Size Matters

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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

 

Other-Worldliness: The Rothko Room, Laib Wax Room…and Japanese Tea Rooms

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The Rothko Room, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Ben Resine

Intimate relationships with artworks invite us into the artist’s world, in which we are all equal.

As intimacy is essential for communication in human society, this experience is also very important for communicating and connecting with modern art; it is the intimate relationship between art appreciators and the artworks themselves that encourages viewers to think about the concepts and philosophy behind a piece.

In The Phillips Collection, a personal connection with the art is provoked by the special environment—intimate, immersive rooms. The museum also has two permanent installations which are significantly smaller than other galleries—the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room. Because these installations are set apart from the rest of the galleries—rooms entirely designed or created by the artists themselves—they evoke a unique sense of other-worldliness. Upon stepping inside, we feel the artworks and the artists with all of our senses, as if we know them very well, regardless of how much we know about the artists’ lives. This experience allows us to feel as if we are isolated from the real world and invited to the world of the artists.

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The Laib Wax Room. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As a native of Japan, I find the experience of the Rothko Room and Laib Wax Room similar to that of a Japanese traditional small tea room. While not all Japanese tea rooms are small, some are deliberately so, for other-worldliness is the basic concept of the design. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the rooms are small in order to make people confront the tea, the teamaker, and the ritual behind creating and drinking it. The smallness of the rooms creates an intimate relationship between people and their tea.

There are also similarities in atmosphere. When a tea ceremony takes place in the small tea rooms, tension floats among the participants, which gives the ceremony a ritualistic feeling. This distinctive atmosphere can be also experienced in the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room by virtue of the closeness and the visual perception of the environments, which remind me of churches or the tombs of ancient Egypt. The solemn atmosphere often makes me both interested and hesitant to enter. My footsteps slowed as I entered these rooms—I would describe the experience as a feeling of awe.

However, there is a difference between the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms and Japanese tea rooms; the size of the entrances. Doorways into tea rooms are so small that most people need to stoop down to get in, requiring each person to bend his or her head as if bowing. As you may know, the act of bowing is the traditional Japanese way of showing respect. Performing this act upon entering shows that social class is not valid in the tea ceremony; everyone enters as equals. Although the entrances of the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms are of normal size, the same idea can be applied. Social status has no use in these artists’ worlds, as we are isolated from the real world.

Aya Takagi, Curatorial and Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern

Through The Lens of Sculpture

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Bernardi Roig’s The Man of the Light (2005), as seen through Morris Graves’s Weather Prediction Instruments for Meteorologists (1962 / completed 1999)

Director of the Center and Curator-at-Large Klaus Ottmann recently replaced the galleries previously occupied by A Tribute to Anita Reiner with a new installation highlighting works from the permanent collection, including a handful of sculptures. The works interact with Bernardi Roig‘s installation in the stairwell, as well as the surrounding paintings, in an interesting way. Here’s a peek inside the galleries.

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Morris Graves, Weather Prediction Instruments for Meteorologists, 1962/completed 1999. Brass slag, stained glass, marble, propeller, and nickel-plated brass, 36 1/4 x 18 x 17 3/4 in.(H w/ base, W is largest diameter, D is length of base). The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Penelope Schmidt and Robert Yarber, 2001

Weather Prediction Instruments for Meteorologists, 1962/completed 1999, Brass slag, stained glass, marble, propeller, and nickel-plated brass 36 1/4 x 18 x 17 3/4 in.; 92.075 x 45.72 x 45.085 cm. (H w/ base, W is largest diameter, D is length of base). Gift of Penelope Schmidt and Robert Yarber, 2001

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David Smith’s Bouquet of Concaves (1950) with Richard Diebenkorn’s Girl with Plant (1960) and Boy by Bernard Karfiol (n.d.)