwhelming accumulation.

Patrick Dougherty

Dougherty has crisscrossed the world weaving sticks into marvelous architectures. Each structure is unique, an improvised response to its surroundings, as reliant on the materials at hand as the artist’s wishes: the branches tell him which way they want to bend.

Janet Echelman

Echelman’s woven sculpture corresponds to a map of the energy released across the Pacific Ocean during the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, one of the most devastating natural disasters in recorded history.

John Grade

To commemorate the Renwick’s reopening, Grade selected a hemlock tree in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle that is approximately 150 years old–the same age as this building.

Maya Lin

The marbles used in this installation are the same industrial fiberglass product Henry Huan Lin and other glass-blowing pioneers experimented with then, which were soon abandoned by artists as technical knowledge matured.

Leo Villareal

Only part of Villareal’s artwork is visible in the materials suspended above the staircase. This hardware serves primarily as a vehicle for the visual manifestation of code–an artist-written algorithm employing the binary system of 1s and 0s telling each LED when to turn on or off.


WONDER is organized by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Mr. and Mrs. J. Kevin Buchi, Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond Learsy, Suzi and David Cordish, Barney A. Ebsworth, Shelby and Frederick Gans, Deborah and Larry Gaslow, Nancy and Carl Gewirz, the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, Susan and Ken Hahn, Bannus and Cecily Hudson, Ann Kaplan and Robert Fippinger, Thomas S. Kenan III, Mirella and Dani Levinas, Jacqueline B. Mars Robin and Jocelyn Martin, Marcia Mayo, Caroline Niemczyk, Debbie Frank Petersen in memory of James F. Petersen, The James Renwick Alliance, Dorothy Saxe, Lloyd and Betty Schermer, the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation, and Mary Ann Tighe.