Personal Reflections on the Wax Room: Part 4

In celebration of the Laib Wax Room‘s first anniversary as a permanent installation at The Phillips Collection, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern Rhiannon Newman, who was one of four assistants in the preparation and installation, describes her experience in a four part series.

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Photos: Rhiannon Newman

The first time I saw Wolfgang Laib’s work was during a lecture somewhere in the art department of UC Santa Cruz. It was spring, and as the professor talked about Laib’s milkstones I remember the back door was open, and the heady scent of the rain dampened redwood forest drifted in on the breeze.

The first time I worked with beeswax was in a beginning sculpture class in college a week after I called my parents and said, “Fine, be angry with me for not getting a business degree, but I’m majoring in art because I want to be happy and create for the rest of my life.” I was in that state of euphoria that you can only feel when you’re young, absurdly confident, and think you know everything. As far as I was concerned, I had traded hours of revision and dreary, crowded lecture halls for making art all day in the open, airy studios nestled above an expansive meadow that overlooked Monterey Bay on campus. I was living my dream. Our professor had given us a small project to cast something in beeswax and showed us the old discarded crockpot that she used to melt it. I remember working on a project, lying on the ground looking up through the expansive skylight at the canopy of the redwood forest, smelling the beeswax melting across the room, and feeling incandescently happy.

Now Wolfgang Laib is not on a projector screen; he is standing in front of me and softly smiling in the catering kitchen of America’s first museum of modern and contemporary art. The dinky crockpot has been replaced by a state-of-the-art stainless steel double broiler that comes up above my knees. It’s not summer in Santa Cruz—it’s February in Washington, DC and freezing rain is pouring outside. Despite all of this, the heavy scent of beeswax and the profile of Laib’s face create a bizarre sense of déjà vu.

I brought my camera to document my experience for my own personal memories. Suddenly, Curator Klaus Ottmann asks me to photograph Wolfgang working. Then, the Director of Marketing and Communications asks if they could use my photographs for media. They want to submit my photos in press kits, for articles, for promotional materials and collateral, to The Wall Street Journal, and I can’t stop pinching myself. This is the definition of Maslow’s Peak Life Experience. This is better than a dream. I take the elevator up from where the assistants have been camped in the catering kitchen with my camera to where Wolfgang is working upstairs. It’s quiet, he’s silently plastering the wax on the walls, and I make a few photographs of him in the space. There is a small part of me that is absolutely terrified of the pressure to make portraits of a famous artist, a part of me that’s jubilant at the realization that all of these amazing opportunities are happening simultaneously, but I can only think one thing.

I am creating. I am happy. I will do this for the rest of my life.

Rhiannon Newman, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern

Burchfield’s Close Encounters Painting

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(Left) Charles Burchfield, December Moonrise, 1959. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 36 in. Gift of B. J. and Carol Cutler, 2009. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (Right) Edouard Manet, Spanish Ballet, 1862. Oil on canvas, 24 x 35 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1928

One of the hazards pleasures of being a gallery educator at the Phillips is that so many of our visitors are distinguished by their sophistication and knowledge of modern art. I can’t count the number of people who are familiar with the nuances of the relationships between Renoir’s friends in Luncheon of the Boating Party.  On one tour of the permanent collection, a gentleman from Argentina told me the precise name of the dance being performed in Manet’s Spanish Ballet. And during Angels, Demons, and Savages, it seemed everyone had either seen the Jackson Pollock biopic with Ed Harris or knew the footage of Jackson himself working in his studio on a canvas on the floor.

Made in the USA is particularly interesting for me because my academic work has been on modernism—European and American. The era between the turn of the 20th century up to World War II is rich in history, experimentation, rule-breaking, and epic attempts to change the world, and all those qualities show in the willful energy of so many of the works in the exhibition.

A standout for me is Charles Burchfield—I have long loved his quivering, ecstatic (and sometimes playful) depictions of nature’s immanence. December Moonrise is an almost over-the-top example of his passionate exaltation of nature as a place of spiritual transcendence. I always stop there on my tours of the exhibition to talk about it. Sometimes I call it the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” painting. People seem to like it. Thinking about the painting as a place—or a moment—existing in Burchfield’s imagination, I was taken aback when I was told by a tall young man from Canada that far from being an imaginary land/skyscape, the constellations in the sky (which are casting shadows from the moonlight) are true to nature. He pointed out Orion, on the right side, and Corona Borealis, on the left. Apparently these two constellations, visible in northern skies, are only seen together in the month of December. So in fact the painting is a very specific description of nature at a specific time of year.

I can safely say that facts about astronomy are not in my area of expertise, but learning about Burchfield’s respect for the actual sky and stars shining on that December night makes me love his painting even more.

Dena Crosson, Gallery Educator