Riffs and Relations: Loïs Mailou Jones and Maurice Utrillo

While The Phillips Collection is closed, The Experiment Station will be sharing some of the great artwork featured in Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition, now on view through January 3, 2021.

Loïs Mailou Jones, Place du Tertre, 1938, Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 22 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

During 1937–38, Loïs Mailou Jones (b. 1905, Boston, Massachusetts; d. 1998, Washington, DC), funded by a fellowship, took a sabbatical from teaching art at Howard University to study at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris. There, she befriended Post-Impressionist painter Émile Bernard, who encouraged her work. As with Henry Ossawa Tanner and other African American artists before her, Jones exhibited at the Paris salons, specifically the Société des Artistes Français and the Société des Artistes Independants. Her training in Europe gave her a sense of freedom that was still unknown to her in Washington, DC, in the 1930s.

Jones painted in her studio and in the streets of Paris. Place du Tertre captures a popular square in the 18th arrondissement, only a few streets away from the hilltop church towers on Montmartre. She explained: “I would set up my [easel] on location. By 11 am I would have my scene, blocked in with a brush drawing. . . . Working as an impressionist I would sometimes have to return to the same spot several times. . . . I always had many spectators.” Museum Founder Duncan Phillips admired Jones’s modernist aesthetic. He acquired two paintings by the artist, which he exhibited at the museum and also lent to local institutions like the Howard University Gallery of Art and the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first black-owned commercial art space in the US.

Maurice Utrillo, Place du Tertre, 1911, Oil on cardboard, 21 3/8 x 28 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1953

Growing up in the milieu of Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Utrillo (b. 1883, Paris, France; d. 1955, Dax, France) took up painting to chronicle bohemian life and the urban landscape of Paris. In 1909–10, he began a series known as his White Period, which featured views of Gothic churches and street scenes derived from postcards. Over a sketch he used a palette knife and a brush to apply heavy layers of opaque paint on hard, thick cardboard.

By 1912, he had earned the admiration of avant-garde artists and had exhibited with Paul Cézanne, André Derain, Matisse, and Picasso. In 1926, Duncan Phillips took interest in Utrillo’s White Period pictures. Fond of this site, he acquired Utrillo’s impression of Place du Tertre for his museum, almost 10 years after he purchased Loïs Mailou Jones’s interpretation, which shows the same square from a different vantage point.

In Conversation with Alyson Shotz

Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović interviewed Alyson Shotz in the artist’s Brooklyn studio on March 9, 2020; an excerpt is featured here. The full version is part of the Phillips’s major centennial publication, Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century, to be published in 2021. Shotz was an Intersections artist in 2012, and her work Allusion of Gravity (2005) is part of the permanent collection.

Alyson Shotz in her studio with her work Intricate Metamorphosis, 2020.

Vesela Sretenović: It has been more than 15 years since we first met, and looking around your studio, I’m once again so surprised by your new work…

Alyson Shotz: Yes, this work is really different than my work of the past few years, but it’s related. In the past months, I really struggled over how I was going to remake my sculpture in response to the political climate. Making light, ethereal work was almost impossible and I wanted to make something heavier and darker. I became attracted to used bicycle inner tubes; I found some on the street, and then I asked the owner of my local bike shop if he could collect them for me. . . . I began by folding the inner tubes, getting a density that’s like a very dark, solid negative space. After that, I started adding copper that I had around the studio, creating an interplay of light and shadow. Then, suddenly, these new pieces started to feel more like my older work; the light moving across the copper . . . I see these as “21st-century icons” that encompass distance as well as light. There are many miles contained in the tires themselves, there are the hours in those miles, and there is light acting on them through time.

Alyson Shotz, Chronometer, 2020, Recycled rubber bicycle inner tubes, copper nails, punched copper, wood, 72 x 48 x 2 in., Image courtesy of the artist

VS: In addition to these heavy icon-like paintings, you have a lot of filigree-like sculptural pieces suspended from the ceiling. They feel light and almost ethereal. What are they made of?

AS: They’re made of plated steel. I design specific shapes that will fit together as a whole and have them punched industrially, out of sheet steel, then I connect the pieces with stainless steel rings. Each piece has to be individually folded onto the rings, and the whole thing, completed, becomes like a fabric made out of metal. The electroplating gives it its color.

VS: How do you get this kind of finish?

AS: Well, with all of my work, there’s a testing and refining process—which type of metal is best and which thickness is best, and which finish. There’s also a randomness inherent in the plating process that I really like: depending on the temperature and composition of the bath, as well as the temperature of the room, the color will vary. Because of that, I don’t do the finishing all at once—I send in pieces for plating and then connect them afterwards. The shape of the sculpture as a whole is greatly influenced by the material I’ve created and by gravity itself. I act as a kind of facilitator—guiding this new material into the sculpture it wants to be.

Alyson Shotz’s studio. Photo: Allan Northern

Shotz’s exhibition featuring this new body of work was due to open at Derek Eller Gallery in April, but has been postponed due to the covid-19 pandemic. See more of her work on her Instagram @alysonshotz.

Celebrating 51 Years of Pride

This month marks the 51st anniversary of Pride, a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community that is only possible because of the Queer POC who rebelled against oppression, discrimination, and police brutality. We are sharing some of the work, voices, and ideas of the LGBTQ+ artists in our collection. It is with reverence to the Black activists that paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights that we reflect on art as activism and an agent for change.

Lyle Ashton-Harris, Blow-Up II (Armory), 2005, Digital c-print, 24 x 20 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Carolyn Alper, 2010

Lyle Ashton Harris is multimedia artist working in photography, collage, installation, and performance art. His work often explores the theme of identity—specifically how gender, sexuality, and history are tied to Black and Queer identities. The artist began a series of collages in the mid-1990s, which use transparency, layering, and fragmented images to connect the disparate elements that form a person’s identity. The quote is from Harris’s artist statement from when he was an MFA student. Art historian Deborah Willis once described his work’s importance “on being visible, and not necessarily where people talk about hyper-visibility. It’s about staying present and using the archive to code and decode Black stories. That’s been an essential frame for him. That’s why his work has an impact. He’s in your face with it.”

Alfonso Ossorio, Recovery Drawings #6 (A Good Night’s Sleep), Book 1, 1989, Felt-tip watercolor marker on paper, 8 1/2 x 11 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of the Ossorio Foundation, 2008

Alfonso Ossorio was one of the most colorful figures in postwar American Art. Following his work as a medical illustrator during World War II, Ossorio went to the Berkshires where he began exploring surrealist painting. It was there that he met his partner, ballet dancer Ted Dragon, while he was sketching flowers at an outdoor festival. The two remained together until Ossorio died in 1990. While his roots were in surrealism, Ossorio was drawn to the anarchic, cathartic, and rebellious style of artists Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffettheir friendship was explored in the Phillips’s 2013 exhibition Angels, Demons, and Savages: Pollock, Ossorio, Dubuffet.

Ellsworth Kelly, Yellow/Orange, 1970, 2-color lithograph on Arjomari paper, 41 1/2 x 30 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Fenner Milton, 2013

At first glance, the hard edge paintings of Ellsworth Kelly seem more similar to the work of pop artists or minimalists than the work of his contemporaries like Picasso or Rothko. But Kelly missed Abstract Expressionism almost entirely, as he was serving as a camouflage expert in Paris during and after the second World War. It was during that time that he was exposed to the work of modern artists that would influence his exploration of color and form. It is possibly because of this—his exposure without assimilation to any one movement—that Kelly developed work that was so unusual for his time. 

Joan Snyder, Savage Dreams, between 1981 and 1982, Oil and fabric on canvas, 66 x 180 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips in honor of Laughlin Phillips, 1992

Joan Snyder’s work incorporated non-art materials, often associated with domesticity, to create confessional, personal works of art. When Snyder was making work in the 1960s, there was a greater artistic concern for process; she considered the application of her materials to be a ritual that further pushed the intent of her pieces.

Allan deSouza, No Entry, 2011, C-print, 12 x 16 in., The Phillips Collection, Purchase, The Hereward Lester Cooke Memorial Fund, 2014

This photograph by Allan deSouza was made in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series as part of Intersections, a series of contemporary art projects inspired by the art and spaces of the Phillips. The Migration Series tracks a journey and a movement toward a better life. Allan deSouza focused on that narrative and his own history of migrationhis family’s move from South Asia to Kenya, and his journey from Kenya, to England, to the United Statescreating a series of photographs that explore themes of diaspora and colonization. The World Series was shown at the Phillips in 2011.

The quote is from deSouza’s How Art Can Be Thought: A Handbook for Change, strategies he has developed as an artist and educator on how to decolonize museums and academic spaces. 

Marie Laurencin, Flowers, not dated, Lithograph on paper, 14 5/8 x 10 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Marjorie Phillips, 1985

Marie Laurencin, one of the few female Cubist painters, pushed beyond the norms of that movement by introducing curved lines, pastel colors, and other artistic elements that were often dismissed as too feminine. Laurencin frequently had her work shown at Gertrude Stein’s salons and was very active in the emerging gay and lesbian scene in 1920s Paris. During this time Laurencin began referencing neoclassic and sapphic imagery in her work and those themes eventually became the entirety of her practice.

Bradley Walker Tomlin, Still Life, 1940, Oil on canvas, 22 1/8 x 29 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

Bradley Walker Tomlin straddled two different waves of American artists—he began working as an illustrator at the same time that Edward Hopper, Charles Burchfield, and other representational artists were at the height of their careers. Only five years later, the New York School and action painting took center stage. While Tomlin’s style evolved during this time, his work was often described as gentle, reserved, and unobtrusive. The Abstract Expressionist movement formed its identity around masculinity and bravado, and was never fully accepting of women, Black artists, or any perceived “outsiders.” Hedda Sterne, one of the few women involved with this group once said, “They all were very furious that I was in it because they all were sufficiently macho to think that the presence of a woman took away from the seriousness of it all.” Tomlin was unacknowledged as gay during his lifetime; it wasn’t until his long overdue retrospective in 2017 that his work was viewed within the context of his sexuality.

Jennie Lea Knight, Bluescape, 1950, Oil on hardboard, 20 x 16 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1951

Abstract painter and sculptor Jennie Lea Knight changed the DMV art scene in the 1960s. After studying under Kenneth Noland, Knight co-founded Northern Virginia’s first and only professional art gallery. She directed the gallery for 10 years before giving ownership to the participating artists, making it the city’s first cooperative. While her work was largely non-representational, Knight was influenced by forms found in nature. In addition to working as a full time artist, she was also a certified wildlife rehabilitator who lived on a working farm with her partner.

John Edmonds, Untitled (Hood 2) (detail), 2016, Archival pigment print, 20 x 14 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vittorio Gallo, 2018

In 2019, Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay spoke with artist John Edmonds during a Conversations with Artists event about his Hood series, which he began as an MFA student at Yale. The series confronts the toxicity of racial bias, while exploring themes of privacy, vulnerability, and protection.

Makeba Clay: So the hood is complex, it’s a complex symbol that is having us…thinking about the politicization of the Black male body, the policing of the male Black body as well, and also thinking about the softness and the beauty of the way that it is framed in your photographs. 

John Edmonds: For me the hoods are about this kind of Black masculinity, specifically as a form of protection. Those pictures kind of operate at a different frequency in how they’re really about this kind of exterior hardness.

Here’s to visibility, Black stories, and making an impact!