The Phillips Collects: Sam Gilliam (Part II)

Sam Gilliam, "Red Petals" American, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., Acquired 1967.

Sam Gilliam, Red Petals, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1967

Red Petals is among the first paintings in which Gilliam poured paint onto an unprimed and unstretched canvas, folded the canvas onto itself, suspended it, and left the paint to settle overnight. The next day he sponged, daubed, splattered, folded, rolled, and then restretched the canvas. Gilliam describes this delicate balance between improvisation and discipline as “a sort of accident, a part that I controlled, and then a part that I didn’t control, a part that I set into motion.” The emotional intensity and expressionistic force of Red Petals partly derives from this careful manipulation and the tension between chance and control.

As a leading artist of the Color Field movement, Gilliam used color as the ultimate form of expression. In Red Petals, cadmium red and bright coral explode off the canvas. This painting was the first where Gilliam did not clearly define his edges with masking tape; the red bleeds into the violet-black, green, yellow and cobalt blue, pulsating with luminosity.

Although Gilliam had experimented with spontaneous methods, he now trusted gravity to shape biomorphic rather than geometric forms. Gilliam observed that “the natural environment, wind, and the like, gives life to cloth. Cloth has no particular characteristic unless you give life to it.” Red Petals, although ultimately mounted on a stretcher, represents Gilliam’s first step toward this revolutionary reinterpretation of the role of canvas: it becomes a medium, not the support, and therefore is as important as acrylic or oil.

According to Gilliam, abstraction gives him a freedom—denied to the realistic painter—to communicate with the viewer by tapping into emotions at a deep, visceral level. He remarked, “Petals is…when I first really felt that I was getting somewhere on my own; beginning to see and unfold…and not to imitate all the paintings I had seen in Washington.”

Conserving Pierre Bourdelle’s “Bird” (Part II)

This two-part blog post is by Jen Munch, former intern in The Phillips Collection’s Conservation department and current Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State. Read Part I here.

Later renovations and expansions required the sculpture’s deinstallation and relocation. During one deinstallation in 1987, the heavy stone sculpture was damaged at two locations along the slab’s bottom edge, where small sections of the stone were chipped away. In 1989, conservators repaired the sculpture by filling the two losses with chips of stone from the back of the artwork, plus an epoxy material that matched the colors of the grey and pink slab. Over time, the epoxy’s colors faded to beige, due to the strong sunlight that this artwork is exposed to. In 2004-5, the faded fills were replaced with new epoxy fills, with the goal of better matching the color of the surrounding stone. By the summer of 2017, the “new” fills again had faded to beige [fig.7, 8].

Figure 7, Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

Figure 7: Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

Figure 8: Before treatment, 2017. The discolored fills are circled.

The aging effects of sunlight are well known and documented. Just as the sun can damage your skin or the fabric of a sofa placed near a window, the sun’s rays can degrade many pigments. Ultraviolet rays are the most damaging, but visible light will also cause some degree of damage.

In 2017, the epoxy fills were still structurally stable but their beige color no longer matched the surrounding stone. The fills were visible and distracting. On one warm August day in 2017 [fig. 9], I spent the afternoon “in-painting” the beige epoxy to make it match the surrounding area. I applied small amounts of special conservation-grade paints atop the epoxy. The paints I used have good aging properties, but they, too, will eventually fade and need to be replaced. The work I did, and the materials I used, are documented with both written reports and photography, taken before and after treatment [fig. 10]. This information will be valuable to the next conservator who has to treat this artwork, just as the reports from the 1989 and 2004-5 treatments were helpful to me.

The author performing a conservation treatment on Bird by Pierre Bourdelle. Photo: Kim Sandara

Figure 9: The author performing a conservation treatment on Bird by Pierre Bourdelle. Photo: Kim Sandara

I enjoyed working on this sculpture and getting to learn about its history. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that this beautiful bird was custom-made for the Phillips and is a work of art, not just a logo. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this artwork, and will look for the bird the next time you visit The Phillips Collection.

Figure 9, After treatment, 2017. The epoxy fills have been in-painted to match the stone.

Figure 10: After treatment, 2017. The epoxy fills have been in-painted to match the stone.

Conserving Pierre Bourdelle’s “Bird” (Part I)

This two-part blog post is by Jen Munch, former intern in The Phillips Collection’s Conservation department and current Graduate Fellow in Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State.

 Figure 1, "Bird,” granite, Pierre Bourdelle, 1960

Figure 1: Pierre Bourdelle, Bird, 1960, Granite

In the summer of 2017, I had the pleasure of working as a graduate intern in the conservation department at The Phillips Collection. During my 10 weeks at the Phillips, I spent most of my time indoors in the museum’s serene and air-conditioned conservation studio, working on conservation treatments for modern paintings in the museum’s collection.

Figure 3, "Bird" by Pierre Bourdelle, to the right of the museum's Goh Annex entrance.

Figure 2: Bird by Pierre Bourdelle, to the right of the museum’s Goh Annex entrance.

In addition to paintings, I had the opportunity to work on the granite outdoor sculpture Bird by Pierre Bourdelle, which serves as a symbol of The Phillips Collection. When you visit the Phillips, you’ll see this sculpture to the right of the museum’s main entrance. You can also see representations of this bird on some branding for the Phillips, including the favicon (icon on the tab) for this website and as an ornament for sale in the museum’s gift shop [fig. 3].

Figure 4, Bird ornament in the Phillips Collection gift shop.

Figure 3: Bird ornament in the Phillips gift shop.

This low relief sculpture of a dark granite bird on a speckled granite slab was commissioned in 1960 by Duncan Phillips and is based on a 1956 lithograph of a bird by Georges Braque [fig. 4] that Phillips saw reproduced in the magazine Cahier d’Art (1956-57). Phillips contacted Braque in 1959 with the goal of commissioning a sculpture of the same subject.

Figure 4, "Bird," Lithograph, Georges Braque, 1956

Figure 4: Georges Braque, Bird, 1956, Lithograph

He wrote, “I saw the reproduction of a very fine graveur of a bird by you. It struck me as so beautiful with such a great universal feeling and design that I could not forget it. Therefore I have summoned the courage to ask if it would be possible for you to repeat this on a larger scale as an overdoor panel for our new building.”

Braque declined the commission but agreed to allow Phillips to commission another artist to produce a marble sculpture based on his lithograph. Pierre Bourdelle, the son of sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, was recommended to Phillips by Cesar de Hauke, who acted as Duncan Phillips’s agent in communicating with Braque and organizing this commission. The sculpture was carved at “Pierre Bourdelle Experimental Studios,” in the town of Oyster Bay on New York’s Long Island [fig. 5]

Figure 5, "Bird” sculpture during fabrication in Pierre Bourdelle’s workshop.

Figure 5: “Bird” sculpture during fabrication in Pierre Bourdelle’s workshop.

When Phillips commissioned the sculpture, he planned for it to be installed over the original entrance to the museum. The bird was initially installed in this location and was, for a long time, the first artwork any museum visitor would see. The bird sculpture was especially resonant with the first gallery visitors saw, which was hung with, “a choice group of Braques, ranging from 1914 to 1956,” according to a 1967 note by Phillips Collection registrar John Gernand, found in the sculpture’s curatorial file. Among the Braque paintings acquired by Duncan Phillips is a 1956 oil on canvas by Braque of the same subject [fig. 6].

Figure 6,“Bird,” oil on canvas, Georges Braque, 1956

Figure 6: Georges Braque, Bird, 1956, Oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1966

https://www.phillipscollection.org/collection/browse-the-collection?id=0209

Stay tuned for Part II later this week.