Sijae Byun: Phillips Collection Emerging Artist Prize

Sijae Byun, Wind #7 in Jungle, 2013. Acrylic and ink on silk, 50 ½ x 37 ½ inches. The Phillips Collection; acquired with funds from Hank and Carol Brown Goldberg

Sijae Byun, Wind #7 in Jungle, 2013. Acrylic and ink on silk, 50 1/2 x 37 1/2 inches. The Phillips Collection. Acquired with funds from Hank and Carol Brown Goldberg

Following up on the successful purchase of our first work by a contemporary African artist, Aimée Mpane at last year’s (e)merge art fair (made possible by Gallerist’s Herb and Dorothy Vogel Award), one of our enthusiastic and generous trustees, Carol Brown Goldberg and her husband Hank, donated funds to purchase a work by an emerging artist from this year’s (e)merge art fair.

Once again, our director Dorothy Kosinski, my colleague Vesela Sretenovic, and I were given the task to select a work from the fair. We each spent hours roaming the rooms and corridors at the Capitol Skyline Hotel that were taken over by galleries and independent artists, but kept coming back to an installation of intriguing paintings on silk by a young Korean artist, Sijae Byun, that were on view in the room  occupied by the Washington Project for the Arts, an independent organization that since 1975 has served as a catalyst for emerging art.  One painting in particular stood out for all of us: Wind #7 in  Jungle (2013)—an aggregation of painted biomorphic shapes and moiré patterns produced by the superposition of multiple layers of pale purple silk. The artist, who received her training at  Kookmin University, Seoul, Korea and at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and is now based in Maryland, derives much of her imagery from the relationship of nature and architecture, inspired by the philosophical and religious tradition of Daoism, best known through its most influential text, the Chinese Tao Te Ching or Daodejing.

Sijae Byun’s painting is not the first work by a Korean artist to enter The Phillips Collection. The Phillips owns a painting by the pioneering abstract painter Kim Whan-ki (1913–1974), 27-II-70 (1970) and four photographs by the Korean photographer Nikki S. Lee. Interestingly, Duncan Phillips’s first transatlantic journey in 1910 was not to Europe, but an extended family vacation to Asia that was primarily spent in Japan. It had a profound and lasting influence on Phillips, sparking a  lifelong interest in merging an Eastern aesthetic with a Western sensibility in his own collection by acquiring American and European works that were attuned to Japanese formal values. In an article titled “The Problem of Art in Japan,” written in 1907 while he was a senior at Yale University, Phillips defined the principal difference between Western and Japanese art: “With us man is the cynosure of artistic eyes, while with them he is vouchsafed less attention than any bit of natural beauty, such as a spray of grass or a spring of cherry blossoms. Nature, not man is ever his inspiration.”

I believe that there is a good chance that Duncan Phillips would have approved of Sijae Byun’s painterly synthesis of natural beauty and man-made structures.




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.