Burchfield’s Close Encounters Painting


(Left) Charles Burchfield, December Moonrise, 1959. Watercolor on paper, 30 x 36 in. Gift of B. J. and Carol Cutler, 2009. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC (Right) Edouard Manet, Spanish Ballet, 1862. Oil on canvas, 24 x 35 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1928

One of the hazards pleasures of being a gallery educator at the Phillips is that so many of our visitors are distinguished by their sophistication and knowledge of modern art. I can’t count the number of people who are familiar with the nuances of the relationships between Renoir’s friends in Luncheon of the Boating Party.  On one tour of the permanent collection, a gentleman from Argentina told me the precise name of the dance being performed in Manet’s Spanish Ballet. And during Angels, Demons, and Savages, it seemed everyone had either seen the Jackson Pollock biopic with Ed Harris or knew the footage of Jackson himself working in his studio on a canvas on the floor.

Made in the USA is particularly interesting for me because my academic work has been on modernism—European and American. The era between the turn of the 20th century up to World War II is rich in history, experimentation, rule-breaking, and epic attempts to change the world, and all those qualities show in the willful energy of so many of the works in the exhibition.

A standout for me is Charles Burchfield—I have long loved his quivering, ecstatic (and sometimes playful) depictions of nature’s immanence. December Moonrise is an almost over-the-top example of his passionate exaltation of nature as a place of spiritual transcendence. I always stop there on my tours of the exhibition to talk about it. Sometimes I call it the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” painting. People seem to like it. Thinking about the painting as a place—or a moment—existing in Burchfield’s imagination, I was taken aback when I was told by a tall young man from Canada that far from being an imaginary land/skyscape, the constellations in the sky (which are casting shadows from the moonlight) are true to nature. He pointed out Orion, on the right side, and Corona Borealis, on the left. Apparently these two constellations, visible in northern skies, are only seen together in the month of December. So in fact the painting is a very specific description of nature at a specific time of year.

I can safely say that facts about astronomy are not in my area of expertise, but learning about Burchfield’s respect for the actual sky and stars shining on that December night makes me love his painting even more.

Dena Crosson, Gallery Educator

Personal Reflections on the Wax Room: Part 3

In celebration of the Laib Wax Room‘s first anniversary as a permanent installation at The Phillips Collection, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern Rhiannon Newman, who was one of four assistants in the preparation and installation, describes her experience in a four part series.

Rhiannon pics_hammer_part 3

Photo: Rhiannon Newman

You would think that, with practice, breaking the wax into little bits would become easier, but in fact it still remains an awkward act. Unlike the other assistants working on the Wax Room, I am not an active individual. I am not a carpenter like Tyler nor live and work on farmland like Jeremiah. I don’t know very much about Rachel, but in the few conversations we’ve had she gives me the impression that she eats kale by the organic-hemp-farmer’s-market-totebag-full and probably has an exercise repertoire to match (Bikram yoga, or something). I once impulsively bought a set of dumbbells, intent on having biceps like Michelle Obama, but they now luxuriate in a dusty corner under the bed alongside a bacon-bowl maker and other impulse buys that didn’t work out. I am not strong. I am not used to manual labor, and maintaining hours of hammering takes a toll.

In the morning, I can maintain about an hour of consistent hammering before I start to fatigue. I try to maintain positive mental motivation to keep consistent and try a variety of methods. One go-to method is aggressive hammering, (i.e. picturing that one time my housemate came home from the gym, peeled off her socks and deposited them on the kitchen table, and channeling the anger that follows) produces some fantastic rage-induced results. Unfortunately, this furious wax block abuse leaves me exhausted a few short hours later. You’ve got to pace yourself with this stuff. Music almost works (two words: hammer drumsticks), but earbuds are isolating in an environment in which you want to be aware and present.

Rhiannon pics_breaking wax_part 3

Photos: Rhiannon Newman

Despite this initial difficulty, halfway through day three I am settled in. I have a favorite hammer and I let the repetitive motion of my hands keep a beat. My favorite photography professor and advisor in college assisted Ansel Adams for a number of years. He told me a story once about an evening in the darkroom while they were packing up after a long day of printing photographs. At the last minute, Ansel decided to make one more print. As a photographer and piano player, he preferred to use a metronome instead of a timer. The metronome had been packed away, but he effortlessly moved this print through the fixer and stop bath, through his process of dodging and burning, until it was drying with the others. It looked exactly like the other prints. “That’s because he kept the beat internally,” my professor said as he gestured towards his heart. I understand. I work with my heart too, in everything I do, and that’s how I keep going.

Rhiannon Newman, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern

Personal Reflections on the Wax Room: Part 2

In celebration of the Laib Wax Room‘s first anniversary as a permanent installation at The Phillips Collection, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern Rhiannon Newman, who was one of four assistants in the preparation and installation, describes her experience in a four part series.

Rhiannon in the wax room. Photo: Elizabeth Lubben

The action of breaking the wax apart lulls, quiets, calms. The metronome-like thuds of hammers and mallets hitting the wax blocks, the repetitive arch of my arm coming down hard on the yellow-orange slab, the slight sting of the hammer building calluses on my palms—the rhythmic silence leaves me alone with my thoughts. The giant double broiler of wax percolating in the corner is filled to the brim and the perfume is oppressive. All I can think about is beeswax. And then I remember.

Beeswax Chanukkah candles.
My grandfather wrapping his fingers around my tiny five-year-old hand holding the shamash candle.
Baruch atta adonai.

The memories, stored and tucked away, suddenly surface. The moment seems almost a little too poetic to be real, saccharine sweet, and I brush away the errant thought and the emotions that come with it. Weeks later I pass the wax room and overhear two old women talking.

“It reminds me of Mother’s candles, doesn’t it? The tealights she had in her old apartment, right?” Her companion murmurs something softly and moves into the next gallery. I turn back on the stairs, ready to say something, to share in the moment and… what to say? She is standing alone in the room now, her gaze set on years before. I tiptoe away, leaving her in the company of her mother.

Rhiannon Newman, Membership Associate and Marketing & Communications Intern