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"Give It Your Best"': Civilian Contributions to the Home Front

This 1988 issue of Art to Zoo introduces students to efforts on the home front during
World War II, as illustrated by media messages. Students take on a wartime persona by
writing a V-mail letter. Included is a facsimile of a V-mail form. Click the PDF icon to download.

Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access

Robert Irwin - All The Rules Will Change 2016 Highlight Tour

Robert Irwin is a California based artist working directly with the idea of optical perception in art. Born in 1928 in Long Beach California, he worked alongside many other artists dealing with groundbreaking works in what was called the "Light and Space" movement of the 60's. Irwin began his career in the 50's and continues working until this day, at 87 years old. This major retrospective of the artist shows the changes and development in his work. Each work we will look at shows that Irwin is concerned with the conscious act of looking, and questioning the nature of art itself.

Starting out with the handheld paintings, which were done in the late 50's, Irwin is working alongside the abstract expressionists. This includes famous modern artists like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem De Kooning. Abstract expressionism is characterized by action packed, gestural marks that focus on color and form rather than representation of a tangible subject. The movement was concerned with emotion, catharsis, and the actual process behind the work, almost like a performance. The finished piece was a remnant of bodily expression. (See - "Lavender Mist"by Jackson Pollock, 1950.) Irwin, already a free thinker from the beginning of his career, decides to create abstract expressionist works that are considerably smaller than other artists working at the time, noting their "unfashionably small scale." Most artists were working large scale in an effort to use most of their body in the process. He creates a more intimate, personal aspect to the pieces, calling them "handheld" paintings. Obviously, since we are in a museum setting, they are displayed under glass for us to look at. However, in their original context, they are meant to be physically handled, turned, and looked at closely with a connection to our bodies. Each work is composed of dense, swirling oil paint in different shapes and formations. If we look at "Untitled", which seems to be mostly black, we can see many subtle different layers of color if we spend some time with it. Hues of orange and blue come to the muddy surface upon close looking. The wooden frames were built by Irwin himself, with the painting emerging above them, almost like a topographic map. The frame becomes a compositional element within itself, setting the painting in something definite. The works are heavily textural and almost three dimensional. Irwin is building up paint in certain areas, and scratching into it in others. He claimed that many of these pieces were completed in just one session, which was typical of abstract expressionist practices. In their original context, these works establish a relationship with the painting and the viewer. Viewing them at different angles, we can continue to pick out many different nuances in each work. Irwin was influenced by Zen Buddhist principles as well as many other American avant - garde artists, which influenced his acutely deliberate decisions and awareness in his work.

Moving on to the late line paintings, and passing through the early line paintings, we can see Irwin has abandoned his abstract expressionist style of working. He is interested in the simplification of a painting, reducing it to figure ground relationships established by the horizontal line. This reduction completely strips the painting of any representational subject, and introduces color and line. The paint is much thinner, with no textural definition. He lessens his emphasis on brushstroke which was implemented in the earlier line paintings. Now, we have no external associations to liken the painting to. While many of the earlier line paintings have titles, ("Crazy Otto") he decides to completely rid his work of any associations. Each painting depicts parallel lines, with usually only two colors. While the early line paintings had evidence of brushstroke in the background, the late line paintings are more refined. They have also increased in size, dominating our field of vision, and lack a frame. When actively looking at these, your eyes are continuously shifting focus, because holding both lines in your vision is impossible. Irwin was known to experiment with different colored strips of tape in varied lengths, to visualize different combinations. The last piece displayed in the gallery of "late line paintings" appears to be completely orange at first glance, but is subtly marked with two lines of another shade of orange. Large enough to consume our peripheral vision, it's an interesting optical experience as our eyes shift around the work. It's important to note that Irwin has dropped the use of the frame, and is exposing raw canvas on the sides for the first time.

In the next gallery, we jump to an incredible advancement in his artistic career: the dot painting. Upon entering the gallery, it appears to be a blank, aged canvas hanging on the wall. Walking a little bit closer, there appears to be a circular haze of light or energy emanating from the piece: in yellow, pink, and maybe purple. If we walk up to the line, and look closely, we will see hundreds of tiny dots in blue and faint red covering the canvas. The dots are more concentrated towards the center, and fade out towards the edges, with only the red continuing into the corners. The edges are left blank, which makes it appear to recede backwards. Irwin is using complementary colors that nearly cancel each other out the farther we step back from the piece. One thing to notice is that the canvas is shaped in a convex form, with the center bulging outwards towards the viewer. This emphasizes the vague, circular form of the piece when we view it from the middle of the gallery. Coinciding with the lack of dots on the edges, the shaped canvas brings the center into our field of vision while the edges hold back. The canvas is mounted onto a piece that elevates it off of the wall. The viewer's experience is directly influenced by the movement of their body within the space, and the amount of time they spend with the piece. Advancing into his career, Irwin decides to leave many of his pieces untitled, so they aren't associated with anything specific. By doing this, he leaves the interpretation of the piece up to the viewer's direct connection with it. This is also the first time that he shapes the canvas, giving a more sculptural element to the piece, which precedents the series of discs he creates afterwards.

The dot painting is a great precedent for the discs, as it introduces the convex circular form, and the obvious optical illusion that changes according to where you're standing in the gallery. For this tour, I'm focusing specifically on the "Untitled" piece from 1969. Irwin is using hand hammered acrylic to create a sculptural work, finally abandoning traditional painting in a bold step forward. We can also observe that Irwin isn't concerned with making a work that resembles a representational subject. We are confronted by a simple, pure, circular form that seems to blend in and out of it's surroundings. Irwin is carefully applying the paint in a gradient like form around the circular shape, with the disc laying horizontally on a lazy susan. The lazy susan ensured that Irwin was applying even layers of paint in concentric circles of varying colors. He used a paint gun that sprayed the acrylic paint on in a subtle, matte texture. The band in the center appears to be darker towards the middle of the piece, with the edges blurring into the background. The piece is backlit by a strong white fluorescent background, as well as another powerful light above it. When looking at "Untitled" straight on, we are unaware that it's sculptural at first. It seems to float in an indiscernible space, receding backwards yet also hovering towards us. When viewing the piece from the side, Irwin's entire illusion explains itself: the piece is mounted on an acrylic tube, attached to the wall behind it, propelling the disc forward. The entire room acts as a backdrop for the piece in this sense: the walls are bright, blank and sterile, the focal point of the entire gallery being the piece itself. Many of the wall texts are difficult to find throughout these rooms, because they were purposely set aside from the piece, in small text on a wall opposite from it. This decision was made to avoid detracting from the work itself.

Irwin's use of the distortion of space was implemented in his next artistic decision: abandoning his studio and working with installation and site specific pieces. For our last piece, we enter what seems to be an entirely blank room. With careful looking and movement throughout the space, we are able to make out what seems to be a straight wall, with a strange sense of depth to it. From looking one way, it's perceived as flat, but approaching it straight on, it seems as if we can jump right into the space. This is a piece created specifically for the Hirshhorn Museum, titled "Square the Circle." The Hirshhorn is a circular institution, and he is simply drawing a line through it, altering our perception of the space.The piece is composed of 120 feet of white transparent fabric called "scrim". This is a lightweight, fragile material that is generally used in theatre production. It is attached to a thin wooden framework with staples, weaving in between the ceiling. Looking into the corners of the room, we can see a dizzying void of white space. We are unsure of it's dimensions, where it starts and where it ends. Irwin plays on the viewer's expectations of art, creating a highly sophisticated work that seems to be hidden within the walls of the galleries, waiting to be found with patience and time.
Alexandra Baran

Tennessee Williams: Examining Portraiture

This teacher's guide provides portraits and analysis questions to enrich students' examination of Tennessee Williams, an American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner. Includes the video "Defining Portraiture: How are portraits both fact and fiction?" and the National Portrait Gallery's "Reading" Portraiture Guide for Educators, both of which provide suggestions and questions for analyzing portraiture.  


  • What do these portraits have in common? How are they different?
  • How are these portraits both fact and fiction?
  • How do these portraits reflect how they wanted to be seen, or how others wanted them to be seen? Consider for what purpose these portraits were created (such as Time Magazine, stamp, etc.).
  • Having read one of his plays, does the portrait capture your image of Tennessee Williams? Why, or why not?
  • If you were creating your own portrait of Tennessee Williams, what characteristics would you emphasize, and why?

Keywords: mississippi, ms, play, author, streetcar named desire, writer

Tess Porter

You Might Remember This Movie Quiz Question #1

These still pictures remind me of a motion picture. Which one? Click the question mark and take the quiz to see. Click each question to enlarge.

Smithsonian Movie Quiz

Equality, Inclusion, Democracy: What Do They Look Like to You?

Activity to spur a Montgomery College-wide conversation about these topics.


Sara Ducey

The Pittsburgh Survey

This topical collection contains resources related to the Pittsburgh Survey, a groundbreaking Progressive Era research study of the living and working conditions in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh. This study, published in books and magazines, led to the passage of worker-safety laws and encouraged other Progressive Era reforms. The images, readings, and links to archival materials in this collection can be used to support exploration of the questions below.

Guiding Questions:

  • In what way did the Pittsburgh Survey reflect Progressive Era concerns, strategies, and achievements?
  • How did Progressive Era beliefs about social change differ from those held previously?

Tags: Progressives, child labor, worker safety, scientific management, muckrakers, reform movement, Lewis Hine, Paul Kellogg, Crystal Eastman. Joseph Stella, Homestead, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Kate Harris

The End of World War I

This collection asks users to consider how unresolved issues from WWI may have led to the outbreak of war again in the 1930s. Included is a letter from a soldier on the end of the war, a summary of the Treaty of Versailles, a painting and a political cartoon.

The collection asks students to evaluate the predictions about future wars made by the letter's author and then to evaluate how and why the Treaty of Versailles may have failed.

Tags: World War I, Treaty of Versailles, League of Nations, armistice, interwar, World War I, Hitler
Kate Harris

Dulce et Decorum Est--Poetry from World War I

Why are artists' representations of war important? This student activity uses a poem by Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est," and several images to encourage reflection on soldiers' experiences and views of war. Students will explore the descriptive language and artistic choices made to determine what emotions are evoked by the art and what attitudes towards war are represented. Finally, students will be asked to consider and write about their own beliefs regarding war.

Kate Harris

Visions of the Future

This student activity includes a range of visions of the future, to serve as inspiration and present a challenge for students: what do you want your city to be like in the future?

Students will watch a video where students complete a similar project, and then view a variety of artifacts presenting different views of the future, with questions for analysis. Finally, students will be tasked with developing their own vision for their city or town in the future.
Kate Harris

You Might Remember This Movie Quiz Question #2

These still pictures remind me of a motion picture. Which one? Click the question mark and take the quiz to see. Click each picture to enlarge. Click the last box for the answer.

Smithsonian Movie Quiz

New 7 Wonders of the World

This collection looks at the New 7 wonders from a social studies and science focus.
Cory Plough

Signs of the Times

This collection includes sixteen signs and posted notices from across the Smithsonian's collections. Use your history detective skills to figure out what you can about the sign--but don't look at the information tab! Can you determine the context for each sign, matching it to a place and decade in United States history? Consider who it might have been aimed at and for what purpose it was used. Be as specific as possible. The first resource models a historian's thinking and questioning process for students to mimic with other signs in the collection. Answers are listed on the last resource.

Tags: historical thinking, questions, review activity
Kate Harris

Women's Suffrage Postcards

This is a topical collection of women's suffrage postcards that could be used to supplement lessons on the women's rights movement and/or gender equality. They are also excellent practice in artifact analysis.

Some questions to consider:
-What do these postcards tell us about the arguments for and against women's suffrage?
-Why are so many of the postcards focused on geography?
-Who do you think each postcard is meant to appeal to?
Kate Harris

The Space Race Influences Mid-Century Pop Culture

Take a look at the many ways in which participation in the 'Space Race' influenced pop culture in mid-century American households.
Stephanie Hearn

My First!!!

Jenna Faniani

My Fabulous Favoites!:)

All things I LOVE!!!!!
Melinda Brooks


Gena Barreto

Your Own Collection

Contains all of the following items:
Dorothy's slippers
Something from 1st, 16th, and 35th presidents of US
Angela Rohlfs

The Real Story of Dorothy

Emily Scroggs

first collection

ASP conference
Kendahl Costa

Sean's Collection

The most awesome collection!
Sean Acevedo

My first collection

Cathy Houghtby
5857-5880 of 6,901 Collections