Frankenthaler and Motherwell: A Painterly Marriage

Motherwell in white and yellow ochre_Frankenthaler runningscape

(left) Robert Motherwell, In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961. Oil, charcoal, ink, tempera and paper collage on paper, 40 7/8 x 27 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, acquired 1965. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY (right) Helen Frankenthaler, Runningscape, 1962. Oil on canvas, 32 in x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Gifford and Joann Phillips, 2009; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two of the Phillips’s most cherished Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, shared more than a style of painting: they were also married from 1958 to 1971. Currently, a group of the couple’s works from the museum’s permanent collection are on display in neighboring galleries. Four of my favorites are Canyon and Runningscape, both by Frankenthaler, and In White and Yellow Ochre and Chi Ama, Crede by Motherwell.

Studying these works in a group, I began to think of the differences in the two artists’ styles, despite the fact that all four of the works were created in the early 1960s. I compared the soft applications of oil and acrylic in both of Frankenthaler’s works to the more aggressive elements in Motherwell’s. Utilizing varied textures, Motherwell’s In White and Yellow Ochre combines mediums with collaged materials, resulting in a harsher design and abstracted contours. In contrast, Frankenthaler uses oil paint like watercolor in Runningscape, thinning it into washes that bleed into each other to create a fluid design. Each of the artists’ larger pieces—Frankenthaler’s Canyon and Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede—also contain these distinctions, Canyon being composed of expansive fields of saturated color and Chi Ama, Crede of jagged applications in dull maroons and browns.

Frankenthaler canyon_Motherwell chi ama crede

(left) Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 46 1/8 in x 52 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Robert Motherwell, Chi Ama, Crede, 1962. Oil on canvas, 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald A. Brown, 1998; Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

What is interesting is that both artists were influenced by the same group of contemporaries: Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They also created these works in the early years of their marriage, when they were likely collaborating and comparing painting techniques. Their differences are thus results of their own personal styles retained throughout their independent careers. Frankenthaler’s paintings are distinctly feminine, whereas Motherwell’s works have a more aggressive appearance of masculinity. This pair of artists serve as a unique look at the female and male perspectives on a specific movement of art.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Congenial Spirits: Katz, Diebenkorn, Renoir

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Installation view of Alex Katz’s Brisk Day, Richard Diebenkorn’s Standing Nude, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Judgment of Paris

Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite pieces at the Phillips are always on the move? One of my favorite parts about interning here has been witnessing the movement of pieces in the permanent collection around the galleries. Founder Duncan Phillips once said in regards to his curating tactics, “I avoid the usual period rooms—the chronological sequence . . . My arrangements are for the purpose of contrast and analogy. I bring together congenial spirits among the artists from different parts of the world and from different periods of time.” This intention has been maintained by the curators at the Phillips who are continually exchanging pieces on display with ones in storage, reminding regular visitors and staff members of the breadth that makes up this unique collection of modern and contemporary art.

Walking around the other day, I noticed that the central gallery on the second floor had been completely transformed overnight. Non-representational paintings by Sam Francis, Jake Berthot, and Loren MacIver had been replaced by portraits and figure drawings from an array of artists. I was immediately drawn to a wall of three large and vibrant prints by Alex Katz, a triptych entitled Brisk Day, to the right of which were two monochromatic figure studies, much smaller in scale. The closest was a Richard Diebenkorn charcoal drawing, Standing Nude, neighbored by Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s chalk drawing, The Judgment of Paris. I thought immediately of Phillips’s notion of “congenial spirits” and wondered what type of analogy was made in juxtaposing these three very different works.

The Katz and the Diebenkorn were created almost 25 years apart, while the Renoir drawing precedes the Katz by almost a century. Both Diebenkorn and Renoir chose to focus on the entire human body, whereas Katz zoomed in on a portrait. The more contemporary of the artists chose flat applications of color, while the least contemporary rendered his subjects more realistically and monochromatically. All of these differences are what make for such an interesting arrangement. Seeing them together initiates a discussion of the figure as subject matter, a subject that can be rendered through all different types of mediums and styles. Spanning three different time periods, these works remind us that certain motifs, like the human body, are timeless. Yet the evolution of their representation is a cornerstone of the study of art history, something that can be visualized by doing exactly what Phillips had in mind: juxtaposing the unexpected.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Size Matters

Dove_Waterfall

Arthur G. Dove, Waterfall, 1925. Oil on hardboard, 10 x 8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1926

Would Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party have the same effect on its viewers if it didn’t take up nearly an entire wall at 51 x 69 inches? Conversely, would Jacob Lawrence’s panels from The Migration Series be so poignant if each were triple the size, Panel no. 1 measuring only 12 x 18 inches? In art, size matters. It can make a large piece overcome you. It can force you to inspect a smaller piece more intently than you might if it were just little bit bigger.

One of the smaller paintings and one of my favorites in The Phillips Collection is Arthur Dove’s Waterfall, measuring only 10 x 8 inches. This oil painting done on hardboard could escape you if you were walking through the galleries quickly, but it is a work worth a closer look. In a typical Dovian way, a style shared by other members of the Alfred Stieglitz circle including John Marin and Georgia O’Keeffe, a natural subject is abstracted in a way that does not immediately depict its title. But as the title indicates, it is a waterfall, a subject found in the nature around us that, when you think about it, does not really have a typical look to it. Not all waterfalls look the same, and Dove is aware of this phenomenon. Dark grey blues swirl into beige washes with highlights of white put carefully on top. The surface is loaded with painterly texture and monochromatic gradients. What the painting captures is a moment in time, the moment you forget what you’re looking at and see only the colors and shapes that make up the nature in front of you.

If we could only ask Dove, why so small? Why is it that the artist chose to depict such a grandiose subject in such a small window? Perhaps it is precisely for this irony. It is at once artful and emotional to represent a subject that takes up so much space in the world around us and impose it onto a surface that only takes up a fraction of a gallery wall. The unique smallness of Waterfall is what drew me to the piece in the first place, intrigued by its placement amongst larger O’Keeffe and Marin works that I could spot from the gallery next door. When I took the time to really look at the painting, it instantly became one of my favorites, and that was because of its size. So size in art really does matter, and sometimes, smaller is better.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern