What’s in a Title?


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

Pedro Lasch’s Abstract Nationalism / National Abstraction: Part 4

On October 27, artist Pedro Lasch will premiere his work Abstract Nationalism/National Abstraction: Anthems for Four Voices at The Phillips Collection as part of the International Forum Weekend in Washington. In this audio-visual performance, national anthems of specific countries are sung in the language of the country listed alphabetically after it in the World Almanac.

In a six part blog series, Curatorial Intern Lauren Reuter asks the artist about this work and how it fits into the Phillips, art, and politics. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

How do you draw the line between different styles of art? Where do you think your work “belongs,” in the traditional sense? How does it fit into the Phillips’s mission of the “experiment station,” which you discussed with Vesela [Sretenović, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art]?

I’ve never believed in the separations that, to me, seem like artificial constructs of artistic labels like “contemporary.” Half the time, these labels aren’t helpful. I love the idea of the “experiment station,” and I’m completely in agreement with it. That’s what we’re trying to do: we’re experimenting at the Phillips together, collectively, and with the audience, with different fields of the arts. The separations I am referring to between modern, contemporary, historical, European, non-European—these have been produced for practical purposes, but then people forget to see their limitations.

Pedro Lasch, Schematic Scores, Flag Fusions and Visual Props from Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction (2001/2014)

Pedro Lasch, Schematic Scores, Flag Fusions and Visual Props from Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction (2001/2014)

While I know the Phillips focuses on collecting and showing “modern art,” as a contemporary artist I don’t separate myself from modernism and modernity. In general, I try very hard to make work that doesn’t allow people to maintain these divides, just like the Phillips project doesn’t allow people to maintain rigid separations between nations and languages.

Working in the Phillips is a fantastic opportunity to highlight the complexity of history and of how artists work with history. I think the reason Vesela pointed out the “experiment station” is that she also doesn’t see this neat separation between modern, post-modern, and contemporary. And that’s part of what she and others are doing at the Phillips: stressing the contemporary and how alive many of these things are. Art is made alive by keeping a certain engagement with it. In the case of programs like the Intersections contemporary art series, it’s by setting up dialogues with artists who are alive. But in other cases it’s by simply pressing the idea of the ongoing experiment, returning to the moment when a space was conceived and thinking about how that moment and meaning has changed over time.

Kandinsky: Twilight and Abstraction

Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913. Oil on canvas, 55 1/4 x 78 7/8 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.245. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

With the change of seasons approaching and twilight coming earlier, I was reminded of the ways in which this special time of day affected Kandinsky as he worked toward the creation of Painting with White Border (Moscow).

Curator Elsa Smithgall writes in the exhibition’s catalogue that Kandinsky’s work was deeply affected by the moment when day turns to night. His discovery of abstraction came out of a revelatory experience that took place at twilight. Kandinsky recalled a moment after his arrival in Munich when he was . . .

“enchanted . . . by an unexpected spectacle that confronted me in my studio. It was the hour when dusk draws in. I returned home . . . still dreamy and absorbed in the work I had completed, and suddenly saw an indescribably beautiful picture, pervaded by an inner glow. At first, I stopped short and then quickly approached this mysterious picture, on which I could discern only forms and colors and whose content was incomprehensible. At once, I discovered the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, standing on its side against the wall.”

Kandinsky was unable to re-create this visual experience during the light of day, recalling, “I constantly recognized objects, and the fine bloom of dusk was missing. Now I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures.”

Although at first glance Kandinsky’s work may appear to be abstract, his paintings and works on paper contain motifs that evoke the emotional sounds of his beloved Moscow, such as the troika and Saint George and the Dragon. Kandinsky was attracted to abstraction but was unwilling to relinquish the “spiritual sound” that objects contributed to his work. The artist spoke of “dissolving objects to a greater or lesser extent . . . so that they might not all be recognized at once and so that these emotional overtones might thus be experienced gradually by the spectator.”

It took Kandinsky five months and fifteen studies, including the Phillips’s Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow) to arrive at the solution for Painting with White Border : “I was sitting looking in the twilight at the second large scale study, when it suddenly dawned on me what was missing . . . the white edge.”

Might the artist’s sensitivity to twilight, a liminal time of day, have affected his preference for a style of painting that is on the threshold between figuration and abstraction?

-Karen Schneider, Librarian