What is a Dithyramb?

Mann im Anzug – dithyrambisch II (Man in Suit—Dithyrambic II), 1976. Distemper on canvas, 98 1/2 x 73 1/2 in. Private collection

When you visit the Markus Lüpertz exhibition, you might find yourself asking, “what is the dithyramb?” You’d find that word repeated over and over again on several labels. So let me quote:  he said, “I didn’t want to paint figuratively anymore, so I invented something abstract that is also figurative, a dithyramb.” So, in there you feel the contradiction; he’s challenging us to figure out what he’s saying. He imposes that term on paintings that ostensibly present a tree trunk, roof tiles on a house, a helmet, a traditional cake form in Germany, a stalk of wheat, a man’s suit, such disparate and trivial objects, and again he paints them with authority and drama, instilling their trivialness with importance, or at least the importance of a painted object.

He defies normal expectations; it’s not really a depiction and it’s not figurative, but it’s not abstract. Those are the kind of norms that he’s discarding very vociferously. When we expect things to be part of a landscape, none of them appear outdoors; they seem to inhabit a flat, ill-defined, poster-like environment. That log does not rest in a landscape, it can hardly be described as a still life, is it now a monument? Those are the kinds of questions that he’s prompting us to engage in as we look closely.

I quote Lüpertz again: “the dithyramb was my totally individual contribution to abstraction, abstraction not in the sense of rational analysis or reduction, but as in the invention of a nonsense object.” He embraces riddles and mysteries as fundamental to art. He says, “art survives only in riddles, only in mystery can art’s eternal truth be retained, therefore the artist must be, as Nietzsche demands, a seeker of riddles, because those who seek to solve riddles are many.” The reference to Nietzsche is important because this whole Dionysian poetic term from the poetry of antiquity re-emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the German-speaking world and had a resonance for him.

Dorothy Kosinski, Markus Lüpertz exhibition curator and Phillips Director

The Ambiguity of a Photograph, Part 2: Photographic Abstraction

This is a multi-part blog post; read Part 1 here.

Though we usually associate abstraction with the medium of painting, Aaron Siskind’s photograph Chicago 30 is decidedly abstract.

siskind_rothko_side by side

(left) Aaron Siskind, Chicago 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 in x 7 1/2 in, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2004 (2) Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968. Acrylic on paper mounted on hardboard, 23 13/16 x 18 11/16 in. Gift of the Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1985 © 2005 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Can a photograph be painterly? If it fools the eye enough, can it have the same visual appeal of a painting? Of course there are key differences between the mediums of painting and photography, but for centuries the aim of painting was to trick the viewer; to create something so real and present that the viewer forgot that it was simply paint on canvas. The advent of photography and the emergence of modernism and then abstract expressionism helped shift the art world away from exact reproduction of the physical world. Compared with Mark Rothko’s untitled 1968 abstract expressionist painting (above right), the flourish of black in Siskind’s work appears almost like a brush stroke while Rothko’s appears devoid of the artist’s hand.

siskind_Mexican 32

Aaron Siskind, Mexican 32, 1982. Gelatin silver print, 20 in x 16 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Marie M. Martin, 2005

Siskind’s Mexican 32 is also an abstract work, but it contains a hint of context. The identifiable shadow creates a sense of space in the work; the fraying fabric provides texture, as well as a three dimensionality and depth to the photograph (although this depth is lessened by the stark black background).

Siskind explored abstraction through his camera. These works are an important contribution to the abstract expressionist movement, in which Siskind was socially and professionally involved, but these works are also an intimate window into how Aaron Siskind understood and viewed the world around him.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern

The Ambiguity of a Photograph, Part 1: Aesthetic Historical Documents

Photographs are historical documents. They capture a split second of a particular moment. A slice of life.

A photograph doesn’t lie.

Well, that’s not always true; especially in the age of Instagram filters and Photoshop. The history of the medium is filled with photographers who obsessively edited, altered, and cropped their images. In the darkroom and today on computers, light and shadow can be manipulated until the photographer is satisfied. Even what photographers choose to capture and print is very selective. One only has to look at the contact sheets of some of the most famous photographers to see the countless images that were left unaltered and never printed.

siskind_Chicago 30

Aaron Siskind, Chicago 30, 1949. Gelatin silver print, 13 3/4 x 7 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of the Phillips Contemporaries, 2004

I first encountered Aaron Siskind’s Chicago 30 (1949) a few weeks ago. Currently located in the original house of the museum, the work sits above one of the old tiled fireplaces. First drawn to the dramatic contrast of black and white, I marveled at the work’s ability to capture and hold my attention. Photography always grabs me, but usually what I like about the medium is the ability to place the content within a time or a place. This photo is removed from all context. It is unclear what has been photographed by Siskind. The only hint of context is the title, Chicago 30.

In the early years of his career, Siskind engaged with traditional documentary photography, often through a socially engaged lens. One of Siskind’s most well-known projects is the Harlem Document. The project focuses on documentation, but Siskind’s eye for artistry is present particularly in one of his most famous works, Savoy Dancers.

Compared to his documentary work and given its lack of context and content, can Chicago 30 be considered a historical document? This photograph captures what Siskind saw through his camera lens, but we, the viewer, don’t know or understand what he saw. The work can be considered documentation of a particular moment in Siskind’s life, but without concrete information and context, the viewer is left only with the aesthetics of the photograph.

This is a multi-part blog post; check back next week for Part 2.

Emma Kennedy, Marketing & Communications Intern