Women’s History at the Phillips: Elmira Bier

Elmira Bier, in white blouse, sits with C. Law Watkins to her left and Marjorie and Duncan Phillips to her right.

Elmira Bier, in white blouse, sits with C. Law Watkins to her left and Marjorie and Duncan Phillips to her right. Standing are Ira Moore (?) and Charles Val Clear. Photo circa 1931.

Elmira Bier graduated from Goucher College and began working as Duncan Phillips’s secretary in 1923. She went on to direct the music concert series beginning in 1941, encouraging young musicians to expand their repertoire to include works that were off the beaten track. Bier altered the landscape of music in Washington; an article referred to her as “a dominating force in the cultural life of this city.” Bier explained that Phillips had conceived of his museum as “a museum of modern art and its sources,” and she tried to follow this example in her programming, encouraging musicians to include contemporary works in their performances. Bier was not a musician or an artist, but she taught herself about both fields.

When asked to describe her role, music critic Paul Hume wrote that “she ran the place.” Former registrar John Gernand said that her versatility was amazing. On the occasion of her retirement party in 1972, he told her, “You may greet Henry Moore or Kenneth Clark and a few moments later take care of calling a plumber, talking to a musician about his program you have not received, or dictating a letter to a publisher about an unsatisfactory color proof, and doing all this with various and frequent interruptions by telephone, intercom, or one of us in person with a question.”

Kevin Grogan, former curatorial assistant, remembered Miss Bier as “crusty, irascible, and hard-headed. Needless to say, she was loved by all.” Elmira was famous for making a fabulous liquor-filled fruitcake which she would insist on serving before noon in a small, enclosed room “that could give you a contact high like you wouldn’t believe.”

Bier’s devotion to the Phillips was matched by her love of organic gardening. She delighted in the first tomato from her garden, as she did in serving lettuce grown in her cold frame for Christmas dinner. She commissioned architect Henry Klumb to build a strikingly contemporary home on Glebe Road in Arlington, which she shared with her companion, Virginia McLaughlin. Elmira tended the vegetable garden while Virginia took care of the trees and bushes.

A letter from Elmira Bier to Alfred Stieglitz, April 3, 1946. The Phillips Collection records, 1920-1960, Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.

A letter from Elmira Bier to Alfred Stieglitz, April 3, 1946. The Phillips Collection records, 1920-1960, Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.

The Armory Show celebrates its 100th Anniversary

An overhead installation view of the Armory Show, 1913 / unidentified photographer. Walt Kuhn, Kuhn family papers, and Armory Show records, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Armory Show, the first presentation of international modern art in America, opened in New York on February 17, 1913. The exhibition was the largest of its kind in the city and included over 1,000 works. Two exhibitions celebrate the Armory Show’s 100th anniversary. The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913 opens at the Montclair Art Museum on February 17, 2013. It will attempt to correct a misconception that the American art in the Armory Show was so conservative that it escaped notice. The Armory Show at 100 which will open at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library in October 2013, will include 90 works from the original exhibition along with archival materials to provide context.

The Armory Show was not the first time New Yorkers could see modern art. Alfred Stieglitz exhibited American and European modernism beginning in 1902. In 1910, Robert Henri organized the Exhibition of Independent Artists which included more than 100 examples of progressive American art.

Artist Walter Pach played a key role in the organization of the Armory Show. Residing in Paris, he was friends with Matisse and Duchamp and was intimately familiar with the art scene. As Holland Cotter writes, he served as “trans-Atlantic liaison, artist, critic, connoisseur and broker for all sales of art from the exhibition, and he was a crucial element in establishing the presence of European Modernism in the United States.” Surprisingly, it was only in December that a call for American work was issued in the form of an open invitation to “nonprofessional as well as professional artists to exhibit the result of any self-expression in any medium.”  Artists in the exhibition included Cézanne, Matisse, Duchamp, Picasso, Ryder, Marin, Prendergast, and Hartley.

Initially, reviews of the Armory Show were positive. One reviewer wrote that he was grateful for “these shocks to our aesthetic sense.” Negative reviews brought a deluge of visitors, and cartoonists had a field day. Despite the critical response, the effects of the Armory Show were long lasting. After the exhibition closed on March 15, 1913, new modern art galleries opened in New York. The varieties of American modernism, such as that practiced by Henri, Hartley, Marin, and Hopper, increased.

Two paintings owned by The Phillips Collection were in the Armory Show: Moonlit Cove by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Two in a Boat by Theodore Robinson.

Duncan Phillips’s initial response to the Armory Show was one of shock and dismay. The exhibition challenged his understanding of the definition of art. Phillips lamented the Armory Show’s highlighting of “anarchists, not artists” and singled out Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Matisse for special criticism. In 1927, Phillips published a revised version of The Enchantment of Art in which he apologized for his earlier opinions and stated that he was now collecting the very artists he had so vehemently criticized. Phillips’s friendships with artists and marriage to Marjorie Phillips, as well as visits to galleries, travel, and reading, gradually changed his mind about modern art.

The Genealogy of a Painting

Per Kirkeby, Fram, 1982. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark

Per Kirkeby, Fram, 1982. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 78 3/4 in. Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark

Caspar David Friedrich. The Sea of Ice (German: Das Eismeer) 1823–1824. Oil on canvas, 38 in × 49.9 in. Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg

Per Kirkeby’s painting Fram appears to be completely abstract but actually has a story behind it. Kirkeby has said that when he is working on a painting, he often goes to his art library, looks at an art history book and takes it to his studio. “I borrow something, something starts to move. That’s the way I use my art history.”  In this case, Fram, which means “forward,” was a ship built by Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansens and used for his 1893 voyage to the North Pole. The ship was considered to be the strongest wooden ship ever built. Kirkeby, who initially studied arctic geology at the University of Copenhagen, has said that he has always been fascinated by polar expeditions.

(Left) Kirkeby, Fram (detail), 1982. (Right) Willem Claesz. Heda. Stilleven met een zilveren tazza, 1630. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Some of Fram‘s composition is based on Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, which features a wrecked ship amidst a forbidding display of shards of ice in the polar sea. As Kirkeby stated, “The story fascinated me. It is both an ice floe and a tabletop. It’s very audacious to reach the North Pole by subjecting a ship to these audacious forces.” In Kirkeby’s painting, the energetic brushstrokes on the left pay homage to Friedrich’s composition, while the fallen tumbler on the right refers to a 17th-century Dutch still life by Willem Claeszoon Heda. Kirkeby combined landscape and still life, genres that seemed outdated in 1983 when he painted Fram, into a new, hybrid composition, perhaps reflecting the drive for knowledge that inspired Fram’s journey.