Assistant Registrar Gretchen Martin confirmed Director of Membership Jeff Petrie’s hunch that in Iron Man 3, the Rothko painting hanging on the wall of Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion as he and Pepper Potts are sent flying after a blow up is in fact our Ochre and Red on Red (1954). Spoiler alert? Oh well, it’s in the trailer. You’ll see the Phillips thanked in the credits if you’re one to stay ’till the bitter end. On Thursday, we’ll sacrifice some street parking to help the filming of Captain America. Bringing you the big stars and the big explosions is just part of our work here at the museum. You’re welcome.
Exhibitions at the Phillips are years in the making. Our curators often spend at least 2-3 years researching, compiling checklists, locating artwork, collaborating with other museums and venues, visiting and writing to potential lenders, and writing catalogue text. During that time, they immerse themselves in the exhibition’s subject matter. Oftentimes, their offices become transformed by their work: stacks of reference catalogues piled high, drafts of loan letters and checklists abound, and the images of artworks seem to magically appear on their walls. For this fall’s Van Gogh Repetitions exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone printed images of all the “repetitions” we will be featuring in the show and grouped them on one of her office walls, as seen in the image at left. She was able to visualize the similarities and differences between paintings of the same subject matter as she worked on her catalogue entries and began thinking about the exhibition’s layout.
Once the preliminary work is complete, the artworks are secured, and the catalogue text is off to the publisher, the real fun begins. And by “fun”, I mean playing with miniature-sized “maquettes” of the paintings in the show to determine exhibition design and layout. These small, to-scale images combined with a scaled model of our exhibition spaces allow the curator to visualize gallery layouts and groupings before the works arrive in-house, making for a smoother and more efficient installation process. Not surprisingly, it’s also much safer moving around small cardboard rectangles than priceless paintings.
Recently Eliza, Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele, and I sat down to begin shaping the design and visitor flow of the van Gogh exhibition in preparation for a meeting with our exhibition designer. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the works that will grace our walls beginning October 12. Stay tuned for more “sneak peeks” as our design progresses, and we get closer to opening day. We’re looking forward to sharing the real paintings and works on paper with you this fall!
Liza Key Strelka, Curatorial Coordinator
In Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes: “For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time.” (“Dry Salvages”). It is those “unattended moments” that I am in pursuit of, but rarely encounter, when visiting exhibitions. The late American artist James Lee Byars, whose work I have always admired and continue to exhibit (I have a major Byars project underway at the Phillips to be announced later this year), pursued the “perfect moment” for more than forty years.
In the late 1950s, the young Byars left his hometown of Detroit to live in Kyoto, Japan, where he remained, with interruptions from 1958 to 1968. There he learned to appreciate the ephemeral as a valued quality in art and embrace the ceremonial as a continuing mode in his life and work, which became inseparable. During these formative years, he adapted the highly sensual, abstract, and symbolic practices found in Japanese Noh theater and Shinto rituals to Western science, art, and philosophy. His pursuit of the “perfect” originated from a unique synthesis of Oriental practices, conceptual art, minimalism, and fluxus, infused with aspects of the happening, body art, and installation art. For Byars, perfection was an impossibility, except for the auspicious moment (kairos) where life and death, happiness and tragedy, are one.
In 1994 Byars presented one of his fleeting performances, The Perfect Smile, to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne as a gift with the request that it be exhibited like any other work in its collection. In accordance with his wish, the performance was borrowed and reenacted for the first time since his death, for the retrospective of his works, which I organized in 2004 for the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain in Strasbourg. It was performed by me or by the museum’s staff once a day in front of a black wall. The performance consists of a very subtle movement of one’s mouth to indicate the briefest smile possible, before it vanishes.
Two weeks ago, visiting Light Show, an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery, I was standing in front of three columns of pulsating light by the Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, and experienced one of these rare auspicious moments, an evanescent burst of happiness and, yes, love, that lasted no longer than a few seconds as each column grew brighter until it reached an almost religious degree of intensity before slowly fading into darkness.
There are three great themes in James Lee Byars’s work: Life, Love, and Death, but it is Love that is at the heart of Byars’s notion of the Perfect. There are two philosophical concepts of perfect love: in Spinoza’s amor Dei intellectualis, the love of God is the highest form of knowledge, which is accomplished by the simple act of man loving himself; in Kierkegaard, Abraham’s perfect love of God, expressed by his preparedness to sacrifice his son, is at the core of Kierkegaard’s theory of the leap to faith. In both cases, it is a marriage of love and certitude (knowledge that does not require objective proof) that results in a perfect moment.