Remembering John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis visited The Phillips Collection in May 2008 during the whirlwind first months of my tenure as director of the museum. He joined me and curator Elsa Smithgall along with National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia to view our installation of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. He also generously made time to talk to some of the students with whom we work. What an impression he made on all of us.

NEA Chair Dana Gioia, Dorothy Kosinski, Congressman John Lewis, and Curator Elsa Smithgall with Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

Congressman John Lewis speaks with students in the auditorium

Congressman Lewis was friends with artist Benny Andrews (1930-2006). We are honored to have in the Phillips’s collection Andrews’s magnificent Trail of Tears, thanks to the incredible generosity of Agnes Gund. Andrews produced collages and ink drawings for the 2006 publication John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement by Jim Haskins ad Kathleen Benson. Later, in 2013, Lewis wrote a foreword for the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Benny Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City. Lewis’s words about Andrews capture the ethical compass of his life:

Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears (Trail of Tears Series and Migrant Series), 2006, Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 76 x 145 x 1 in., Gift of Agnes Gund, 2019

“You see, for Benny, like all of us who were involved in non-violent direct action, protest is an act of love, not one of anger. Through all the jailings, beatings, protests, and prayers of the Civil Rights Movement, we always had ‘this basic idea,’ as Benny so appropriately put it, ‘that good would overcome evil.’ And it is from that place that we offered our complaint. Our desire was not to condemn, but to appeal to the better angels of all humanity. We demonstrated what was wrong to awaken that divine spark that resides in all of us with the power to build and not tear down, to reconcile and not divide, to love and not hate. This critique is an invitation to build a better world based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.”

We mourn Congressman Lewis’s passing and honor his lifelong work for and devotion to equity and justice.

I Miss Aimé Mpane’s Maman Calcule

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Vradenburg Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski on why she misses Aimé Mpne’s Maman Calcule (2013).

Aimé Mpane, Maman Calcule, 2013, Mural on pieces of wood, 83 x 73 in., The Phillips Collection, Dreier Fund for Acquisitions. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

I definitely miss one of our newer acquisitions, Maman Calcule, a large (almost seven by six feet) mural constructed of individual pieces of wood by Congolese artist Aimé Mpane. I met the artist and fell in love with his work years earlier at the (e)merge art fair here in DC that used to take place at Capitol Skyline Hotel. We actually added a work to the collection then in 2012, Mapasa, through The Herbert and Dorothy Vogel Award. Many of us were drawn to Mpane’s work, and you’ll find his small ten-by-ten-inch wood carvings in a variety of collections across the city, several of them designated as promised gifts to the museum. Mpane carves and shaves his plywood with a traditional African woodworking tool, an adze. He depicts people—men, women, and children—often emphasizing brightly colored traditional clothes and hair styles, capturing with uncanny brilliance the vibrant life of the street scenes of his native Kinshasa.

Maman Calcule presents a large portrait head, staring straight ahead with a penetrating, even severe gaze. This is a figure of dignity and authority. Tightly wound braids of hair surround the face like an aureole. The versos of each “brick” of wood is painted red, creating a glowing atmosphere that pushes the image forward and further amplifies its presence. Mpane splits his time between the Congo and Belgium, pointedly living out the post-colonial complexities that tether the former European power and its exploited subject state. It is very important to include Mpane’s work in our growing collection, thereby further expanding the story we tell of modern and contemporary art, beyond the confines of an old-fashioned European-American narrative.

Honoring Ellsworth Kelly

Kelly with Lindsay and Henry Ellenbogen

Ellsworth Kelly, Lindsay Ellenbogen, and Henry Ellenbogen at The Phillips Collection in 2013. Photo: Ben Droz

The Phillips was so honored to have worked with Ellsworth in 2013 presenting an exhibition of panel paintings from 2004 through 2009. It was wonderful to have had the opportunity to hear his ideas, have his guidance, to share time with him and Jack in DC and in Spencertown. I was re-reading curator Vesela Sretenović’s interview with him for the exhibition catalogue. One phrase captures my attention especially:

Vesela Sretenović:  In my first visit to your studio you said “ Freedom and democracy—that is what my work is about.” Can you elaborate on this passionate statement?
Ellsworth Kelly: I have always felt I wanted to create work that celebrates freedom and one’s own space.

He and his work embody a sheer joy in life.

EK installation 2_Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly’s 2013 exhibition at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

EK installation 1_Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Ellsworth Kelly’s 2013 exhibition at The Phillips Collection. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Untitled.EK 927_Lee Stalsworth

Ellsworth Kelly, Untitled (EK 927), 2005. Bronze overall: 117 in x 63 3/16 in x 1 in. Commissioned in honor of Alice and Pamela Creighton, beloved daughters of Margaret Stuart Hunter, 2006. Photo: Lee Stalsworth