Monumental, Heroic, and Homeless: Andres Serrano’s “Nomads (Sir Leonard)”

This week, we celebrate our partnership with FotoDC by highlighting 6 photographs from our new installation, Shaping a Modern Identity: Portraits from the Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. Drawn from the wide-ranging collection of Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg, the exhibition presents sixteen photographic portraits by a diverse group of modern photographers, including Tina Barney, Chuck Close, Imogene Cunningham, Walker Evans,  Andres Serrano, Edward Steichen, and Francesca Woodman, among others, along with an etching self-portrait by the legendary painter Lucien Freud.  This installation explores depictions of the famous and the anonymous, which enlarge our understanding of how portraiture is an invention forged between the artist and his or her subject.

Shaping a Modern Identity will be on view through January 12, 2014.

To kick things off, we begin with an artist who is no stranger to controversy and the subject of much discussion: Andres Serrano.

Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. © Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. © Andres Serrano

Serrano has always thought of himself as an artist using photography, and not as a photographer, the distinction being that he is not interested in documenting ‘reality’, but in creating his own. In 1990, Serrano turned to the genre of portraiture, creating several thematic bodies of work, each depicting various social groups. The first of these was a series called “Nomads”, studio-style photographs of homeless individuals whom Serrano found on the streets and subway tunnels, often photographing them on-site.

In Serrano’s portrait of Sir Leonard, a homeless man encountered in the New York subway, the sitter is monumentalized against a blank background, confronting the camera in a proud, almost defiant manner as he grasps his belt buckle. He appears at ease in front of the camera, which captures the shadows around his face, the different textures of his clothing, and the bright pop of color from his scarf. Without any context, Sir Leonard appears to have been dressed and carefully posed in front of the camera by Serrano. The artist, however, claims little control over the subject, explaining, “…I didn’t ask my sitters to look dignified or noble. The most I ever asked them was to look left or right. But I found that they gave me a very heroic response. I didn’t add anything to what they already possess. I just provided the lighting.”

What is so fascinating about this photograph and others in the series is that Serrano’s role as the artist is limited to finding the subjects and providing a background for the portraits. The magic of the photograph emanates from the sitters themselves—their dignity emerging from adversity. Serrano masterfully captures a group of people often overlooked in society and elevates their pride and personalities to high art. He creates a new reality for his sitters, giving them a platform to express themselves. Aside from the background and lighting, these “Nomads” are in charge of their self-presentation, and they demand a second look from their audience.

Talking Culture in the Global Classroom

Klaus Ottmann, seated right of center, lecturing at Georgetown School of Foreign Service’s RPX classroom to students in Washington, DC, and Doha, Qatar. Photo: Eliza French

Klaus Ottmann, seated right of center, lecturing at Georgetown School of Foreign Service’s RPX classroom to students in Washington, DC, and Doha, Qatar. Photo: Eliza French

On Tuesday October 8, 2013, Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art and Phillips Curator at Large Klaus Ottmann gave a special bi-local lecture to Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service students in Washington, DC and Doha, Qatar at Georgetown University’s  Polycom RealPresence Experience (RPX) classroom. The RPX classroom allows the students to meet face-to-face in real time for discussion and interaction despite being separated by continents and time zones. The lecture was part of “Globalization, Diplomacy, and the Politics of Exhibitions,” a new collaborative course presented by Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and The Phillips Collection.

The session on October 8th was unique in that it included students in Doha in addition to students in DC who meet regularly, either on Georgetown’s campus or at our Center for the Study of Modern ArtShiloh Krupar, Assistant Professor of Culture and Politics in the School of Foreign Service, is the lead instructor for GU, and guest lectures are given by Phillips staff members, among them director Dorothy Kosinski, curators Sue Frank, Vesela Sretenovic, and Klaus Ottmann, and educator Rachel Goldberg. As part of the course, students will attend the 2013 International Forum Weekend, presented in partnership with Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The program, titled “The Power of Culture/The Culture of Power,”  will focus on cultural diplomacy and will be a culminating event for both the students and the institutions involved in the collaboration.

In his lecture entitled “Art & Contemplation,” Ottmann focused on two highly contemplative permanent installations unique to the Phillips, the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room, making a case for art that is “engaged in a materialist formalism, based in part on a structuralist analysis of the world, which attributes ideological meaning to the materials themselves and in part on a participatory humanism, a renewed involvement in the question of being, in transcendence, and in the social.” Ottmann calls this type of formalism, which is at once spiritual and social, “spiritual materiality.”

After the lecture, Ottmann answered questions from students in Doha and in Washington.

Ottmann’s lecture on Tuesday marked an important moment for both Georgetown University and The Phillips Collection. With our collaboration, both organizations are hoping to maximize our global reach while educating the next generation of diplomats. By facilitating discussion among students over 6,000 miles away or convening global artists and diplomatic leaders together with students during the International Forum Weekend, the partnership expands the idea of the physical space a classroom can encompass and enables students and instructors to engage in the actual work of cultural diplomacy during “class” time. We look forward the many opportunities this collaboration will bring to engage students, professors, global leaders, and our members in the “global conversation through the language of modern art” Duncan Phillips envisioned.

Eliza French, Manager of Center Initiatives

A “New” Delacroix?

Comparison of two side by side works by Eugene Delacroix

(Left) Eugène Delacroix, The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius, undated. 25.6 x 31.7 in. The Van Asch van Wyck Trust (Right) Eugène Delacroix, Hercules and Alcestis, 1862. Oil on cardboard, 12 3/4 x 19 1/4 in. Acquired 1940. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

I recently stumbled on this article by Christopher Knight in The Los Angeles Times that reports on the possible discovery of a new work by Eugène Delacroix. The article states that a curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art believes The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius (above left) to be a previously unidentified painting by the artist. It’s currently included in an exhibition displayed next to similar works by the artist, as well as a known copy, to demonstrate the argument.

Compare it above with Delacroix’s Hercules and Alcestis from The Phillips Collection. What do you think?

Amy Wike, Marketing Manager