Letters for Freedom

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Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 5: We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country!– Petition of Many Slaves, 1773, 1955. Egg tempera on hardboard, 12 x 16 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Welcome, February; welcome, Black History Month! Alongside The Civil Rights Movement icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, I would like to honor a black artist who was a powerful voice for the African-American community, Jacob Lawrence. Currently on display in the museum is Lawrence’s Struggle series, a collection of panels narrating important and tumultuous scenes from American history. Though each panel is moving in its own way, my favorite from the series is number 5 (1955), captioned, “We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! –Petition of many slaves, 1773.”

The way Lawrence was able to evoke such pain and heartache in this painting is astonishing. Noting the protruding ribs, tired eyes, and massive shackles of the slaves in the work, I feel as though the detail in the panel is what truly makes the narrative. The gold-colored mountain or wall in the center could be representative of the impenetrable American government that refused to listen to the slaves’ petitions for a better, free life. I am simply intrigued at how Lawrence composed this panel in a way that emphasizes hardship, but still an unwavering courage to continue fighting.

After a bit of research, I discovered this caption was a quote in a letter written from a slave named Felix Holbrook to the provincial legislature of Massachusetts. Felix was a neutralist during the Revolutionary War, meaning he did not support the Patriots or Loyalists, but he was an advocate for black liberty. He wrote the letter on behalf of his fellow slaves with the intention of finally gaining freedom. The letter was actually one of four in a series of petitions (1773-77) from a group of slaves in the Boston province.

The artist was able to flawlessly capture the fed-up, but forever brave sentiment of Felix’s letter into this beautiful panel. For this great contribution to art history, Jacob Lawrence, I thank you.

Aysia Woods, Marketing Intern

What’s in a Title?

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Loren MacIver, The Window Shade, 1948, Oil on canvas 43 x 29 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1951

In art, we often think of abstraction and representation as being complete opposites. We think of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, titled with numbers, as being polar opposites to Paul Cézanne’s still lifes, labeled exactly what they are: apples, oranges, and flowers. But what if something is both abstract and representational? Is it possible? Currently on view is Loren MacIver’s painting, The Window Shade. At first glance, the work appears completely abstract, but upon closer inspection of both the painting and the wall text beside it, we learn that it does in fact represent something from real life: a window shade.

Walking past MacIver’s work, I recognized that I liked the aesthetic, but it didn’t necessarily evoke a specific emotion from me. Circling back, I decided to look at it more closely. When I approach a piece, I tend to ignore the wall text at first and look instead at the surface texture. I liked that the artist applied the grayish blue color very thinly, leaving specks of the canvas showing behind it. To me, that reveals more of the process, which is something I like to be aware of when studying a work of art. Scanning the painting, I then noticed a recognizable object in the bottom fourth of the canvas: a string hanging down with a hollow circular pendant attached. I wondered why this would be there given the abstract nature of the work. It was only then that I turned to the title, The Window Shade. Suddenly, the piece had so much more meaning for me. I began to think of the specks of untouched canvas as illumination from street lamps coming through the rips of a worn piece of fabric. The slightly different hue in the bottom quarter of the canvas, separated by a darker border, became the color of twilight filtered by the glass on top of it. These are conclusions I would not have come up with had I not stopped to read the wall text beside the piece and inspect it more closely.

So what is in a title? A title can help us pull meaning from a seemingly non-representational work of art. It can turn thinly painted canvases, almost monochromatic in nature, into old window shades, evoking a sense of nostalgia for a passing day.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Other-Worldliness: The Rothko Room, Laib Wax Room…and Japanese Tea Rooms

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The Rothko Room, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Ben Resine

Intimate relationships with artworks invite us into the artist’s world, in which we are all equal.

As intimacy is essential for communication in human society, this experience is also very important for communicating and connecting with modern art; it is the intimate relationship between art appreciators and the artworks themselves that encourages viewers to think about the concepts and philosophy behind a piece.

In The Phillips Collection, a personal connection with the art is provoked by the special environment—intimate, immersive rooms. The museum also has two permanent installations which are significantly smaller than other galleries—the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room. Because these installations are set apart from the rest of the galleries—rooms entirely designed or created by the artists themselves—they evoke a unique sense of other-worldliness. Upon stepping inside, we feel the artworks and the artists with all of our senses, as if we know them very well, regardless of how much we know about the artists’ lives. This experience allows us to feel as if we are isolated from the real world and invited to the world of the artists.

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The Laib Wax Room. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

As a native of Japan, I find the experience of the Rothko Room and Laib Wax Room similar to that of a Japanese traditional small tea room. While not all Japanese tea rooms are small, some are deliberately so, for other-worldliness is the basic concept of the design. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the rooms are small in order to make people confront the tea, the teamaker, and the ritual behind creating and drinking it. The smallness of the rooms creates an intimate relationship between people and their tea.

There are also similarities in atmosphere. When a tea ceremony takes place in the small tea rooms, tension floats among the participants, which gives the ceremony a ritualistic feeling. This distinctive atmosphere can be also experienced in the Rothko Room and the Laib Wax Room by virtue of the closeness and the visual perception of the environments, which remind me of churches or the tombs of ancient Egypt. The solemn atmosphere often makes me both interested and hesitant to enter. My footsteps slowed as I entered these rooms—I would describe the experience as a feeling of awe.

However, there is a difference between the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms and Japanese tea rooms; the size of the entrances. Doorways into tea rooms are so small that most people need to stoop down to get in, requiring each person to bend his or her head as if bowing. As you may know, the act of bowing is the traditional Japanese way of showing respect. Performing this act upon entering shows that social class is not valid in the tea ceremony; everyone enters as equals. Although the entrances of the Rothko and Laib Wax Rooms are of normal size, the same idea can be applied. Social status has no use in these artists’ worlds, as we are isolated from the real world.

Aya Takagi, Curatorial and Center for the Study of Modern Art Intern