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

Honoring Ellsworth Kelly

Kelly with Lindsay and Henry Ellenbogen

Ellsworth Kelly, Lindsay Ellenbogen, and Henry Ellenbogen at The Phillips Collection in 2013. Photo: Ben Droz

The Phillips was so honored to have worked with Ellsworth in 2013 presenting an exhibition of panel paintings from 2004 through 2009. It was wonderful to have had the opportunity to hear his ideas, have his guidance, to share time with him and Jack in DC and in Spencertown. I was re-reading curator Vesela Sretenović’s interview with him for the exhibition catalogue. One phrase captures my attention especially:

Vesela Sretenović:  In my first visit to your studio you said “ Freedom and democracy—that is what my work is about.” Can you elaborate on this passionate statement?
Ellsworth Kelly: I have always felt I wanted to create work that celebrates freedom and one’s own space.

He and his work embody a sheer joy in life.

EK installation 2_Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly’s 2013 exhibition at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

EK installation 1_Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly’s 2013 exhibition at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Untitled.EK 927_Lee Stalsworth

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled (EK 927), 2005. Bronze overall: 117 in x 63 3/16 in x 1 in. Commissioned in honor of Alice and Pamela Creighton, beloved daughters of Margaret Stuart Hunter, 2006. Photo: Lee Stalsworth