Monumental, Heroic, and Homeless: Andres Serrano’s “Nomads (Sir Leonard)”

This week, we celebrate our partnership with FotoDC by highlighting 6 photographs from our new installation, Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. Drawn from the wide-ranging collection of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg, the exhibition presents sixteen photographic portraits by a diverse group of modern photographers, including Tina Barney, Chuck Close, Imogene Cunningham, Walker Evans,  Andres Serrano, Edward Steichen, and Francesca Woodman, among others, along with an etching self-portrait by the legendary painter Lucien Freud.  This installation explores depictions of the famous and the anonymous, which enlarge our understanding of how portraiture is an invention forged between the artist and his or her subject.

Shaping a Modern Identity will be on view through January 12, 2014.

To kick things off, we begin with an artist who is no stranger to controversy and the subject of much discussion: Andres Serrano.

Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. © Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. © Andres Serrano

Serrano has always thought of himself as an artist using photography, and not as a photographer, the distinction being that he is not interested in documenting ‘reality’, but in creating his own. In 1990, Serrano turned to the genre of portraiture, creating several thematic bodies of work, each depicting various social groups. The first of these was a series called “Nomads”, studio-style photographs of homeless individuals whom Serrano found on the streets and subway tunnels, often photographing them on-site.

In Serrano’s portrait of Sir Leonard, a homeless man encountered in the New York subway, the sitter is monumentalized against a blank background, confronting the camera in a proud, almost defiant manner as he grasps his belt buckle. He appears at ease in front of the camera, which captures the shadows around his face, the different textures of his clothing, and the bright pop of color from his scarf. Without any context, Sir Leonard appears to have been dressed and carefully posed in front of the camera by Serrano. The artist, however, claims little control over the subject, explaining, “…I didn’t ask my sitters to look dignified or noble. The most I ever asked them was to look left or right. But I found that they gave me a very heroic response. I didn’t add anything to what they already possess. I just provided the lighting.”

What is so fascinating about this photograph and others in the series is that Serrano’s role as the artist is limited to finding the subjects and providing a background for the portraits. The magic of the photograph emanates from the sitters themselves—their dignity emerging from adversity. Serrano masterfully captures a group of people often overlooked in society and elevates their pride and personalities to high art. He creates a new reality for his sitters, giving them a platform to express themselves. Aside from the background and lighting, these “Nomads” are in charge of their self-presentation, and they demand a second look from their audience.

Decisions, Decisions: Prepping the Walls for Van Gogh

Preparing wall text and colors for Van Gogh

Clockwise from top: Swatches, wall colors, and title wall text mock-up, Pantone swatches for wall text vinyl, Eliza Rathbone and Rebecca Doran review the “Postman” panel. Photos: Liza Strelka

Monday, curator Eliza Rathbone and graphic designer Rebecca Doran spent time reviewing color options and mock-ups as installation begins for our upcoming Van Gogh Repetitions show, opening October 12.

Putting the Process on the Wall: Ellsworth Kelly Maquette

 A small installation of works on paper by Ellsworth Kelly was recently installed in conjunction with Ellsworth Kelly: Panel Paintings 2004-2009, currently on view through September 22Included in these works is a small maquette by Kelly, done in preparation for a 2004 sculpture commissioned by the Phillips, shown below.

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly's Maquette for EK 927, 2005. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly’s Maquette for EK 927, 2005. Mixed media, 9 x 11 x 5/8 in. (22.9 x 27.9 x 1.6 cm). The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Acquired 2006. Photo: Joshua Navarro

To commemorate the new courtyard opening in 2006, The Phillips Collection commissioned Kelly to create a sculpture specifically conceived for the museum’s new courtyard as a gift of Phillips Trustee Margaret Stuart Hunter. Mounted at an unusual angle, Untitled (EK 927) (pictured below) is a large-scale bronze curve, perched elegantly on the west wall of the Hunter Courtyard. It reflects Kelly’s enduring interest in uncovering the reductive essentials in natural forms. There is a timeless and mysterious quality to the sculpture—a simple form of line, volume, and shadow that seems to defy gravity.

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled, 2005. Bronze. 17 in x 63 3/16 in x 1 in; 297.22572 cm x 160.46704 cm x 2.54 cm. Commissioned in honor of Alice and Pamela Creighton, beloved daughters of Margaret Stuart Hunter, 2006. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled (EK 927), 2005. Bronze. 17 in x 63 3/16 in x 1 in (297.2 x 160.5 x 2.5 cm). Commissioned in honor of Alice and Pamela Creighton, beloved daughters of Margaret Stuart Hunter, 2006. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The sculpture and its corresponding maquette were both accessioned into the collection in 2006. You may be asking why the Phillips decided to acquire the model Kelly made for the sculpture and accession it into the collection as a work of art in itself.  Maquettes, by nature, are simply stand-ins for the real thing, and are frequently discarded once the installation of art is complete. When they are created by an artist, however, maquettes reveal much about the artistic process involved in creating a larger-scale work. This particular maquette was presented in 2006 to then-director Jay Gates and Ms. Hunter by Kelly himself, who was at the museum overseeing the installation of the sculpture, as a gift in honor of the collaboration. Accessioning the maquette into the collection was a conscious decision by staff to highlight Kelly’s creative process and the personal relationship between Kelly and the Phillips. As we honor Kelly during the year of his 90th birthday, we wanted to emphasize our history with the prolific artist and shed light on the process behind one of our most important works by featuring the maquette alongside the fully-realized works currently on display.

On a side note, this isn’t the only time a maquette for a sculpture has been accessioned into the museum’s collection. In 2012, a model for Seymour Lipton’s Oracle (1966), a bronze and Monel sculpture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, was accessioned into our permanent collection. Lipton is well represented at the Phillips with sculpture and drawings, but this model was an important acquisition to the curatorial team as it reveals the artistic intent behind a finished product, as well as draws interesting comparisons to other works by the artist in our collection.

Seymour Lipton, Model for "Oracle" 1965. Nickel, silver, and bronze on Monel height: 15 inches (base: 4 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 2 7/8 x 3 1/2 in.) Gift of Alan Lipton, 2012.

Seymour Lipton, Model for “Oracle” 1965. Nickel, silver, and bronze on Monel height: 15 inches (base: 4 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 2 7/8 x 3 1/2 in.) Gift of Alan Lipton, 2012.