Seeing Red: Color, Form, and Sensory Experiences in the Music Room

Music Room at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Duncan Phillips believed fervently in the intimate relationship between music and the visual arts. The Music Room has always been a unique gallery where this juxtaposition literally plays out during our Sunday Concerts series: melodies reverberating off the wood-paneled walls, the room packed with chairs, light filtering in through the windows, and an audience witness to this beautiful intersection of music and art. Frequently, artists well known in the museum’s collection, such as Milton Avery, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, John Marin, and Augustus Vincent Tack graced the walls.

With this inaugural installation after the re-opening of the original house galleries, the curatorial team saw an opportunity to change things up and feature some more recent acquisitions alongside old(er) favorites. The color red emerged as a guiding theme, allowing us to create some interesting conversations about color, form, and narrative between modern and contemporary art.

Joseph Marioni’s Crimson Painting, with its highly-saturated, monochromatic, luminous surface, conveys sensation over information and is narrative-free, focusing solely on the exploration and advancement of color and light, or as he says, “the liquid light.” Viewing the painting is a sensory experience. The color red, at its most intense and pure, appears to almost drip off the canvas onto the walls. Much like the live music played in the room during concerts, Marioni’s “liquid light” evokes a deeply personal, emotional response.

Contrast this painting with Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. 9 with Yellow and Red, to the right of the fireplace across the room from the Marioni, with its carefully orchestrated yet lively rhythm punctuated by primary colors. Its musicality derives from the intense contemplation of composition in relation to color and line. Whereas Marioni’s work echoes the emotional experience music provides, Mondrian’s pays homage to the rhythm and melody carefully composed in each music piece performed in the music room.

On the west wall, you’ll find Alex Katz’s Brisk Day I-III, 1990, with its repeated subject looking over her shoulder not only at the viewer, but also across the room at selections from Georg Baselitz’s La sedia di Paolo, 1988. Again, the visitor will likely pick up on the vibrant reds in both groupings, but there’s more to their inclusion. In the Katz lithographs, like the Mondrian and Marioni paintings, the subject matter is secondary to the formal properties (color, light) of the series, although the woman glancing over her shoulder could also be interpreted as a playful reference to the spectatorship during the concerts and of the visitors to the museum galleries on any given day.

The Baselitz works are a wink to the chairs that fill the music room during our Sunday concerts, but they also are similar to the other works in their formal focus of the physical and pictorial properties of their medium, and to the Katz in their repetition of forms.

Recently acquired sculptures below the Katz lithographs punctuate the installation, mimicking the focus on form and color. Fun fact: It is the first time we’ve installed sculptures in this space. We hope our visitors will enjoy the reenergized Music Room.

Those Brushstrokes, Though: Francis Bacon and Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, House at Auvers, 1890. Oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 24 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1952

Re-opening the original Phillips house galleries this June allowed the curatorial team to create new dialogues between artists. One of the more surprising, on the surface, is the side-by-side installation of Vincent van Gogh’s House at Auvers, 1890, and Francis Bacon’s Study of a Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Painted more than 60 years apart, these paintings would never be hung together in a traditional, chronological museum installation. Luckily for everyone, the Phillips was founded with the belief that works be hung in conversations with one another regardless of art movement, time period, etc.

Francis Bacon, Study of Figure in a Landscape, 1952. Oil on canvas, 78 x 54 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1955 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. / DACS, London / ARS, NY 2015

Bacon and van Gogh shared similar mental struggles that manifested themselves in their work. Their respective feelings of anxiety and alienation find parallels not only in subject matter but style. In fact, Bacon admired van Gogh, and it’s safe to assume van Gogh’s brushwork influenced this work in particular.

The high horizon lines that draw your eye back into the pictures along with the staccato brushstrokes of the fields create an almost foreboding sense of dread. In van Gogh’s painting, it seems as though we will never reach the home across the turbulent field. The hope for safety (and, perhaps, sanity) lies in the walled-off home that is almost being pushed out of the painting’s frame, out of view.

In Bacon’s, however, we are being pushed to confrontation with a crouching figure who appears to have just materialized like a hallucination. The open brushwork and the exposed, unprimed canvas leave us nowhere to hide. We are face to face with an embodiment of the artist’s anxiety and psychosis. Is the subject a predator, or someone seeking solitude?

Both paintings seem to be paused in time, a snapshot of each artist’s travails, with no beginning and no end.

Painting to Painting: Finding Familiar Faces

While working in Texas last month, I had the good fortune to visit the Dallas Museum of Art. I found a few paintings that reminded me of works from The Phillips Collection, and thought they made nice pairings.

Robert Henri, (left) Dutch Girl, 1910/reworked 1913, 1919. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 20 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1920 (right) Dutch Girl Laughing, 1907. Oil on canvas, 32 x 26 1/4 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase

In the summers of 1907 and 1910, Robert Henri traveled to Haarlem, The Netherlands, where he painted many portraits of the local people, including these two works which may be the same sitter. Henri described young Cori here as “a little white headed broad faced red cheeked girl…always laughing.”

Edward Hicks ,(left) The Peaceable Kingdom, between 1845 and 1846. Oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 32 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1939 (right) The Peaceable Kingdom, c. 1846-1847. Oil on canvas, 24 x 31 1/8 in. Dallas Museum of Art, The Art Museum League Fund

Edward Hicks painted more than one hundred versions of this subject, which illustrates his favorite biblical passage—Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 11:6-9), an allegory of spiritual and earthly harmony.

George Bellows, (left) Emma at the Window, 1920. Oil on canvas, 41 1/4 x 34 3/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1924 (right) Emma, 1920-1923. Oil on canvas, 63 x 51 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Association Purchase

Between 1911 and 1924, George Bellows painted eleven portraits of his wife, Emma Story Bellows (1884–1959). The works from the 1920s were created in Woodstock, New York, where the couple summered. These mature portraits reflect Bellows’s admiration for the Old Masters, Thomas Eakins, and contemporary color theories.

John Marin, (left) The Sea, Cape Split, Maine, 1939. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 29 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1940 (right) Bathers, 1932. Oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 28 1/2 in. Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Algur H. Meadows and the Meadows Foundation, Incorporated

After establishing himself in the 1920s as the world’s foremost watercolorist, John Marin began painting oils in the 1930s. These paintings reveal Marin’s renowned ability to capture his immediate impression of a powerful seascape along the rocky Maine coast.

Renée Maurer, Associate Curator