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
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.