Remembering John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis visited The Phillips Collection in May 2008 during the whirlwind first months of my tenure as director of the museum. He joined me and curator Elsa Smithgall along with National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia to view our installation of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. He also generously made time to talk to some of the students with whom we work. What an impression he made on all of us.

NEA Chair Dana Gioia, Dorothy Kosinski, Congressman John Lewis, and Curator Elsa Smithgall with Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

Congressman John Lewis speaks with students in the auditorium

Congressman Lewis was friends with artist Benny Andrews (1930-2006). We are honored to have in the Phillips’s collection Andrews’s magnificent Trail of Tears, thanks to the incredible generosity of Agnes Gund. Andrews produced collages and ink drawings for the 2006 publication John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement by Jim Haskins ad Kathleen Benson. Later, in 2013, Lewis wrote a foreword for the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Benny Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City. Lewis’s words about Andrews capture the ethical compass of his life:

Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears (Trail of Tears Series and Migrant Series), 2006, Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 76 x 145 x 1 in., Gift of Agnes Gund, 2019

“You see, for Benny, like all of us who were involved in non-violent direct action, protest is an act of love, not one of anger. Through all the jailings, beatings, protests, and prayers of the Civil Rights Movement, we always had ‘this basic idea,’ as Benny so appropriately put it, ‘that good would overcome evil.’ And it is from that place that we offered our complaint. Our desire was not to condemn, but to appeal to the better angels of all humanity. We demonstrated what was wrong to awaken that divine spark that resides in all of us with the power to build and not tear down, to reconcile and not divide, to love and not hate. This critique is an invitation to build a better world based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.”

We mourn Congressman Lewis’s passing and honor his lifelong work for and devotion to equity and justice.

I Miss Aimé Mpane’s Maman Calcule

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski on why she misses Aimé Mpne’s Maman Calcule (2013).

Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule, 2013, Mural on pieces of wood, 83 x 73 in., The Phillips Collection, Dreier Fund for Acquisitions. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

I definitely miss one of our newer acquisitions, Maman Calcule, a large (almost seven by six feet) mural constructed of individual pieces of wood by Congolese artist Aimé Mpane. I met the artist and fell in love with his work years earlier at the (e)merge art fair here in DC that used to take place at Capitol Skyline Hotel. We actually added a work to the collection then in 2012, Mapasa, through The Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Award. Many of us were drawn to Mpane’s work, and you’ll find his small ten-by-ten-inch wood carvings in a variety of collections across the city, several of them designated as promised gifts to the museum. Mpane carves and shaves his plywood with a traditional African woodworking tool, an adze. He depicts people—men, women, and children—often emphasizing brightly colored traditional clothes and hair styles, capturing with uncanny brilliance the vibrant life of the street scenes of his native Kinshasa.

Maman Calcule presents a large portrait head, staring straight ahead with a penetrating, even severe gaze. This is a figure of dignity and authority. Tightly wound braids of hair surround the face like an aureole. The versos of each “brick” of wood is painted red, creating a glowing atmosphere that pushes the image forward and further amplifies its presence. Mpane splits his time between the Congo and Belgium, pointedly living out the post-colonial complexities that tether the former European power and its exploited subject state. It is very important to include Mpane’s work in our growing collection, thereby further expanding the story we tell of modern and contemporary art, beyond the confines of an old-fashioned European-American narrative.

Installing an Exhibition with Markus Lüpertz

Markus Lüpertz with Phillips director and exhibition curator Dorothy Kosinski. Photo: Rhiannon Newman

We interviewed Phillips director and Markus Lüpertz exhibition curator Dorothy Kosinski about her recent time working with the artist to install the exhibition:

I’m excited to be able to share my recent experience with Markus Lüpertz as I worked with him to install the exhibition. It was a truly exhilarating experience to have the opportunity to get inside the artist’s head. It was fascinating to me, an art historian, who thinks in terms of progression and chronological orders, that none of that was important for Markus Lüpertz. In fact, to the contrary, he wandered through the gallery once, twice, three times, and changed the position of every object in the show. As he said to me, he was looking for an optical order. It had to do with robust juxtapositions of colors, of shapes, of small canvases and big canvases. So, contrary to most exhibits in the Phillips, or in most museums, the visitor, my dear, will be disappointed if you’re looking for the early works, the middle works, and the late works. Instead, you can go in any direction in this exhibit because he deliberately intermixes all of the works from those five decades of his very rich career.

So you might then ask, why? Is he trying to provoke us? Surely, but it is also an installation methodology that reflects his fundamental aesthetic philosophy. He and I were talking about this during his visit; his work is never about a style. A lot of people in the contemporary art world could say, “Aha! That’s a Kiefer,” or “Aha! That’s a Baselitz.” Their works are wonderful, he was quick to point out, but they’re very recognizable. As you walk through our galleries, you’ll see it’s not about a style, it’s not about consistency, it’s not about a kind of consistent progression. It’s surely teasing us, challenging us to think about, “what is this object?”

Lüpertz is trying to bring us forward, allow us a way of seeing our world. He said every time he paints a painting, he’s starting from the beginning, and by that he was talking about starting from the sort of infancy of his artistic practice, that every time he paints a painting it’s a voyage of discovery. He is never satisfied, he is returning again and again often to the same subjects, it’s a serious and eternal challenge that he grasps every time he takes paintbrush to canvas. I’m willing to bet that before the end of this exhibit, we get comments from our visitors about the lighting. “You forgot to light the canvases!” And I want to assure everyone that, again, this is the desire and direction of the artist himself. He moved those light canisters with his silver-tipped cane, trying to give us a sense of the quality of light that he desired. Not spotlighting the canvases but rather illuminating the wall around the canvases so that the canvas had a kind of even light, rather than a kind of artificial drama, and as you’ll see, the works in the show are filled with drama. They’re dramatic enough that we don’t have to try to stage them, and I think that that’s his point.

Dorothy Kosinski, Phillips Director and curator of Markus Lüpertz