The Lyonel Feininger Unit

Installation of works by Lionel Feininger in the house. Photos: Sue Ahn

Installation of works by Lyonel Feininger in the house. Photos: Sue Ahn

Three years ago, the Phillips Collection received four watercolors by the German-American painter, printmaker, and illustrator Lyonel Feininger. The works came to the Phillips as part of a promised gift pledge made by Dr. Bernhard and Marlene Witkop in 2005. They entered the museum’s collection after Dr. Witkop’s death at the age of 93 in 2010: Perfume and Sweet Candy, 1948; Blasiuskirche Nordhausen, 1932; Steamers with Smoke Banner, 1951; and Schiffe, 1943.

Dr. Witkop was a German-born organic chemist who had worked at the National Institutes of Health for more than 35 years. The Witkop’s Feiningers joined three Feiningers purchased by Duncan Phillips in the 1940s: Village, 1927; Spook I, 1940; and Waterfront, 1942. In 2012 a beautiful woodcut, Cruising Sailing Ships II, 1919, was added through a gift from Gail and John Thomason in memory of Ritalou and Robert O. Harris.

Duncan Phillips often strived to have “units” of works by a single artists, and the museum’s newly formed unit of eight Feininger works are now on view in the Phillips House.

Lyonel Charles Feininger (1871–1956) was born in New York City as the son of German-American violinist and composer Karl Feininger and American singer Elizabeth Feininger. In 1887, at the age of 16, he traveled to Germany to study art and remained there, working as an artist, art teacher, and caricaturist until 1937, when the Nazis declared his works to be “degenerate,” forcing him to return to New York.

In 1938 Feininger was asked to design two murals for the exterior of the Marine Transportation Building at the New York’s World’s Fair. It was his first opportunity to make his work known to a broader public in the United States. Feininger had been fascinated by ships as early as the 1880s when he would draw boats on the Hudson River, and later in Europe during visits to the Baltic Sea. Several of the water colors in the Phillips’s collection are a testament to Feininger’s lifelong attraction to nautical themes.

The Unattended Moment

In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes: “For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time.” (“Dry Salvages”). It is those “unattended moments” that I am in pursuit of, but rarely encounter, when visiting exhibitions. The late American artist James Lee Byars, whose work I have always admired and continue to exhibit (I have a major Byars project underway at the Phillips to be announced later this year), pursued the “perfect moment” for more than forty years.

Klaus Ottmann performing James Lee Byars's The Perfect Smile at the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg, December 2004

Klaus Ottmann performing James Lee Byars’s The Perfect Smile at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg, December 2004

In the late 1950s, the young Byars left his hometown of Detroit to live in Kyoto, Japan, where he remained, with interruptions from 1958 to 1968. There he learned to appreciate the ephemeral as a valued quality in art and embrace the ceremonial as a continuing mode in his life and work, which became inseparable. During these formative years, he adapted the highly sensual, abstract, and symbolic practices found in Japanese Noh theater and Shinto rituals to Western science, art, and philosophy. His pursuit of the “perfect” originated from a unique synthesis of Oriental practices, conceptual art, minimalism, and fluxus, infused with aspects of the happening, body art, and installation art. For Byars, perfection was an impossibility, except for the auspicious moment (kairos) where life and death, happiness and tragedy, are one.

In 1994 Byars presented one of his fleeting performances, The Perfect Smile, to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne as a gift with the request that it be exhibited like any other work in its collection. In accordance with his wish, the performance was borrowed and reenacted for the first time since his death, for the retrospective of his works, which I organized in 2004 for the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg. It was performed by me or by the museum’s staff once a day in front of a black wall. The performance consists of a very subtle movement of one’s mouth to indicate the briefest smile possible, before it vanishes.

Two weeks ago, visiting Light Show, an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, I was standing in front of three columns of pulsating light by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, and experienced one of these rare auspicious moments, an evanescent burst of happiness and, yes, love, that lasted no longer than a few seconds as each column grew brighter until it reached an almost religious degree of intensity before slowly fading into darkness.

Cerith Wyn Evans, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’), 2010. Hayward Gallery, London, May 2013. Photo courtesy of Oli Scarff

Cerith Wyn Evans, S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’), 2010. Hayward Gallery, London, May 2013. Photo courtesy of Oli Scarff

There are three great themes in James Lee Byars’s work: Life, Love, and Death, but it is Love that is at the heart of Byars’s notion of the Perfect. There are two philosophical concepts of perfect love: in Spinoza’s amor Dei intellectualis, the love of God is the highest form of knowledge, which is accomplished by the simple act of man loving himself; in Kierkegaard, Abraham’s perfect love of God, expressed by his preparedness to sacrifice his son, is at the core of Kierkegaard’s theory of the leap to faith. In both cases, it is a marriage of love and certitude (knowledge that does not require objective proof) that results in a perfect moment.

Listening to Rothko

In a stimulating Duncan Phillips Lecture, “John Cage and the Question of Genre,” which served as a keynote to this year’s International Forum Weekend dedicated to the confluence of art and music, the novelist and musician Rick Moody praised Cage’s chance works, such as his ineffable composition 4’33”, as a “a breath of fresh air in the midst of bourgeois individualism.” According to Moody, Cage disregarded any notion of genre in favor of “creative work whose primary intention is simply that it is creative, so that it might simply give a name to creativity itself.” 4’ 33”, first performed in 1952, was designated by Cage as a “composition for any instrument (or combination of instruments).” It consists solely of potential sound: the random noise that occurs during the duration of its “silent” performance.

Halfway through, Moody intermitted his lecture with a cunning act of bravura by playing the sounds of paintings and photographs he recorded in various museums with his iPhone: the incidental noises created by the crowds moving past them.

Afterwards, Moody took me aside and asked if he might be able to spend a few minutes in the Rothko Room in order to record the sound of Rothko’s paintings. I happily obliged, and we both intently listened to the paintings. Rothko may have approved: he once compared his paintings to the voices in an opera. And for a moment, ever so faintly, I thought I heard Rothko’s beloved Mozart emerge from the depth of the silence in the room.

Rick Moody in the Rothko Room

Rick Moody recording the sound of the Rothko Room. Photo: Klaus Ottmann