Order and Disorder: Three Artistic Takes on Geometrics

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Anni Albers, Fox I, 1972. Photo-offset litho on paper, 24 x 20 in. Gift of Katherine and Nicholas Fox Weber, 1981; © 2008 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Roy Lichtenstein, Imperfect Diptych (Imperfect series), 1988. Woodcut, screen print, and collage on museum board, 57 7/8 in x 97 3/4 in. Gift of Sidney Stolz and David Hatfield, 2009; Frank Keller, Specter Planes VIII, 1980. Oil on wood panel, 41 x 41 in. Gift of Arthur E. Smith, 1980

To me, one of the greatest things about museums is their ability to create interesting juxtapositions that allow viewers to see things they may not have seen otherwise. In a gallery located in the original Phillips house, three striking works are put into conversation with one another: Anni AlbersFox I, Roy Lichtenstein’s Imperfect Diptych, and Frank Keller’s Specter Planes VIII. Each composition employs geometric shapes, notably triangles, to very different effects. They provide three distinct visions, demonstrating how similar subject matter can be presented in more than one way.

Anni Albers’ Fox I (1972) consists of two horizontal, patterned rectangles, separated by a wide gap. On the top, gray triangles facing in various directions are arranged in front of a red background. The bottom is an inversion of this, placing red triangles over a background of gray. The shapes are uniform in size and evenly spaced. The precision and carefully crafted geometry of this work speaks to Albers’ long career as an accomplished textile designer and weaver. The print is planned and systematic, confined within rigid parameters. Yet, there is a freedom from complete uniformity. Facing in different directions, the triangles add a dynamic element and bring vitality to the work.

Measuring 57 7/8 x 97 3/4 inches, Imperfect Diptych (1988) by Roy Lichtenstein occupies an entire gallery wall. Like Albers, Lichtenstein divides the composition into two rectangles. He depicts various geometric shapes, coloring them with matte gray, shiny silver, splashes of red and blue stripes, and of course, red and blue versions of the famous Benday dot pattern. Remember when you were in elementary school and learned how to draw a star without picking your pencil up off of the paper? This print reminds me of that technique in that the shapes seem to all stem from the same line. This composition is not as restricted as the Albers; we can see Lichtenstein starting to experiment with the idea of both preserving the shape’s geometric order, and wanting to break free from it.

Frank Keller’s Specter Planes VIII (1980) depicts various shapes that lack a coherent spatial arrangement. No two shapes are identical, though Keller does repeat some muted colors. Because it is a painting rather than a print, the artist’s hand is much more evident in this work than in the others. He employs strong diagonals to create the illusion of space, creating a depth that the Albers and Lichtenstein lack. Of the three artists, Keller breaks free from order the most. Some shapes overlap, obscuring parts of others, and some float away from the center, travelling out past the confines of the composition.

Fox I, Imperfect Diptych, and Specter Planes VIII’s current installation in the gallery together not only shows various ways to deal with geometry, but provides a rich viewing experience. From the highly ordered composition by Albers, to the work starting to break free from its confines by Lichtenstein, to the freedom of Keller’s canvas, the order and disorder of each piece is emphasized in its comparison to these gallery companions.

Emily Conforto, Marketing & Communications Intern

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